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Archive for July, 2009

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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Back Wall of Hungo Pavi Showing Two Stories

Back Wall of Hungo Pavi Showing Two Stories

Chaco is famous for its masonry, and rightly so.  While there are many things that set Chaco apart from other cultural systems in the prehistoric southwest, probably the most obvious to modern visitors is the fineness and elaboration of the stonework used to construct the major great houses in the canyon such as Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  Masonry style has also been one of the main techniques for dating and interpreting architectural stages ever since Neil Judd’s excavations at Pueblo Bonito in the 1920s.  In the minds of many, the fine stonework of the Bonito Phase is the essence of the Chaco style.

Original Plaster at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Original Plaster at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Given this attitude, it’s hardly surprising that people are quite often shocked to hear that the Chacoans, like other ancient Puebloans, actually plastered over all of their stonework with a mud plaster, so the fine masonry that we find so aesthetically appealing would not actually have been visible at the time.  (As Steve Lekson notes in his study of great-house architecture, not all the walls were actually plastered, but the ones that weren’t were interior rooms, probably for storage.  All exterior walls, and the interior walls of living and ceremonial rooms, were plastered.)  One of the questions we get very frequently, then, is why they would have done this.

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

It’s not at all clear why the Chacoans would have put so much effort into masonry only to cover it, but they certainly did.  Some interior rooms were whitewashed and painted, which may provide one possible answer.  It’s possible that exterior walls may have been painted as well, but the plaster typically doesn’t survive well enough on exterior walls to tell.  It’s also possible that a smooth surface on the exterior was considered aesthetically preferable, although again it’s very hard to tell what the exterior walls would have actually looked like.

Painted Design on Wall Plaster at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Painted Design on Wall Plaster at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

One rather more practical explanation for the plastering could be that it facilitated maintenance.  Modern pueblos are generally plastered all over, whether they are made of stone or adobe, and replastering is generally an annual event in which the whole community participates.  The plaster protects the walls from the adverse effects of rain and snow, which, while not extremely common in the southwest, are certainly common enough to make walls made out of adobe or stone with mud mortar deteriorate rapidly if not maintained (as the state of most ancient ruins certainly attests).

Remnants of Plaster on Kiva Bench at Lowry Pueblo

Remnants of Plaster on Kiva Bench at Lowry Pueblo

Another question we get somewhat less frequently, but which I’ve heard a few times recently, is why we today don’t plaster the walls.  It would certainly make preservation work a lot easier to just cover all the walls with mud rather than doing the laborious and tedious repointing of mortar joints that our preservation crew does on a constant basis, and it would actually in some ways be more “authentic” to show how the walls likely looked at the time, even if the actual plaster were modern.

Explanatory Plaque in Room with Replacement Plaster, Pueblo Bonito

Explanatory Plaque in Room with Replacement Plaster, Pueblo Bonito

And, indeed, there is one room, the famous “covered room” in Pueblo Bonito with an intact ceiling, where the original plaster was recently covered over with replacement plaster because it was getting so damaged by the high volume of visitation the room gets.  This room is the only one in Pueblo Bonito that is accessible to visitors where it is possible to get a reasonable sense of what all the rooms were originally like.

Remnants of Original Wall Plaster at Pueblo Bonito

Remnants of Original Wall Plaster at Pueblo Bonito

In most places, however, we don’t replaster, despite the potential benefits of replastering for preservation.  This seems to be a rare case of interpretive concerns outweighing preservation concerns rather than the other way around.  Basically, the very fact that people associate Chaco with its masonry makes it very difficult to justify covering up that masonry, even if it would be both better for preservation and truer to the original state of the buildings.  At this point the image of Chaco is at least as important to the visiting public as the truth behind that image, and the stonework is such an integral part of that image that the public outcry if it were covered up would likely be intense.

Reconstructed Doorway at Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

Reconstructed Doorway at Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

So we, unlike the Chacoans, leave the stonework exposed to the elements, and work much harder than these notoriously hard-working people ever did to keep it in place.  I wonder what they would think if they saw this.  I suspect they would laugh.

Horsecollar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument

Horsecollar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument

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Water Pressure Pipe at Chaco Visitor Center

Water Pressure Pipe at Chaco Visitor Center

As they walk from the parking lot into the Visitor Center, visitors to Chaco often notice a big pipe coming down from the cliff right next to the parking lot.  This seems like sort of an odd thing, so one of the most frequent questions we get is about its purpose.  This is, luckily, also one of the easiest questions to answer: it provides us with water pressure.  The park’s water comes from a well in the maintenance yard that goes down about 3000 feet.  This is an extraordinarily deep well.  It is possible to drill shallower wells in this area, but, given the arid climate and unpredictable weather, for a really reliable source of water a very deep well is necessary.  The downside, and the reason wells this deep are so rare, is that the water that far down, while plentiful, is full of various minerals and salts that render it non-potable.  For drinking water, therefore, some of the water coming out of the well is run through an elaborate and very expensive filtration system, then piped into the visitor center and the housing area.  The raw water, however, which is used for things like toilets and fire suppression systems where potability isn’t needed, goes straight from the wellhead to a holding tank on top of the mesa.  This tank is painted to blend in with the sandstone, so people generally don’t notice it, but it is actually visible from some points along the loop road through the park.  Much more visible, of course, is the pipe, which leads down from the tank to the level of the canyon floor.  This provides us with gravity-driven pressure for the water system, and the pressure is quite high on account of the substantial vertical distance traversed by the pipe.  It works quite well.

