Chaco Canyon can be an overwhelming place. There’s a lot here, and it’s difficult to take it all in and understand how different things relate to each other. When visiting the canyon in person, of course, the services of the park’s interpretive staff are available to help explain things and put them in perspective, but many visitors prefer to either prepare in advance or deepen their understanding later by reading additional material, and for those who don’t have the opportunity to visit in person reading is even more important to gaining an understanding of Chaco.
As a result, one of the most frequent questions we get at the visitor center is which books we recommend. Answers vary based on the specific needs and background of the visitor in question, of course, but there’s generally a fairly limited range, so I at least have a few books that I tend to recommend in a particular order.
For a solid, readable one-volume introduction to Chaco and what it’s all about, which is what people most often want, my recommendation is Kendrick Frazier’s People of Chaco. Unlike most people who write books about Chaco, Frazier is not an archaeologist but a journalist, and as a result he’s not only a better writer than most but also has less of a tendency to interpret things through the narrow lens of the archaeological profession. He gives a balanced, evenhanded account of the history of research at Chaco and the evolution of interpretations, with particular emphasis on the National Park Service Chaco Project of the 1970s and ’80s. The book was originally published in 1986, and the theories it presents are therefore mostly the ones that were current at that time, some of which have since fallen out of fashion. The third edition, however, published in 2005, has been substantially updated, with three new chapters covering recent research and reinterpretations along with the series of conferences and publications put together as a capstone to the Chaco Project. The theories presented in this part of the book sit a little awkwardly with the earlier theories discussed in preceding chapters, but I think that is actually a strength of the book, in that it shows the changing nature of interpretations and the lack of consensus even among Chaco specialists about a surprising number of things. If people are looking for just one book about Chaco, this is the one I recommend.
If people are looking for two books about Chaco, things get a little more complicated. In general, I think the best supplement to Frazier is The Chaco Handbook by Gwinn Vivian and Bruce Hilpert. This is an alphabetical encyclopedia of basic information on a wide variety of Chaco-related topics, with a useful introduction laying out some general information about Chaco and its history. The individual entries are short but readable and quite useful for introductory or reference purposes. I don’t recommend this on its own, as the alphabetical organization can be confusing for a complete beginner and the overall informational content is considerably broader than it is deep, but in combination with Frazier or another more narrative account it can be helpful.
If people have more specific interests, Vivian and Hilpert might not be the best way to go. Another possibility is David Grant Noble’s In Search of Chaco, a collection of short essays by archaeologists and other Chaco specialists on their areas of expertise. It is lavishly illustrated with both black-and-white and color pictures, and the research presented is very recent and up-to-date. It also includes chapters by Pueblo and Navajo scholars giving a sense of contemporary Native perspectives on Chaco, which most other books don’t have. I hesitate to recommend it on its own, however, since the structure of it is a bit disjointed, what with the multiple authors and topics, and it’s not easy to see how they all relate to each other. This was actually the first book I read about Chaco, and part of my hesitance about recommending it comes fro the fact that I can hardly remember any of the information in it. Without having first read a more narrative account like Frazier, I was unable to contextualize anything in Noble, which reduced its usefulness considerably as an introduction to Chaco. For someone who has read a bit beforehand, however, it could be a useful way to see some of the recent ideas floating around, presented in an engaging, readable, and not particularly technical way.
Beyond those three introductory volumes, things start to get very technical very fast. For readers who have either a general archaeological background or a particularly strong interest in the details, this is not a problem, but I’d generally say for most readers it’s best to start with the more popular works mentioned above and decide if and how to continue after reading them. The amount of scholarship on Chaco is voluminous, and getting an idea of who is writing about what and why is important to figuring out which books and articles are most important to read for which purposes.