In 1999, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico,
South of Farmington, is reached by driving highway 44 and turning
south onto first 7900 and then 7950,
a dirt road which after a rainfall can be nearly impassable without either all-wheel or 4-wheel drive vehicles with good clearance. When the
visitor enters the actual historic park, the road turns magically to pavement
and you find a nice campground, visitor center with bookstore and water.
From the visitor center, a one-way, 4 mile, loop road takes you to many
of the sites, most with paved trails
(r) to view the various elements of the Chacoan life. For
most of those sites, you will encounter few other visitors as it is isolated and not easy to reach-- especially when it rains.
At the more remote sites, where you can cross a creek
(r) or two and make a 3 mile hike-- flowers along
the trail to Pueblo Blanco, Pueblo
Blanco-- open doorway, and
wall -- you may be fortunate enough to be alone, to hear and
feel the wind blowing and perhaps ever so faintly the sounds of the people
of long ago. What do you hear? (p)
Can you feel the presence of those who lived, loved and died here so many
hundred years ago?
About 800 AD a people began to build cities in Chaco. The cities encompassed religious, economic and strategic features which enabled quite a beautiful set of buildings to grow and spread across the flat canyon bottom and up onto the rims. Some of the cities appear to have been more oriented toward the support of agriculture, as the people grew corn and other crops Other cities apparently were directed toward government and religious features. For 300 years, Chaco had major influence on a wide region with 400 miles of more or less straight roads and outlying cities that varied in their own complexity and size. The architecture is beautiful and some of their feats pretty amazing given the times. Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Bonito, doorways at Pueblo Bonito The reason for the roads is uncertain but may have been part of the pueblo world view, possibly serving ritual purposes. They are still visible today from the air.
To get to the cities, the fields or the water in Chaco Wash from the top of the bluff at ruins like Pueblo Alto required ways down steep cliffs. Sometimes these look like stairways cut into the rock and other times were natural cracks which are still used today to reach the top. On the rim (r) The way down can appear steep and scary to some... or exciting (p) to others...
There have been many speculations regarding the ruins throughout the Southwest. From the first time I entered a ruin to the last, the thinking has evolved. At one time early Pueblo living was presented as being nearly Edenic. Today there is thinking that it might have had warlike elements and possibly even cannibalism.
The thing that fascinates people is that these beautiful, often 3 or more story buildings were created, then seemingly abruptly abandoned after 300 years of occupation, of building and growing. Throughout the Southwest, you see these type of dwellings like this one at Casa Rinconda and the abrupt cessation of living in them. Catastophic weather changes could be the answer but was that all?
To know what life was like in the time of Chaco, is just guessing based on the Hopi and Pueblo peoples who still live in the area in similar dwellings with similar features, but it's a pretty likely guess. Pueblo social life at Chaco likely took place in the plaza and the kivas. The rooms where people lived were usually small as most living took place outside. Some of the buildings were built in front of others and, of course, on top of. The walls, like these at Chetro Ketl, still sometimes reach 3 stories. When the original wooden latillas, vigas or support posts are still in place, it has enabled carbon dating for determining the age of the buildings. There were some rooms where it is likely weaving or corn grinding or other community needs were accomplished. Some rooms were store rooms. In front of a Chacoan door (r)
The kivas, round rooms of usually single or double story, were most likely places of worship, used for ceremonial rituals that took the pueblo people through their year. Each pueblo has several small ones which might have been used by various clans for personal or small group times. Most have at least one great kiva which could serve the whole community. Kivas traditionally have a standard set of features. Above a great kiva at Pueblo Bonito (r) The great kivas, like this one above at Chetro Ketl and this one at Pueblo Bonito, have their features aligned on a north/south axis. At Casa Rinconda, they are within one degree of true North which likely might've been done as solstice markers. The Chacoans appear to have had a knowledge of astronomy indicated by this construction, their pictographs at the Super Nova site, and at a site on nearby Fajita Butte which used the sun to determine seasonal changes.
The masonry examples can be pretty impressive, very beautiful and quite effective to allow buildings like these at Kin Kletso to rise several stories and still be standing nearly 800 years after having been abandoned.
This is not from the past but an interesting example of Chaco Canyon. I opened the door to an outhouse and saw this little fellow. It is not a rattlesnake, but it could've been just as easily. He was as afraid of me as I was startled by him.