Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City Part I

As "modern" humans we give ourselves a great deal of credit for sophistication and intelligence. While it is true our society has made great strides in technology and science to improve the lives of people, ofttimes we overlook the accomplishments of those who came before us, the inhabitants of the Americas who once thrived here long before Europeans "discovered" the New World.

Though these ancestral civilizations faded away over 700 years ago to become scattered remnants of today's Puebloan people, an amazing amount of what they wrought upon the land still stands in testament to their skill and ingenuity as architects and engineers of the environment. Of these achievements the best example of how these indigenous cultures lived in harmony with their surroundings exists at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

Thought to be a ceremonial and administrative center for a civilization that stretched throughout the Four Corners region, Chaco Canyon contains an array of structures that demonstrate extensive awareness of seasonal and astronomical cycles necessary to sustain an agricultural people in their daily lives. Although no written histories or records exist to illuminate how exactly this society functioned, much can be inferred from the extensive number of ruins, pictographs, petroglyphs, and associated detritus left behind. A visit to Chaco reveals a fascinating glimpse into a world that once flourished for centuries, where circuits of the Sun, Moon, and stars provided a framework for the organization of life.

Getting There

Chaco Canyon lies in a sparsely populated and remote area in the high desert. Bordered on the west by the Navajo Nation, the Cultural Park is administered by the National Park Service. Though the few roads within the Park are paved, access to the area is on dirt roads from the north or south. The recommended route for most visitors is the 21 mile long north road, 13 miles of which are unpaved. Another option for travelers coming from the south is a sometimes impassable 20 mile dirt road, which should be avoided in wet weather. To download a map and specific directions visit this link.

On my recent visit I used both access roads, arriving from the south and departing to the north. The southern approach is lonely and quite scenic, but definitely much rougher. I would only suggest using high clearance vehicles even in good weather. The road is heavily rutted and washboarded, and much of the time my speed was limited to less than 10 miles per hour.

The northern road can also have many sections of washboard, but it sees more frequent maintenance and vehicle traffic, meaning assistance would be more likely to arrive in the event of a breakdown or mishap.

Regardless of how you get there, the first stop should be the Visitor Center to orient yourself and get information about the wide variety of things to see and experience. I strongly recommend that you give yourself 2 full days to explore as much of the park as possible, as some sites require hiking to reach, and ruins such as Pueblo Bonito are so expansive they deserve as much thoughtful time as you can devote.


No lodging exists within the Park, leaving only Gallo Camground as a place to spend the night. The closest communities with hotels/motels are over 60 miles away, and while it is possible to make the return journey over multiple days to see the Park, it is not overly practical.

The campground offers basic amenities, but no hookups. Some sites are designated as tent or RV only, and all except the two group sites are filled on a first-come, first served basis. As the sign above indicates, the campground may fill up on busy weekends and peak visitation periods, so be prepared to find other options if space is unavailable.

Getting Around

Many of the larger Great Houses and pueblos in the Park are seen via the Loop Road, a one way, 9 mile long paved route running parallel to the wash bottom through the canyon. From the Loop Road, hiking trails provide access to other sites on the canyon rim and beyond the end of the road.

One thing that struck me about my visit to Chaco was how bike friendly the Park is. The Loop Road and a few other paths are well suited to biking, making a majority of the sites available to anyone on two wheels. Those interested in reducing their impact on the environment as well as enjoying a quality recreational experience might consider leaving a vehicle at the campground or Visitor Center and using a bike to reach most of the ruins.

Chacoan Great Houses

The term "Great House" denotes more about architecture than anything else. The 14 recognized Chacoan Great Houses typically embody large numbers of rooms, anywhere from 100 to 700 of substantial size, larger than those found in previous Ancestral Pueblo dwellings. Walls were constructed using a core and veneer method unique to the culture, and buildings rose to four and even five stories above ground.

Enclosed circular and semi-subterranean structures known as kivas were integrated into the buildings, and large plazas that served as open communal space surrounded the contruction. Oddly enough, today most researchers believe only small groups inhabited these very large complexes year-round, with populations increasing only for short periods during times of ceremony or celebration.

