Thursday, June 14, 2012

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City Part III

Chaco Canyon is a place of exceptional beauty and cultural significance, and those willing to endure miles of rough dirt roads will find multiple opportunities for exploration and discovery. I covered many of the valley sites in Part I and Part II, and wanted to complete the series with some of the lesser visited ruins located above the canyon rim and to the west.

Getting to the elevated and isolated Great Houses requires hiking trails that are fairly steep at the outset, however once on mesa the path is less strenuous, and the effort is rewarded with amazing views of the surrounding area.

An easier trail leads west to Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita, the petroglyphs, and Penasco Blanco following an old wagon road through the canyon bottom. Except for a sometimes impassable crossing of Chaco Wash the path is relatively level.

The two complexes on the rim are located on either side of the canyon; the one on the north side is called Pueblo Alto, and the other to the south is referred to as Tsin Kletzin. The parking area and associated trailheads are found along the nine mile Loop Road - Pueblo Alto trail begins near the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot, and the South Mesa trail leading to Tsin Kletzin departs from the Casa Rinconada ruins.

Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita, and Chacoan Petroglyphs

Before beginning the journey to Pueblo Alto, the trail leads directly to another valley site known as Kin Kletso. This medium sized Great House is located about half a mile west of Pueblo del Arroyo and the best known Chacoan complex, Pueblo Bonito.

Kin Kletso is a name is of Navajo origin, being essentially a mispronunciation of the words for "yellow house". This Great House like others to the east is built in close proximity to the north wall of Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists speculate that the structure was constructed and occupied around 1125 a.d., and is thought to have been occupied by only one or two households.

It is estimated that Kin Kletso contains 55 rooms and 4 kivas, with a two story tower that may also have functioned as a place of worship. The overall shape of the building is rectangular, with individual room walls radiating from a central dividing wall. Some of the best views of the ruins are obtained by hiking a short distance up the Pueblo Alto trail.

The trail diverges here at Kin Kletso with one leg climbing up to the rim behind the pueblo, and the other continuing just over 3 miles westward towards Penasco Blanco. For now we'll stay in the canyon to visit another Great House and the largest concentration of petroglyphs found at Chaco.

Casa Chiquita

"Little House" in spanish, Casa Chiquita is another Great House about one mile from the trailhead. Largely unexcavated, the low walls built on a small hill look like an extension of the crumbling cliffs behind them. This is one of the older structures here, built around 1060. It is also one of the more humble sites with block of rooms surrounding a single kiva.

Another .5 miles beyond Casa Chiquita is a short detour which snakes along the north canyon wall for nearly a mile to reveal several petroglyph panels. Each panel has a marker which corresponds to an entry in a Park Service trail guide, available for purchase at the Visitor Center. I recommend this very useful and informative booklet for those who want to know more about the origin and possible significance of this prehistoric "graffiti".

Here are photographs of some of the more prominent artworks:

The trail to Penasco Blanco was impassable during my visit due to flooding in Chaco Wash. If you can make it across, just beyond the wash is a short spur to another pictograph known as the "Supernova". This painting is believed to record a celestial explosion which occurred in 1054 a.d., the remains of which are known to us as the Crab Nebula.

Noted by Chinese and Japanese astronomers of the time, the death of this star was visible during the day, and would have lit the night sky for nearly a month. Although we can't be certain this is what is depicted here, Hopi tribes who are descendants of Chacoan culture have an oral history describing the "blue star", another possible reference to the event.

Pueblo Alto Trail

After returning to Kin Kletso, it's time to ascend the rim of the canyon to visit one of the mesa top sites. The trail is steep and rocky and climbs to a narrow crevice which emerges onto the plateau.

Once on the canyon rim the walking is relatively easy, and soon the hiker is presented with a choice of continuing either direction around a large loop. To reach Pueblo Alto directly, choose the left branch. For outstanding views of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl the quickest route is the right leg of the trail.

Pueblo Alto

This high and isolated ruin complex consists of four separate structures, most of which are unexcavated. Named Pueblo Alto, New Alto, East Ruin, and Rabbit Ruin, these long single story buildings show some evidence of year-round habitation by small groups. Located in proximity to the ruins is one of the largest midden (refuse) mounds found in the Park, and it contains a wealth of material that is still being studied for clues as to how the people lived.

