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Archive for the ‘Chimney Rock’ Category

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Although Chaco Canyon is one of the most important places in the United States where the remains of the impressive achievements of the prehistoric Anasazi people are preserved and open to the public, it is by no means the best-known or most popular.  Indeed, outside of the southwest Chaco is actually quite obscure.  I found this surprising when I first began to work there; having grown up in the southwest, I had sort of always known about Chaco.  Not in much detail, but it was always part of my understanding of the world.  It turns out, however, that people in other parts of the country, unless they’re particularly interested for some reason in southwestern archaeology, generally just haven’t ever heard of Chaco.

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde

Not that they’re unaware of the Anasazi, of course.  But it’s not the Chaco Anasazi of the San Juan Basin that get the most public attention and tourist visitation.  Much better known are the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.  Indeed, for a lot of people “Anasazi” and “cliff dweller” seem to be basically synonymous.  We would get a lot of people at Chaco asking if there were any cliff dwellings there.  (The answer is no.)

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff dwellings are, indeed, quite spectacular, and it’s no surprise that they would attract much more attention than other settings.  They are not very practical places to live, however, and very few people even among the Anasazi ever lived in them.  The vast majority of cliff dwellings known in the southwest date to a very short period of time, roughly the last half of the thirteenth century AD, after which much of the Colorado Plateau, including Mesa Verde, seems to have been totally abandoned.  Throughout this period, even when the cliff dwellings were occupied, the vast majority of people in the region lived in other types of sites, generally large, aggregated villages.

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

So why do cliff dwellings get so much attention?  One reason is that they’re much better-preserved than open sites.  The shelter of the cliff alcoves in which they are located protects cliff dwellings remarkably well, so that when they are excavated they tend to yield an astonishing variety of well-preserved material, including perishable materials like wood, cloth, and feathers.  As a result, excavations of cliff dwellings have provided a huge amount of information about the daily life of their inhabitants.  Chacoan great houses, due to their large size and fine construction, tend to preserve material better than most open sites as well, but nowhere near as well as cliff dwellings do.

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

In addition, many of the cliff dwellings, especially at Mesa Verde, were very actively promoted as tourist destinations by local entrepreneurs and guides, especially the Wetherill family of Mancos, Colorado (which also played a key role in early excavations there and elsewhere, including at Chaco).  Their spectacular settings and amazing preservation make cliff dwellings interesting even to those who have little interest in archaeology in general, so it was easy to make Mesa Verde and other areas with cliff dwellings into major tourist attractions, especially if they were in relatively close proximity to towns.  Since Chaco had none of these advantages, it has languished in relative obscurity.

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

The fact that Mesa Verde gets so much attention now, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that, except perhaps for a brief period in the thirteenth century, it was never a very important place in the region.  During the heyday of Chaco in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries Mesa Verde, while occupied at a fairly high level of population, was decidedly marginal compared to Chaco.  After the fall of Chaco it appears to have gained in prestige, and it may have been something of a local center for a while, but even at that time it’s likely that Aztec and other sites in the Totah region between Chaco and Mesa Verde were more important overall.

Far View Communities Sign, Mesa Verde

Far View Communities Sign, Mesa Verde

Considering this context, one obvious question arises: What, exactly, was the nature of the relationship between Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Visitors at Chaco, especially those who have just visited Mesa Verde (which is a lot of them), often ask this and related questions.  It’s rather confusing, because the information presented at Mesa Verde is very centered on Mesa Verde itself and doesn’t discuss much about the regional context, so people often get the sense that Mesa Verde was a lot more important than it actually seems to have been.  When they come to Chaco and see all this talk about how important Chaco was, they start to wonder how to reconcile the rather different stories they are getting at the two places.

Upper-Story Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Upper-Story Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

So what was the relationship between the two?  The short answer is that no one knows.  This has been a very difficult topic to deal with in southwestern archaeology, especially since research on Chaco and research on Mesa Verde have generally been conducted by different people and institutions, with the resulting differences in focus and interpretation making it hard to combine the (voluminous) data on the two areas into a coherent whole.  Even recent attempts to synthesize data on the relationship have not been able to accomplish much.

