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Archive for July, 2009

Speaking of Mexico

Interior T-Shaped Doorway, Pueblo Bonito

Interior T-Shaped Doorway, Pueblo Bonito

As I mentioned in passing while discussing the implications of the discovery of chocolate at Chaco for interpreting Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system, most evidence seems to point to western Mexico as the source, or at least the conduit, for most of the Mesoamerican goods and ideas that ended up at Chaco.  Given that, I’ve been thinking that I should study up more on the archaeology of western Mexico during the early Postclassic period, a subject about which I know very little.

Possible T-Shaped Doorway in Type I Masonry, Pueblo Bonito

Possible T-Shaped Doorway in Type I Masonry, Pueblo Bonito

And, lo and behold, here comes Mike Smith with a post on this exact subject, including some very helpful references.  He’s mostly talking about recent Spanish translations of some classic early works, but my English is better than my Spanish so it’s really the citations of the originals that are of interest to me, along with the link to one of his own papers which is available on his website as a pdf.   Thanks, Mike!

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway between Room 28 and the West Plaza

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway between Room 28 and the West Plaza

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West Plaza of Pueblo Bonito from Room 28

West Plaza of Pueblo Bonito from Room 28

It’s been a few months now since the announcement of the discovery of chocolate residue on sherds from cylinder jars found at Chaco Canyon.  While there will certainly be a considerable amount of research into the implications of this discovery over the course of the next few years, and much of it is likely going on already, given the glacial pace of archaeological publishing it’s probably going to be quite some time before any such research reaches a publicly accessible form.  This is probably a good time, then, to take a preliminary look at what this discovery may mean in the context of previous theories about and interpretations of the Chaco Phenomenon.

Picture of Cylinder Jars on Plaque at Fajada Butte View

Picture of Cylinder Jars on Plaque at Fajada Butte View

The first thing to note is that this discovery contains a lot of information.  In addition to being remarkably clear-cut and unambiguous in its determination that the cylinder jar sherds contain chocolate residue, it also implies some surprisingly straightforward conclusions about the nature of the process that resulted in the chocolate arriving at Chaco.  Since the core area of Mesoamerican cacao production, then and now, is in southern Mexico along the Gulf and Pacific coasts in Tabasco, Chiapas, and further south along the Pacific coast into Guatemala and El Salvador, it’s likely that the chocolate coming to Chaco originated somewhere in that area (although this is certainly something that people are likely to be studying in detail).  That means it would have to travel over a distance of roughly 2000 miles.

Display Case at Visitor Center Showing Cylinder Jar and Canteens

Display Case at Visitor Center Showing Cylinder Jar and Canteens

That’s a long way.  Since the chocolate in Chaco would have to arrive in usable form, it would presumably have been transported in the most durable form possible, which would probably be the dried cacao beans.  Interestingly, these were used as currency in some parts of Mesoamerica during at least some portions of the prehispanic era.  However, since the residue on the Chaco sherds had soaked into the sherd and was not even visible on the surface, it seems the chocolate in the cylinder jars was in liquid form.  This is not really surprising, since the Mesoamericans generally consumed chocolate as a liquid, but it suggests that along with the dry cacao beans was coming the knowledge of how to prepare them by grinding them into a powder to be mixed with various additives to produce a beverage.  It’s not at all obvious from just looking at the cacao beans how to do this, or even that it would be a reasonable thing to do, so it’s pretty clear that whoever was bringing the beans up knew what to do with them and how.  That is, they weren’t just being passed from group to group as curiosities or being borne on the wind.

Cylinder Jar at Visitor Center Museum from Above

Cylinder Jar at Visitor Center Museum from Above

In addition, the fact that the residue was found on sherds that seem to have come from cylinder jars and (importantly) not on sherds from other types of vessels suggests that knowledge of a different sort was coming up with the beans as well.  This would be knowledge of the role of chocolate in society: how it was to be consumed, by whom, and when and where.  This is suggested by the fact that the form of the cylinder jar, which was often used by Mesoamerican groups for chocolate consumption, was apparently being transmitted along with the cacao beans and the knowledge of how to prepare them.  It’s crucial to note that the jars themselves don’t seem to have been brought up physically; the Mayan examples, the best known, look very different from the Chacoan ones in decoration, although they are strikingly similar in size and shape, and no examples of anything resembling a Mesoamerican cylinder jar have ever been found in the southwest to my knowledge.  Rather, the idea of using a cylindrical vessel, an exotic and very rare form in the southwest, to drink this exotic beverage seems to have been transmitted by whoever was bringing the beans from which the beverage was to be made.

Sealed Doorway, Room 28, Pueblo Bonito

Sealed Doorway, Room 28, Pueblo Bonito

This suggests that more information and knowledge from cultures to the south may have been transmitted to Chaco as well.  Much of this, however, may have been of an abstract nature that has not survived in the physical archaeological record.  The chocolate knowledge, note, very nearly didn’t survive either, and it’s only because we now have the ability to analyze the pottery chemically that we know about it.  What else may have been coming up from Mexico that left even less of a trace?  It’s hard to know, but this is an area of study that may deserve renewed attention and that could, conceivably, result in some answers to the enduring mysteries of Chaco.

Puchteca Indian Art, Flagstaff, Arizona

Puchteca Indian Art, Flagstaff, Arizona

This idea of Mesoamerican influence on Chaco is hardly new, of course.  While the similarity between the Chacoan cylinder jars and the Mayan ones has been noted ever since the Chacoan ones were discovered in the 1890s, it’s generally been considered coincidental or at least not strong evidence for contact or influence, given the extreme distance in both space and time between Chaco and the Classic Maya.  Other aspects of the Chaco Phenomenon, however, have been taken by some as evidence of substantial influence from civilizations to the south.  This tendency was particularly marked among the so-called “Mexicanists” of the 1960s and 1970s, who proposed that Chaco was more or less entirely a creation of Mesoamerican influence, perhaps by Toltec merchants organized along the lines of the later Aztec class of elite long-distance merchants known as pochteca (or puchteca).  The motivation usually cited for this interference was the acquisition of turquoise, which became a highly valued commodity in Postclassic Mesoamerica, where it was used in all sorts of ceremonial contexts.  The very large quantities of turquoise found at Chaco intrigued these scholars, who were generally specialists in Mesoamerica rather than the southwest.  They proposed that Chaco was either a turquoise acquisition center founded and controlled by Mesoamerican merchants or an indigenous center with a monopoly over the supply of turquoise that was exploited and supported by those same merchants.  As evidence of this influence they cited the Mexican trade goods such as copper bells from western Mexico, scarlet macaws (which seem to have been kept alive, presumably for their feathers, at Chaco), and shells from the Gulf of California, along with architectural influences such as the Colonnade at Chetro Ketl and t-shaped doorways at many of the Chacoan sites, often in significant locations such as in plaza-facing rooms.

T-Shaped Doorway with Step at Pueblo Bonito

T-Shaped Doorway with Step at Pueblo Bonito

Most southwestern archaeologists, especially Chaco specialists, didn’t take these theories very seriously.  An “Indigenist” school of Chacoan interpretation developed which proposed that, while there may have been some minor contact with Mesoamerica, Chaco was fundamentally a local development best understood in an indigenous context.  They noted that the Mexican trade goods were very scarce and not necessarily associated with Chaco specifically more than other southwestern sites, and as for the architectural influences, they were awfully subtle and not necessarily evidence of influence rather than coincidental parallel development.  In general, the signs of possible Mexican influence at Chaco pale in comparison to the many ways in which Chacoan developments clearly echo local precedents.  The great houses are large and impressive in scale, certainly, but they clearly belong to the same tradition as the much more rudimentary small houses around them.

Macaw Feathers on Display at Visitor Center Museum

Macaw Feathers on Display at Visitor Center Museum

But what about the turquoise?  Certainly there’s an enormous amount of it at Chaco, and many theories, both Mexicanist and Indigenist, have given it a prominent role in explaining Chaco’s dominance.  There are some problems with seeing Chaco as all about turquoise, however.

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

The biggest problem, which really only affects “strong” Mexicanist accounts that see Chaco as completely a Mesoamerican creation, is that there are no turquoise sources at all close to Chaco.  This is not an example, then, of a group with fortuitous access to a rare, desired commodity leveraging their control over that commodity into economic and political power on a regional scale.  The closest known source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe.  This source is known to have been worked prehistorically, and while most of the archaeological evidence for prehistoric use indicates a later date there is a bit of evidence of use during Chacoan times, perhaps involving ties to the Mt. Taylor area.  The turquoise-centric theories have therefore often argued that the Chacoans somehow had control over the Cerrillos mines, and used that control and the resulting monopoly on processed turquoise to gain regional power, whether by exporting the turquoise to Mexico or by distributing it throughout the southwest.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This is reasonable enough in theory, and only problematic for the strongest of the Mexicanist explanations (if the Toltec merchants were establishing a turquoise-procurement center, why would they put it at Chaco rather than at, say, Cerrillos?), but it becomes rather dubious in the context of what is known about the extent of Chacoan influence and the proposed limits of the Chacoan system.  The system seems to extend quite far to the south, west, and north, with new great houses being suggested ever further in each of these directions.  There seems to be a general shift over time from south to west to north in the emphasis of the system and the locations of material sources for the canyon, but certainly all three of these directions included many communities that were closely integrated into the Chaco Phenomenon.

Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

Not so to the east.  This is the direction in which we see by far the least Chacoan influence and interaction.  There are really only two outliers at any significant distance to the east of the canyon (i.e., past Pueblo Pintado): Guadalupe and Chimney Rock.  Guadalupe, near the Rio Puerco of the East, seems to have been among the earliest great houses anywhere, and it was apparently an important part of the Chacoan system from its early beginnings.  Chimney Rock, on the other hand, was a much later foundation, and its odd location and astronomical alignments suggest that there were specific, idosyncratic local reasons for it to become part of the system.  Both of these are very isolated, however, with the nearest other outliers lying rather far.  They are unusual places, and worthy of study, but aside from them there’s really just nothing suggestive of any Chacoan influence at all.  No wood came from the Jemez Mountains for construction in Chaco, and while some obsidian does seem to have come to Chaco from the Jemez, the period when the Chaco system was at its height was also the time when there was the least Jemez obsidian coming in.  A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that the Jemez area was occupied at the time by the Gallina people, who don’t seem to have been receptive to Chacoan influence or friendly to outsiders in general.  They would have formed a formidable obstacle to basing a major distribution system on regular supplies of turquoise from Cerrillos.  This probably explains why direct evidence for such a system is scanty at best.

Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum

Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum

One thing that I think often gets overlooked in these discussions is that Cerrillos is not the only turquoise source in the southwest, and while it’s the closest one to Chaco there are others that aren’t much further.  There’s one source in southern Colorado that never seems to get mentioned, possibly because there’s no evidence of prehistoric mining there, but there are also somewhat more distant sources in southern New Mexico, Arizona, and California (not to mention the many sources in Nevada) that could also have provided turquoise for Chaco.  It’s true that the further away these sources are the less likely it is that Chaco could have controlled them, but Chaco didn’t need to control a place to get things from it.  There’s an awful lot of shell from the Pacific coast at Chaco, for instance, and no one proposes that the Chacoans controlled southern California, although Cibola series pottery from Chacoan times has actually been found in Los Angeles County.  Surely if that much shell could come across the Mojave Desert at least some turquoise could as well.  In addition, Tom Windes has proposed that there may have even been a turquoise source in the Zuni area, which is an interesting idea in light of the long association of that area with turquoise working, up to the present day.  While no such source has been identified, Zuni traditions hold that turquoise was mined prehistorically in the Zuni Mountains, and there are known copper deposits, which are often associated with turquoise deposits, in that area.  If there were a Zuni turquoise source, it would be by far the closest to Chaco, much closer than Cerrillos, and it would make turquoise-based models for Chaco a lot more plausible.  As Windes notes, however, it would also mean that the role of the numerous local communities in that area in managing turquoise supply and distribution would be important to consider.  In any case, I think turquoise discussions tend to be a bit Cerrillos-centric, and there are plenty of other places the turquoise could have come from.

Anthill at a Small House near Casa Rinconada with Piece of Turquoise

Anthill at a Small House near Casa Rinconada with Piece of Turquoise

Speaking of Tom Windes, in that same paper on Chacoan turquoise he discusses evidence of widespread turquoise manufacturing in small sites during the tenth and early eleventh centuries both in Chaco Canyon itself and at other communities in the San Juan Basin.  From looking at the pieces of turquoise collected by harvester ants and added to their anthills, he determined that small sites had plenty of debitage from bead manufacture but very few finished beads, while at great house sites it’s well known that there were large amounts of finished turquoise.  This suggests that turquoise was indeed important in Chaco during the early part of the Chacoan era, and while for some reason evidence is meager for the late eleventh century, by the early twelfth turquoise is vanishingly rare at both great houses and small sites.  Crucially, however, this data applies not just to Chaco itself but to the San Juan Basin in general, which goes along with Windes’s argument elsewhere in the same volume that great house construction was not originally limited to Chaco but was quite widespread from the beginning.  Given this information, then, it appears that Chaco did not have a monopoly on turquoise processing, at least in the local context, and that the rise of Chaco in the region is unlikely to have had much to do with control of turquoise, whether or not there was a vast demand for the stuff in Mexico.

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

Overall, for these reasons and more, Indigenism basically won out, and most recent theories about Chaco, although they conflict with each other quite a bit, are Indigenist in nature.  Which is not to say that no one has incorporated Mesoamerican influence into the theories at all; Steve Lekson certainly has, and, going a bit further into the fringes, Christy Turner’s cannibalism theory relies heavily on the prevalence of cannibalism in Mexico.  Still, most of the theories treat Mexican contact as an afterthought, and devote more energy to explaining away the evidence for such contact than to incorporating it into their interpretations.

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Because of this tendency, it’s easy to get a skewed idea of what Mexicanism is all about from reading recent summaries of Chacoan research.  Phil Weigand, one of the most prominent of the handful of remaining Mexicanists, has an elegant essay in the same volume as Windes’s turquoise paper in which he makes the case for considering Chaco in a larger context.  Focusing again on turquoise, he talks about how the presence of valuable, scarce resources in areas with large imbalances of societal complexity leads to various processes of influence and contact.  As a Mesoamericanist, he has insight into the demand for turquoise in Mesoamerica during Chacoan times, and he emphasizes how important it was and how a “trade structure” to acquire it was nearly inevitable given the circumstances.  While he doesn’t go into detail about how Chaco would fit into the larger trade structure, he clearly sees Chaco as having had a monopoly on turquoise and as having therefore been the obvious trade partner for the Mexicans.  Once Chaco was gone, for whatever reason, the trade continued, just with different partners and, perhaps, different sources.  While not everything Weigand says here will necessarily stand up to careful scrutiny, I think he’s definitely right that Chaco must be interpreted in a larger context including Mesoamerica and its demand for turquoise, even if that doesn’t explain everything (or even anything) about Chaco.

T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

The final paper in that same volume is also interesting in this context.  It’s by Gary Feinman, a Mesoamericanist but not a “Mexicanist” in the sense of having a theory about Chaco based on Mesoamerican contact.  Indeed, he has no theory about Chaco at all, but is writing here as a discussant of the other papers, giving an outside view.  He makes some very good points that deserve to be noted.  For one thing, he finds it odd how many recent theories about Chaco have adapted theories about Mesoamerican societies (such as the “empty ceremonial center” theory of Classic Maya cities) that have been thoroughly debunked within Mesoamerican archaeology.  He also notes that demography is an important issue that has not been discussed with regard to Chaco in ways that seem worthwhile from an outside perspective.  Much discussion of Chacoan population estimates has revolved around agricultural productivity, but as Feinman notes, this is remarkably circular, and when looking at major population centers elsewhere it is quite common to see them being supported by quite large hinterlands.  The population of a large center is not necessarily related at all to the productivity of its immediate surroundings.  And he sees Chaco as definitely a large center; he finds it hard to believe the very low population estimates given in certain theories, given the sheer amount of construction effort in the canyon.  Whether or not it was a “city” is a matter of debate.  Weigand, for instance, definitely considers it equivalent to Mesoamerican cities, not all of which were nucleated or “urban” in a modern sense.  Feinman avoids making such definite pronouncements, but the context of what he says clearly indicates that he is thinking of Chaco as something comparable to a Mesoamerican city.

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Another more recent effort to interpret contact between Chaco and Mesoamerica without explicitly endorsing Mexicanism comes in the Chaco Project synthesis volume.  Here Ben Nelson, a Mesoamericanist and specialist in northern Mexico, looks at the evidence for the contacts and argues that the best way to think of it is as a local elite at Chaco selectively incorporating aspects of Mesoamerican culture that suited their (presumably local) purposes.  Nelson has looked at Chaco before, particularly as part of a comparison with a northern Mexican regional center called La Quemada.  In that paper he argued that Chaco was less hierarchical than La Quemada, but much bigger in scale.  Here he notes the various things about Chaco that have been adduced as evidence of Mexican influence: colonnades, copper bells, cylinder jars.  He also adds some others, which southwestern archaeologists, who are not generally very familiar with Mesoamerica, have overlooked: shell bracelets, thong-foot pots, and roads.  In looking at these in the context of the rise and fall of several regional centers in northern Mexico in the Postclassic period, he finds evidence for the sort of selective appropriation of Mesoamerican items and motifs that implies a largely local origin for Chaco.  He is quite forceful in concluding that Chaco was not founded by Mesoamericans.  He notes, however, that developments at Chaco were clearly related to synchronous developments in Mexico in a complex way.  Although most of the markers of contact point to western Mexico as the most likely source, there is no apparent link to any particular center as the origin of the influence.

Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument

Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument

One very important thing that Nelson points out about Chaco and Mesoamerica is that it’s just as important to look at what wasn’t adopted.  There are a whole host of important Mesoamerican objects and ideas that we don’t find at Chaco: ballcourts, pyramids, plaques, mirrors, etc.  Interestingly, some of these (particularly ballcourts) were adopted by the Hohokam, whose position between Chaco and western Mexico makes them natural candidates for intermediaries in the process of contact and influence.  It seems, then, that both the Chacoans and the Hohokam were selectively appropriating Mesoamerican ideas for their own purposes, but they appropriated different ideas and thus seem to have had different purposes.  What those purposes were is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say at this point, but there are some tantalizing clues.

T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado

T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado

One of which, of course, is the chocolate.  This could imply all sorts of things about the motives of the Chacoans, but one thing it definitely shows is that they had access to a great deal of knowledge about Mesoamerican society.  This wasn’t a matter of some vague ideas gradually floating up along the coast, through the Hohokam, and further north.  There must have been a quite direct pipeline between Chaco and somewhere in Mexico for this chocolate idea to come up in such a detailed form.  I think this discovery definitely vindicates Nelson’s approach to Chaco and Mesoamerica.  If the Chacoans could get chocolate, they certainly could have decided to build pyramids and ballcourts or adopt other major aspects of Mesoamerican society, but they clearly didn’t.  Their society remained southwestern in most respects, with just a few key features from Mexico incorporated into it.  But why?

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Well, perhaps to justify some changes in Chacoan society.  There’s quite a bit of evidence that the Chacoan system was much more hierarchical than other southwestern societies, and many theories have posited an emerging elite in the canyon that probably capitalized on some sort of ceremonial knowledge (perhaps astronomical) to gain a greater share of political and economic power.  If the prehistoric Pueblo people were as egalitarian as is generally assumed, which is not really a trivial assumption, this may have caused some friction among other people in society, and the rising elites may have wanted to associate themselves with the spectacular societies to the south, with their huge cities, exotic goods, and strongly hierarchical political structures.  Things like chocolate, and perhaps copper bells, macaws, and roads too, would be tangible symbols of the connection to that far-off land of mystery that would give these upstarts a way to solidify their position.  It’s even possible that the ritual knowledge they are generally thought to have wielded was of Mexican origin too, although they themselves presumably were not.

Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the "Sun Dagger" Petroglyph

Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the "Sun Dagger" Petroglyph

This is all pretty speculative, of course.  Many aspects of it will necessarily remain so, but others are amenable to testing and will presumably be tested as people recover from the shock of the chocolate discovery and set out to explore its implications.  In any event, it’s an exciting time to be at Chaco.  There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of shifting ideas and possibilities in the air.

Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito

Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito

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Where the Aliens Are

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

I’m not sure this really counts as a frequently asked question, but it is something entertaining that comes up from time to time.  There’s an idea out there, in certain circles, that the sites at Chaco were built by extraterrestrials.  This is not something we pay much attention to most of the time, but from time to time a visitor will ask about the aliens.  Usually they’re joking, but very occasionally they’re serious.  There’s not a whole lot we can do in those contexts except to be polite and tactful in declining to engage further.

Farmington Civic Center

Farmington Civic Center

A few weeks ago, our Chief of Interpretation went to the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Farmington.  Tourism groups from all over the state were there, and many of them had little souvenirs that they were giving out.  The Roswell Chamber of Commerce was giving out little plastic aliens, which were green and about an inch tall.  Our Chief took some and gave us at the front desk one, apparently intended to be female, with a skirt and a little red bow on her head.  We named her Alvina and amused ourselves with moving her around to different locations on the big topographical map of  the canyon mounted vertically behind the Visitor Center desk.  If any visitors asked where the aliens were, we could show them on the map.

Topographical Map of Chaco Canyon behind Visitor Center Desk

Topographical Map of Chaco Canyon behind Visitor Center Desk

About a week ago, we suddenly noticed that Alvina was missing.  This was a matter of great consternation.  Perhaps she returned to her home planet.  Perhaps some little kid saw her on the map and grabbed her while no one was looking.  It’s hard to say what happened, but she was gone and we had no idea where she had gone off to.

Alvino the Alien

Alvino the Alien

Luckily, however, we had a spare alien.  One of my coworkers had gotten a little white plastic alien in a gumball machine a while back and gave it to me.  When I went in yesterday for my goodbye party (I’m leaving at the end of this week), I brought in the alien and donated it to the front desk as a replacement for the dear departed Alvina.  This one seems to be male, as it’s wearing a blazer, so we dubbed it Alvino and placed it on the map.  He’s hiking the South Mesa Trail.  Note that he is on the trail, setting a good example for the visitors.

Alvino Hiking the South Mesa Trail

Alvino Hiking the South Mesa Trail

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Roads

Welcome Sign at North Entrance

Welcome Sign at North Entrance

I first visited Chaco Canyon in the summer of 2003.  I had just graduated from high school and would be going off to college in the fall.  My parents decided that visiting Chaco would be a good idea, since I had never been there despite having grown up in New Mexico.  We went out there with a couple who are both old family friends and old Chaco hands; the husband is an archaeologist who worked on the Chaco Project and the wife is an anthropologist who did oral history work in the area around the same time.  We camped in the campground, then spent the next day visiting the sites and hiking up to the Pueblo Bonito overlook on the Pueblo Alto trail.  Our friends showed us around and pointed out things we may not have noticed on our own.  It was a great experience, and I have many fond memories of it.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

One thing I don’t remember is the road coming in.  This may surprise many readers who have been to Chaco.  For many, perhaps most, of the visitors we get, the road is one of the most memorable parts of the trip.  After the turnoff from US Highway 550 it’s eight miles of pavement, then thirteen miles of heavily washboarded dirt.  Most of our visitors don’t seem to be used to dirt roads at all, and they often enter the Visitor Center shaken, jarred, or even furious.  Some demand to know why the road isn’t paved.  Others, who generally have more experience with dirt roads, ask why it hasn’t been graded recently.  Others ask if there is another way out of the park.  (There is, to the south on NM 57, but it’s even worse.)  Still others are too shocked to say much of anything, but it’s clear that they consider that road a nearly insurmountable obstacle to reaching the park.  As, indeed, it is; Chaco gets many fewer visitors than most comparable parks in the area.  Mesa Verde gets about ten times as many (and it shows).  If the road were paved, visitorship would surely skyrocket, as would the fame of the place.  To many visitors it is hard to fathom why this has not already happened.

Line for Tour Tickets at Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Line for Tour Tickets at Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Some other visitors, however, come into the Visitor Center and express their appreciation for the fact that the road still isn’t paved.  These are generally people who have been to the park before, often though not necessarily people who live in the southwest, and they are generally pleasantly surprised to see how little has changed since they last visited.  They understand that the road is the only thing keeping the crowds and the pink cement at bay, and they like that.  The isolation that is one of the most notable things about Chaco is in some ways quite artificial, and it’s mainly the nature and reputation of the road that keeps it that way.

North Entrance to Chaco on County Road 7950

North Entrance to Chaco on County Road 7950

When people ask about the road, I often tell them that there’s talk of paving it, which there is, but that it’s a controversial issue, which it is.  This surprises a lot of people who can’t seem to grasp the idea that anyone would not want the road to be paved.  I often explain the situation as a case of some people wanting change and others not wanting it, and sometimes I go into more detail about the two sides.

Escavada Wash and North Road to Chaco

Escavada Wash and North Road to Chaco

There has been a big push lately by San Juan County, which maintains the road, to pave it; a couple of county commissioners are really pushing for it for reasons that are somewhat obscure.  Unlike in the past, the pro-paving advocates now have many of the local Navajo residents on their side, and the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation is also in favor of paving.  Although the Navajo Nation is not responsible for the road and doesn’t have any formal authority over it, some of the land it crosses is owned by the Navajo Nation, so there is a connection there.  Recently the county got funding for paving and tried to push ahead with it without going through the whole mandated process for doing so, and the groups on the other side of the issue called them on it and noted that they needed to go through the required environmental assessments and such.  As it turned out, those studies ended up using up all of the funding available.  Then the economy collapsed, so it’s unlikely that the road is going to be paved any time soon.

Curve on North Road

Curve on North Road

So who are these groups on the other side?  Well, certainly many of the local Navajos are still opposed to paving and the changes it would bring, but the most vocal opponents are the people who like the park the way it is and have been coming to it for years.  They don’t want the crowds and the restrictions on access that they would force the park to impose, and they don’t see the road as nearly the obstacle that others perceive.  As far as they’re concerned, Chaco is fine the way it is, anyone who really wants to go there can, and there’s no reason to mess with things.

