Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City Part II

In 9th century Europe, the empire of Charlemagne ends with his death, and the rise of modern nations like France and Germany begins. Norsemen expand their range, taking advantage of a temporary rise in global temperatures to settle into Greenland and Nova Scotia. In the Middle East Arabic scholars invent algebra, and the first glass mirror. In Asia, the T'ang Dynasty has collapsed, replaced by the Sung Dynasty. And in North America, the rise of an advanced culture using sophisticated architecture and celestial observations begins on the Colorado Plateau.

These were the Chacoans, ancestors of today's Puebloan tribes. For 300 years under the southwestern sun a community of people farmed the fertile bottomlands of Chaco Canyon, using observed movements of the sun, moon, and stars to plant and harvest crops. At least that is the theory. Since no written record or history is available to document the daily life of the inhabitants, archaeologists and paleontologists must infer practices and habits from in situ evidence left behind. Fortunately there is a great deal to work with.

I introduced Chaco Culture National Historical Park in an earlier post, focusing on two of the larger and better known Great Houses - Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. These magnificent examples of Chacoan engineering and craftsmanship are located in the core of the valley, sometimes humorously referred to as "downtown" because of the density of sites found in the area. But remnants of this civilization are far flung, covering a wide region including areas outside Chaco Canyon. This blog entry features some of the other structures found in the Park.


The larger and better known Great Houses are located in close proximity to the Loop Road, which is the 9 mile long main Park artery. However some sites cannot be reached with an automobile, and are located in the Park backcountry. Wijiji is one such place.

Like many other places in the area the name comes from the Navajo language.  It is adapted from the word for greasewood, which is diwozhii. Navajo people migrated to the region in the 1400's, settling in lands that at the time were unoccupied.  Many families still live throughout the region today. especially to the west on the sprawling Navajo Reservation.

Utilizing a service road that is also open to bicycles, reaching Wijiji is relatively easy.  The trailhead is located in close proximity to Gallo Campground, making for convenient access to campers.  Roundtrip the distance is 3 miles over level terrain, although no shade exists so it could be quite warm in summer.

Just a note - A free backcountry permit is required for this and all trails in the Park, which is available at the Visitor Center or the trailhead itself.

Wijiji blends in so well with the surroundings it can be hard to spot until you are right on top of it. Low, crumbling walls of sandstone match perfectly with the rubble beneath the canyon walls.

Dated to around 1110 A.D., this is one of the youngest Great Houses, and it remains unexcavated At the time of construction, 225 rooms were built around 2 kivas. Situated on a foundation of sand and clay instead of stone, it has suffered structural problems from a shifting base.

There are some curious differences between Wijiji and other Great Houses in that it lacks a Great Kiva, a refuse midden (trash heap), and an arch of connected rooms enclosing the plaza. These missing features lead some researchers to speculate that the pueblo was never finished.

Wijiji is a quiet place, remote from other sites.  The beauty of the canyon setting allows the visitor to experience the power and presence of the natural world much the way the builders must have felt it.

About 12 miles east of Wijiji is another Great House called Pueblo Pintado (spanish for "painted town") which is not accessible from within the Park. It was the first Chacoan structure encountered by anglos during the 1849 military survey of the region.  It was built around 1060 and unlike Wijiji shows signs of human occupation.

Pueblo del Arroyo

Pueblo del Arroyo (spanish for "town by the wash") is located in the core area of the Chaco complex, not far from Pueblo Bonito. One of the chief features which distinguishes this Great House from others is its location - in the center of the valley away from the canyon walls.

Built in at least two stages over a hundred year period from 1025 to 1125, the structure contained 280 rooms and 20 kivas, but lacked a Great Kiva. Exploring the ruins is made easy with a 1/4 mile paved walking trail which circumnavigates the walls.

I did a doubletake when I first spotted this "camouflaged" rain gutter - technology beyond the scope of Chacoan culture.  The Park Service mandate requires preservation and stabilization of the ruins, and part of that effort is to minimize environmental damage. While I was visiting, I witnessed several Navajo masons doing restoration and repair work on the walls at Pueblo del Arroyo, using the same materials and techniques as the original architects.

Casa Rinconada

On the south side of Chaco Wash lies the largest Great Kiva found in the area. The site is found along the Loop Road, and is known as Casa Rinconada, or "corner house" in Spanish.

This impressive semi-subterranean ceremonial chamber exhibits a very precise orientation to points of the compass, with opposing doors lying within less than 1 degree of true north-south.  This line can be continued to connect with Tsin Kletzin to the south and Pueblo Alto to the north, two Chacoan Great Houses located above the canyon on the mesas.  This line also coincides with the network of roads extending beyond the canyon, which is another impressive Chacoan accomplishment I'll cover later.

Additionally, window apertures lining the interior wall of the kiva lie within 1 degree of an east-west axis.  The ability to fix cardinal directions with such accuracy indicates the depth to which the Chacoan culture was able to study the heavens and understand the patterns associated with them.

It is also believed but not wholly proven that some of the alignments of apertures and doors within Casa Rinconada played a role in measuring the solstice, allowing for accurate forecasting of the seasons.

Unlike Great Kivas associated with a structure containing rooms and a plaza, Casa Rinconada stands alone, although several smaller villages that were built and occupied around the same time as the Great Houses across the valley are located close by. 

A 1/2 mile walking trail allows for an exploration of the kiva and surrounding structures. Most of what remains of the villages are low walls that once enclosed multiple room buildings scattered on low hills south and east of the Great Kiva.

Over 1200 years ago a civilization emerged from the high desert to establish a well developed society, one that lived in harmony with its world. Though not sophisticated by modern standards, these people were masters of the environment, using astronomy and engineering to build structures that embodied the knowledge they had achieved.

We still don't know what purpose or meaning they intended with their elaborate and extensive architecture. But we do know that they were keen observers of all that happened in their world, and they used that awareness to create a society that lasted for nearly 300 years, and a legacy that endures to this day.

With all our science and technology, can we do better?

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City - Part 1

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

1 comment:

  1. Terrific pics. Thanks for sharing. We'll be touring these and other ruins later this fall and winter.