Metropolitan Chaco

Nice long article on Chaco from the Albuquerque Journal. mjh

My Chaco site:
My Outliers site:

Ancient timbers stretch over a section of Chetro Ketl, second largest of Chaco Canyon's 11 major pueblos. The 500-room structure was built in phases between A.D. 883 and 1117. photo by Richard PipesABQjournal: Metropolitan Chaco By James Abarr

A capsule look at six major sites easily accessed from a paved, nine-mile loop road through the center of Chaco Canyon:

UNA VIDA: A largely unexcavated pueblo near the Visitor Center, where the loop road begins. Estimated to contain 150 rooms and five kivas. Tree-ring samples place the start of construction in A.D. 850.

HUNGO PAVI: A medium-size pueblo of 73 rooms and two kivas. Tree-ring dates show that the dwelling was built in stages from A.D. 943 to 1047.

CHETRO KETL: Second largest pueblo in Chaco Canyon with 500 rooms and 12 kivas, including rare tower kivas, built in the shape of the letter “E” around broad central plazas. Construction phases date from A.D. 883 to 1117.

PUEBLO BONITO: Largest of the Chaco communities. This massive D-shaped structure, extending over more than three acres of ground, contains 650 rooms and 32 kivas built around two plazas. Constructed in phases from A.D. 828 to 1103, the pueblo was four stories high in places.

PUEBLO DEL ARROYO: A partially excavated pueblo on the banks of Chaco Wash with 284 rooms and 14 kivas. Tree-ring dates place start of construction in A.D. 1052.

CASA RINCONADA: One of the largest kivas, or subterranean ceremonial chamber, ever found in the Southwest. What archaeologists call a “Great Kiva,” it measures 62 feet in diameter and was constructed in A.D. 1054. Features include an encircling masonry bench, antechambers, a large raised firebox and floor vaults.

OTHER MAJOR CHACO SITES: Include Peñasco Blanco, Casa Chiquita, Kin Kletso, Tsin Kletsin, Wijiji and Pueblo Alto, built atop the north rim of the canyon. All date from about A.D. 900 to 1100 and are accessible by foot trails of varying distances.

If you go

WHAT: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior; telephone (505) 786-7014.

WHERE: In northwest New Mexico. Best access route from Albuquerque is I-25 to Bernalillo and U.S. 550 to County Road 7900, 50 miles west of Cuba. Turn left, route to the park (21 miles) is clearly marked on paved CR-7900, five miles, and CR-7950, 16 miles of dirt road to park boundary.

HOURS: Visitor Center, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. However, park trails and campground remain open year-round.

FEES: $8 per vehicle.


Visitor Center has an information desk, museum, theater, book store and gift shop. Picnic tables with shade shelters are provided nearby.

Nine-mile paved loop road through the canyon passes the ruins of Una Vida, Hungo Pave, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo del Arroyo and Casa Rinconada. Self-guiding trails available at each site.

Four back-country hiking trails provide access to other major ruins. Permits required. These are free and are available at the Visitor Center.

Gallo Campground, one mile east of the Visitor Center, offers camping in a picturesque area of petroglyphs, a cliff dwelling and high-desert landscape. There are 48 well-equipped campsites available on a first-come basis at $10 a night. Camping limited to seven days.

Trailers and RVs more than 30 feet long cannot be accommodated.

Read the full article …

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK— It seems unlikely that a narrow canyon cutting through the remote high desert of northwest New Mexico could have once reigned as the cultural and spiritual center of a remarkable prehistoric Indian civilization.

Yet, more than 1,000 years ago, this shallow rift in the lonely landscape of the San Juan Basin was home to perhaps 8,000 Anasazi. They were an extraordinary people of many skills who fashioned great stone pueblos and kivas, or underground ceremonial chambers. They excelled at dryland farming, engineered a vast road system and established a far-flung trading network.

As a result, Chaco Canyon became a ceremonial, commercial and administrative hub serving dozens of outlying settlements. It was a society that reached a level of achievement that one researcher described as “the highest expression of prehistoric Indian culture.”