Cattleguard on North Road into Chaco

Cattleguard on North Road

And, indeed, they have a point.  I certainly like the place the way it is and see no reason to change it.  As I mentioned above, the road is not something I remember from my first visit.  Growing up in the southwest, I would travel on so many dirt roads much longer and rougher than this one that it didn’t even register as anything unusual to me.  It’s certainly a pretty good road as dirt roads go, and the washboarding is just the result of the amount of traffic it gets.

South Road to Chaco

South Road to Chaco

I’m not sure I’m totally on board with the paving opponents, though.  While I think the road is fine as is, I don’t see the need to be so vehement in opposing change.  Chaco isn’t perfect, and while I certainly wouldn’t want to work here if it got the kinds of crowds Mesa Verde gets, I think that kind of traffic would force some much-needed changes in the way the park is run that would ultimately protect the resources better.  While it’s nice to be able to wander around the sites without needing to be supervised or on a guided tour, it makes it much too easy for visitors to do damage, whether deliberate or inadvertent, and the way the number of artifacts lying around each site varies inversely with the amount of visitation each one gets speaks to the amount of theft that goes on even given the generally responsible visitors we get.  Clamping down the way Mesa Verde does would be a big shift, but probably ultimately a worthwhile one.

"Rough Road" Sign at South Entrance

"Rough Road" Sign at South Entrance

Not that I see any need to push vehemently for paving either, of course.  Like I said before, I like Chaco fine the way it is and see no reason to change, despite the possible advantages of change that I just noted.  Basically, I see no reason to care strongly one way or the other, so I take a position of studied neutrality and try to explain the situation in as balanced a manner as possible when people ask.  This has the result of shifting visitors from the pro-paving to the anti-paving camps surprisingly often.

"You're Entitled" Sign in Farmington, New Mexico

"You're Entitled" Sign in Farmington, New Mexico

Not always, of course.  There’s a definite sense of entitlement out there among a lot of people, a sense of outrage at the idea that the convenience of the traveling public is not everyone’s highest priority, a sense that National Parks and World Heritage Sites should be as accessible as possible.  It’s a coherent and rational worldview, just not one that meshes well with the way things work at Chaco.  There are actually not that many people who express this attitude strongly, but those who do will not be dissuaded from it, and I don’t try to dissuade them.  In these contexts it becomes more of a live-and-let-live matter, and the most I can do is hear them out, which I do.  It often makes them calm down, but it doesn’t change their opinions.

Cattleguard at North Entrance to Chaco

Cattleguard at North Entrance to Chaco

The irony of all this, of course, is that Chaco is also strongly associated with roads of a very different sort.  The ancient Chacoans built an elaborate system of roads both within and beyond the canyon, traces of which can still be seen today (though generally not from ground level).  While some of these roads were known from the earliest studies of Chaco in the early twentieth century, knowledge of them had been largely forgotten by the 1970s, when they were rediscovered with a vengeance.  The discovery of the extent of the roads, which have been found not only within the canyon and radiating out from it but in the vicinity of many outliers as well, was a crucial part of the reinterpretation of Chaco as a regional system.  The roads have been given a lot of emphasis in many theories about this system.

New Sign at Kin Ya'a, Free of Bullet Holes

Sign at Kin Ya'a Showing Roads

Up until the early 1990s almost everyone who worked on the roads interpreted them as a transportation network used for some practical purpose, perhaps transporting the vast quantities of wood and other materials from the outlying areas to the canyon or, in more ritual-based theories, facilitating pilgrimages to the canyon.  Some theories combine different functions for the roads.  The fact of the existence of the road network was a major piece of evidence for the strongly integrated, centralized system that most archaeologists envisioned Chaco to be, and the presence of roads was even used to define the extent of the system.

Jackson Stairway

Jackson Stairway

There are some problems with these interpretations, however, and by the 1990s some archaeologists began pointing them out.  For one thing, the roads are massively overbuilt for any functional purpose.  They vary in width, but outside of the canyon are typically about 30 feet wide.  They are so wide, and so shallow, that they are usually not visible on the ground and have mostly been identified through aerial photography.  In a society without draft animals or wheeled vehicles, it’s hard to see why a road that wide would be necessary for any practical use.  They are also extraordinarily straight.  Although there are a few examples of road segments that curve, for the most part road segments run on very precise bearings for considerable distance, and when they do change direction they do so with very sharp, angular turns.  They also make little or no allowance for topography: when a road segment comes to a steep slope or sheer cliff, rather than changing the bearing or winding up via switchbacks it generally goes straight up via a ramp or staircase cut into the rock.  This preserves the straightness of the bearing, at the cost of an enormous amount of work.

Ramp View

Ramp View

In addition, while at least two roads (the Great North Road and the South Road) have been determined to run more or less continuously for many miles, most of the roads actually consist of short, discontinuous sections.  In most earlier theories it was assumed that this was just because parts of them had eroded away, and there is surely something to that, but there are also short segments, especially near great houses, that don’t seem to line up with any other segments.

Stairway behind Hungo Pavi

Stairway behind Hungo Pavi

These features of the roads suggest that they are either more or less than practical transportation routes.  Some archaeologists have therefore argued that they served more of a ritual or ceremonial function, perhaps integrating the system in an abstract rather than physical way.  The first to argue this was John Roney in a 1992 paper in which he pointed out the discontinuous nature of the roads and their greater elaboration near great houses.  He argued from this that the roads are actually elements of the great-house landscape rather than long-distance routes, and that their main function may actually have been the integrative effect of community effort in building them.  From a slightly different tack, Michael Marshall has argued that the longer roads may have been oriented toward significant landscape features, such as Kutz Canyon and Hosta Butte, rather than outlying communities, and that they served as grandiose elements of a ritualized landscape.

Hosta Butte from New Alto

Hosta Butte from New Alto

In any case, while the morphology of the roads has been fairly well established, debates continue to rage over their function.  One consideration that does not seem to have received much attention in these debates is the widespread presence of road networks in Mesoamerica, which suggests that the roads might be another example of Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system.  Whatever the roads were, however, they certainly required a lot of effort to build, and while I think their importance to the meaning of the Chaco system has often been overstated, they are definitely a major aspect of it that bears consideration.

Room Forming Base for Stairway at Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl

Room Forming Base for Stairway at Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl

Past and present, in the minds of many, Chaco is about roads.  In some respects, it would probably be accurate to say that the ancient roads were better than the modern ones.  While in both contexts roads are not among the things I find most significant or meaningful about Chaco, they are certainly very important, and they will just as certainly provoke strong feelings of all sorts for a long time to come.

Fajada Butte from North Road

Fajada Butte from North Road

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Richard Wetherill's Grave

Richard Wetherill's Grave

We talk about excavation a lot at Chaco.  Most of the major sites here have been excavated to varying degrees, starting in the 1890s with Richard Wetherill’s work at Pueblo Bonito and continuing through the Chaco Project‘s work at Pueblo Alto and several small sites in the 1970s.  Much of the information we give, either on tours or in response to questions in other settings, comes from those excavations.  As a result, one of the most common questions we get is whether there are any currently ongoing excavations or plans to excavate in the future.

Pueblo Alto Sign

Pueblo Alto Sign

The answer is no.  Actually, that’s not strictly true right now, but it generally is.  There is one excavation in progress at the moment, but the circumstances behind it are rather extraordinary and they serve to illustrate both why we generally don’t excavate and why we sometimes do.

Locked Door on West Side of Pueblo Bonito

Locked Door on West Side of Pueblo Bonito

The National Park Service is generally inclined to avoid excavating archaeological sites whenever possible.  In accordance with the National Strategy for Federal Archeology, the Park Service prefers to manage sites through conservation-in-place, with priority placed on stabilizing and preserving sites rather than excavating them.   This is consistent with the NPS mission, which emphasizes preservation of resources.  The easiest (and, perhaps just as importantly, cheapest) way to preserve something is to leave it untouched, and that is what the Park Service does whenever possible.  Hungo Pavi, for example, is a great house site at Chaco that is totally unexcavated and will remain so.

Hungo Pavi Sign

Hungo Pavi Sign

This approach is also consistent with a growing (though by no means universal) sentiment within archaeology that it may be best to minimize excavation now and leave most sites for the future.  Many archaeologists today look back on the excavations of earlier generations and groan at the amount of information that was destroyed by the crudeness of the techniques employed.  This is a particular issue at Chaco, where much of the major excavation was done very early in the development of American archaeology.  While the techniques used today are certainly much more careful and provide types of information that earlier generations of scholars couldn’t have even imagined, there’s no way to know what sorts of information are being destroyed inadvertently by these techniques.  It’s pretty much inevitable that future generations of archaeologists will develop even better techniques that will preserve more information, so maybe it’s best to leave as many sites as possible to them.  One good example of this at Chaco, on a relatively short timescale, is Tom Windes’s bemoaning of the loss of turquoise debitage due to the use of one-quarter-inch rather than one-sixteenth-inch mesh screening at Chaco Project excavations in the 1970s.

