South Corner Time: Excavations and Sunrise Observations at Indian Racetrack

By Tom Orbesen

The Indian Racetrack is located on a mesa above the Animas River Valley of northwestern New Mexico. It is composed of four parabolic arcs of river cobbles, evenly spaced about three meters apart which extend for about 135 meters. I measured the feature from the northeast to the southeast ends of the arc. The concavity of the arc is on the east side. Two cairns of river cobbles, two meters apart, straddle the equinox bearing about 133 meters from the east center of the arcs. The Cairns are about one cobble course high and six meters in diameter. From the curvature of the arcs, which the early settlers thought gave the appearance of a modern running track, came the name Indian Racetrack.

The Animas River, a tributary of the San Juan River, tumbles down the mountain slopes and enters northwestern New Mexico, where it flows through the cities of Aztec and Farmington before joining the San Juan River on its journey to the Colorado River.

Prehistoric populations used to surround the Animas Valley. Chaco Canyon is south of the valley, and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde lie to the northwest. There were also great settlements in the La Plata, Mancos, and McElmo drainages. Scattered along the lower Animas Valley were pueblos and villages which exemplify the apparently successful blending of cultural influences.

Probably the best known prehistoric pueblo in the Animas Valley is at Aztec Ruins National Monument. Viewed from the Indian Racetrack, the ancient pueblo lies to the northeast, across the Animas River. Two mesas of an equal elevation of 5,760 feet to the east of the Indian Racetrack were dwelling places for the Anasazi (Ancient Ones). There is also a ruined pueblo down in the valley on the Blancett homestead just north of the Indian Racetrack.

The kidney-shaped mesa on which the Indian Racetrack site lies is relatively flat, with sparse vegetation of grasses, sagebrush, and juniper trees. The total area is about 120 acres. No sherds or lithics have been found on the mesa.

From the mesa one can see almost all the major prehistoric sites in the valley. Perhaps, the main focal points of attention for the Anasazi who constructed the site would have been sunrise and sunset horizon points.

Earl Morris (1889-1956) was probably the first archaeologist to visit the Indian Racetrack. Lifelong Aztec, New Mexico, resident Joe Boettcher was reported to have contacted Earl Morris in hopes that he might be able to explain the mystery behind the four arcs. The inference might be that Earl Morris had been to the site and that he could have had some knowledge of what the four arcs represented. It is not known if Mr. Boettcher received a reply from Earl Morris. On the mesa directly to the east, the Gillentine site, LA 5626 (Laboratory of Anthropology numbers are assigned to prehistoric and historic sites in New Mexico that have been recorded and processed) has southeast oriented trenches dug through portions of the ruin. These excavations were probably dug by Earl Morris. It was not until July, 1968 that the Indian Racetrack was surveyed and recorded by Henry A. Jackson, a leader with the San Juan County Archaeological Society. It was then designated LA 9050.

Intrigued by the mystery of the four arcs, other scientists and archaeologists have visited the site. The possibility that the two cairns of cobbles to the east could have been aligned with the rising sun of the equinox was my first clue that the Indian Racetrack might have solar alignments.

I started my survey of the archaeoastronomical possibilities of the site on August 19, 1985. With the permission of the owner Mr. James Asworth, who understood the archaeoastronomic importance of the site, I started to place pinflags along the arcs. The actual mapping survey was conducted by a professional surveyor, so that the site map had been laid out in square yards instead of square meters. Roger Moore, an archaeologist with the Division of Conservation Archaeology at Salmon Ruin, near Bloomfield, New Mexico, agreed to assist me with the observations. Moore was also present on subsequent observations at the Indian Racetrack and supplied much appreciated technical experience and advice.

On the morning of the autumnal equinox, Roger, a group of other archaeologists, the surveyor, and I were at the site. As the morning sun rose through the cairns I was able to mark the exact equinox bearings of the cobblestone arcs. This was important, because then I was able to locate the exact area for excavation that might yield a feature.

To confuse vandals (there were curious kids in the area) I proceeded to dig three test pits behind the westernmost arc of cobbles. Then, I started excavating along the equinox bearing behind the westernmost arc. I went down 30 centimeters and discovered an apparent stake hole in sterile soil exactly on the equinox bearing. The rectangular shaped hole was about five cm. deep, four cm. long, and three cm. across. The soil inside the stake hole was different from the windblown sandy loam I had excavated. This soil had a finer texture and was lighter in color.