Back Wall of Far View House, Mesa Verde

Back Wall of Far View House, Mesa Verde

One of the odder aspects of the situation is that there is remarkably little evidence of Chacoan influence at Mesa Verde itself.  While there are Chacoan outliers all over southwestern Colorado, and some of them show considerable evidence of quite direct and substantial influence from Chaco itself, the only site at Mesa Verde that has been suggested as a possible outlier, Far View House, shows only a rather vague resemblance to Chacoan architectural styles.  While its layout is rather similar to a McElmo-style Chacoan site, and its masonry is sort of McElmo-like as well, it’s much cruder than at many other likely outliers in Colorado that are even further from Chaco, such as Escalante and Lowry to the north.  It certainly looks like Far View House was inspired by Chacoan ideas in some fashion, but it really doesn’t look like Chaco itself had much to do with it.  It looks more like a local imitation of Chacoan style, made by people who were aware of Chaco and its style but didn’t know much about the details of it.

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

One of the really weird things about this is that, while Mesa Verde is rather distant from Chaco and correspondingly shows little Chacoan influence or evidence of having been incorporated into a Chacoan system of any kind, other sites further away, and in the same direction, show much more evidence of having been part of such a system.  While many of the furthest outliers, such as Edge of the Cedars, look like local imitations similar to Far View House, others, such as Lowry and Chimney Rock, are among the most clearly Chacoan-influenced outliers around, despite being among the most distant.

Masonry at Escalante Pueblo

Masonry at Escalante Pueblo

This suggests that if the Chacoan system was a reasonably well-integrated network with social or political aspects, its boundaries were quite complicated.  It apparently included the whole southern San Juan Basin as far north as the San Juan River, the whole middle and upper San Juan valley and the valleys of the major northern tributaries of the San Juan, and the Dolores River valley and Great Sage Plain further north, but not Mesa Verde, which lies right between the San Juan and the Great Sage Plain.

Masonry at Lowry Great House

Masonry at Lowry Great House

The implications of this are hard to understand, but one possibility is that the system was not, in fact, as well-integrated as it might seem at first glance, and that it may have been more a network of independent small polities loosely affiliated through adherence to a common social system or religious cult centered on Chaco.  This type of explanation has been pretty popular in Chacoan research over the past few years.  Another explanation, less popular these days, is that Chaco was a single integrated polity with far-flung and complicated boundaries, and that the people of Mesa Verde resisted its expansion and were never fully incorporated into it, so it expanded around them instead.  At this point it’s hard to say which of these is more plausible, and it’s quite possible that the real answer is something totally different from either.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

One interesting sidenote is the odd and somewhat ambiguous evidence for continued Chacoan influence in Colorado even after the fall of Chaco itself.  Great houses, or structures that sort of resemble great houses, at least, continued to be built well into the 1200s in the Mesa Verde area, and it’s possible (though highly speculative) that part of the rise of Mesa Verde in the thirteenth century, to the extent that it did rise to regional prominence, was tied to a revival of Chacoan ideology symbolized by the construction of D-shaped structures with apparent ritual purposes.

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

The best known of these structures is probably the Sun Temple at Mesa Verde itself, which seems to be associated with Cliff Palace and which also seems to have some astronomical alignments.  Interestingly, the masonry at the Sun Temple looks a lot more Chacoan than anything at Far View House, despite the fact that the Sun Temple was built long after Chaco had faded into obscurity and the fact that other sites built at Mesa Verde at the same time, such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, have much cruder masonry.

Masonry at the Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Masonry at the Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

There are a lot of questions remaining about this issue, and much more research remains to be done, but there are some tantalizing hints that untangling the connections between Chaco and Mesa Verde may shed light on a whole slew of continuing mysteries about the prehistory of the southwest.  There’s enough there to keep archaeologists busy for a long, long time.