Stop Sign at Chaco Employee Housing Area

Stop Sign at Chaco Employee Housing Area

Note that this approach, unlike the Park Service’s, does envision most sites eventually being excavated.  It’s more of a “wait for a better time” attitude than a “leave things alone” attitude.  On a philosophical level there is an obvious incongruity here, but in practice at this point the two attitudes fit together quite nicely.  While the Park Service and the archaeologists are coming at the issue from slightly different perspectives, their ultimate positions end up working well together.

Sign Prohibiting Vending on Property of Santa Ana Pueblo

Sign Prohibiting Vending on Property of Santa Ana Pueblo

At Chaco specifically, there is yet another constituency coming from a very different perspective whose views need to be considered as well: the modern Pueblos.  These are the descendants of the ancient Chacoans, and the park has gone to considerable lengths recently to include their concerns in management decision-making to make up for many decades of essentially ignoring them.  While, like all descendant tribes, the Pueblos have certain rights and responsibilities relating to human remains and funerary artifacts under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, at Chaco the park goes further than what is narrowly mandated by that law and has a consultation committee composed of all the Pueblos along with the other local tribes.  This committee has to sign off on any research to be conducted within the park, and given the Pueblos’ general skepticism about (and even hostility toward) archaeology in general and excavation in particular, any project involving excavation is almost certain to get a veto from at least one of the Pueblos.  This, in combination with the Park Service’s noted reluctance to get involved in excavation for other reasons, means that the likelihood of any further excavation occurring any time  in the foreseeable future at any of the major sites in the park is extremely slim.

Plaque at Threatening Rock Overlook

Plaque at Threatening Rock Overlook

Sometimes, however, sites cannot be preserved in place.  When threats to site integrity, whether they be from natural causes such as erosion or from human causes such as construction projects, are so severe that there is no way to keep the site intact, federal agencies such as the NPS are required under a series of laws including the Reservoir Salvage Act of 1960 and the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 to make whatever efforts are necessary to salvage the information contained in the site that is at risk of disappearing along with it.  This is generally done by so-called “salvage” excavation, in which the destructive impact of the excavation is justified by the fact that it would be destroyed anyway by the external threat.  The salvage here is of information, rather than the physical site itself, and there is some tension here between this approach, which stems from efforts to mitigate the effects of major dam projects in the mid-twentieth century on archaeological sites in river valleys, and the conservation-in-place approach represented by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  Nonetheless, the law is the law, and in these contexts it overrides the concerns of Park Service, archaeologists, and Pueblos alike.

Entrenched Arroyo

Entrenched Arroyo

There have been several salvage operations at Chaco over the years, of sites threatened either by construction projects or by erosion along the banks of the Chaco Wash.  These days, given the other constraints on excavation, this is the only kind of excavation project that is likely to happen, and the park generally goes to great lengths to keep it from being necessary.

Road to Campground Showing New Water and Sewer Line

Road to Campground Showing New Water and Sewer Line

Those efforts, however, are not always successful.  Right now we’re in the middle of a big project to hook the campground septic system up to the main park septic system.  This has resulted in the closure of the campground for the duration of the project, with the result that one of the most frequent questions we get today is “why is the campground closed?”  (This gets asked in many different tones of voice, not all of them pleasant; “they’re working on the septic system” is usually, but not always, considered a satisfactory answer.)  This was originally supposed to start on June 15 and take three or four weeks.

Sign at South Entrance Noting Campground Closure

Sign at South Entrance Noting Campground Closure

However, not long after work began on building the new, larger sewage lift station in the maintenance yard, the construction hit a snag.  This particular snag took the form of a pithouse site, from the Basketmaker III period, found deeply buried in sediment right under the location for the lift station.  Since there’s no real way to preserve this site in place, and no real way to avoid it either (given the way the project has been designed, the lift station really has to go right there), the only thing to do is to excavate it.  This is a big job, given the size of the site, the painstaking techniques that must be used, and the bureaucratic nightmare that is excavation in a Park Service context like this given all the reasons not to excavate noted above.

The Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

The Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

Since we have a very small staff, with only two full-time archaeologists, finding people to do the work has been quite the challenge.  Early on, the staff archaeologists were working constantly on the site and soliciting help from whoever was available, including volunteers (some of whom happened to be archaeologists themselves) and staff from other divisions at the park.  They have since managed to get archaeologists from other parks in the area to come in for short periods of time to work on the site, along with some academic archaeologists on summer vacation and some researchers who are in the park for other reasons.  It’s still a big job, though, and it will definitely draw out the campground project for at least another couple of months and possibly much longer.  I’ve been telling people who ask that it’s hard to say when the campground will reopen, but we’re hoping it’ll be up by this coming spring.

Reddish Stone at the Lift Station Site

Reddish Stone at the Lift Station Site

Not that the archaeologists are too upset about this, of course.  The job of a Park Service archaeologist these days tends to involve very little excavation, and while there can be a certain amount of research of other sorts, for the most part at Chaco it’s a matter of supervising the preservation crew in their efforts to stabilize the major sites.  Which is important, of course, but not generally the sort of work that inspires people to become archaeologists.  So while the rest of the park is pretty annoyed at this development and how it is stretching out the extremely irritating campground closure at what would be the height of the season, the archaeologists are in good spirits, happy to finally get to do some digging.

Park Archaeologist Dabney Ford Talks to UNM Professor David Stuart at the Lift Station Site

Park Archaeologist Dabney Ford Talks to David Stuart of UNM at the Lift Station Site

So, overall, what this situation shows is that the answer right now to the question of whether there is any ongoing excavation at Chaco is “yes, unfortunately.”  Included in that answer is a densely packed set of conflicting priorities, responsibilities, and worldviews, all bundled together into a fundamental part of how archaeology works in the Park Service today.

Digging with a Shovel at the Lift Station Site

Digging with a Shovel at the Lift Station Site

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Chaco Wash Flowing

Chaco Wash Flowing

Chaco Canyon is a pretty dry place.  Its position in the rain shadow of the Chuska Mountains to the west gives it a semiarid climate with an average of about eight and a half inches of precipitation per year.  While it does snow, and that provides some moisture, the major source of water is the summer storms which come during the “monsoon season” from late July to early September and provide about a third of the annual precipitation in most years.

Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

This is not the kind of environment in which a spectacular cultural flowering is generally expected.  And yet, the Chaco phenomenon that was centered in the canyon but spread throughout the region in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries was nothing if not spectacular.  Looking at the remains of the great houses in the canyon today, it’s hardly a surprise that many of the most common questions visitors ask are about water.  Where did they get it?  How did they store it?  Was it wetter then than it is now?

Drainage on Mesa Top

Drainage on Mesa Top

The answer to the last question is no, which comes as a considerable surprise to many visitors.  Some of them even seem very skeptical, like I’m trying to trick them.  It defies common sense to think that anything like what we see at Chaco could have arisen in an environment as dry as what we see today.  And, indeed, many early archaeologists who worked on Chaco assumed that the climate must have been more favorable, and there has been a considerable amount of research into this topic over the past few decades, much of it using the precision available through tree-ring studies to great effect.

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

Rather surprisingly, what that research has shown is that the climate has not changed significantly in at least the past several thousand years.  There were variations in the amount of precipitation on the order of decades, but always within the range seen in modern records.  So while there were wetter periods and drier periods, and these may have corresponded to important events in the development of the Chacoan system, it was always pretty dry, and never an attractive environment for a sedentary agricultural society displaying the level of complexity seen in the archaeological remains.

West Wing of Pueblo Bonito

West Wing of Pueblo Bonito

In that case, then, if Chaco wasn’t a more attractive place to live then than it is now, why on earth did people choose to live there and do the things they did there?  This is, in some ways, the biggest question out there about Chaco, and also one of the most difficult to answer.  There have been various answers proposed, but none of them seems totally convincing to me.  This is one of the most enduring mysteries about Chaco, and it’s likely to remain so for a long time to come.

Drains on West Side of Pueblo Bonito

Drains on West Side of Pueblo Bonito

Okay, so, given that there was no more water available to the Chacoans than there is now, where did they get the water to do everything they did?  This is another very interesting question that has been the subject of considerable research, and in this case we do have some answers (although a lot of questions remain).

