PUBLISHED IN: Americas; American History; American Road; Civilization; Coastal Living; Compass; Friendly Exchange; Gateways; Hispanic; Historic Traveler; Literary Trips; Marie Claire; Native Peoples; Persimmon Hill; Porthole; Preservation; Reader's Digest; Smithsonian American Indian; South American Explorer; TravelAge West; Travelers' Tales; Westways.
SPECIALTIES: Cross-cultural topics; historic and literary travel; environmental issues; arts and culture; Latin American destinations.
AWARDS: Lowell Thomas gold: Best Environmental Tourism Article, 2005
Chaco Canyon: Uncovering Ancient Architecture
by Joyce Gregory Wyels
Few signs of human habitation greet travelers along the road that leads to New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. The desolate landscape appears incapable of supporting life.
Yet one thousand years ago an enigmatic people not only wrested a living from this harsh environment, they established a civilization that still evokes awe. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which recognized the Chaco culture in 1987, pronounced it “remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture – it has an ancient urban ceremonial centre that is unlike anything constructed before or since.”
Chaco Canyon, abandoned by its builders some eight centuries ago, still tantalizes archaeologists and others with riddles involving its one-time inhabitants. Last year, in one of two newsworthy events, clues from ancient pottery resolved a mystery that had baffled scientists for decades.
Scholars had puzzled over a collection of tall, cylindrical pottery vessels that were found in abundance in Pueblo Bonito, the extensively excavated Great House in the heart of the canyon. Educated guesses as to their use ranged from drums to containers for sacred objects. But when anthropologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico had some pottery fragments tested chemically, their function became clear: chocolate residue dating from 1000 A.D. indicated that these were ritual drinking cups much like those once used by the Maya.
The discovery meant that cacao beans used for making chocolate had reached the U.S. Southwest long before the Spanish brought chocolate north with them. Furthermore, transporting cacao from its place of origin in the tropics to Chaco Canyon would have raised both its cost and its prestige value. Just as Mesoamericans prized chocolate as an elite ceremonial beverage, the extravagant drink seemed destined for a privileged class in Pueblo Bonito.
That premise jibes with previous discoveries like the burial site of two individuals whose possessions (and possible retainers) buried with them suggest great wealth and status. Nor is chocolate the first evidence of trade with Mesoamerica. At Salmon Ruin, a Chaco colony forty-five miles north of the canyon, archaeologist Larry Baker tells of finding bird bones among some refuse in a storage room. “When we had them identified, we learned that they were from two macaws,” he says. “One set of bones had been painted.”
Many more macaws, along with abalone shell, turquoise, and copper bells, have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The presence of tropical macaws, like the traces of chocolate, points to trade with cultures far to the south. Even earlier, corn had arrived from Mexico to supplement a diet of game animals and wild plants.
The second item to make the news last year was the publication of Stephen H. Lekson’s wide-ranging, provocative new study of the region, “A History of the Ancient Southwest.” In this breezily written work Lekson presents two parallel narratives: one his interpretation of the rise and demise of the Chaco Culture and its contemporaries; the second a survey of the personalities and worldviews that have shaped Southwestern archaeology.
So remote is Chaco Canyon that it was almost the turn of the last century before the American Museum of Natural History sent an expedition to excavate in Pueblo Bonito. Given the “Wild West” atmosphere of the era, early pot hunters often dug through ancient ruins with more enthusiasm than care.
Prominent among these explorers was amateur archaeologist Richard Wetherill, who set up camp in the ruins of Pueblo Bonito, where he later operated a trading post, and homesteaded the surrounding land.
“You can still see where the smoke from his campfire discolored the sandstone,” says Larry Baker, pointing to one of the back walls of the massive complex. Baker recounts Wetherill’s shipping of boxcar-loads of artifacts to the east coast, where they were distributed to American and European museums. But he credits Wetherill with bringing “recognition of the importance of these sites so they would be protected and preserved.” Chaco Canyon was proclaimed a National Monument in 1907 and “Chaco Culture National Historical Park” in 1980. Wetherill is buried in a small cemetery west of Pueblo Bonito.