Pipe Shrine House with Far View House in Background, Mesa Verde

Pipe Shrine House with Far View House in Background, Mesa Verde

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Forest Fire from McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

Forest Fire from McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

Today was the second (and final) day of the 2009 Pecos Conference.  Like the first day, it involved many short papers, and there was quite a bit of interesting stuff.  Several of the presenters specifically mentioned Craig Childs’s advice from the night before about how to tell their stories, and it did seem like the average quality of presentation was better in today’s presentations than in yesterday’s.  The morning was mostly taken up with a symposium on heritage preservation, which I only saw part of.  The part I did see was pretty interesting, with reflections on the role of private cultural resource management firms and museums in preserving heritage and disseminating information (the presenters were much less enamored of how CRM does this than of the potential role museums can play).  There were then a series of miscellaneous talks, none of which was about Chaco Canyon specifically, but several of which discussed Chacoan outliers and aspects of the Chaco system.  These included a talk about recent research on the Great North Road, one on the recent work at Chimney Rock, another on the San Juan College field school work on the Bolack Ranch in Farmington, and one on Carhart Ruin, the northernmost known Chacoan outlier.  One speaker giving a talk on an understudied Chacoan community in the Chuska Valley rather pointedly refused to name the community, saying that he felt we were just a little too close to Blanding for his comfort, and that while there was a rather noticeable forest fire visible in that direction, it probably hadn’t taken out Blanding yet.  There were various other interesting papers not as closely related to Chaco as well, including one on the enigmatic towers of the Mesa Verde region pointing out that they occur at sites of all sizes and in all sorts of topographical contexts, making arguments for their function based on a single use improbable.  Overall, it was an interesting conference to attend, and I’m glad I did.

Tower at Mule Canyon, Utah

Tower at Mule Canyon, Utah

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Companion Rock and Chimney Rock

Companion Rock and Chimney Rock

I’m in Cortez, Colorado, for the Pecos Conference, an annual gathering focused on southwestern archaeology which moves from place to place.  On my way up here I stopped at Chimney Rock, one of the most interesting of the Chacoan outliers and one that I had not been to before.

Chimney Rock Mesa

Chimney Rock Mesa

The main reason for both those things is Chimney Rock’s location.  It’s the furthest known outlier to the northeast of Chaco, near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and there are no other outliers very close to it.  The great house is perched in a bizarre position up on top of a high, steep mesa, and further down the mesa ridge there are many smaller sites, most of them having a distinctive architectural style suggesting that they are basically above-ground pithouses (perhaps because on the mesa there wasn’t enough soil to dig into to create regular pithouses).  There are also more typical pithouses, possibly from a slightly earlier period, further down on the banks of the Piedra River.  While the great house is distinctive in being very “Chacoan” in style, more so than many closer outliers, the small sites on the mesa seem to have more similarities to the architecture of the Gallina culture to the south.

The "Parking Lot Site," an Above-Ground Pithouse below Chimney Rock Great House

The "Parking Lot Site," an Above-Ground Pithouse below Chimney Rock Great House

Because of its odd location and distance from Chaco, Chimney Rock has been the subject of considerable research over the years, and the University of Colorado has just started a major new research project there headed by Steve Lekson that has already gotten quite a bit of press coverage.  The theories about Chimney Rock’s relationship to Chaco itself vary, and aren’t really that different from theories positing various roles of outliers in general.  The main theories about the founding of the Chimney Rock great house (among those who agree that it was founded by Chacoans at all rather than being an indigenous development) fall into two main groups: resource-procurement and astronomical observation.  The resource-procurement theories emphasize Chaco’s need for wood and the possibility that by the time Chimney Rock was founded in the AD 1070s closer sources such as the Chuska Mountains had been largely exhausted.  The astronomical theories, on the other hand, focus on the two large geological features, known as Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, that give the site its name.  Protruding from the mesa, they have a small gap between them when viewed from the great house that appears to align perfectly with the northernmost moonrise at the lunar major standstill, which only occurs every 18.6 years and did in fact occur around the time the great house was first built, and again when it was expanded or renovated in the 1090s.  This theory has been pushed largely by Kim Malville, an astronomer at the University of Colorado, and investigated thoroughly by Ron Sutcliffe, an engineer and surveyor in Pagosa Springs who has also worked at Chaco.

Trail to Chimney Rock Great House

Trail to Chimney Rock Great House

Given my skepticism about the idea of floating beams down the Piedra River to Aztec or Chaco, it may come as no surprise that I much prefer the astronomical explanation.  While it’s certainly possible that some wood used in great houses elsewhere (more likely in the Totah area than in Chaco itself) came from the Chimney Rock area, there has not been any clear evidence yet establishing this, and if they were carried overland rather than floated, as was apparently the case, upstream areas like Chimney Rock wouldn’t have had any particular advantages over other, closer areas with similar vegetation for procurement purposes.  The procurement scenarios make sense on a general level, but when applied to Chimney Rock specifically they leave many questions unanswered.  Why would the great house need to be way up on top of the steep mesa if the point was to harvest trees?  Why weren’t there any other procurement outliers nearby?  And why so far away?