Drainage Path over Slickrock

Drainage Path over Slickrock

The main scholar who has worked extensively on this issue is R. Gwinn Vivian, who taught at the University of Arizona for many years until his retirement.  He has probably spent more time at Chaco than anyone else alive today; his father, R. Gordon Vivian, was the park archaeologist for decades, and Gwinn literally grew up at the park and went on to devote his career to the study of Chaco.  His theories about the Chacoan system are in some ways a throwback to an earlier era of archaeological thought, and in recent years whatever consensus there has been about Chaco has largely moved away from him, but his studies of the water control systems in the canyon have been widely considered the most extensive and reliable work on the issue available.

Modern Erosion-Control Measures in Chaco Wash at Pueblo del Arroyo

Modern Erosion-Control Measures in Chaco Wash at Pueblo del Arroyo

In a short but important paper published in 1992, Vivian laid out what is probably the most concise and accessible account of the various activities for which the Chacoans would have needed water and the probable ways they fulfilled them.  He divides the needs into three categories: domestic, construction, and agricultural.  While these were all important, they involved different amounts of water and different levels of immediate necessity.

Cly's Canyon

Cly's Canyon

The most immediate and constant need would have been for domestic water, largely for drinking, washing, and cooking.  The amount required would of course depend heavily on the population of the canyon, which is one of the most contentious issues in discussions of Chaco.  Vivian tends to favor a higher population estimate, and he runs through a series of calculations to get a rough sense of how much water would have been required at different times of year for domestic purposes.  He argues that the main source for domestic water would have been the various seeps and springs in the side canyons, which in historic times were heavily utilized by the local Navajo population and today provide water for the park wildlife as well.  Even given a fairly high population estimate, Vivian concludes that with sufficient maintenance these springs would likely have produced enough water for domestic use except during period of extreme drought.  While domestic use is the most necessary and constant of the needs for water, it also involves by far the least water.

Remnants of Original Wall Plaster at Pueblo Bonito

Remnants of Original Wall Plaster at Pueblo Bonito

The next main need for water would have been construction.  The Chacoan style of masonry architecture required considerable quantities of water for mud mortar and plaster.  While this is obviously not necessarily a constant need, and could easily be postponed if necessary, Vivian points out that it seems to have been more or less continual in the canyon during the height of the Chaco Era, and some of the building projects at the great houses were of sufficient scale to require vast amounts of water over relatively short periods of time.  While it would certainly have been possible for construction water to have come from the same springs that supplied domestic water, Vivian notes that domestic use would surely have been the priority in times of shortage, and he considers it likely that water from these sources would only have been used in small, low-level construction projects (if, indeed, it was used for construction at all).  He considers it most likely that construction water came from runoff impounded in reservoirs or left in pools, either natural or man-made, in the bed of the Chaco Wash after the high flow from the summer storms had subsided.  With the amount of water that flows through the canyon during the summer, it would take just a bit of ingenuity to divert an amount that, in any given year, would likely have easily been sufficient for construction needs.  It is also possible, though hard to determine, that for construction purposes it was mud rather than standing water that was collected.  The amount of mud left in the bed of the wash (and elsewhere) following a large rain would have been considerable, and using it directly would have conserved any remaining liquid water for other uses.  In either case, it seems quite clear that there would generally have been enough water for construction, although the construction events would likely have needed to be timed just right to take advantage of it.

Mud between Housing Area and Visitor Center after Rain

Mud between Housing Area and Visitor Center after Rain

The third major use of water, and perhaps the most contentious among archaeologists today, was agriculture.  The Chacoans were certainly an agricultural people, and abundant amounts of corn, beans, and squash have been found at sites in the canyon.  While there is recent evidence that at least some of the corn was being imported from elsewhere, it has generally been assumed that there was at least some agriculture in the canyon itself.  The main source of water for this, as for construction, would have been the runoff from the summer rains.  Vivian has put considerable effort over the years into studying the elaborate water control systems on the north side of the canyon, involving diversion dams at the base of the cliffs that lead to canals that lead to fields laid out in very formal grids.  While the best-known of these is one just east of Chetro Ketl and can be seen clearly on aerial photography, Vivian argues that there are many other examples of this sort of pseudo-irrigation elsewhere in the canyon, and mentions one example near Peñasco Blanco in particular.  He runs through a number of possible runoff amounts from rainfall events based on modern measurements of annual precipitation, and finds that the amount available for the fields would vary considerably depending on the parameters set for the calculation.  Thus, while the dams, canals, and fields are certainly there, how they would have actually worked is a subject for debate.  Vivian also argues that other sorts of farming, such as planting directly in the path of runoff and on terraces on the mesa tops, would have supplemented the gridded fields.  In the end, despite the ambiguous nature of the runoff calculations, he notes that the very existence and size of the water-control systems suggests that they must have handled quite large amounts of runoff at least some of the time.

Storm in the Distance through Fajada Gap

Storm in the Distance through Fajada Gap

However it was managed and used, and however many people were using it, water was the limiting factor at Chaco.  Anything else the Chacoans needed they could have imported from elsewhere, and there is a growing amount of evidence showing that they did import all kinds of things: wood, corn, pottery, and even stone for tool manufacture (though not for construction).  With the technology they had, however, they couldn’t effectively transport large volumes of water over any significant distance.  They didn’t have the technology to build aqueducts or other sorts of long-distance pipelines, and while they could certainly carry water in jars, and likely did for short distances within the canyon, those jars would both too heavy and too likely to break to carry over the long distances necessary to reach Chaco from any better-watered area.  As a result, they put as much effort as they could into harnessing every drop of water they could find in the canyon, and they seem to have done a fantastic job of it.  Whatever the situation with agriculture, the sheer amount of construction that they were obviously able to accomplish testifies to their success in controlling, managing, and using the scarce water in their dry location.

Rainbow at Fajada Butte Viewing Site

Rainbow at Fajada Butte Viewing Site

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Una Vida Sign

Una Vida Sign

One of the questions we get most often at Chaco from visitors who have just arrived is whether it’s a walking or a driving thing.  It’s both, really.  For most of the sites, especially the really impressive ones, you drive a few miles from the Visitor Center then walk a few hundred yards and do a self-guided tour (or, if there is one available, a guided tour).  This is how it works for Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and the other sites in the “Downtown Chaco” area, which is about 4 miles down the loop road from the Visitor Center.

Una Vida from a Distance

Una Vida from a Distance

There is one site, however, which is accessible by a short walking trail directly from the Visitor Center parking lot.  It isn’t the most impressive of the sites, but it has a certain charm to those who are willing to seek it out.  This site is the great house known as Una Vida.

Una Vida in the Snow

Una Vida in the Snow

Like most of the other major great houses in Chaco Canyon, Una Vida was first documented and named by the Lt. James Simpson of the Washington Expedition in 1849.  Simpson relied heavily on one of the expedition’s guides, a Hispanic man from the nearby village of San Ysidro named Carravahal, and as a result most of the names he wrote down for the sites were Spanish.  “Una Vida” (meaning “One Life”) is one of these; the reason for the rather odd name is obscure.

Walls at Una Vida

Walls at Una Vida

Unlike most of the other great houses, Una Vida looks today much as it did when Simpson first saw it.  We often describe it as “unexcavated,” but this isn’t strictly true.  A few rooms in Una Vida were excavated at various times during the twentieth century, but they have all since been backfilled, so while there has been a bit of excavation it isn’t apparent from looking at the site.  As a result, Una Vida is one of the best places to see what the sites looked like before being excavated.  Basically, it looks like a huge mound of sand, covered with shrubby vegetation, with significant standing walls sticking out at various points.  It’s clear that there is a building there, and it’s clear what its overall size and shape is, but it isn’t clear how many rooms it contains or where the divisions between them are.

View from Plaza of Una Vida

View from Plaza of Una Vida

Moving up to Una Vida from the parking lot and entering the plaza, one is surrounded by high mounds of sand, which obscure most of the building and the ridge upon which it is built.  It is hard to tell from here quite what the building would have looked like when it was in use, but it’s quite obvious that it was very impressive in scale.

Navajo Corral at Una Vida

Navajo Corral at Una Vida

Looking around the plaza, there are a few enclosures of varying sizes made out of the same sort of stone found in the walls of the great houses but with very different masonry, dry-laid without any mortar.  These were actually not present when Simpson came by in 1849, but were built later by the Navajo inhabitants of the canyon.  They weren’t here in 1849 because the Washington Expedition had been sent to fight the Navajos, who weren’t about to wait around to be attacked.  After the conclusion of the tumultuous wars between the US government and the Navajos with the return of the Navajos from the ill-fated reservation at Bosque Redondo in southeastern New Mexico in 1868, however, the canyon was reoccupied and the Navajos built a variety of structures, many of which are still standing in some form.