A dramatic rock formation, more than four hundred feet high, marks the entrance to the National Park. Until the practice was banned a few years ago, hikers scaled Fajada Butte to view the phenomenon known as the “Sun Dagger”: during the summer solstice, a vertical shaft of light bisects a spiral petroglyph carved into the cliff face behind three upright slabs of rock. Similar plays of light mark the winter solstice as well as the equinoxes and lunar standstills, the latter occurring only once every eighteen years. The Chacoans’ grasp of archeoastronomy, already evident in the alignment of their buildings, was cemented in 1977 by Anna Sofaer’s discovery of this ingenious seasonal calendar.
Until 1941, another spire known as “Threatening Rock” towered ninety-seven feet over the ruins of Pueblo Bonito. “The Chacoans were aware of it,” says Baker. “They tried to shore it up.” But even as scientists debated the best way to protect the complex, the rock toppled over, crashing into the upper stories and destroying several rooms. Baker, scrambling over the jumbled rock, concedes, “It makes a good viewing platform.”
Despite the ravages of time and neglect, Pueblo Bonito impresses onlookers. The D-shaped site covers almost two acres (8,000 square meters), and at its height contained 650 or more rectangular rooms, with plazas and round kivas (communal structures) inserted among them. “Core and veneer” architecture—rough stones or debris encased in facing stones—helped support walls that rose to three or four stories. In some places the ground-floor walls are three feet thick, narrowing as they reach the upper floors. Wide bands of rock alternate with narrow bands in a pleasing pattern that became more refined through successive stages of building.
Even so, says Baker’s colleague Nancy Espinoza, plaster covered the outside surfaces,. “They would go to such lengths to build these walls,” she says. “From picking up the first rocks to laying the last layer of plaster they’re modifying stone, carrying wood from fifty miles away, building grandiose rooms way taller than they need--all these labor-intensive, elaborate things.” She pauses. “In my view it’s a statement of their beliefs.”
“Everything is overbuilt,” observes Baker. “This is monumental architecture. From an engineering perspective, it’s greater than it needs to be in terms of load-bearing and stress.” Among other functions, Chaco Canyon may have served as a food distribution center in an area where rainfall is unpredictable and highly localized. “They can provide people with the food to support grandiose construction,” suggests Baker. “They want these buildings to be large and seen at a distance: ‘This is who we are. We are special. Our architecture shows that we are special.’”
Baker’s statements support Stephen Lekson’s views of a hierarchical society with clearly differentiated housing: “Great Houses” with high-status buildings on one side of the canyon, and small, modest “unit pueblos” on the other. The Great Houses remained the largest buildings in the present-day United States until the 1870s. Yet early accounts of Chaco’s Great Houses describe them simply as “multifamily dwellings.”
“Some archaeologists see the canyon as a collection of pueblos, like modern pueblos,” says Lekson. “Other people, like me, say no, it was different. They’re the ancestors of the Pueblo People--there’s no question about that--but their past was not exactly the same as the present. Chaco was a city with some fairly important people living there.”
Starting about 1930, tree-ring dating enabled dendrochronologists to determine the construction dates of ancient buildings. Thanks to Chaco’s dry climate, the roof beams from logs cut hundreds of years ago have been preserved, and the distinctive patterns formed by the tree rings provide a record of growth up to the year the tree was cut.
As the technology progressed, a clearer picture emerged of building sequences in the canyon. Pueblo Bonito, one of the Great Houses originally built in the late 800s, was enlarged in several stages, according to plan. About one hundred years later, Pueblo Bonito’s next-door neighbor, Chetro Ketl, took shape. By 1050, a dozen Great Houses in Chaco Canyon were connected to similar structures throughout the region. Population estimates range from 2000-5000 in the canyon and several times that in the surrounding area. The building boom continued until 1125.
Still, many mysteries persist. How much control did high status individuals have over the daily lives of other people? How much, if anything, did they know of the great civilizations in Mexico? Why did the system fail? Where did they go? In the museum at the park entrance, a display labeled “Unknowns” poses these and similar questions. “Nothing about Chaco is simple,” says Nancy Espinosa.
Though Chetro Ketl has been only about thirty percent excavated, it suggests a major gathering place to rival Pueblo Bonito. One of the largest and most important of the great kivas, capable of holding 450 people, fronts Chetro Ketl. “The niches in the wall of the kiva contained ceremonial objects,” says Espinosa. “One niche contained approximately ten thousand small pieces of turquoise.” Most likely a ceremonial hub, Chetro Ketl also incorporates limited residential space—“a little like the Vatican,” explains Espinosa.