Piedra River Valley from Chimney Rock Mesa

Piedra River Valley from Chimney Rock Mesa

All these questions are easily addressed by the theory that Chimney Rock was a preexisting religious site based on astronomical observations through the gap between the rocks (probably from various locations throughout the local area).  If the Chacoans were aware of this site, they may well have wanted to integrate it into their system, whatever it was, particularly if astronomical knowledge was an important aspect of the ritual authority that allowed them to put the system together in the first place, which it may have been.  While some archaeoastronomy can get a little too speculative for my taste, this Chimney Rock theory seems like one of the most clear-cut and useful examples of the archaeoastronomical approach as applied to Chacoan sites.  And, indeed, it seems that the astronomical theory has been winning out lately in both scholarly and interpretive circles.  Certainly the tour guide I had today talked about it a lot and didn’t mention wood procurement much.

Masonry at Chimney Rock Great House

Masonry at Chimney Rock Great House

In any case, it’s a fascinating place, well worth a trip, and hopefully the new research there will soon begin to shed more light on it.  With Lekson in charge, I have no doubt that the findings will, at the very least, be entertainingly described.

Chimney Rock Great House

Chimney Rock Great House

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Fajada Butte from Chaco Housing Area

Fajada Butte from Chaco Housing Area

Today was my last day of work at Chaco.  I’ve been here for most of the past year, first as a volunteer, then as a seasonal park guide.  It’s been a great experience, but I’m quite ready to move on now.  While it’s been very nice to be able to spend this much time at Chaco, this is not the sort of job that I can see myself doing long-term.  This much contact with the public for this long has really worn me out.  In some ways, this blog is an attempt to take what I’ve learned at Chaco and put it out there in a permanent form so that it will still be there once my time at Chaco is over.  I will still keep the blog going, of course, but I’ve already used it to say most of the major things I felt like I needed to say.  From now on it will more closely reflect my evolving thinking on a variety of issues related to Chaco.

"Entrance Fees" Sign at Chaco Visitor Center

"Entrance Fees" Sign at Chaco Visitor Center

Many of those issues will likely revolve around the relevance of Chaco to our society today.  I’ve noted before that attempts by modern-day policymakers to apply lessons from the past have tended to founder on an incomplete or simply mistaken understanding of that past.  I’ll be doing my best to overcome this tendency, both through this blog and more directly.  I will be enrolling this fall in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.  Planning is, perhaps, a rather different field of endeavor from those in which I have been engaged before, but I think there are quite a few continuities from my perspective.

Sign at Entrance to Chaco Housing Area

Sign at Entrance to Chaco Housing Area

People on my tours have often asked me about my background and future plans.  Their reactions to learning that I’m going to grad school for city planning tend to fall into two groups: “that’s going to be pretty different from this, isn’t it?” and “I can see how that would be pretty similar to this.”  Obviously, my attitude is more in line with the second reaction.  I find it interesting, however, to see how people interpret Chaco in the context of modern city planning.  For some, the isolated, desolate setting of Chaco today is what predominates, and since they can’t imagine any place more rural and seemingly uninhabited than Chaco, city planning seems like the polar opposite of working at a place like Chaco.  For others, the scale and formality of the Chacoan system, especially within the canyon, makes more of an impression, and they can easily see how someone could go from studying this obviously planned cultural landscape to applying that knowledge to similar activities today.  I could speculate about what attributes correlate with these perspectives, but to be honest I haven’t noticed any particular pattern.  Not that I’ve been paying especially close attention.

Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

I’m not going to go into detail here about the specific relevance of Chaco for modern-day planning, since I’ll surely be talking plenty about that in the future.  I will mention, however, the role I see archaeology playing in this.  In the post where I talked about how planners and architects never seem to take the right lessons from Chaco, I mentioned that archaeologists do seem to understand the importance of getting the information about the past right before hastily using it as an inspiration (or, even worse, a model) for modern practice.  I have a lot of problems with archaeology as a discipline, but at the same time I think it plays an indispensible role in acquiring ever-better information about the past and making that information available to the public.  I see myself as a consumer rather than a producer of such information; I’m certainly no archaeologist myself.  So, whatever issues I have, either practical or philosophical, about how archaeology is done, I have no compunctions about using the information that archaeology, flawed though it may be, has provided.

