Chaco Canyon, which is considered the most alluring of all archeological ruins in North America, and possibly the world. Considering some of the human intrigue that happened here before its abandonment, one might even say the most mysterious.
Location/Geography: In northwestern New Mexico, San Juan and McKinley counties. Closest town: Farmington or Aztec. Area: about 34,000 acres. Chaco Canyon lies entirely within the San Juan Basin and is surrounded by the Chuska Mountains in the west, the San Juan Mountains to the north, and the San Pedro Mountains in the east.
Spotlight (just the facts, ma’am): Chaco Cultural National Historic Park (hereafter, “Chaco Canyon” or “Chaco”) is an engaging and sui generis archeological ruins that has no parallel whatsoever to any other setting. Like a Mecca-shrine in its own right, only without a postulated prophet-oriented purpose, Chaco’s layout is deemed the most significant of all Ancestral Puebloan communities (a culture previously dubbed the “Anasazi,” though this moniker is no longer vogue or appropriate). To some Puebloans, particularly the Hopi Indians, Chaco remains a guarded secret. Solar/lunar alignment of its numerous structures typifies Chaco’s telling cosmological utility to the inhabitants. Hence, the magnitude of its archeoastronomy corollary to the cosmos. Some archeologists and anthropologists (hereafter, “cultural scientists”) equate Chaco Canyon to Arizona’s Casa Malpaís ruins, possibly even Colorado’s Chimney Rock archeological site, and specifically in view of the strong emphasis placed on observing changing seasons. Where these people built this literal shrine of the prehistoric ages, all roads led here. For modern day visitors, once leaving regional main highways the entry points (there are two) are unpaved. Driver are thus cautioned to slow down and ease back into another time frame from long, long ago. . .
After a while the scenery changes, the elevation dips and what's ahead is a more promising view of Chaco Canyon's austere and engaging backdrop:
And if you feel like it, you can give one of these guys a lift. But don't hit 'em, because this is open range country and any livestock you run into (or they into you) means you have to pay the rancher. No kidding. . .
Snapshot (more details): Chaco Canyon is typically desiccated terrain. Its high desert setting denotes an isolated sector away from the more populous Ancestral Puebloan communities that once lived throughout the Four Corners regions, whose numbers may have been well over 100,000 strong just before their great diaspora off the Colorado Plateau in the late 13th Century.
It is believed the numerous and so-called Great Houses built throughout Chaco’s compound were functional temples. Chacoans who came here, and perhaps an exclusive roster of people from select clan members, made annual pilgrimages for ceremonial purposes. From Farmington, New Mexico, on Hwy. 550, then to County Road 7900, travelers came from afar, each bearing a variety of acquired trade goods (as gifts), such as pottery and jewelry. Rimmed by mesas, Chaco is located within lowlands circumscribed by dune fields, ridges and a topography generally defined by a mountainous terrain. The broad layout of Chaco’s periphery generally follows a northwest-to-southwest axis. Home to the most exceptional concentration of archeological ruins in the Southwest, this site was designated a national monument in 1907. In 1980, an additional 13,000 acre allotment was added. The park is set in a secluded high elevation canyon carved by the Chaco Wash. With its assemblage of ancient ruins, Chaco is the foremost cultural and historic attraction of its kind. One glance at the Great Kiva of Chetro Ketl will suggest why many people, professional and laymen alike, consider Chaco the most important of all archeological ruins.
Remarkably, as much as is known about this visually arresting site, what some might dub a altogether mysterious setting and an equally mysterious human history motif, Chaco continues to generate its fair share of speculation. We know only that this assembly of singular structures was used during part of the year by the majority of Chaco’s inhabitants, most likely as a religious hub. Indeed, very little is understood about Chacoan ceremonies. Possibly, Chaco Canyon was similar in ways to other famous pilgrimage sites such as Mount Kailash in Tibet (an active site for the past 15,000 years). Designated a national historic park in 1980. Governing body: National Park Service.
Guided Tour Essentials (a more complete comprehension): Given Chaco Canyon’s geographic aspects, there are immense gaps between the southwestern cliff facades. Specifically, the numerous fingered-side canyons (commonly called rincons). The Chacoans made special use of these places, for they were critical in funneling rain-bearing storms into the canyon-like setting, thereby augmenting water resources. For obscure or clear reasons beyond archeological interest, especially the intrigue of its layout and numerous ruins, Chaco’s milieu may be the most important site of its kind in North America. Apart from the Ancestral Puebloans who came and went here over the centuries, many distant tribal people also visited Chaco, bringing with them offerings such as pottery, exotic birds, and jewels to mention some articles. From 900 to 1130, the Chacoan culture was nothing less than industrious; also, glorified. The inhabitants built multi-storied buildings and planed extensive roads throughout the 49,710 square miles encompassing the San Juan Basin that defines the overall topography of this region. Indeed, perfectly straight roads that originate in Chaco emanate out for many miles to other pueblo or so-called Great House sites. The question remains: Why build roads when these people had no carts, much less animals to pull them? Perhaps the answer lies in some religious significance rather than trade. Perhaps there's another riddle. Still, the network of roads Ancestral Puebloans cleared and fashioned led to this epicenter of culture and people came here by the thousands.
Another question often entertained when visiting this site concerns he original builders and dwellers. Namely, what were they thinking by aligning most of their structures to either solar or lunar light? Why was the alignment so important and so particular given the mathematics of design? Recently, some cultural scientists suggest that several of the large central buildings, especially the most famous, Pueblo Bonito, were used primarily for ceremony (though without saying exactly what kind of religious or spiritual ceremony). It follows how Chaco Canyon’s cultural center in the Southwest likely served as a ceremonial hub for outlying Chacoan communities. Astronomy, specifically the discipline of archeoastronomy, played a pivotal role in Chacoan culture, as realized from astute empirical observations of the heavens taken over many decades. Indeed, there is a special landmark close to their dwellings where trained observers, possibly shamans or the like, had marked the solstices, equinoxes, and solar noon, including so-called standstill positions of the moon revealed on thirteen light markings on petroglyphs (see below for a further explanation).
Incredibly, eleven of the major structures are directly oriented to either the sun and moon. Each major structure also has an internal geometry that corresponds to the relationships of the solar and lunar cycles. More astonishing, most major structures are oriented in a solar-and-lunar alignment. The aforementioned Pueblo Bonito, located at the approximate center of Chaco Canyon, plays the central role in this precise arrangement.
Latter Day Discovers: The ruins of Chaco Canyon were first discovered in 1849 by Lt. James Simpson, a member of the U. S. Army forces newly arrived in the New Mexico territory, also a member of the United States Topographical Engineers. He was assigned to the military governor Colonel John Washington. Washington’s goal was to contact the warring Navajos for the sake of obtaining a peace treaty, but it’s more likely he wanted to impress them with the military superiority of his expedition. Headed for Canyon de Chelly the expedition came across a fascinating landscape of well-preserved ruins (with much of the credit given to the typical aridity of the Colorado Plateau). This was Chaco Canyon and Col. Washington gave Simpson permission to examine the impressive landscape of multistoried ruins. Simpson's guide, Carravahal from the San Juan Pueblo, provided the name Pueblo Bonito, which is Spanish for “beautiful town.” At the conclusion of his expedition, Simpson published the first description of Chaco Canyon. Later, it was Richard Wetherill, a rancher and archeologist, along with George Pepper from the Museum of Natural History, who became the first to excavate at Pueblo Bonito. They started their excavations in 1896 and ended three years later. When they finished, Wetherill remained at Chaco Canyon running a trading post until he died in 1910. In the short period Wetherill and Pepper excavated, they had uncovered an amazing one hundred and ninety rooms, while photographing and mapping all of the major structures in Chaco Canyon. Wetherill and Pepper contributed immensely to the early excavation of Chaco Canyon. Naturally, precious archeological booty over the years was discovered. In some cases, artifacts were consigned to museums and sometimes sold for profiteering and private collections.
Those pieces that were not usurped by so-called thieves of time provide a window to the past revealing the artistry of the people who made numerous utilitarian and artistic vessels.
Also, considering how clay pottery was introduced to Ancestral Puebloan culture during the so-called Pueblo I Era (750 to 900), the amazing artistry of crafting pottery has grown ever since. Here's an example of a contemporary Puebloan design: (FYI: Strangely, not too many skeletons were ever found here, leading some cultural scientists to view Chaco as opened to the people only during part of the year. According to one researcher (Craig Childs) 650 remains were found throughout the region, with 131 remains found at Pueblo Bonito (a relatively low number comparable to other archeological sites), all buried in two major tombs. The remains were stacked like firewood. Was Chaco considered another infamous massacre site compared to places like Cowboy Wash or Sand Canyon? Possibly.)
Radiating Roads From The Center: Ancient roads of amazing engineering feats to build them radiated from Chaco’s hub. The North Road among them seemingly vectored off into the distance, whose purpose has long intrigued cultural scientists. Perhaps it was a symbol of migration or direction representing death. From the air, these roads, most of them, are discernible. Still, the North Road and its purpose holds the interest of many cultural scientists. It is the only main road leading to and from Chaco, which is also part of a braid of thoroughfares inscribed in the desert scrub landscape, thus requiring more labor than building the dwellings at Chaco. Regardless what was in the way, the road builders of Chaco changed topographical features by continuing straight ahead, including building massive and impressive ramps or carving stairs up to summits of landmark features, then back down the other side. More than 100 miles of roads have thus far been documented throughout the region, with nearly 300 miles of partial roads still visible in some sectors. Some believe the roads actually extended much farther, say, over a thousand miles, heading this or that way, and always in a straight line. Still, it was the North Road considered to be the most complicated and longest, which stretched more than 50 miles from Pueblo Alto (which is one of the many Great Houses) to the San Juan River.