Today, reminders of the Anasazi presence extend for 20 miles along the floor of the canyon, one of the richest archaeological treasures in North America. Set aside as a national monument in 1907, Chaco, 40 miles southeast of Farmington, was redesignated as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in 1980.

In 1987, the park was selected as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. The designation places Chaco Canyon on a select list of protected areas “whose outstanding and common resources form the common inheritance of all mankind.”

For more than a century, scores of archaeologists and others in related scientific fields have excavated and studied the Chaco ruins, seeking to piece together what they call “The Chaco Phenomenon.”

It’s an enduring puzzle that may never be fully solved. As one question is answered by the archaeological evidence, a dozen more are raised.

Even so, researchers have established that as early as 6000 B.C., nomadic hunters and gatherers roamed the canyon in search of deer, elk and edible plants. Geological evidence suggests that in that long ago time, Chaco was a greener place with more timber and grass. Sufficient water was provided by a stream (Chaco Wash) that today— except in periods of heavy rains— is little more than a trickle.

By about 500 B.C., with the introduction of corn and other seed crops from what is now Mexico, the hunters and gatherers of Chaco exchanged their nomadic ways for the more sendentary life of farming. The first pithouse settlements appeared, and crops were cultivated in the canyon bottom.

Over succeeding centuries, life evolved as pithouses— shelters dug into the earth and covered with roofs of twigs, grass and dirt— gave way to one-story surface dwellings of stone. Population increased as more and more nomadic clans settled in the canyon.

Then, in about A.D. 850, the Anasazi made a giant leap forward as they embarked on The Chaco Phenomenon. It was a sudden flowering of a civilization that endured for more than 300 years, and then, just as abruptly, it was gone.

In a span from A.D. 825 to 1175, Chaco Canyon was transformed from a community of pithouses and one-story stone surface dwellings into a complex of elaborate pueblos containings hundreds of rooms and many kivas. Some rose to four stories high. They were not built in a haphazard fashion. Evidence indicates they were carefully planned and engineered by builders of amazing skill.

Cities of stone

Using techniques that were unique for their time, the Anasazi constructed their stone communities with walls of carefully crafted core-and-veneer masonry. This process employs a thick inner core of small stone rubble and a veneer of sculptured facing stones set in heavy mud mortar. A finishing coat of plaster was usually applied.

Construction of each of the 11 major Chaco pueblos, or “Great Houses” as archaeologists call them, required millions of pieces of shaped and fitted stones. Door frames, windows and roof beams consumed thousands of feet of timber cut in mountain ranges as far as 50 miles away and carried to the canyon.

These impressive structures, representing a tremendous investment in labor and perseverence, were not built as a single project, but were constructed in stages over many decades.

Dr. Gregory Schaaf, a scholar in Indian cultures, wrote:

“The architectural engineering and artistic skill of these prehistoric builders is enhanced by the realization that they worked without metal tools or precision instruments.”

To provide communication, the Anasazi constructed a network of more than 400 miles of roads to link the Chaco towns with dozens of outlaying communities that dotted the land in a wide circle around the canyon.

As a National Park Service archaeologist noted:

“These roads were not simple trails worn by centuries of foot travel. They were engineered and planned and represent a significant amount of labor investment in their construction and maintenance.”

There also were elevated structures which researchers believe were line-of-sight signaling stations for rapid communication between the canyon pueblos.

Astronomy also played a role in the lives of the Anasazi. Rays of the sun and moon striking special notches carved in portals and corner windows of the pueblos served as a celestial calendar to mark the spring and fall equinox. Thus the Anasazi could mark the change in seasons and establish proper times for the planting and harvesting of crops and the conducting of religious ceremonies.

Innovative farmers

In agricultural pursuits, the Anasazi were innovative dryland farmers. They tamed their desert environment with an irrigation system of reservoirs, canals and diversion dams to trap rain and snow runoff and divert waters of the once-wetter Chaco Wash to produce crops of corn, beans, squash and cotton.

Even so, the fickleness of weather at the canyon’s elevation of 6,000 feet made farming a chancy undertaking.

As archaeologists Robert and Florence Lister explained, one year could be wet with abundant rain; the next could be bone dry. One growing season could be long; the next one short.

