Longtime Topanga resident, Dan Larson, recalls, as a graduate student at CSUN, the adventure in field research that confirmed the astronomical importance of the Burro Flats site at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory for Rocketdyne that, beginning in 1950 supported virtually every major space program in U.S. history.
My name is Dan Larson. From 1978 to 1983 I was a reporter for the Topanga Messenger newspaper. The year 1978 was particularly busy for me. In addition to reporting for the Topanga Messenger, I became a Board Member of the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC).
The most exciting event for me that year was my first visit to the Burro Flats Painted Cave at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL). Part of the excitement was simply because it was so hard to get into. Fortunately, I was attending graduate school at CUN where several of us had a good friend, Nancy Walter, a part-time Assistant Professor, whose husband, John Walter worked at Rocketdyne and got us into the SSFL and Burro Flats for our first visit in June of 1978.
The other reason for the excitement was that several of us students had become interested in studying the ancient astronomy of the Chumash while conducting a cultural resource study completing our portion of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) about two miles downstream from the SSFL in lower Bell Canyon.
As part of our research, we found a photo of the Burro Flats rock art site, as well as a drawing by Campbell Grant in his 1965 publication on Chumash rock art. The drawing depicted what appeared to be stars and comets which we thought might be signs of Chumash astronomy.
I distinctly remember driving into the Burro Flats area. On our left was a seemingly small rocket engine test stand, while in front of us on the right was a city-like cluster of buildings. Near the edge of this cluster, was the infamous Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) building which had a partial meltdown in July 1959 (which we had no idea of in 1978).
The road leading to the Burro Flats Painted Cave site was dirt for several miles. We parked on the side of the road, crossed a creek, and walked in a field that we understood to be the habitation site based on the limited information available then. We were headed to an overhang and cliff, and from there, climbed up another broad, steep sandstone cliff. On the way, we saw several rock paintings in overhangs next to us. Finally, we reached what is known as the Burro Flats Main Panel and were astounded by the large amount of well-preserved rock paintings.
Chumash Rock Paintings
IT ALL STARTED WHEN…
Before continuing, I should provide some background on how a number of us became interested in Chumash ancient astronomy. At CSUN a number of students from the Department of Anthropology formed the Northridge Archaeological Research Center (NARC). By arrangement of CSUN, we were able to carry out the cultural resource studies in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and were paid as student professionals. In 1976, my close friends, John and Gwen Romani were both Field Directors for NARC. That year, I wrote a paper for a graduate class at CSUN about complex societies, such as the Chumash, who didn’t need to develop agriculture to possess astronomical knowledge.
John read the paper and immediately became interested in the idea. NARC Field Directors were chosen to lead projects by rotation. In a total stroke of luck, there was a large development proposed for the bottom of Bell Canyon when John’s name came up.
In the background research for the project, it was found that there was a mountain, locally known as Castle Peak. I found that mountain shrines were central to winter solstice celebrations for the Chumash and other local groups. Beads were often left as offerings toward the tops of these mountains. During the fieldwork, we actually found beads near the top of Castle Peak. John, Gwen, and I used this as partial evidence that there were winter solstice celebrations held at the village site of Huwam, at the base of Castle Peak. During the project, John began to focus on Chumash rock art as a potential area of astronomical knowledge once he saw Campbell Grant’s depiction of the Burro Flats Main Panel.
2004 Solstice “arrow of light” in Burro Flats Painted Cave
PREPARING FOR THE EVENT
Getting back to our June 1978 trip, once the group had taken a detailed look at the Main Panel, Gwen went with the group to examine the rest of the site area while John and I stayed behind. There was a natural notch in the overhang above the paintings. In the Main Panel there are two large, distinctive concentric circle motifs at opposite ends. John, Gwen, and I believed that the rings within the concentric circles represented the various worlds of the Chumash universe. Thus, we thought that maybe there would be some sort of effect during the winter solstice sunrise and sunset.
John, the expert in using the complex Brunton Compass, knelt next to each concentric circle motif and took readings for the winter solstice sunrise and sunset through the notch. He then exclaimed that he thought there would be a light effect during the winter solstice sunrise. Readings on the other concentric circle were less conclusive but suggested a potential light effect during the sunset. He then showed me the area where the sun would first rise and how, with time, the cliff above the Main Panel would go from shadow to light as the sun rose higher in the sky until the light reached the notch when the light effect would happen at winter sunrise.
We hiked down to the flat area of the habitation site and found a low cliff roughly parallel to the higher cliff where the Main Panel is located. We found some rock art along the overhang. At one end of the overhang was an apparent depiction of a human-like figure holding a circle with rays. I felt, and John agreed, that it was a depiction of the sun. I made the decision that I should monitor that particular motif, while the others observed the predicted light effect at the Main Panel. I was so confident in John’s prediction regarding the Main Panel that I thought it would be good if there was more than one light effect that would greatly strengthen a meaningful confirmation.