The Unknown Factors Of Chaco’s Network Of Roads: Cultural scientists have long pondered and debated Chaco Canyon’s vast network of roads. For instance, was there a special ceremonial endorsement associated with the North Road or any other similar pathway leading to or from Chaco? Was there a direct connection from one settlement to the other, depending on which road was followed? Averaging 30 to 40 feet wide, what was the purpose for such width? Were some or all of the roads intended as trading routes? Perhaps some were even used for moving goods? In one sector of the North Road, there are four or six other regional roads running abreast––why? Was it more than a utilitarian road plan for the Chacoan people? Perhaps something symbolic? To address the previous thought about Chaco’s straight road designs, according to some theories these people needed to be seen from great places. Winding roads would have therefore meant being more invisible in a mostly flat and unbroken terrain such as this region affords. Seeing farther also highlights a certain psychological advance, suggesting a sense of security. By constructing locales that afforded a greater perspective of the distances, people go more easily travel from place to place without getting lost. Indeed, the precise linking factor of sites for navigating was possible, regardless any landmark blocking the way. Thus a pragmatic and georitual landscape was created.
The North Road overview (the longer outline):
Presented with the unique layout of Chaco’s roads radiating from the center it likely was a way of inscribing the Ancestral Puebloan minds onto the landscape itself. The way these people planned their settlements and built their monuments that lined up in a precise way does indeed mesh with the topographical features throughout this overall setting. For instance, consider another Great House of Chaco, Casa Rinconada. Lines radiating from this dwelling pass directly through a number of other Great Houses, including penetrating through the centers of some of the larger kivas, thereby connecting to significant landmarks in the great distance. This design is not merely coincidental. Flawless symmetrical angles and intersections were computed (added together) to the finest detail. Surveyors, as well as priests, were part of the planning; they designed the roads and structures, most likely assisted by arco astronomers who formulated a map of the cosmos overhead. Combined, these specialists in the community created the initial outline and floor plan that enabled people to accurately move along preexisting terrestrial lanes of travel. Such travel could be accomplished during time of drought, and probably without causing territorial disputes with other tribal people. These roads were thus used as convenient maps for people to follow in times of need as well as for pilgrimage.
One other notable aspect of the people utilizing the terrain, especially higher places, was for signaling. One settlement could easily stay in touch with a more distant settlement, especially to warn others of imminent danger. This was a way to let other Ancestral Puebloan communities know they were not alone. Settlements flickering to life as fires burned in the night compensated for both darkness and the distance. Most of the sites were located on average 20 to 30 miles apart. The sites were therefore a convenient network for conveying information, linking one settlement with the next in line. Even during the day it was possible to send signals that could easily be seen. This means was accomplished by knapping obsidian (volcanic glass) that flashed in the sun. Perhaps pyrite mirrors (a/k/a “fool’s gold”) were also used.
Given such broad dimensions of nocturnal open space. . .
Ancestral Puebloan sentinels were able to connect with outlying communities by doing this. . .
The Real Significance Of Chaco Canyon––Its Deign: The noteworthy aspect of Chaco's design is twofold. First, the elaborate architecture that has withstood the test of time for many centuries. Every slab of rock has been quarried and assembled, as though these builders were read from a master architect's blueprints such as is common today. Yet these people had no blueprints; they had no writing; no numbers. They had only pictographs for images left behind for others to see. But someone guided these people to build their dwellings with such preciseness and perfect solar or lunar alignment. There was indeed purpose in everything these people did.
Principles Of Archaeoastronomy: The other important aspect of Chaco's dwellings refers to the precise alignment of most of its structures. The alignment also directly relates to archaeoastronomy. Such scientific knowledge required generations of astronomical observations to skillfully and meticulously coordinate each building's construction so that it aligned with the cosmos. But where did the mathematics originate that made this possible? Some cultural scientists surmise the high degree of mathematics came from the Mayan civilization. And there are some diehard X filers who hold out for extraterrestrial schooling. But the Ancestral Puebloans were an intelligent and innovative culture that likely tapped into what humankind has always tapped into for creative genius: something abstruse from within.
Other than the flawless design of Chaco's solar and lunar-aligned dwellings, all of which is predicated on archaeoastronomy, further evidence for this empirically-based science is the famous Sun Dagger petroglyph at Fajada Butte, a prominent site rising above the canyon floor (see below). The main complexes at Chaco are Pueblo Bonito, Neuvo Alto and Kin Kletso, all of which played a vital role in Chacoan belief systems. Visitors and scholars alike agree that Chaco represents the most interesting of all archeological ruins in the Southwest. Some might even suggest the most interesting site on the planet. Certainly, the abundance of curious and functional rock art keeps one speculating about the reason this unparalleled site was built, then later abandoned. In the wake of their departure, some of the structures that were partially destroyed by the very people who built and designed this ostensible religious center in a typically dry and sandy location here in northwest New Mexico.
