Remembering Michael Zeilik

By Ray A. Williamson

Dr. Michael Zeilik, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy with the University of New Mexico and a Patron member of this Society, died Friday, June 3 after a long decline in his health. Michael was a brilliant teacher and the author or contributor to several textbooks on the fundamentals of modern astronomy, but he was also an active scholar in the cultural astronomy of the U.S. Southwest. His contributions to Southwestern cultural astronomy will be valued for years to come. Photo courtesy University of New Mexico Faculty website.

I first met Mike through an article he had written questioning some of the conclusions colleagues and I had reached about the putative summer solstice alignment in Casa Rinconada. Mike thought that the alignment,which is demonstrably true today, was more likely accidental than intentional and that in the initial configuration of the Great Kiva, the alignment would not have been visible. My first reaction was defensive, “How dare he question our interpretation of the site?” Then I reread his article more carefully and had to admit that he might well be right. We’ll likely never know if the solstice alignment was intentional or not in part because too much was likely lost in the excavation and reconstruction of the site in the early 1930s.

Later, in meeting Mike face to face, I encountered an affable, thoughtful person, passionate about understanding how the Ancestral Puebloans reflected their astronomical knowledge in the sites that have survived the centuries. To support those efforts, he worked hard to understand historic Puebloan astronomy and the associated ceremonies. His insights soon influenced my own research and I looked forward to reading each of his articles as they were published. He stressed the importance of understanding a key element of the relationship between celestial observations and the religious celebrations of winter and summer solstices: those in charge of those celebrations made anticipatory observations prior to major astronomical events to allow preparations for them well in advance.

Mike had an intuitive understanding of naked-eye astronomy and how the Ancestral Pueblo people used their observations to establish and maintain the yearly calendar. He was also a passionate researcher who seemed as at home in poring through anthropology papers as he was with modern research reports. He was a respected teacher and skilled communicator who made his conference presentations meaningful to everyone listening, whether schooled in cultural astronomy or not. Mike’s contributions to research in astronomy, cultural astronomy and Southwestern anthropology prompted the Society to present him with our Lifetime Achievement Award at our 2019 conference banquet at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff , AZ. His memory will live on as an In-memoriam member of the Society.

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