Pellet Stove at Chaco Visitor Center

Pellet Stove at Chaco Visitor Center

One issue that immediately rears its head in this context, however, is the inherently uncertain nature of archaeological understanding of the past.  Modern policymakers, to the extent that they think about the lessons of the past at all, tend to want an easy answer that they can immediately apply, and they’re very quick to grab one when it seems available.  Archaeologists tend to deplore this sort of behavior.  They themselves are much more cautious about how much they know and how much they don’t and may never know.  So, while many archaeologists will insist that their work is relevant to the present, they generally will not try to put it into the sort of form that the people who make the real-life decisions want, which ends up resulting in decisions being made with no heed to the past and its lessons.

Rainbow over Chaco Housing Area

Rainbow over Chaco Housing Area

One perceptive and quite useful approach to this issue comes in a short paper by Philip Duke in which he comments on the papers in a collection stemming from a conference on the archaeology of Chimney Rock, a fascinating Chacoan outlier in Colorado with nearly as many mysteries and theories seeking to solve them as Chaco itself.  Duke starts his essay with a parable:

Several years ago, an archaeologist happened to be at Chimney Rock with some of his students when they ran into a group of tourists being given a tour of the site by a USDA Forest Service guide.  As they followed the group for a short while, the archaeologist heard one of them whisper to her companion that this site didn’t look quite right.  This site, she went on, should be in the desert, not in the pines.  Clever person, he thought.  She spoiled it all, however, by confidently asserting that the archaeologists probably knew what it was doing there, and the guide would soon make it all clear.  When asked, the guide could only give “suggestions,” “guesses,” and “hypotheses.”

Closeup of Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

Closeup of Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

I’ve definitely encountered this attitude myself many times.  People want answers, and many see the role of archaeologists and guides as primarily being about providing them.  I’ve always tried to emphasize in my tours how much we don’t know about Chaco, and I’ve also tried to avoid presenting one theory over others as much as possible.  It sounds like the Forest Service guide at Chimney Rock had a similar attitude.  This is, of course, admirable to the archaeologists, but it isn’t at all what much of the public wants.  Many people like thinking about these questions themselves and coming up with their own answers, but many others have no interest in doing that and just want the experts to tell them what it’s all about so they know how to feel about it.  As Duke puts it:

[O]ur tourist clearly expected archaeology to give her the single and correct version of the past.  Our discipline has, with some success, tried to do this since its inception.  However, archaeology continually places itself into the conundrum of calling itself a science (we get more research money that way, you see), and then coming up with all sorts of very unscientific answers.  No wonder the public is confused by what archaeologists are exactly about and takes refuge in the comforting pages of National Geographic (now there’s Truth for you), or the latest Indiana Jones movie.

Scarlet Globemallows in Bloom at Chaco Housing Area

Scarlet Globemallows in Bloom at Chaco Housing Area

This is exactly right.  I’ve complained before about archaeologists presenting what they do as “science”; one of the main reasons for this, as Duke notes, is that there’s a lot more money out there for science than there is for other types of research, but another reason is that people love science.  Science offers the prospect of clear and decisive answers to complex, worrying problems.  Needless to say, this public image doesn’t bear much resemblance to how science actually works, and it bears much less resemblance to how archaeology, which isn’t really a “science” in any meaningful way, works.  So the public falls back on fictional and sensationalized accounts of the “experts” solving the world’s problems without any obstacle except perhaps a meddling bureaucrat (or Nazi).

Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

Real archaeology, which is to say the work that archaeologists actually do, tends to fall out of view in this context.  Duke attributes this at least partly to the failures of both the culture-historical and processual approaches to deliver on the unambiguous answers that their theoretical paradigms implicity promise.  While both of these approaches have certainly delivered plenty of empirical information that has been very useful to shaping interpretations of the past, those interpretations are still affected by myriad other forces, many of them the result of political and social factors within our own society that affect our attitude toward knowledge in general and knowledge of the past in particular.  By embedding their research within a positivist framework that promises that there is a true past out there to discover, if only we search hard enough, these perspectives set the public up for a big letdown when they inevitably fail to find that true past and descend into arguments over how best to interpret the empirical results they have found.