Chaco Canyon is probably the best example of any archaeoastronomy site on the planet. Its science involves archeological aspects, as well as stellar observations. Apart from Chaco Canyon, Colorado’s Chimney Rock, and Arizona’s Petrified National Forest are some of the more notable archeological sites where such incisive observations took place.
Today's means of star gazing:
While for Ancestral Puebloans their predictive means was by way of the naked eye:
Specifically, tracking a precise sun ray on a precise glyph:
While achieving this verification without guessing:
In the archives of archeology, archaeoastronomy is a fairly recent contributor to a science-based disciplined by means of precise observations, both solar and lunar. Originating as pagan holidays in some parts of the world, archeoastronomy survives in modern times as neopagan holidays. Those who study archeoastronomy consider all its aspects worthy and telling in both a predictive and historical sense. Relative to the above mentioned sites (among some few notable others), what we have learned about the Ancestral Puebloans thought processes has contributed invaluable cultural information, particularly in their calculating annual solstice and equinox events. These observations include intervals of cross quarters (a cross-quarter day falls approximately halfway between a solstice and an equinox).
That famous glyph and dagger also was ensconced in this world famous Chaco landmark, called Fajada Butte"
Archaeoastronomy draws on several scientific disciplines for its knowledge banks. Primarily, disciplines related to astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, psychology and epigraphy (the decoding of ancient inscriptions). As for astrology, this, too, was important in adding to the storehouse of archeoastronomy’s knowledge. Its discipline, although not scientifically-based compared to astronomy, was nonetheless integral to humankind centuries ago. That’s because myth was as dominant in ancient times as mass media is today. For many people, astrology continues to hold fascination because the planets, sun and moon have always held sway with some people’s minds and imaginations. To be sure, its many facets of study and interpretations poses a wide appeal to cultures, race, even religion. However, the subject of archeoastronomy treated in this theme supplement will focus solely on this discipline, while also admitting astrology somehow, and in some way, managed to interphase with its science. Chaco Canyon’s significance is also touted in the following exposition.
Prehistoric Human History: Somewhere between 900 and 1150, Chaco was a major focal point of culture for the Ancestral Puebloans. They came here for a specific reason. Most likely, a ceremonial center. The layout of the dwellings certainly attests to a special relationship of the temporal with the eternal, namely an interest in the cosmos by predictive means (the solstices and equinoxes). The innate purpose for a massive complex distant from populated hubs, such as today’s Canyons of the Ancients (near Cortez, Colorado) or Mesa Verde, was to establish an archeoastronomy nucleus that was compatible with Chacoan religious beliefs. It's also assumed that the Mesoamerican Mayan and/or Aztec culture had influence on the Chacoans; certainly the similarities of construction and the advanced mathematics to conceive such building plans has ties with (especially) the Mayans. Perhaps such influence also stems from the urbanism of both the Mayans or Aztecs, particularly favoring a precision for predicting equinox and solstice events. It is assumed by many cultural scientists, even most Puebloans, how there's a likely crossover of religious beliefs and attitudes that may have struck a cord with the Chacoans. Without doubt, the Mayan polity, as a small hierarchical state, may have suggested a model similar to that of the Chacoans. Apart from such persuasive cultural modeling, the Chacoans did not merely imitate and build obvious pyramidal structures as the Mayans were especially noted for. Instead, they quarried sandstone blocks and hauled, or most likely rolled, these heavy stones in place and built the great structures of this epic cultural axis point. They also harvested timber from afar, assembling fifteen major complexes in Chaco Canyon, all similar to building designs of most other structures from this era. These utter and intriguing masterpieces of architecture would also become the largest building structures in North America until the 19th Century.
An Ancestral Puebloan Four Corners migration pattern:
Innovated Building Design: Although there is no archeological evidence that clan systems ever existed during the Ancestral Puebloan’s occupation of the Four Corners region, cultural scientists have discerned enough from Chaco and its construction to lead some to believe clans were in fact assembled here. Principally, these would be the Scarlet (or "Parrot") and Kachina clans that are preserved today in the Hopi society. Whoever were the major overseers of Chaco's development, clans or otherwise, they used innovative masonry techniques for the construction of the multiple-story pueblos and Great Houses. Pueblo Bonito, the largest of these stupendous Great House structures, had over six hundred rooms and forty kivas, typifying Chaco's significance as a major ceremonial center. Building pueblo structures, especially the Great Houses, took many decades of coordinated effort to complete. Indeed, the design demonstrates a deeper understanding of the natural cycles of the Earth and its relationship to the cosmos. Many other examples of astronomical knowledge have been found in Chaco Canyon. But its layout of perfectly aligned structures is really the clue why these castles in the desert were built.