Pueblo Bonito

The largest and most studied Great House found at Chaco is Pueblo Bonito, a massive structure that includes over 650 rooms. Built in stages from 828 A.D. to around 1126 A.D., its four story height necessitated walls of over 3 feet wide at the base, an indication that the structure was planned as a "high-rise" from inception.

One must see this impressive feat of engineering in person to truly appreciate what was accomplished by masons and craftsmen of the time. The scale is larger than anything else seen in North America, and it is easy to imagine the challenges faced by builders, as stone is sculpted, squared, and fit with precision, and lumber for needed support had to be transported from mountains over 50 miles distant. Not impossible, but enormously difficult for a culture using only stone tools and without the aid of horses or wheels.

In 1941 a large block of sandstone appropriately named Threatening Rock collapsed onto the northeastern section of Pueblo Bonito, obliterating over 60 excavated rooms. It is evident the builders were aware of the potential disaster as they had attempted to shore up the foundation of the semi-detached fragment while building the north wall, but eventually gravity trumps all when it comes to erosion.

Pueblo Bonito are spanish words meaning "pretty village", and was first described by Anglos during an 1849 U.S. Army expedition out to survey the western portion of New Mexico. After the party left the area, little additional exploration of the area occurred until 1896 when controversial rancher cum archaeologist Richard Wetherill entered the picture.

Mr. Wetherill first gained notoriety when he and a fellow cowboy stumbled across what is now called Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde in 1888. In what modern archaeologists view as an unforgivable outrage he and fellow explorers rooted around within the ruins, excavating and removing thousands of artifacts. In doing so much of the history and context was destroyed, and although some of the items were donated to the Colorado Historical Society, much of what was taken found its way into private collections.

His involvement at Chaco Canyon several years later was part of a semi-academic effort labeled the "Hyde Exploring Expedition", sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and financed by New York philanthropists and collectors B. Talbot and Frederick E. Hyde Jr. In five years all of the major sites at Chaco Canyon had been documented and photographed, and again large numbers of excavated artifacts were sent away, with most eventually becoming part of the collection at the American Museum.

After the expedition ended, Richard Wetherill attempted to homestead several sites within the canyon including Pueblo Bonito, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Somewhat ironically his claims resulted in the eventual protection of Chaco Canyon, as the government Land Office investigating the patents strongly recommended that this significant cultural property be federally protected. In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt used the newly enacted Antiquities Act to establish Chaco Canyon National Monument.

Richard Wetherill stayed on at Chaco Canyon after his land grab was denied, operating a successful trading post until his untimely death in 1910 from gunshot wounds suffered in a dispute with a local Navajo. He and his wife are interred at a small plot west of Pueblo Bonito.

Pueblo Bonito is remarkably well preserved, although some stabilization and reconstruction work has been performed. The extensive size of the site allows visitors to walk through many of the rooms on the east side of the complex, and Park Rangers offer daily talks which help shed light on how people used different parts of the structure. For those on a different schedule a self-guided walking tour using an interpretive brochure is available, a useful tool which also helps the visitor better understand the site.

After touring the ruins, a short path leads east along the cliff face where several interesting pictographs can be seen. There is also a pamphlet available for this brief hike that provides information about the various panels and possible explanations for the symbols.

Chetro Ketl

Just east of Pueblo Bonito is another large Chacoan Great House named Chetro Ketl. According to the native guide who accompanied the 1849 expedition the name means "rain village or pueblo", but no other source confirms that idea. Chetro Ketl shares the same characteristic "D" shaped layout as its larger neighbor, but the complex has a single Great Kiva for the estimated 450 - 550 rooms, and one section fronting the plaza features colonnade style architecture thought to resemble that of the Toltec culture found in Central America.

This picture illustrates the columnar style that archaeologists link to a possible Central American connection with the building of Chetro Ketl. Evidence suggests that Chacoan peoples traded far and wide through the region, and it is altogether likely that not only goods were exchanged, but ideas as well. At some point the spaces between the colonnades were filled in, but it is easy to see the difference between materials and construction style.

Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito are just two amazing examples of the industry and ingenuity of the builders who called this canyon and surrounding area home for over 300 years. There is much left to explore, with even more complexes in the canyon and on the mesa tops, all linked and aligned in accordance to the patterns discerned by the people who knew this land best.

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City - Part 2

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City - Part 3

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