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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009

Rabbit Moon

Page: 2

Like the Chacoans, the Mimbres Indians must also have been aware of these lunar cycles. I was amazed. It made me want to look at Mimbres pottery more closely. So I set up an appointment with Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison, archaeologist and director of the WNMU Museum.

Before my meeting with Bettison, I wandered around the museum to look at the Mimbres rabbit bowls on display. There were four of them, including a bowl mentioned in Robbins' and Westmoreland's article. It had a double-rabbit pattern with 19 dots on one of the rabbits. I tried really hard to "see" the rabbit of the moon in these bowls, but there were too many different rabbits. In some, the rabbits' ears were up, and in others, they were back. Most of the rabbits faced left, but one faced right. The only thing in common seemed to be their black-tipped ears.

moon bowl
A Mimbres "rabbit bowl" on display at WNMU Museum. (Courtesy of Western New Mexico University Museum, Ballmer Collection 1978.1.002, Silver City, New Mexico.
Photo by Nancy Gordon.)

"They're black-tailed jackrabbits," Bettison explained. "See the black tails?" That was interesting, I thought, since jackrabbits aren't really rabbits, they're hares. Bettison said she'd never seen cottontail rabbits depicted on pots. She was aware of the article I'd read, and I asked her what she thought of the idea of the Mimbres bowls depicting a rabbit — er, jackrabbit — in the moon.

"I'm a bit of a skeptic," she answered. "I like to tell the story because it sounds good, but I don't necessarily interpret it to be so." She handed me two PhD dissertations to peruse, marked at pages that mentioned the rabbit in the moon. "Archaeologists like to explore what things mean," she said. Often, they disagree.

One author, Marc Thompson, looked at photo archives of Mimbres pottery, including 75 "rabbit bowls." He supported the idea that the rabbit motif was associated with the moon and whatever it symbolized to the Mimbres people — for example, moisture, night, the feminine, and/or death. The other author, Bryan Sawyer Shaffer, debunked the claims of Thompson as well as those of Robbins and Westmoreland. He pointed out that the geometry of lunar phases was wrong to see a rabbit poised over a dark crescent, and that the correlations between Mimbres rabbit imagery and lunar numbers were very weak.

Dr. Bettison said that Mimbres pottery was created to be used — to serve from, to eat out of, and for ceremonial purposes. Burial with the dead was not the primary function of Mimbres pottery; almost all of the pottery found in burials showed wear from prior use. Like many archaeologists, she doesn't think the figurative images on bowls like rabbits are artistic impressions, but that they tell the Mimbres people something — a story, perhaps, about the universe and their place in it, about how to behave or what to believe. "What it meant to them is hard for us to determine," she said.

moon bowl
Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison, archaeologist and director of WNMU Museum, holding a Mimbres rabbit bowl. (Courtesy of Western New Mexico University Museum, Ballmer Collection 1973.8.263, Silver City, New Mexico. Photo by Nancy Gordon.)

She picked up a stone dart point and a fossil from her desk, treasures she'd collected as a child. "Would anyone else know why I kept these, why they were important to me?" she asked. Archaeologists do the best they can to understand ancient cultures from what's left behind, she explained, yet scientists can't help but bring their own biases to that understanding, based on how they were raised and educated. "Who amongst us are Mimbres?"

Bettison went on, "I like to tell the stories. But my real interest is in trying to understand the people." Many archaeologists believe that when the Mimbreos disappeared in about AD 1140, some stayed behind and merged with desert peoples like the Salado. Today, the closest biological descendants of the Mimbres are the Tarahumara of Copper Canyon. Yet even they may not interpret the exquisite designs on Mimbres pottery in the same way as their ancestors. A rabbit might have a different meaning.

"Maybe I'll come around a corner someday and find a Mimbres village," she mused. "I dream of running into them and finding out if my ideas were right, or if someone else's were, or if we were all wrong."

I called Bettison back after our meeting to ask what she saw in the moon. She considered the question. "I don't really see a man in the moon," she said. Instead, she recalled a memory from childhood, of Neil Armstrong making the first moonwalk in 1969.

Yes, a story. That's what she would see.

I was becoming more mystified. Now I not only didn't know which moon-rabbit was depicted on the pottery of the Mimbres people, I didn't know if they even saw a rabbit — or jackrabbit — in the moon. Still, I felt a connection to those people. They would have observed the moon, wondered about it, and been intrigued by it, the same as I.

It made me want to watch the video "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon" again.

Archaeoastronomers studying Chaco Canyon found evidence that the ancient Chacoan people understood solar and lunar cycles. Atop nearby Fajada Butte, they discovered what appeared to be a solar and lunar calendar. A spiral petroglyph had been carved into a rock face hidden behind three large vertical slabs of sandstone. At midday, light passed through narrow gaps between the slabs, and a thin band of light or "sun dagger" fell on the underlying rock. At summer solstice, the "sun dagger" pierced the center of the spiral carving; other positions marked the equinoxes and winter solstice.

But each turn in the spiral — nine and a half of them — appeared to mark the yearly progress of the "farthest north" full moon as it moved between its minimum and maximum extremes (making 19 for a full cycle). Several of the Chaco Canyon pueblo ruins were also aligned with rising or setting positions of the "extreme" moons. Not only walls and doorways were aligned in this manner, but these "lunar buildings" were also aligned with each other — even though some were miles distant and mesas blocked the view from one to another.

What really struck me, besides being awed at how those ancient pueblo builders could perfectly align their buildings to important solar and lunar positions without compass or GPS, was listening to some of the modern-day pueblo people who had been interviewed for the video. They talked of how the ancient people of Chaco Canyon had great spiritual power, and how they didn't need sophisticated equipment or even years of observations to achieve what they had, because the knowledge was contained within their spiritual ceremonies and prayers, and in their minds.

This was getting way too mystical for me. I needed to get back to something more concrete. Geometry. Cycles. Predictability. I cracked books, watched a DVD on basic astronomy, and surfed the Internet in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the moon's orbit.

Phases of the moon, I already understood — sort of. In the time the moon makes one complete orbit around the earth, it also rotates once around its own axis. Because these motions are synchronized, the moon keeps its same face pointed towards us (actually, it "nods" up and down and sideways, giving us a view of almost 60 percent of its surface rather than half). As the moon rotates, the side lighted by the sun changes. At full moon, the side of the moon facing us is also facing the sun (earth between sun and moon). At new moon, the moon's "backside" is lit up and its face is dark (moon between sun and earth). As it waxes to full and wanes to new, the moon passes through crescent, quarter and gibbous phases and back again.

Eclipses occur when earth, sun and moon are in alignment (called "syzygy") and the earth's shadow falls on the moon (lunar eclipse) or the moon's on the earth (solar eclipse). We would get eclipses at every full moon and new moon, except that the moon's orbit is tilted about five degrees off of the earth's.

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