Full Moon over Chaco Housing Area

Full Moon over Chaco Housing Area

Duke’s answer to this problem is to adopt a “post-processual” approach.  This is something of a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but the basic idea is that studies of the past should take into account the contingent historical circumstances of both the past and the present.  In the past, it tries to interpret the empirical evidence in the context of the society involved, rather than looking at things from a more general and abstract approach, keeping in mind the fact that that context is never totally knowable.  In the present, it takes heed of the fact that interpretations are inevitably affected by the background and social biases of the interpreters, which may change over time.  This is not a reason for rejecting the interpretations, necessarily, since the point is not that past interpretations are “bad” because they reflected the biases of the societies that produced them but that any interpretations, including those made today, are made in a social context that must be considered in evaluating them.

Foot Scraper in Front of Chaco Visitor Center

Foot Scraper in Front of Chaco Visitor Center

Finally, Duke argues that archaeologists need to engage with the public and show that multiple interpretations of the same “facts” are signs not of weakness but of strength.  It’s okay to disagree on things, and it’s healthy to have those disagreements out in the open and to explain to outsiders what they are about.  This is certainly what I’ve tried to do in my work, and while I’m not sure I’m totally convinced that Duke is right that post-processualism is the best vehicle for this message, if it works, great.  Americanist archaeology isn’t marked by the same sharp lines between processualism and post-processualism that affect archaeological debates so strongly in other places such as Europe, so there is more room for common effort and cooperative division of labor within the discipline here than elsewhere.  However it’s done, it’s important to do, and I think in the time since Duke wrote a considerable amount of progress has been made on this.

Portico at Chaco Housing Area

Portico at Chaco Housing Area

While debates within archaeology over the proper interpretation of the evidence are generally good and should be brought to public attention, I’m not completely sure that archaeologists themselves are the best people to do it.  Some certainly can explain the current state of interpretations of a given subject with grace and balance, but many are likely to inject a bit too much of their own perspective in ways that the public is unlikely to grasp, and others are likely to descend into overly jargon-ridden depths into which few dare to follow.  There is a need, therefore, for people on the outside to keep track of the archaeology and the research and debates therein in order to present it to the public, not in a totally unbiased way (because, remember, that isn’t really possible), but in a more detached way, from the perspective, perhaps, of a different discipline or profession.  This won’t necessarily mean that the people in authority (or anyone, for that matter) will be any more inclined to appreciate the ambiguity of the archaeological record, of course, but they are more likely to take that ambiguity seriously and to stop and think before acting if it’s explained to them by someone outside of archaeology in a way that they can understand.  That’s more or less the role I see for myself, and this blog, going forward.

Winter Solstice Sunset through My Bedroom Window

Winter Solstice Sunset through My Bedroom Window

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Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

M. J. Hinton very kindly links to my post on Chacoan timber sources, and mentions another theory that I didn’t talk about in the post:

I’m certain it is not for lack of knowledge that he doesn’t mention that some think Chimney Rock was an outpost for gathering wood that might have been floated as far as Chaco. I don’t know if there is any merit to this idea. However, waterways may explain why wood would come from some areas and not others. In particular, Jemez may not be upstream from Chaco.

Kiva Pilaster at Escalante Pueblo

Kiva Pilaster at Escalante Pueblo

I am indeed aware of this idea, and I don’t buy it.  I see a variety of possible objections,  some more reasonable than others.