Navajo Hogan at Una Vida

Navajo Hogan at Una Vida

In general the Navajos avoid ruined sites like Una Vida.  Navajo tradition involves a lot of taboos about death and places associated with it, and sites associated with the Anasazi are particularly problematic.  There is very little trace of Navajo occupation in the Downtown Chaco area around South Gap and Pueblo Bonito, for example.  In some other parts of the canyon, including the Fajada Gap area where Una Vida is, certain Navajos seem to have been less concerned about the taboos and, perhaps, more inspired by the abundant building stone from the fallen walls.  In any case, they built a few hogans (traditional Navajo dwellings) and a large corral in the plaza of Una Vida, and the remnants of these can still be seen today. In general there is little trace of the Navajo presence at Chaco within the park today, due in no small part to deliberate Park Service policy in the mid-twentieth century that involved kicking out the Navajos living in the park.  Here at Una Vida, however, some of that history is still visible in a subtle way.

Third-Story Walls with Type I Masonry at Una Vida

Third-Story Walls with Type I Masonry at Una Vida

Moving on from the plaza to the west wing, one can see the typical row of blocked-in round rooms fronting the plaza and backed by higher stories of rectangular rooms.  This is pretty standard for Chacoan great houses, but here it’s interesting on account of the fact that this room block is made largely of early masonry.  This part of the building seems to have been constructed sometime in the 900s using Type I simple masonry.  It goes up three stories at the south end, and this seems to be the only part of Una Vida that was ever three stories.  The immense height of some other parts of the building is due largely to its being built on a natural ridge.  There’s no evidence for any other construction above two stories.  It’s pretty striking that the three-story rooms are among the best-preserved despite their early masonry.

Petroglyphs above Una Vida

Petroglyphs above Una Vida

Moving along the west side, one comes to the place where a spur trail leads partway up the cliff to an area of quite remarkable petroglyphs.  These are among the most impressive in publicly accessible parts of the park, and are also among the easiest to get to.  As usual with rock art, they are difficult to interpret, but some clearly seem to show animal figures which may be either highly stylized representations of real animals or images of mythical or legendary beasts.  There is also an anthropomorphic figure with two horns which has been identified by Hopi consultants as a symbol of the Two-Horn Society.

Una Vida from Petroglyph Area

Una Vida from Petroglyph Area

From the petroglyph site, one can get a very good view of Una Vida and finally get some sense of its overall size and shape, which is particularly difficult to get a sense of from ground level because of its unexcavated nature.  It’s basically L-shaped, with an arc of plaza-enclosing rooms linking the ends of the L.  Fajada Butte, Fajada Gap, and the Visitor Center are also clearly visible from up here.

Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida Petroglyphs

Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida Petroglyphs

Coming back down from the petroglyphs and continuing along the trail, next comes the earliest part of Una Vida, a small block of rooms built in the 800s and later shored up with what looks like McElmo-style masonry (typical of the early 1100s).  This block is similar to the oldest part of Pueblo Bonito, which was built around the same time, and it’s likely that Peñasco Blanco, which has tree-ring dates from the same period, has a similar early block somewhere, although given its unexcavated state it’s impossible to identify it.  These three early great houses, the earliest in Chaco Canyon, are located at the three main entrance points to the canyon: Fajada Gap, South Gap, and the end of the canyon where the Escavada Wash and the Chaco Wash join together.  This is likely not a coincidence.

Earliest Part of Una Vida

Earliest Part of Una Vida

Continuing along the trail, the next notable part of the site is a single room with particularly well-preserved standing walls and an intact doorway.  This part of the site, the east wing, is a later addition using Type IV core-and-veneer masonry, which is quite apparent in this room.

Doorway at Una Vida

Doorway at Una Vida

Finally, the trail comes back to the Navajo corral and completes the loop, heading back toward the Visitor Center.  Although there is less to see at Una Vida than at, say, Pueblo Bonito, its mostly unexcavated state and unusual features offer a window into some aspects of Chaco that don’t get that much attention, and it’s definitely worth a visit.

Lizard on Type I Masonry at Una Vida

Lizard on Type I Masonry at Una Vida

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Penalties

Statue of Ralphie the Buffalo on the Campus of the University of Colorado

Statue of Ralphie the Buffalo on the Campus of the University of Colorado

Via Derek Fincham, I see that an Arkansas couple has been sentenced to a year of probation each, six months of jail time for the husband, and a $4,613 fine for looting a bunch of stuff from an archaeological site at Buffalo National River in January.  Fincham correctly notes that this is a rather light sentence given the damage done, and that looting is only going to continue if this is how the cases go.  In the context of the Blanding pothunting cases, it’s interesting to note that this is a similar penalty to what James and Jeanne Redd got in their earlier run-in with the law in 1996.  That case ended up with charges against James Redd being dropped, Jeanne Redd pleading no contest to reduced charges, and the Redds paying the state of Utah $10,000 in 2003.  With Jeanne Redd pleading guilty to the recent charges after her husband’s suicide, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the cases turn out.  So far the Blanding cases have involved much greater effort than usual by authorities to nab as many suspects as possible through an elaborate sting operation, and it stands to reason that the prosecution effort will be more committed than usual as well.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Clock on Street Corner in Blanding, Utah

Clock on Street Corner in Blanding, Utah

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Chetro Ketl Sign

Chetro Ketl Sign

Most of the major great houses in Chaco Canyon were first named and documented by the Washington Expedition in 1849.  Lt. James Simpson, a military engineer tasked with surveying the country the expedition passed through as it campaigned against the Navajos, took detailed notes and measurements about the sites, and in his published report on the expedition first brought them to the attention of the American public.  For his information on the sites Simpson relied on the expedition’s guides, and particularly on one in particular: a Hispanic man from the nearby village of San Ysidro identified as “Carravahal.”  His first name never seems to be given in publications about Chaco, starting with Simpson’s, but he clearly belonged to the well-known Carbajal family of New Mexico, and it would probably not be very difficult to figure out his first name and other background information on him.  He seems to have been quite familiar with the sites at Chaco, more so than the expedition’s Navajo or Pueblo guides, which implies that people in San Ysidro and other local villages had been coming out into the Chaco area for a while at that point.

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

As a result of Simpson’s greater reliance on Carravahal than on the other guides, the names he recorded for the sites were generally those given to him by Carravahal, and that generally meant they were Spanish names.  It is not clear if Carravahal was giving the names used by people in San Ysidro for specific sites or making up names as went along (perhaps it was a mixture of both), but most of the names he gave were either very generic (“Pueblo Bonito” = “Pretty Town”) or simply descriptive (“Pueblo del Arroyo” = “Town of the Wash”).  Some of Carravahal’s names, however, were not Spanish, and it’s not clear what language they were from or where he got them.  Among these is the name he gave to the large site east of Pueblo Bonito, which he gave a name that Simpson transcribed as “Pueblo Chettro Kettle.”  Either Carravahal himself or some other guide apparently claimed at one point that this meant “Rain Pueblo,” but without any further elaboration.  No one has ever figured out what the name, now usually spelled “Chetro Ketl,” means or where it comes from.

Chetro Ketl, the Talus Unit, and Pueblo Bonito from the Cliff Top

Chetro Ketl, the Talus Unit, and Pueblo Bonito from the Cliff Top

Chetro Ketl is one of the largest and most interesting of the great houses in Chaco Canyon, but it often gets overshadowed by Pueblo Bonito.  The two are right next to each other, and are in fact accessed today from the same parking lot.  They are separated only by an open area that probably played an important role in the Chaco system.  There is increasing evidence that the acoustic properties of the canyon wall along this stretch were important, and parts of the canyon wall even seem to be sculpted to improve their acoustic properties.  This is what is known as the “Chaco Amphitheater,” and its location right in between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl is likely significant.

"Chaco Amphitheater" between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl

"Chaco Amphitheater" between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl

In any case, while Pueblo Bonito is generally considered the largest of the great houses, and therefore probably the most important, Chetro Ketl is actually the second-largest by most measures and the largest by at least one.  Although Pueblo Bonito is certainly more massive and had a lot more rooms, Chetro Ketl is slightly larger in area.  By whatever measure, however, the two sites are very nearly the same size, and may well have been equally important in the Chacoan system.

Plaza-Enclosing Rooms at Chetro Ketl

Plaza-Enclosing Rooms at Chetro Ketl

It is by no means clear what the functions of any of the great houses may have been, but it is certainly possible that Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl fulfilled somewhat different functions, given their similar scale, physical proximity, and rather different (though similar) shapes.  While both are “D-shaped” in some sense, and both face south in that the highest levels are on the north side and subsequent rows of rooms terrace down toward enclosed plazas on the south side, they are not quite the same.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito has a unique form, with the curved part of the “D” forming the tall back wall and the straight part of the “D” forming the roomblocks enclosing the plaza on the south side.  Chetro Ketl is the other way around, with the tall back wall being the straight part of the “D” and the curved part forming the plaza-enclosing block of rooms to the south.  This is a much more typical shape for a Chacoan great house, with Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Alto, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Tsin Kletzin within the canyon (or above it) having nearly identical shapes, though different sizes and periods of construction.  With the exception of Pueblo del Arroyo, which is unusual in many ways, these all face south as well.  This shape is often found at outlying great houses outside the canyon as well, with the three main great houses (east, west, and north) at Aztec being probably the best-known examples.