Consider, also the back wall of Pueblo Bonito is aligned on a perfect east-west axis. The precise alignment means on the Summer Solstice(June 21 or June 22), the sun passes directly over this wall.
Near the summit of Fajada Butte a crack in the rock wall is aligned with a spiral petroglyph, so that sunlight shining through the narrow opening of the this chink is perfectly centered during the moment of the solstice. Sunlight penetrating a window in nearby Pueblo Bonito also perfectly aligns with an inside corner of the building, but only during the Winter Solstice. Additionally, several petroglyphs have been found depicting astronomical events, such as the great supernova of 1054 (see below for more clarification). It’s amazing to think someone first had to notice the clockworks of the universe, as viewed from Fajada Butte, then upon computing the evidence by keen observation over the decades, build Pueblo Bonito in such a way to confirm the great celestial event, if a confirmation. It also boggles the mind the inspiration and ingenuity behind this affair.
Although Chacoan culture flourished for some four hundred years, and possibly a great deal longer, the Ancestral Puebloans left the region toward the end of the 13th Century (around 1251 and possibly as late as 1287). Several causes may have contributed to this mass emigration (a diaspora by any other name). However, the reasons why these people abandoned this thoroughly distinctive settlement remains one of the great mysteries of archeology. The same applies for why the Ancestral Puebloans departed from their homeland after having successful sustained their existence here for well over one thousand years. Nevertheless, evidence of an extended drought suggests a reasonable cause that initiated a restive cultural mindset, by which all else followed.
Thus a tradeoff for this typical Chaco desert terrain scene (then and now):
For a new country, like this (New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley):
There is also a matching theory that the Chacoans left elsewhere for a wetter climate, which is largely accepted by cultural scientists. Another theory, however, has something to do with religion but does not adequately explain what those religious concerns were. There may even have occurred a simmering social disorder or disagreement among the people (or various clans in the Ancestral Puebloan community) that finally broke out. Perhaps, too, an infectious and fatal disease had spread, including poor nutrition and iron deficiency causing anemia. Certainly, in view of some human remains of mostly women and children found at some of the ruins, a malady of some kind may have triggered a hasty departure. Cannibalism is thus sometimes suggested, though this often contentious subject (as Puebloans see the matter) is seldom mentioned by most cultural scientists, especially the park service that oversee many archeological sites throughout the Southwest.
(FYI: Even after Chaco was fully abandoned by the 13th Century there was a later revival of sorts, for people came here to repair some of the dwellings (Pueblo Bonito for one example). Then these people moved on again. Not until the 19th Century does activity resume again, which happened when Chaco was rediscovered, first by the Navajos, or perhaps initially it was the Hopis, then later archeologists.)
If you plan to visit here, and if you happen to see what appears like freebie artifacts on the ground. . .
It's bad form and bad juju to pocket any archeological artifact, even seeming throwaway stuff from the past. If you do get tempted to swipe something, keep in mind a shaman might be watching and turn you into something wholly other. . . .
Or worse. . . .
Cultural scientists have debated the matter from a variety of perspectives, and there is some consensus about Chaco's fundamental purpose in Ancestral Puebloan society. Still, there remains seeming impenetrable answers in view of Chaco Canyon's occult-like reputation. If, as some people claim, the Hopis have the answers, then it's also a given such knowledge is held in secret. Thus something to do with the clandestine affairs of certain Hopi clans that may have once served as Chaco's high priests (or similar functionaries) here at Chaco. Of course, saying this merely adds to the stealth and conundrums that have withstood prying questions over the centuries and hardly any forthcoming answers.
Geology: Geology, as I have always noted, dictates a region’s natural history, that is, if the materials of the landscape are conducive to a flourishing natural history. It follows if this is the case, then human history can be established, even where water resources are sparing and the climate is typically arid. This description especially matches Chaco Canyon’s geography.
However, there is a wash (actually, an "arroyo" in proper Southwestern terms), fittingly named the Chaco Wash.
Its conduit flows across the upper strata of the 400 foot Chacra Mesa.
Over a course of millions of years water has cut into the terrain and gouged out a broad canyon topography. The mesa is made from sandstone and shale formations dating from the Late Cretaceous Period (99 to 66 million years ago), and known as the Mesa Verde Formation. Chaco's bottomlands were further eroded, which eventually exposed a bedrock of shale subsequently buried under some 125 feet of sediment. Both the canyon and mesa are within the so-called Chaco Core, which is different from the ranging Chaco Plateau geography (itself a fairly uniform region of mostly grassland with sporadic stands of juniper and piñon pine). East of Chaco Canyon is the Continental Divide (15.5 miles), whose geological characteristics and contrasting patterns of drainage distinguish two separate regions, including the neighboring Chaco Slope (the northwestern portion of New Mexico), the Chuska Valley (close to Chaco and Chacra Mesa), and the Gobernador Slope (lies south of the San Juan Slope and drains into the San Juan River).
