Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites   2 comments

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon fires the imagination of many, but you might also want to know what there is to do there.  It’s worth learning a bit about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before you arrive.  But don’t get crazy about that.  You want, first and foremost, an open mind.  I’ve noticed there are many people who have definite ideas and interpretations regarding the Ancient Ones.  That’s really not my style.  I’d rather arrive at a place with a fairly blank mind, and let the questions naturally evolve.  That said, here is a brief summary.

The architecture at Chaco Canyon dates from about  800 A.D., but evidence of ancestral peoples here goes back more than 10,000 years, when people were fully nomadic.  You will notice earthen mounds throughout the canyon.  Many of these lie unexcavated, similar to the Mayan sites of Central America.  It’s estimated that up to 99% of the ancient remains here are still hidden beneath the sand.  Also, archaeologists have reburied many sites in order to best protect them from the elements.

The kivas and plazas of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest ancient structure yet found in the Four Corners region.  Begun around the year 800, it continued to be expanded according to a master plan, all the way up to the late 1200s.  It’s a large D-shaped structure, originally 5 stories high, and which held perhaps 800 rooms.  Much of its interior space is taken up by a grand plaza, along with no less than 33 kivas.  The way this was built, over many generations, invites comparison to how the great cathedrals in Europe were built.

Let me take this opportunity to plug a book I read years ago, called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  There is also a miniseries that was based on the book, and that wasn’t too bad either.  The story spans generations of the people involved in the construction of a cathedral that still pierces the sky in rural England.  This long-term commitment to a vision is precisely how Pueblo Bonito, and really the whole Chacoan culture, seems to have been built up.

A pair of ravens welcome the rising sun at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Detail of the back curved wall of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Note the ponderosa pine log.

Given the size of Pueblo Bonito, there were not many people who lived here.  This is judging from the general lack of human burial remains.  Possibly it only housed the elite, or the religious leaders.  But it is clear that many thousands came here for gatherings, an ancient version of the rendezvous, if you will.  The plazas, great kivas, the layout of the place, all suggest both ceremony and fun.  If you were young you might have looked for love here, or showed off to peers your athletic prowess.  The purpose of it being so overbuilt may have simply been to wow those arriving from outlying villages.

There are other great houses throughout Chaco Canyon, and there were roads connecting outlying villages and great houses as well.  One of the most distant outliers is Chimney Rock, in SW Colorado some 100 miles away.  The great houses, kivas, reservoirs and other structures indicate these people were  master masons, cutting and shaping the local sandstone very precisely.

They used massive ponderosa pine trees too (e.g. to roof the kivas), which were cut from the nearest forest about 60 miles away.  A lucky thing this was for archaeologists.  In the early 20th century dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), was developed.  It was a boon for southwest archaeology, allowing accurate dating of the Ancient Ones’ remnants.  This is a good time to mention the silliness regarding the “A” word when it comes to southwest archaeology.  A stands for aliens.

Using the example of the trees, the idea is that there is no evidence that the trees were dragged or rolled, thus since they were transported so far, the people must have had extraterrestrial help.  I don’t know about you, but camps of young, strong bucks strung out along the route, between which they shuttled the tree trunks from camp to camp, is an obvious solution.  When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I know I could have helped carry heavy trees over several miles.  Not alone, or over the entire 60 miles, but as an organized team.

As at other ancient sites (e.g. the Nazca Plain in Peru), the alignment of structures and roads, along with irrigation ditches and other features, is interpreted by the faithful in aluminum foil hats as only making sense when seen from the air.  Well, maybe that’s true.  But it sure doesn’t mean they had alien help, or were trying to impress aliens instead of their gods.

I took the tour of Pueblo Bonito, which is led every day by a ranger at 2 p.m.  It is well worthwhile.  I also hiked up the canyon late in the day, ending near sunset at the ruins of Penyasco Blanco.  This is about 3.5 miles one way, and you’ll pass a fascinating pictograph called “supernova”.  You can see why from the image (below).  On the way, I flushed a small herd of elk.  The light was very nice at Penyasco Blanco up on the canyon rim, but it put me back at the van right at dark (as usual).

A ranger was there when I arrived, and he was the wannabe cop, officious type.  The loop road that visits Chaco’s main sites closes at sunset, so I was technically about 15-20 minutes late getting out.  Most rangers would see the fact that I had no flashlight, had been jogging back to the trailhead, did not have pockets bulging with artifacts or fossils, and just let me know they are strict about the sunset thing, and that I shouldn’t do it again.  But this character saw fit to write me a $125 ticket.  I’ll just warn everybody out there.  The N.P.S. is chock full of these A-holes.  You never know when you’ll be dealing with one, so keep clear and don’t be like me and push it.  Of course, that’ll mean you won’t get pictures of the things I get, in the light I get them.  But that’s how the N.P.S. rolls.  I’ll never contribute money to their foundation or advocate increased funding to that agency until they improve in this regard (even as I accept the consequences of trying to bend their rules).

The fascinating supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is painted on an inaccessible overhang.

I spent the night in the treeless, rather dusty campground.  On the bright side, it is spacious and cheap ($10).  It also is tucked up against one of the canyon walls, which helps.  In the morning I did some sunrise photography at Pueblo Bonito, and then hiked up to Tsin Kletzin, another great house up on South Mesa.  This hike of just a few miles passes Casa Rinconada, with its enormous kiva.  This is one of the largest kivas ever found, and is a can’t miss sight at Chaco.

A cow elk in the arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

I had no company on this hike, just like the previous day.  Being alone in Chaco is the only good way to experience the strange power of Chaco Canyon, and it helps to leave the road and hike to accomplish this.  That’s my opinion of course.

As I dropped through the steep South Gap, and walked down the beautiful box canyon (rinconada), I felt the attraction, the Chaco’s power if you will.  A place where your first impression is of drought and dust can become, if you spend some time, a place you might imagine traveling to for gatherings a thousand years ago.  The power of Chaco Canyon is only partially hidden by the sands that cover many of the Ancient Ones’ dwellings here.  It’s worth making the trek out here to see and experience this special magic.

A view from Pueblo Bonito’s grand plaza includes the great kiva’s curved wall. Note the niches, which originally contained precious artifacts, and the stone bench.

Advertisements

2 responses to “Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Absolutely terrific photography. Captures the spirit of the place. I’ve always been attracted there for reasons that I can’t fully explain.

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: