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This multimedia exhibit at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico illustrates the Sun Dagger at Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, ancient home of the Pueblo.

Solstice and Supermoon Dominate This Weekend as Summer Arrives

June 21, 2013

Summer has officially dawned, bathing Turtle Island and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere in the most sunshine it will get all year.

Today is the longest day of 2013 and marks the summer solstice, which arrived officially at 1:04 a.m. Eastern Time. That is the very moment that the earth was tilted toward the sun at a 23.4-degree angle, along the solar system’s plane (the ecliptic), National Geographic explains. For those west of the central time zone, the official moment occurred on Thursday June 20.

This points the North Pole at its closest point to the sun all year. On this day in the Arctic Circle, the day is just over 19 hours long. Mother Earth’s tilt is very evident at the U.S. Naval Observatory’s website.

Traditionally, understanding astronomy has been essential to maintaining life here on the ground. Keeping track of the seasons was, of course, key to knowing what to plant and when. As NASA points out on its Sun-Earth Day site, solar alignment was built into the very architecture of many civilizations in living calendars.

Indigenous Peoples and non-indigenous alike are celebrating worldwide. In England, more than 20,000 people gathered at Stonehenge, one of the Western world’s most famous solar landmark, to view the sun’s rays shooting between the precisely placed monoliths at sunrise.

Closer to home, Chaco Canyon’s sun dagger in Fajada Butte is one of the best-known ancient sites that commemorate the summer solstice. Both sun and moonlight fall through three slabs of rock onto a spiral petroglyph in a dagger formation that changes depending on the time of year. The result is a “unique, complex seasonal calendar,” as the archaeologist, writer and photographer James Q. Jacobs puts it on his website.

The summer solstice’s sun dagger cuts through the center of the spiral. In winter, two daggers frame the edges. And moonlight does something else entirely.

It is one of many sacred places whose initial inhabitants are not well known to the modern world but who left behind the unmistakable signs of astronomical prowess. Today this sacred place is part of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, part of the U.S. National Parks system. (Related: Celebrate Ganondagan and the Great White Pine Tree of Peace)

Right on the heels of the solstice comes the year’s biggest Supermoon, the largest full moon of a month. The one for June is also the moon’s closest approach to Earth, which means it will be giant as it rises on Saturday night into early Sunday, and is the biggest one all year. Stay tuned for more on that at ICTMN.

Given the cyclical nature of life, the longest day of the year marks the beginning of the days’ getting shorter and shorter. But before that happens, we are in for months of light and heat. It’s the culmination of the arrival of the light, just as the Winter Solstice marks the beginning of the end of the annual descent into darkness.

But on this light-filled day, that is the furthest thing from our minds. 

More on solstices:

Summer Solstice Ushered in at Ancient Sites

Winter Solstice: Coaxing and Celebrating the Return of the Light