Because Chaco's alluvial canyon floor slopes, Pueblo Bonito, like Kin Kletso and Neuvo Alto, has elevations ranging from 6,200 to 6,440 feet. Chaco's terrain is thus noticeably bent downward to the northeast and bisected by the Chaco Wash, which is mostly dry throughout the year. There are, however, canyon aquifers, the largest located at a depth beyond the means of the original builders and inhabitants of this setting to draw its precious groundwater. Only smaller and shallower sources supported the minimal variety of springs in the region. Perennial water was therefore not an obtainable resource for the otherwise rustic and dry setting these people selected for their great complex and religious retreat. Perhaps the aridity accounts for the seasonable use of Chaco, while summer monsoonal rains were a blessing to the parched landscape. Likely, from spring-to-fall, Chaco Canyon would have realized its greatest population.
Climate At Chaco: Climate plays a major role in the American Southwest. One can also say here the sun rules with a fusion fist, as it were, on the fact precipitation is often miserly. Chaco's typical landscape is a high xeric scrubland and desert steppe (a biome, meaning a community, characterized by a mere 8 inches of rainfall annually, albeit centuries ago the amount of precipitation was more substantial. The park itself averages 9.1 inches. The low precipitation has to do with the fact Chaco Canyon sits on the leeward side of extensive mountain ranges to the south and west; indeed, affected by a rain shadow that sits in the lee of rainfall for neighboring regions. Chaco also endures striking climatic extremes, where temperatures range between -38 and 102 deg. F (-39 and 39 deg. C). Temperatures may also swing 60 deg. F (33 deg. C) in just one day! The region averages fewer than one hundred-fifty frost-free days per year, where the local climate swings wildly from years of plentiful rainfall to years of prolonged drought. The question naturally arises, “Why, then, did these people choose to build and live here?” There is uncertainty about this, though it’s thought by some cultural scientists the reason has to do with the geography of the setting, and that setting has something to do with the special archeoastronomy significance Chaco is famous for. Thus something both temporal and religious.
Flora And Fauna: Life forms of Chaco Canyon are typical of the high and sandy desert. For example, sagebrush, cactus, and a drought-resistant pygmy forest consisting of piñon pine and juniper trees. The most notable species of mammals include coyotes, mule deer, elk (at times) and pronghorn (antelope), along with bobcats, badgers, foxes and skunk. Rodents and prairie dogs are ubiquitous, as are avian species such as hawks, vultures and ravens. Snakes of many kinds, as well as lizards, also live here in abundance.
Archeoastronomy And Fajada Butte: The basis of this discipline is mentioned in this diary due to the archaeoastronomy significance of Chaco. To further address the question stated earlier, Fajada Butte's significant relationship with this science is likely the sole reason why this Ancestral Puebloan layout was originally created. In this broken mesa country, the elevated landmark rises nearly 443 feet above the canyon floor. It's also one of the more prominent features for miles around. Analysis of pottery shards found here show that these structures were used between the 900s and 1200s. What's so special about this butte is what the famous sun dagger petroglyph reveals: the position of the sun on specific and key days throughout the year. Remains of the ramp leading to the petroglyph are still evident on the southwestern face. The magnitude of the ramp-building project, although not relating to an obvious utilitarian purpose, indicates the considerable ceremonial importance this prominent and squared landmark had for its star-minded observers. The sun dagger site is also the most famous feature of Chaco relevant to archeoastronomy and the cosmological significance of why these people chose to build their complex in such an isolated setting.
The hallmark of this celebrated glyph is located at a southeastern-facing precipice near the top of the butte. There, three relatively large stone slabs lean against the cliff, channeling light and shadow markings onto two spiral petroglyphs inscribed on the wall. At about 11:15 a.m. on the Summer Solstice (between June 20 and 23), a dagger-shaped light image pierces the larger of the two spirals. Similar sun daggers mark the Winter Solstice and both equinoxes. At one extreme in the moon's 18-to-19-year cycle, called the lunar minor standstill, a shadow bisects the larger spiral. This event happens just as the moon rises, while at the other extreme, and precisely 9.5 years later, the lunar major standstill is highlighted, wherein the shadow of the rising moon falls on the left edge of the larger spiral. In each case, these shadows align with precision grooves that are part of the spiral design. At two other sites on Fajada Butte, and located a short distance below the sun dagger site, five other petroglyphs are also marked by visually compelling patterns of shadow and light, indicating solar noon, and distinctively occurring during the solstices and equinoxes. It’s apparent these star gazers had acquired an amazing knowledge, possibly even long before the architects arrived and built the Chaco complex. It also takes countless generations of keen-minded observers to track the cosmos and figure out what the changing light and shadows on select days indicates. The knowledge to predict such science is nothing less than extraordinary. Indeed, the meticulous instruments, in this case the stone slabs and their alignments with the petroglyphs, are in themselves amazing products of human ingenuity.