The north end of the arcs seemed to concur with my calculations of where the rising sun of the winter solstice would occur. I dug three test pits at the northern extremity of the arcs. This confirmed my thought that the arcs stopped there. Then, once again to confuse vandals I dug another test pit about four meters from the north end of the easternmost arc. Then to find the depth of the arc I dug two test pits on the east side of the westernmost arc. At that northern point the westernmost arc is one cobblestone course high. When the excavations were completed, all pits were backfilled and pieces of rebars were sunk in the ground to mark the datum point, important features, and sunrise alignments.

On December 21, 1985 winter solstice sunrise observations were made. I held a pole up to the rising sun and the pole cast a shadow through the north ends of the arcs. It was apparent from that observation that the Anasazi had used the winter solstice diagonal as an alignment for construction of the arcs. It is presumed that the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico are descendants of the Anasazi. Pueblo ethnological evidence leads me to believe that the north end of the arcs was probably where the construction of the foundation began.

Matilda Coxe Stevenson, in The Zuni Indians, describes the creation myth as "The Divine Ones, throwing out a line of meal, [which] produced light, which guided them to the north." The creation myth commences at the southeast corner of the Zuni cosmological world, the area where the winter solstice sun rises. Edgar L. Hewett and Bertha P. Dutton, in The Pueblo Indian World, state that:

At Laguna, the winter solstice ceremonies are the first of the yearly observances. The date is arbitrary, but is usually close to December twenty-first. At that time, Lagunans realize that the sun has reached its southernmost point in the sky, "the south corner time."

They also relate that at Santa Ana Pueblo, "they call the most southern point of the winter sun 'east-south corner time'."

If the creation myth were to correspond with some of the architectural designs of the Anasazi it might be found that a prehistoric structure like the Indian Racetrack was built with parts of the ancient creation myth as a guide.

Sunrise observations were also taken on June 21, 1986 during the summer solstice period, but the rising sun did not align with any particular feature along the stone arcs. The arcs continue for about forty meters to the south from the apparent summer solstice point of the arcs.

If the Indian Racetrack had been constructed strictly as a calendric device or astronomical observatory it probably would have stopped at the point of the summer solstice diagonal. The arcs would then contain features aligned with the summer solstice, equinox, and winter solstice sunrise. The ability to discern the time of the year from a near quarter circle, like the Indian Racetrack, could be achieved with practice, as long as the observer remembered which direction the sun was moving along the line of cobbles. The cobblestone cairns that determine the time of the equinox would determine which direction the sun moved. The fact that the four arcs continue past the point of the summer solstice might indicate that this feature was a foundation for a Great Pueblo. The Indian Racetrack is considerably larger, but similar to the Old Bonitoan first stage construction of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon.

If the foundation had been built upon, a room might have been constructed that would have reflected the time of the summer solstice. Other rooms might have denoted other times of the year. It would then seem likely that rooms constructed in such a manner could have served as a calendar for agricultural purposes.

Why was a Great Pueblo not completed? A steep sided canyon to the west of the site appears to contain ample outcroppings of sandstone that could have been quarried for a pueblo. Fed by mountain snowfall, the Ammas River flows year round. Perhaps the answer to why the rooms were never built on the foundation of the pueblo, and who built the foundation, lies on the Gillentine site. This is the unexcavated ruin just east of the Indian Racetrack. It contains numerous room-blocks, kivas, and one detached Great Kiva. This site may have been occupied by either the Mesa Verde people or the Chaco people. The builders of the Indian Racetrack could have come from either culture.

Whatever the reason, the skeleton of what could have been a Great Pueblo -- perhaps the largest that the world has ever known, lying on a solitary mesa in northwestern New Mexico -- remains a mystery.


Hewett, Edgar L. and Bertha P. Dutton, The Pueblo Indian World. The University of New Mexico Press, 1945.

Hewett, Nancy, "The Old Indian Racetrack." Paper presented to the Pecos Conference, Hermosillo, Mexico, July 30, 1976.

Jackson, Henry A., "Laboratory of Anthropology Site Report #9050." Laboratory of Anthropology, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July, 1968.

Lekson, Stephen H., Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon. The University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

Lister, Robert H. and Florence C., Earl Morris and Southwestern Archaeology. The University of New Mexico Press, 1968.

Morris, Earl H., Archaeological Studies in the La Plata District. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C., 1939.

Richert, Roland, Excavation of a Portion of the East Ruin, Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico. Southwestern Monuments Association, Technical Series, Vol. 4, 1964.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe, The Zuni Indians. Twenty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. 1901-1904, Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1905.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, December 1988/January 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press)

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