An even better view of the canyon can be obtained by climbing to the top of the mesa behind Pueblo Bonito. The major set of ruins here, Pueblo Alto, was constructed between 1020 and 1050. Several Chacoan roads converge at Pueblo Alto, among them the Great North Road. This too, according to Baker, was overbuilt. “The Chacoans had no wheeled carts, no beasts of burden,” he says. “Yet in some areas the Great North Road is nine meters (thirty feet) wide. That’s larger than it needs to be to accommodate foot traffic.”
Remote sensing instruments reveal some four hundred miles of broad, straight roads, many of which led toward outlying communities. Two of these outliers--Salmon Ruin, named for a later homesteader, and Aztec, its name a misnomer bestowed by nineteenth-century pioneers--support a theory espoused by Lekson in his 1999 book, “The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest.” In it he posits strong connections between Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins, and Paquimé, far to the south in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico.
Though not everyone is persuaded, Lekson finds more than coincidence in the placement of these three major centers along a north-south line that follows closely 108 degrees longitude. He has since identified unique sites from earlier time periods that lie along the same meridian: “The biggest by far, most interesting sites with the weirdest architecture are all on that line.”
According to Lekson, Chacoans followed the North Road to Salmon, which was built on the banks of the San Juan River between 1088 and 1100. But perhaps finding that river too powerful for the irrigation technology of the time, they continued to Aztec, a little farther north on the Animas River.
Lekson describes the 400-room West Ruin at Aztec, completed about 1130, as “the single biggest building event. There are bigger buildings at Chaco but they took a couple of centuries to finish.” Besides exploring the West Ruin, visitors today descend into the great kiva restored by archaeologist Earl Morris in 1934.
Lekson notes that Aztec’s rise to power in 1110 to 1275 coincided with the decline of Chaco. In 1250 to 1450 the center shifted to Paquimé, which shows strong influences from the south as well as features characteristic of Chaco.
At first glance, there’s little at Paquimé to remind the casual visitor of Chaco. Unlike the stone masonry of Chacoan Great Houses, Paquimé was built of adobe. But Lekson points to Aztec Ruins as an intermediate site: though the builders worked mostly with stone, adobe was also used as a building material. At Paquimé, the adobe has not fared well; the tall buildings that once characterized this site have dissolved to a maze of smooth truncated walls.
Paquimé, like Chaco Canyon a UNESCO World Heritage site, was the major trading center of its era in the “Gran Chichimeca”—now northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. “There really are strong material connections between Paquimé and Chaco and Aztec,” says Lekson. The most obvious feature is its T-shaped doors. “In Chaco’s time there were T-shaped doors only at Chaco; in Aztec’s time they were all over the north; and in Paquimé’s time they’re not up north anymore but they’re all over the south, up in the cliff dwellings in the Sierra Madre.”
Even more impressive are the links to Mesoamerica. Paquimé’s ball courts, religious symbols, innovative water systems, and sophisticated urban planning led Charles di Peso, who first excavated at Paquimé, to conclude that the northern Mexico site was an outpost of Mesoamerica.
Though only partially excavated, Paquimé has yielded a bounty of fourteenth-century treasures. ??Among the ruins is the “Casa de las Guacamayas,” its macaw breeding pens evidence that tropical macaws were actually bred in this desert environment. More than five hundred parrot burials have been found at Paquimé. Besides the birds’ images on pottery and kiva wall murals, the tail feathers of the macaw were highly valued for their use in religious ceremonies.
Inside the modern museum, more surprises await: turquoise from the north, copper from the west, and thousands of sea shells from as far away as the coast of Baja California. Musical instruments—whistles, rattles, trumpet and güiro—show the importance of music in the lives of Paquimé residents. Centuries later, their fine pottery would provide inspiration for the nearby pottery town of Mata Ortiz.
But the people of Paquimé met a violent end. Attacked by unknown enemies in the mid-1400s, hundreds of people perished when their city was destroyed by fire. Breeding macaws and turkeys were left to die in their pens. The destruction may signal a revolt a