For these people this is where they first searched to balance their lives in temporality:
Bonus Details: Access to Fajada Butte in the 1980s was closed due to the delicate nature of the site, but also following damage and erosion caused by tourism. Fortunately, my first time visiting Chaco, in the early 1970s, provided an opportunity for me to see the sun dagger site. Who could have predicted such a misfortunate and minor earthquake event that damaged this valuable glyph?
Nevertheless, the site has historically proved invaluable, as well as just about everything else Chaco Canyon offers. For instance, scholarly studies by the Solstice Project indicate that the major buildings of the ancient Chacoan culture of New Mexico also entails solar and lunar cosmology in three separate articulations: the orientation of Chaco’s structures, internal geometry, and geographic interrelationships that were developed in relationship to the cycles of the sun and moon. From this evidence it’s apparent Chaco’s inhabitants directed their lives, at least their religious ideals, using such knowledge. Otherwise, we have only the modern day Puebloans (the cultural successors of the Ancestral Puebloans), particularly the Hopis, to suggest what religious significance the cosmos had for their ancestors. On the other hand, Hopis are reticent about betraying too much of their culture's spiritual or religious insight. This general rule equally applies to most of the other Puebloan tribes (number twenty-one sovereign nations).
Principle Ruins: The Chacoans built their site along a 9-mile-stretch of hard-packed canyon floor, with the walls of some structures aligned cardinally, while others align with the 18.6-year-cycle relative to minimum and maximum moonrise and moonset. At the base of massive sandstone mesas, nine Great Houses are positioned along the north side of Chaco Wash. Other similar structures of prominent importance and design are found on mesa tops or in nearby washes and drainage areas. Altogether, there are fourteen recognized Great Houses. These, the more important structures of Chaco, are grouped below according to geographic positioning within the canyon. Chaco's smaller kivas numbered around one hundred, each hosting rituals for fifty to one hundred worshipers; the fifteen much larger Great Kivas each hosted up to four hundred people. Kivas, incidentally, were only open to males, while females had their own special ceremonies in other dwellings throughout the Chaco complex. (Today’s Puebloans also deem certain activities for either males or females.)
The central portion of Chaco Canyon contains the largest dwellings. The most studied is Pueblo Bonito (meaning "beautiful village"). This site covers almost two acres. It's plainly the largest Great House in the complex, as well as in the region. Built like a gigantic beehive, and possibly replicated from such, its single, half-moon-shaped design is larger than most contemporary skyscrapers. The builders use of core-and-veneer architecture and multistory construction entailed massive masonry walls up to 3 feet thick. This major pueblo is divided into two main sections by a wall precisely aligned to run north-south, bisecting the central plaza. A Great Kiva was placed on either side of the wall, creating a symmetrical pattern common to many Chacoan Great Houses. Originally, Pueblo Bonito was four stories high and contained over seven hundred rooms, possibly as many as eight hundred. It also contained an amazing thirty-six kivas. In its longest dimension, the structure measures 492 feet. It was one of the two largest structures in the Chacoan cultural region. Notably, its semicircular shape is unique among Chacoan buildings. Some cultural scientists think the scale of this complex upon completion rivaled that of Rome's Colosseum.
Pueblo Bonito's Colosseum from high above:
Nearby is Pueblo del Arroyo (Spanish for" town of the gully," while to the Navajo it means "home beside water's edge"). The pueblo was planned and constructed in two short stages from about 1026 to 1126 and sits at a drainage outlet known as South Gap. Its most unique feature, the tri-wall (which has a single tree-ring date of 1109), suggests a connection with the northern populations of the Animas region. As with other tri-wall structures, its function is uncertain.
Almost directly across from Pueblo Bonito, Casa Rinconada is a great subterranean kiva that sits to the south side of Chaco Wash. Its structure is also next to a Chacoan road leading to a set of steep stairs extending to the top of Chacra Mesa. With its numerous T-shaped windows and doorways, Casa Rinconada is constructed like a massive stone compass. These openings are like eyelets intended for alignment during seasonal changes. (Indeed, Chaco’s Great Houses appear to have been specifically designed to function as architectural calendars marking these four major seasonal events. Such precision to the finest details demonstrates how the sun or moon casts light into and through certain rooms by way of the windows and doorways. Some of the dwellings are also oriented toward the 18.6-year lunar standstill cycle, while others are aligned toward the spring and fall equinoxes.) Casa Rinconada’s sole kiva stands alone with no residential or support structures whatsoever. At one time it had a 39-foot (12 m) passageway leading from the underground kiva to several above-ground levels.