Dan Larson, researchers with Dr. Krupp
John and I finally joined the rest of the group at the far end of the Burro Flats Painted Cave site complex. The general direction of this area seemed to have the potential that the sun would rise in a large, natural notch from an isolated bedrock mortar during the summer solstice sunrise. A linear line of small cup-like depressions carved into the sandstone rock pointed toward the large natural notch on the cliff above during the summer solstice sunrise. John’s compass readings suggested that the line of cup-like depressions also generally pointed toward the notch.
There were several other lines of evidence including a flat boulder with bedrock mortars arranged in an outer circular pattern of four bedrock mortars with each one larger than the last, and a large, single bedrock mortar behind them. The total arrangement suggested a bear paw. Evidence suggested that bears had some, though unknown, association with the summer solstice so we predicted another potential shadow/light effect.
We had met Dr. Edwin Krupp, the Director of the Griffith Observatory, in 1978 in Malibu Canyon. He had observed a failed summer solstice sunrise event earlier that morning predicted by Dr. Travis Hudson, Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, who had just co-authored a detailed book on Chumash astronomy.
We immediately contacted Dr. Krupp about our predictions for the Burro Flats site. When we told him we had taken compass readings, he became enthusiastic. We then contacted Fred Coutre, Fire Protection Engineer at Rocketdyne, and he set up a small group visit for December 22, the exact day of the 1979 winter solstice.
Dr. Krupp with visitors to the site
DESPITE WORD OF RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATION, DISCOVERY!
It seemed to take forever for Saturday, December 22 to arrive. John, Gwen, and I were excited, but we were also quite scared. In March of 1979, Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, held a press conference at UCLA that revealed that there had been a partial meltdown in an experimental nuclear power plant in 1959, as well as several radioactive leaks and spills up to 1969.
Even though I told John and Gwen and others about the potential radioactive contamination at the SSFL, when December came around, and maybe because we were young and crazy, we decided that it was more important to witness what the last Native American had viewed hundreds or thousands of years ago. It would be the re-discovery of a lifetime!
As we drove up the road to the Burro Flats Main Panel, I noticed that there were a number of strange looking things set on thin metal stems topped with oblong bubbles which seemed to be filled with liquid. Since they were placed at various random spots, I wondered if they were for measuring radioactive contamination. I never did learn what they are.
We arrived about 6 a.m., an hour prior to the projected sunrise. Dr. Krupp, John, Gwen, and a few others hiked to the Main Panel, while I remained in the flats where the overhang housing the human-like figure holding the sun, was located. As this lower overhang was roughly parallel with the Main Panel, I predicted a possible light effect would happen on the motif during the winter solstice sunrise. I watched intently as the cliff above and behind the Main Panel changed from shadow to light.
Rocketdyne History and Milestones
Unfortunately, since the Main Panel was high above and behind the overhang I was monitoring, I couldn’t see or hear anything from there. I had no watch so had to guess when the Main Panel light effect would occur. After that point, I kept watching as the light continued downward. However, the sun never reached the overhang, so my prediction had failed. I hiked up to the Main Panel where the others were gathered. They seemed excited and told me that when the sun shone through the natural notch a triangle of light hit the second ring on the concentric circle.
John, Gwen, and I went to have a large breakfast/lunch of Mexican food, then met the rest of the group at the Main Panel for the predicted sunset light effect on the far concentric circle. The sun was roughly following a smooth, prepared surface below the pictographs. We predicted that a light/shadow effect would occur just before the entire overhang became devoid of light. What happened was that just before the overhang became dark, a small dot of light fell just outside the concentric circle. Although it, too, failed, it was much closer than my prediction.
We were so lucky to have Dr. Krupp in our group since he had visited numerous archaeo-astronomical sites around the world. He and John both agreed on the accuracy of predicting the exact day of the winter solstice based on the light effect at Burro Flats. The light effect could not predict the exact day, but probably was accurate to about seven days before, and seven days after the actual winter solstice. Therefore, Burro Flats could not be considered an observatory per se, but more accurately, a ritual alignment.
You would think that I would have seen what I was told was a spectacular event at the next winter solstice. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I went at least three consecutive years at winter solstice but each time it was cloudy, preventing the sun shining brightly.
At the time, I was a volunteer journalist for the local newspaper, the Topanga Messenger. As an anti-nuclear power activist, although I missed the Dan Hirsch press conference in March 1979 about the SSFL meltdown, I used the press kit to write an article. Our research was abruptly curtailed in 1983, and I didn’t visit Burro Flats again until 1999, when we were finally allowed back in by Dr. Krupp, on the 20th anniversary. What a long, strange road it was!
Part 2 Next time I will explain the results of the summer solstice monitoring, as well as the reason for the abrupt end to our field research at Burro Flats. I will also detail my anti-nuclear power articles in the Messenger. Finally, I will explain our studies of the 1953, 1954, 1959, and 1960 archaeological collections in the Southwest Museum excavated from the Burro Flats habitation site.