Chetro Ketl from Above

Chetro Ketl from Above

Chetro Ketl, then, is much more of a “typical” great house than Pueblo Bonito, which is unique in all sorts of ways, including the fact that it is by far the best known and most extensively studied of the great houses.  Chetro Ketl has been partly excavated, with about half of the site having been dug by the University of New Mexico field schools in the 1930s, and much of the site, mostly in the central part, is still exposed and available to be seen today.

Corner Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Corner Doorway at Chetro Ketl

These excavations, however, were nowhere near as extensive as the earlier excavations at Pueblo Bonito, which resulted in the excavation of almost every room, nor were they nearly as well documented.  The students who did most of the work were not the best about documenting what they were doing, and Edgar Lee Hewitt, the towering figure in New Mexico archaeology who was in charge of the field schools, never got around to writing a full site report which might have clarified the confusing documentation of the students and collected the information from the digs in an accessible area.  As a result, Chetro Ketl is not nearly as well understood as Pueblo Bonito, and it isn’t clear if the latter’s fame and presumed centrality are due to its actual importance or merely the greater amount of information available on it today.

Back Wall of Chetro Ketl

Back Wall of Chetro Ketl

Be that as it may, Chetro Ketl is certainly an interesting site to see.  One of the most impressive aspects of it is its back wall, which is the longest wall known at a Chacoan site.  It is not only very long but extremely straight, a true triumph of Chacoan engineering.  It was actually originally even longer than can be seen today, because the extreme east and west ends have not been excavated and still lie under mounds of sand.  It is on account of this back wall, in conjunction with the curved arc of rooms on the opposite side, that Chetro Ketl claims its position as the largest great house in area, even larger than Pueblo Bonito.  The way to enclose a very large area, of course, is to be bounded by very long walls, and Chetro Ketl certainly is.

Back Wall of Chetro Ketl from the Talus Unit

Back Wall of Chetro Ketl from the Talus Unit

The western end of the part of the back wall visible today, which is the first part one reaches when approaching from the parking lot, is made of Type II core-and-veneer Bonito-style masonry, much like the early expansion of Pueblo Bonito.  This is hardly surprising, since this part of Chetro Ketl dates to the AD 1030s or so, while the similar masonry at Pueblo Bonito dates to the 1040s.  While at Bonito this type of masonry is part of a significant expansion of what was by then a very old building, here at Chetro Ketl it is the earliest part of the building standing today (although there may have been some earlier construction that was built over at this time).

Type IV Masonry at Chetro Ketl

Type IV Masonry at Chetro Ketl

As one moves eastward along the back wall, the masonry changes.  The outer wings of Chetro Ketl were added later in the eleventh century, and they show a steady progression through Types III and IV.  At the part of the building showing Type IV masonry the trail leads inside.

Central Roomblock at Chetro Ketl

Central Roomblock at Chetro Ketl

Once inside the building, many rooms are apparent, most of which have been excavated and largely backfilled, especially in the central roomblock with the prominent elevated round room known as Kiva G at its heart.  To the east, the far east wing has not been excavated and the decayed nature of the walls is very apparent.  While they have been stabilized, there has been no excavation or reconstruction of this part of the building.  These rooms are all quite similar to those in the later parts of Pueblo Bonito, and they are in many ways just as mysterious.  There is little evidence for their function, and while some show evidence of residential use, most don’t.

Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl

Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl

Continuing along the trail, one reaches the plaza.  Chetro Ketl’s plaza is distinctive in a number of ways.  For one, it’s very large.  Again, since Chetro Ketl has fewer rooms than Pueblo Bonito but is nonetheless larger in area, a much greater proportion of its area is taken up by the very large plaza.  Also, and perhaps more distinctively, the plaza at Chetro Ketl is elevated.  While most great-house plazas are at or near grade, this one was filled to about 12 feet above grade, apparently gradually as the building was expanded (with the eventual result that the first stories of some earlier rooms ended below the plaza level).  It is unclear why this was done, and it is especially unclear why it was apparently only done here and not at any of the other great houses with enclosed plazas.  It would certainly have been an enormous amount of work, but then the Chacoans were by no means averse to enormous amounts of work on projects that today seem inscrutable.

Chetro Ketl Great Kiva from Above

Chetro Ketl Great Kiva from Above

As a result of the raised plaza, the great kiva at Chetro Ketl, while it seems subterranean, is actually considerably above the original ground level.  It is one of the largest and most impressive in the canyon, and shows the usual set of standard features: bench, central firebox, four postholes (one of which, when excavated, contained part of the original post, an enormous ponderosa pine trunk), entry by steps from an antechamber on the north side, many niches in the wall, and two vaults on the floor flanking the firebox between the postholes.  There are also some large sandstone disks sitting around the northeast posthole.  These disks were originally in the postholes, where they served to support the posts and keep them from driving right down into the soft alluvial soil.  There were generally multiple ones in each posthole.  They are a standard feature, almost always found during excavation, but not usually displayed like this.

Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl Showing Three Levels

Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl Showing Three Levels

Also displayed in an unusual way here are multiple levels of the great kiva.  While great kivas typically have multiple floor levels and accompanying layers of features, excavators usually decide to present the kiva at one particular level and obscure evidence of others (which have often been destroyed during excavation anyway).  Here, however, the excavators left a quarter of the floor excavated to a lower level, showing an earlier bench and some niches of decided different shape, size, and spacing from those in the later level above.  They also left a small section of an even later bench level in place.  This bench is made of very crude masonry and was probably much later than the earlier levels.

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Perhaps the most interesting part of Chetro Ketl, and certainly one of the most mysterious and evocative, is found at the part of the north-central roomblock facing the plaza.  Here, in rather late masonry style, is a series of square columns, later filled in by even later and cruder masonry to form an unbroken wall.  This is the famous Colonnade, one of the most prominent examples of possible Mesoamerican architectural influence at Chaco.  Colonnades like this are vanishingly rare in the southwest, but they are quite common in Mesoamerica during the period contemporaneous with Chaco (the early postclassic).  They seem to have originated in northern Mexico, but they spread throughout the Mesoamerican cultural sphere, with famous examples at Chichen Itza, far to the south on the Yucatan Peninsula, and at Tula, much further north in central Mexico, along with numerous other lesser-known instances elsewhere.

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

In the 1970s, the “Mexicanist” school of Chacoan interpretation proposed this colonnade at Chetro Ketl as an example of what they claimed was intense Mesoamerican influence at Chaco.  Other examples they pointed to were T-shaped doorways, relatively uncommon in the southwest but very common in Mexico and present, often in significant locations such as facing plazas, at Chaco, and trade goods like copper bells and macaws that clearly came from far to the south.  The “Indigenist” camp of opposing scholars, however, pointed out that these architectural influences were very subtle and quite possible coincidental, that the trade goods were present in extremely small numbers, and that the extent of Mesoamerican influence proposed by the Mexicanists was by no means supported by the limited evidence for contact with cultures to the south.  These arguments largely won out, and recent theories of Chaco have generally focus on its indigenous context and local nature, with Mexican influence downplayed considerably.

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Very recently, however, the discovery of chocolate in cylinder jars at Pueblo Bonito has provided incontrovertible proof of a much more direct and meaningful connection to Mesoamerican cultures than had been known before, and this is likely to make things like the Colonnade, even if subtle and present in small numbers, seem more important to the essence of Chaco.  There will certainly be increasing amounts of research on these questions in the years to come, and the Colonnade at Chetro Ketl is likely to be in for some renewed scrutiny, particularly given its apparently late date of construction and even later date of sealing-up.  This is just one example of how right now is a great time to be at Chaco and seeing the place, including mysterious but important parts of it like Chetro Ketl, with new eyes.

Plaza at Chetro Ketl

Plaza at Chetro Ketl

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Perspectives

Navajo Canyon at Mesa Verde

Navajo Canyon at Mesa Verde

The Salt Lake Tribune has a good article, taking the recent pothunting arrests in Blanding as a starting point, about the attitudes of various southwestern tribes toward the looting of artifacts.  The focus is mainly on the Navajos and includes an extended interview with a medicine man, but Hopi and Ute perspectives are mentioned as well.  I don’t have much more to add except that the article is quite accurate and a good source for a little more background on the context of the Blanding cases than has been provided in most media accounts so far.  Definitely worth a look.

Shiprock and Beclabito Dome from Beclabito, New Mexico

Shiprock and Beclabito Dome from Beclabito, New Mexico

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