Lunar standstill between Colorado's "Chimney Rocks" archeological site:
Chetro Ketl, also located near Pueblo Bonito, is another famous Chacoan structure that bears the typical D-shape of many other central complexes, but is slightly smaller. Begun between 1021 and 1051, its 450 to as many as 500 rooms shared one Great Kiva. Experts estimate that it took nearly thirty thousand man-hours to erect this structure. (The derivative of this name might mean rain pueblo, or else it's the Navajo translation of corner house.) Some industrious archeologist also estimated that its construction took five thousand trees and fifty million stone blocks.
Kin Kletso ("Yellow House") was a medium-sized complex located 0.5 miles west of Pueblo Bonito. It shows strong evidence of construction and occupation by inhabitants from the northern San Juan Basin. Its rectangular shape and design are related to the Pueblo II Era cultural group, rather than the Pueblo III style or its Chacoan variant. It contained around 55 rooms, four ground-floor kivas, and a two-story cylindrical tower that may have functioned as a religious center. Evidence of an obsidian-processing industry was discovered near the village, which was erected between 1126 and 1131.
Pueblo Alto, another Great House with 89 rooms, is located on a mesa top near the middle of Chaco Canyon, 0.6 miles from Pueblo Bonito. Its structure was begun between 1021 and 1051 during a wider building boom throughout the canyon. The location of Pueblo Alto made the community visible to most of the inhabitants of the San Juan Basin; indeed, it was only 2.3 miles north of Tsin Kletsin, on the opposite side of the canyon. The residing community lived at the center of a bead-and turquoise-processing industry that influenced the development of all the villages in the canyon. Chert (a silica-rich micro fibrous sedimentary rock) tool production was also common. This particular site suggests that only a handful of families, perhaps as few as five to twenty, lived in the complex. This small number may imply this pueblo served a primarily nonresidential role.
Yet another Great House, Nuevo Alto, was built on the north mesa near Pueblo Alto, founded in the late 1100s during a time when the Chacoan population was declining.
Outliers––The Other Sector Of Chaco's Singular Layout: In Chaco Canyon's northern reaches, there lies another cluster of Great Houses. Among the largest are Casa Chiquita (meaning small house), a village built in the 1080s when Chacoan culture was expanding and during a period of ample rainfall. This pueblo's layout features a smaller, squarer profile; it also lacks the open plazas and separate kivas of its predecessors. Larger, squarer blocks of stone were used in the masonry, and kivas were designed in the northern Mesa Verde tradition. Located 2 miles down the canyon is Penasco Blanco (meaning white bluff). This arc-shaped compound was built on top of the canyon's southern rim in five distinct stages between 901and 1121. A cliff painting (the "Supernova Platograph") nearby may record the sighting of the epic supernova of 1054.
It was said the supernova's light was so bright it was possible to read by it (that is, for those who had reading material):
More Bonus Details: On July 4, 1054, Chinese astronomers were the first to note a guest star in the constellation Taurus. This engaging and mysterious light in the night's sky was about four times brighter than Venus during its brightest light, and was even visible in daylight for twenty-three days. The Chacoans were compelled to record it, as did other North American tribes. Europeans, however, ignored it because it was dubbed heresy by the Catholic Church to consider any star brighter or more important than our own sun. But the Ancestral Puebloans were an astute people and recorded this stupendous event now preserved as a famous Chaco glyph:
Directions: From the north, turn on US 550 at County Road (hereafter, CR) 7900 3 miles (4.8 km) southeast of Nageezi and about 50 miles (80 km) west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). The route from 550 to the park boundary is 21 miles (33 km) and includes 8 miles (12.8 km) of paved road (CR 7900) and 13 miles (21 km) of rough dirt road (CR 7950). From the south, there are two routes to Chaco from Hwy. 9 (between Crownpoint, Pueblo Pintado and Cuba). Both routes vary from very rough-to-impassable and are not recommended for low clearance vehicles or RVs. If traveling from Hwy. 57 (which is listed Hwy. 14 on some older maps), this turnoff is located on Hwy. 9 and is 13 miles (21 km) east of Hwy. 371 (at the former Seven Lakes Trading Post this includes 20 miles/32 km). If traveling from Pueblo Pintado, turn north on Navajo 46 for 10 miles (16 km). After this rough dirt stretch, turn left on CR 7900 for 7 miles (11 km), then left on CR 7950. From there follow the signs 16 miles (26 km) to the park entrance).
Caution: Both the northern and southern routes include, respectively, 13, 20, and 33 miles of unpaved roads (21, 32 and 53 km). Although these sections of road are infrequently maintained, they are sometimes impassable during inclement weather. For current road conditions call the park: 505-786.7014
Watch for these signs––both approaching and spent storms over Chaco:
Contact Information: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, P. O. Box 220, Nageezi NM 87037. Phone (Visitor Center): 505-786-7014. Fax 786-7061. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)