  1. Chimney Rock is about twice as far from Chaco as any of the established sources for timber.  I don’t think this is really the strongest objection, since arguments that the Chacoans are unlikely to have done something because it was impractical or inefficient tend to founder on the considerable evidence that the Chacoans did all sorts of things that were impractical and inefficient.  They really seem to have had access to virtually unlimited amounts of labor, and they used it in all sorts of ways that don’t seem to make much logical sense.
  2. There’s no clear evidence that any of the wood at Chaco came from Colorado.  While the spruce/fir study I mostly focused on in the last post didn’t look at the La Platas or San Juans as possible sources of timber, the subsequent ponderosa study did, with ambiguous results.  The strontium isotope ratios they found for the Colorado mountains overlapped with those for both the Chuskas and the Hosta Butte/Lobo Mesa area to the south of Chaco (which wasn’t included in the earlier study because it’s too low for spruce or fir).  While they did find some wood with isotope ratios in this range, with the data they had it was impossible to tell if it came from Colorado or from the other areas with similar ratios.
  3. There is considerable evidence that at least some of the large primary beams were left to dry for a few years after being harvested, presumably to reduce their weight.  Floating them down a river after this would waterlog them and totally undo any effect of the curing.  This is particularly important since even after being floated the beams would still have to be carried the thirty miles or so from the San Juan River to Chaco.  While I’m generally skeptical about arguments based on practicality, for reasons mentioned above, the evidence for curing makes this one more plausible than most.
  4. If the beams were in fact floated, they would presumably end up with a lot of scratches and scuff marks from hitting things in the river.  Floating logs down a river, especially with the technology the Chacoans had available, is not the easiest method of transportation to control.  And yet, the beams found at Chaco are remarkably pristine.  There’s barely a scratch on any beam in the whole canyon.  There aren’t even any axe marks from debarking, which is in striking contrast to beams at other sites such as Mesa Verde.  This suggests an amazing degree of care taken in the transportation of the beams, which is very hard to imagine if they were ever floated down a river.  I think this is probably the most devastating piece of evidence against the flotation theory.
Animas River, Farmington, New Mexico

Animas River, Farmington, New Mexico

In addition to the objections above to the specific idea of beams being floated down from Colorado, there are a lot of problems with the more general idea of timber sources being determined by waterways:

  1. This idea isn’t actually consistent with beams being floated down from Colorado, since they could only be floated as far as the San Juan River and would then have to be carried the remaining 30 miles to Chaco.  It’s hard to see how an emphasis on waterways as routes for timber transportation could have led to a decision to do this.  Since there is no real evidence that any of the timber did come from Colorado, however, this isn’t necessarily a major problem for the general idea.
  2. Most of the drainages in the southern San Juan Basin are intermittent and only flow at certain times of the year, which would have made transportation of beams a matter of careful timing.  Again, the Chacoans certainly had the ability to time things like this well enough, so this isn’t the most devastating objection.
  3. Perhaps more importantly, the known sources of timber (established in the strontium isotope studies) are not upstream from Chaco.  The eastern slope of the Chuskas does drain into the Chaco River via a series of eastward-flowing washes, but these washes enter the Chaco a considerable distance downstream from the canyon.  Trees from the Chuskas, therefore, which seems to have been the primary source of timber for the canyon, could not have been floated and would have to have been carried.  The other major source area that has been identified, around Mt. Taylor, is on the other side of the Continental Divide from Chaco and drains in the opposite direction.
  4. Furthermore, the Jemez, which doesn’t seem to have been a significant source of timber for the canyon, is upstream from Chaco.  More precisely, while the Jemez Mountains themselves are on the other side of the Continental Divide, they are just barely so, and the Chaco Wash originates right along the Divide near Star Lake, about 20 miles from Cuba.  Since the Chacoans were clearly carrying beams 50 miles from the Chuskas and Mt. Taylor, they could easily have carried them 20 miles from the Jemez to the wash and floated them in the late summer when it flowed high from the monsoon rains.  The fact that they didn’t seems to clearly indicate that waterways were not a factor in the decision-making process related to timber procurement.
Sign in Cuba Pointing to Chaco

Sign in Cuba Pointing to Chaco

I’m not sure where this idea came from originally, but it’s certainly out there and I’ve heard it several times.  It may have started as a way to explain the anomalous location of Chimney Rock, which really is odd in a number of ways, including its combination of considerable distance from Chaco with extensive Chacoan influence.  I think the evidence for an astronomical basis for the foundation of Chimney Rock is a lot more plausible than the idea that it was a lumber camp.  The idea of logs being floated from Chimney Rock to Chaco really doesn’t make much sense, and until any evidence for it surfaces (which I think is pretty unlikely) I’m not inclined to give it much credence.

Sign for Chaco Wash Laundromat (Formerly Pueblo Alto Trading Post)

Sign for Chaco Wash Laundromat (Formerly Pueblo Alto Trading Post)

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