Scott Thybony’s Canyon Commentary: The Night Watch

Dec 26, 2017

Nearly 120 meteors an hour streamed across the sky earlier this month during the Geminid meteor shower. It’s considered one of most entertaining celestial events for Earthlings because the meteors are so bright and abundant. Writer Scott Thybony decided to view the show from a prehistoric—but undisclosed—site where an ancient meteorite is buried. He has more in his latest Canyon Commentary. 

Remains of the Winona meteorite displayed at the Museum of Northern Arizona.
Credit Scott Thybony

The plan sounded good back in town, the way most plans do.  Sandy and I would head out late in the evening to watch the Geminid meteor shower from a prehistoric site known at the time of its discovery as the “Ancient Meteor Shrine.”  But now on a moonless night with no landmarks visible, I have trouble finding the place. 

Taking a backroad north of Flagstaff I miss where a faint track branches off and have to turn around.  Knowing we’re close, I park and begin searching on foot.  My headlamp soon picks up a rough stone wall beneath a jumble of collapsed masonry, appearing more massive in the dark than I remember.  Sandy joins me and we walk beyond the ruins to the edge of the junipers where Sinagua Indians carefully buried a meteorite 800-years ago.  My wife and I settle in below the starfield curving overhead, thick with grains of light.  Suddenly the first meteor streaks overhead, and then another. 

A shallow depression lies nearby, the only evidence of the 1928 discovery.  That summer Jack Townsend guided an amateur archeologist to the ruinfields beyond Winona.  An old photo shows him wearing a Stetson from his days as a cowpuncher with a firefighter’s tool known as a Pulaski resting on his shoulder.  He had fought major fires throughout the West, and when one swept through Wyoming a forest ranger sent an urgent request for help.  “We need 200 fire fighters,” he said, “or Jack Townsend.”

His client, J.W. Simmons, had a passion for digging up artifacts.  Despite not learning to write until he was 30, Simmons justified his illegal excavations by taking care to record his finds and keep the archeologists informed.  They spent the day working the mounds of stone rubble before Simmons decided to test one last spot.  His shovel hit rock a foot below the surface, and he cleared away the cinders to uncover a pit lined with stone slabs.  Believing he had found a human burial, he carefully removed the lid.  To his surprise, instead of bones he found 53 pounds of rock fragments mottled red, green, and yellow.  He contacted a scientist at the Museum of Northern Arizona who excavated the stone cist and identified the contents as the disintegrated remains of a stony meteorite. 

Half a dozen other meteorites have turned up in archeological sites throughout the Southwest.  Inside the remnants of a pueblo near Camp Verde a collector uncovered an object wrapped in feather cloth.  When he tried to lift the bundle it didn’t budge.  He removed the wrapping and found an iron meteorite weighing 135 pounds from the fall which created Meteor Crater 60 miles away.  To this day the Hopi Indians venerate a meteorite in human form, treating it great reverence.  When I asked a traditional leader about the Winona meteorite he noted it had been stored the way they would care for a ceremonial item. 

For an hour we keep watch as several dozen meteors flash across the night sky, flaring brightly before burning out.  Centuries ago the Sinagua people who lived here buried a meteorite near their homes.  Whatever meaning it held for them remains elusive, a mystery I can accept.  Tonight I’m content to stand here and witness streaks of meteoric light cutting through the darkness, evoking a sense of wonder.  Which lasts only until the cold has seeped through multiple layers of clothing.  At that point the two of us pack up and head back to town.