To further their economy, the Anasazi established a trading network with other cultures over a vast area.

Chaco craftsmen processed turquoise from distant mines and seashells from the faraway Pacific into necklaces, bracelets and pendants. Copper bells and brilliant parrot feathers from Mexico have been found in the Chaco ruins.

Although Chaco artisans produced some pottery, they obtained many bowls, vases and other pieces in trade with other prehistoric people.

As the population of the canyon grew, a complex social and religious structure evolved.

Acutely aware of their dependence on nature, the Anasazi sought divine help from a host of benevolent gods in elaborate rituals in the sacred kivas. Scores of these circular subterranean chambers dot the Great Houses and the smaller sites.

As historian David Lavender wrote: “Mostly, the kiva was the domain of men, but women could enter to bring food, observe ceremonies or socialize. They were essentially religious in purpose and a place which provided an approach for the kachinas, the spirits of the Earth. They also contained the sipapu, the symbolic hole in the Earth that represented the people’s place of emergence into the upper world.”

Ethnologists believe Chaco society also was structured in a clear division of specialists. There were town officials and religious leaders, craftsmen, stonecutters, builders, merchants, farmers, hunters and laborers.

A society dissolves

Then, after centuries of growth, this highly evolved culture began to dissolve.

Although other factors may have played a role, archaeologists theorize that the crowning blow was a 60-year drought which impacted the region from A.D. 1130 to 1190.

Writing in their major work, “The Archaeology and Archaeologists of Chaco Canyon,” Robert and Florence Lister noted:

“Such a lengthy, widespread lack of moisture would have brought dire consequences to the area. The Chaco system was capable of coping with short-term periods of dryness, but it could not sustain itself over a 60-year span of moisture deficiency.

“This may have triggered divisive undercurrents,” the Listers wrote. “The social fabric must have steadily eroded under the pressure of food shortages. The entire society was faced with the grim specter of debilitating hunger.”

Another catalyst in the Anasazi decline was a canyon soil choked with alkalai after continuous farming through the centuries. In addition, timber sources had been depleted and the forest receded. Many kinds of animals important to the Anasazi livelihood retreated with it.

Said the Listers: “It was a slow but gradual disintegration.”

Over the closing decades of the late 12th century, the Anasazi, in growing numbers, simply walked away from their great pueblos in search of a place that could sustain their way of life. By the early 1200s, Chaco Canyon lay abandoned.

Some of the refugees traveled to Utah and Arizona while others ventured into west-central New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Today, the Pueblo people of New Mexico regard Chaco Canyon as a sacred place. To them, it is the home of their ancestors, whose spirits still live there.

Today, 800 years after abandonment, the masonry dwellings of Chaco are stunning even in ruins. Since 1916, they have been under the protection of the National Park Service.

A nine-mile-long, paved circular road, beginning at the park’s Visitor Center, provides access to five major pueblos and the elaborate kiva of Casa Rinconada. Other pueblos are accessible via back-country hiking trails.

Best known and largest of the ancient communities is Pueblo Bonito (Beautiful Town), built beneath the canyon’s north wall. Tree-ring dates indicate that construction of this D-shaped structure began about A.D. 828 with a single story of rooms around a central plaza. In a number of construction phases over the next 200 years, it grew to become one of the largest pueblos ever built in the Southwest.

Archaeologists estimate that by about A.D. 1050, Pueblo Bonito was four or five stories high in places. It covered more than three acres of ground around two central plazas and contained 650 rooms and 32 kivas. It measures 667 feet along its straight front wall and more than 800 feet along its towering rear wall.

S.P. Holsinger, a federal land official who visited the area in 1901, called Pueblo Bonito the “ruin of ruins, the equal of which, in magnitude and general interest, is not to be found among the world’s collection of discovered prehistoric sites.”

While Pueblo Bonito ranks as the star attraction, it is only one of the Chaco Great Houses that collectively tell an intriguing and often mystifying story of a creative and determined people who, for a time, prevailed in a marginal land.

As the Listers wrote: “A phalanx of communal dwellings, roofless now and beaten back to earth, testifies not only to the tenacity of the human spirit, but also to humanity’s unique adaptability.”