Wingfield Mesa / Flagstaff (USA) : Prehistoric meteorite ‘shrines’ may be linked

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Two twelfth-century settlements a hundred kilometers apart in Arizona were apparently built by discrete cultures, but they have at least one trait in common: In each complex is a hidden, hollow compartment that once held large chunks of alien iron -- fragments of a 50,000-year-old meteorite.

While it's not clear what, if any, interaction there was between the two communities, the existence of these twin meteorite "shrines" is a connection worth investigating, says Ken Zoll.


The meteorite found ensconced in the Wingfield Mesa ruin in 1927 is now stored at Arizona State's Center for Meteorite Studies (Ken Zoll)

"The sites themselves are not necessarily linked, but the practice is linked," said Zoll, executive director of the Verde Valley Archaeological Center in Camp Verde, Arizona.

Zoll, who researches archaeoastronomy -- the study of how ancient cultures tracked celestial events -- discussed the little-known meteorite caches earlier this month at the 2013 Pecos Conference, an annual meeting of Southwestern archaeologists.

The first of the two sites was reportedly discovered by looters in 1927, southeast of present-day Camp Verde. And in many regards, Zoll said, it was unique among the ruins that rim central Arizona's Verde Valley.

For one, unlike the older pithouses and small masonry structures found elsewhere, it was an arrangement of pueblo-style rooms that formed a near-perfect square, about 61 meters on each side.

For another, inside its eastern wall was a stone-lined vault, or cist, that held a bundle wrapped in an ornate blanket made of turkey feathers. Inside was a 61-kilogram mass of misshapen metal, a meteorite.

"The fact that it was wrapped in a feathered turkey blanket adds to the significance," observed Zoll. "It takes over a year to make. So obviously it made it a very sacred location."

The building complex, situated on Wingfield Mesa, was likely built in the 12th or 13th centuries by the southern band of the Sinagua, a culture of farmers and foragers who were contemporaries of the Ancestral Pueblo, the Salado, and the Hohokam.

But Zoll noted that while most residences were built in phases as communities grew, Wingfield's public square seemed to have been built all at once, suggesting that it was made for a singular function.

"It's a big square of rooms with a huge plaza in the center," he said. "We have two others (in the Verde Valley) that are very similar, but this is the only one that seems to be built with a single purpose in mind and in a single-construction phase. ... And so we think it was built as a shrine or religious center. "

The second site, he said, was discovered just a year after the Wingfield meteorite was found, some 115 kilometers to the north, outside the city of Flagstaff.

There, a local pot-hunter named A. J. Townsend was looting the ruins of pithouses built by the Sinagua's northern band, and found a square stone cist just below the surface.

Under the lid was a broken mass of rocky metal, 24 kilograms of iron that local scientists soon dubbed the Winona meteorite, named for the ruins, also from around the 12th century, where it was discovered.


The cist where the Winona meteorite was discovered

Its fragments, now on display at Flagstaff's Museum of Northern Arizona, remain the largest single specimen of rocky-metallic, partially melted meteorites now called winonaites.

And this distinctive chemistry would prove to be significant, Zoll said, because analyses of both the Wingfield and Winona meteorites performed decades later found them to be identical.

"The exact same structure -- that meteroite -- was found at the Winona ruins east of Flagstaff," he said. "So here we have northern and southern Sinagua sites that had this meteorite embedded within them."

Indeed, much of northern Arizona is "just strewn with all kinds of different sizes and shapes of meteorites," Zoll added -- all detritus from the giant meteorite strike that formed Meteor Crater some 50,000 years ago.


The meteorites found in both ruins seemed to originate from the Canyon Diablo

So while neither of the Sinagua settlements could have witnessed the impact, the hunks of molten metal -- in cultures that pre-dated metalworking -- still seemed to have held some special significance.

The question is what, and whether those communities were alone among Arizona's ancient settlements in their apparent reverence, Zoll said.

Zoll discusses the two meteorite sites in a book to be published this fall, Ancient Astronomy of Central Arizona. But he urged more professional investigation of the topic. Winona village ruins have not been studied since the 1930s, he said, and the square encampment at Wingfield Mesa has never been excavated.

His aim, he said, is to "broaden the idea, for other archaeoastronomers to look for these things."

"Because the significance is, here we have a pattern," he said. "There could be a lot more [structures with meteorites in them] that we just don't know about."