Pueblo Alto is the hub for a network of interconnecting roads left behind by the builders. In many cases these pathways were surveyed and cleared of debris to a width of 30 feet. When encountering cliffs or ledges, they constructed stairways or ramps to surmount the obstacle so that the alignment could continue uninterrupted.

To me this is one of the most intriguing aspects of Chacoan culture. I found myself asking why people without horses or the wheel would need such straight, wide thoroughfares, and it seems the answer might be tied to the use of many of the buildings at Chaco for purely ceremonial purposes.

If Chaco existed primarily as a place for people to come together for rituals and large gatherings, the roads become more than a means to get from one place to another. Perhaps the journey itself had great significance to those making pilgrimage.

The image below is of the mostly obscure North Road, which lies within one degree of true north in its orientation. Not bad for a people without technology.

This spiderweb of avenues is currently inventoried at over 400 miles, and led not only to structures in and around Chaco, but extended well into other areas of the region, possibly linking people here with surrounding communities such as Aztec and Mesa Verde. The interpretive panel below shows some of these connections.

From here the trail turns eastward across the mesa, with outstanding views across a wide expanse of country.

Because of the elevation above the surrounding region, it is believed the inhabitants of Pueblo Alto could communicate with other groups at a distance using fire or even simple reflectors made from selenium crystals. Across the canyon to the south is another Great House called Tsin Kletzin, and there are many prominent buttes, mesas, and mountains on the horizon that could likewise be used to send and receive messages.

Fajada Butte is one such landmark seen below, and it is centrally located to Chaco pueblos and sites.

As the trail rounds the head of a shallow box canyon, a very interesting artifact becomes visible ahead. Known as the Jackson Steps, what look like toe and fingerholds carved into a sheer rock wall are the weathered remains of what were once wide, deep steps leading from the wash bottom to the mesa top.

Another notable sight along the path is from the natural world. These are the fossilized remains of shrimp burrows in the sandstone, left over from a marine environment during the Cretaceous period.

The loop culminates at the rim of the Chaco Canyon, where great aerial views of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito present themselves before the trail returns to the starting point.

Tsin Kletzin

Across the canyon on South Mesa is another complex of ruins named Tsin Kletzin. Like the sites on the north side, this hike can be done as either a 3.6 mile loop or a direct approach which is shorter at 2.6 miles. The trailhead is located near the kiva at Casa Rinconada on the Loop Road. There is a moderate climb of about 450 feet with a few rocky sections to reach the rim.

Once on the plateau the views are all encompassing, including most of the major Great Houses in the canyon below. Also visible are the silhouette of New Alto on the northern horizon, the Chuska Mountains to the west, and the San Juan Basin to the north.

Another feature of note is South Gap, which splits the mesa in two. This break in the landscape allows access to the canyon from the south using another Chacoan road. Anyone hiking the loop trail will descend into South Gap from the mesa before returning to Casa Rinconada.

On approach to Tsin Kletzin the ruins appear at first to be just another low jumble of rocks breaking the relatively flat plain of the mesa.

The name is a corruption of the Navajo language, and is interpreted as "place of black wood" or charcoal. Thought to once have contained 81 rooms, 3 kivas, and a plaza, the site was constructed in the same timeline as the Pueblo Alto complex across the canyon.

Despite the sweeping view this is a lonely place, seemingly forgotten and seldom visited. I felt the quiet as a palpable presence here, and it was hard to imagine people ever making this their home.

I wish I could journey back in time to see the vibrant life of these places at the height of Chacoan achievement, and gain a better understanding of how the ancestral puebloans embraced this challenging yet beautiful environment. There is much at Chaco Canyon that remains a mystery to the modern world, and what I've seen here leaves me with more questions than answers.

I do know that the accomplishments of these "prehistoric" people are far beyond what many cultures of that era were capable of, and I believe that much of what they knew has been forgotten by contemporary humans. There are lessons here for us, and I hope we are wise enough to learn them.

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City Part 1

Chaco Canyon - Compass, Calendar, Ceremonial City Part 2

1 comment:

  1. Eric: a comprehensive, professionally illustrated and fascinating travelog !