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Category of Astronomical Heritage: tangible immovable
Navajo star ceilings, USA

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  • Format: Short Description (ICOMOS-IAU Case Study format)

    Presentation

    Geographical position 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    ‘Four corners’ region, States of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah, USA.

     

    Location 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 2
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2012-04-29 13:04:45
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain with contributions by Clive Ruggles

    Latitudes vary from 35° 5′ to 37° 17′ N, longitudes from 109° 36′ to 105° 56′ W, and elevations from c. 1500m to 2500m above mean sea level.

     

    General description 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 4
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2012-08-03 09:18:50
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain with contributions by Clive Ruggles

    Star ceilings are scattered throughout the Navajo region. They consist of clusters of stars painted or stamped on the overhanging ceilings of natural rock shelters. Each star in the pattern is depicted as an equal-armed cross, in black, red, or white or occasionally in orange, yellow or green. These characteristics distinguish star ceilings from depictions of stars on vertical rock faces and from star images incised or drilled into the rock. The star ceilings vary in detail from a single star to a cave ceiling filled with the imprints of several hundred stars.

    Fig. 1: Many Stars Site; Middle Trail Canyon. Photograph © Von Del Chamberlain

    Fig. 2: Single Star, Red Star Ceiling; Slim Canyon. Photograph © Von Del Chamberlain

     

    Brief inventory 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 2
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2012-08-03 09:21:12
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain with contributions by Clive Ruggles

    Eighty sites have been identified so far: about 66% of these are concentrated in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, 15% in the original Dinétah heartland, and the remainder widely scattered throughout the four-corners region.

    Fig. 3: The geographical distribution of star ceiling sites

     

    History 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    The Navajo (or Diné) were originally a Southern Athapaskan—or Apachean—people and are relative newcomers to their current homeland in the four corners region, where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet. The exact date of their arrival in this region is uncertain, with scholarly estimates ranging between 1000 and 1525 AD. During this period of settlement the Navajo interacted with their puebloan neighbours and came to exchange many traditions with them. By the 16th century, Spanish explorers had already described them as a semi-sedentary people who hunted and raised maize and other crops in the Dinétah region south of the San Juan River in what is now Northern New Mexico. In addition to maize-based agriculture, they acquired from the pueblos a cosmology based on the association of colours with the four directions, and particularly with sacred mountains at the cardinal points, while the Navajo are said to have contributed their characteristic depiction of four-pointed stars to their puebloan neighbours.

     

    Cultural and symbolic dimension 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    Star ceilings document the Navajo interest in the stars. Navajo astronomy differs substantially from that of their puebloan neighbours: unlike the puebloan peoples, who developed an astronomy centred on observations of the changing places of sunrise and sunset against the local horizon, Navajo astronomy was primarily stellar, marking the seasons by the changing appearances of the starry sky at different times of the year. The Navajo thus developed an extensive knowledge of constellations and commemorated these stellar patterns in mythology, ritual, and a wide range of ceremonial artefacts.

    Despite early attempts to identify specific constellations in these star ceilings, subsequent investigations have found no convincing evidence that actual star patterns are displayed in the star ceilings. In other words, these stellar patterns do not depict specific identifiable Navajo constellations but are representations of a generic starry sky.

     

    Management and use

    Present use 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    These sites are not generally recognized as visitor attractions.

     

    State of conservation 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    Most of the sites are intact and well-preserved, sometimes because of their isolated location and limited public knowledge of them, others because they are physically located in National Parks and Monuments.

     

    Main threats or potential threats 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    Because of the simple nature of their iconography, they have not been as threatened by collectors as have more artistically attractive rock art. Nonetheless, some isolated sites have been vandalized by graffiti and effort is needed to further preserve them.

     

    Protection 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 3
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2012-04-29 13:32:41
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain with contributions by Clive Ruggles

    Those sites on tribal and federal lands are protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 USC, ┬º431-433), the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act (16 USC, ┬º469-469c) and Federal Regulations on the Protection of Archaeological Resources (43 CFR 7); sites on Navajo lands are additionally protected by the Navajo Nation Cultural Resources Protection Act (19 NNC 1001 et seq.); sites within the National Parks and Monuments are further protected by the Park Service’s Cultural Resource Management Guideline (NPS 28); and sites on private lands are protected by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (16 USC, ┬º470 et seq.).

     

    Management, interpretation and outreach 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 1
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2011-08-22 11:08:01
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain

    The star ceilings are on land under many different and overlapping jurisdictions. The vast majority of them are on Navajo tribal lands; many are in National Parks and Monuments; others are on Federal Lands (chiefly under the Bureau of Land Management), and a few are on private lands.

     

    References

    Bibliography (books and published articles) 
    • InfoTheme: Indigenous uses of Astronomy
      Entity: 13
      Subentity: 1
      Version: 2
      Status: PUB
      Date: 2012-04-29 13:36:11
      Author(s): Stephen McCluskey, Von Del Chamberlain with contributions by Clive Ruggles

    • Chamberlain Von Del and Polly Schaafsma (2005). ’Origin and meaning of Navajo star ceilings‘, in Von Del Chamberlain, John B. Carlson, and M. Jane Young (eds), Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, pp. 80-98. Bognor Regis: Ocarina Books.
    • Haile, Berard (1947). Starlore among the Navajo. Santa Fe: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art.
    • Williamson, Ray A. (1984). Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
    • Young, M. Jane. (2005). ’Astronomy in Pueblo and Navajo world views‘, in Von Del Chamberlain, John B. Carlson, and M. Jane Young (eds), Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, pp. 49-64. Bognor Regis: Ocarina Books.

     

    Theme

    Indigenous uses of Astronomy

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