Chaco Visitor Center

Chaco Visitor Center

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Entrance to Edge of the Cedars Museum, Blanding, Utah

Entrance to Edge of the Cedars Museum, Blanding, Utah

Ever since the initial arrests in the Blanding pothunting cases I’ve wondered about the antiquities dealer, named in court papers only as “the Source,” who cooperated with federal authorities in setting up the sting operation that resulted in the arrests.  I initially thought he might have been doing this as part of a plea deal after being caught for some sort of looting-related crime himself, but apparently he came to the feds on his own and has not had any previous trouble of this sort.  His motivations are still pretty obscure at this point, but it seems likely that he may have just realized that all this pothunting around Blanding was going to get investigated sooner or later and he might as well ingratiate himself with the authorities at the outset.  His identity has also been kept secret in court documents and press accounts, but it’s surely no secret to people in Blanding, which is a very small town with a population of around 3000.

Residential Street in Blanding, Utah

Residential Street in Blanding, Utah

Whatever his motivations, which will likely become clearer as the cases proceed toward trial, the Source was clearly doing this at considerable risk to himself.  People in Blanding, like rural westerners in general, don’t much care for the federal government, and they don’t tend to think collecting artifacts is that big a deal.  They also tend to be armed.  If any of the suspects from whom the Source bought looted artifacts had learned that he was recording their conversations to gather evidence against them, things would likely have become very ugly for him.

Bear's Ears from Blanding, Utah

Bear's Ears from Blanding, Utah

Things have since become very ugly for everyone, of course, especially with the two suicides that have occurred so far apparently in response to the arrests.  The suicide of Dr. James Redd, one of the suspects, the day after his arrest was particularly galling for people in Blanding, where he was a very popular and highly regarded physician.  His wife and daughter have since pleaded guilty to the charges against them, presumably as part of a plea bargain under which they will provide information in the remaining cases in exchange for lighter sentences, but the anger among people in Blanding over Dr. Redd’s suicide is still quite hot.

Wells Fargo Bank, Blanding, Utah

Wells Fargo Bank, Blanding, Utah

For one of Dr. Redd’s patients, it seems to have been particularly hot.  On Saturday Charles Armstrong of Blanding was arrested and charged with plotting to tie the Source to a tree and beat him with a baseball bat, apparently in response to the Source’s role in precipitating Dr. Redd’s suicide.  It’s not that clear, at least to me, how serious this threat was, but tensions in Blanding are high enough that I can certainly see Armstrong having meant it, and the authorities are clearly not taking any chances.

Hunt's Trading Post, Blanding, Utah

Hunt's Trading Post, Blanding, Utah

I don’t know who the Source is, although Armstrong apparently does, but I suspect that he isn’t spending much time in Blanding these days.  In fact, I think it’s quite likely that he has moved away for good (or will soon).  Blanding’s a nice place in a lot of ways, but I’m certainly glad I’m not there right now.

Sun Marker at Edge of the Cedars with Bear's Ears in Background

Sun Marker at Edge of the Cedars with Bear's Ears in Background

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Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

Many of the questions visitors ask again and again about Chaco are pretty obvious and, I think, pretty reasonable.  Indeed, many of them have been the starting points for considerable amounts of archaeological research.  The issue of the sources of the enormous amounts of wood used in the construction of the great  houses in the canyon is one good example of a question of interest to casual visitors and scholarly specialists alike.

Peñasco Blanco from Below

Peñasco Blanco from Below

Some questions that visitors often ask I find rather puzzling, however.  Since many of these are asked rather frequently, I get the sense that there is some common set of assumptions underlying them that I should probably be addressing both in person when they come up and here on the blog as a more general matter, but for the life of me I cannot figure out what those assumptions are.  All I know is that I clearly don’t share them, since the questions, while easy enough to answer, don’t seem to me like topics worth thinking or discussing in much detail, but there they are, again and again, like so many flies to be swatted.

Masonry at Pueblo Alto

Masonry at Pueblo Alto

One of these, which seems to be coming up with particular regularity in the past few days, is the source of the admittedly immense amount of building stone used in the great houses.  People seem very impressed, even astounded, with both the overall quantity of stone and the number of individual blocks (“all those little rocks!”), and to a lesser and more understandable extent with the amount of effort that seems to have gone into both acquiring and shaping them.

Type IV Masonry at Pueblo Bonito

Type III Masonry at Pueblo Bonito

On the one hand, the fineness of the masonry at Chaco is one of best-known aspects of the Chacoan system, and it certainly does set the canyon apart from many other manifestations of Puebloan culture elsewhere in the southwest.  Mesa Verde, for instance, for all the impressiveness of both its general setting and the locations of its individual sites, tends to feature fairly rudimentary stonework.

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

On the other hand, however, if there’s one thing present in enormous quantity at Chaco it’s stone.  While the scale of construction in the canyon is impressive by any standard, especially given the relatively short time period in which the most extensive building events took place, and the fineness of the masonry is justly famous, there are plenty of other sites elsewhere featuring one or the other.

Masonry at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

Masonry at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

Further west, for instance, places like Wupatki have remarkably fine stonework, and the large pueblos of the late prehistoric period in many parts of the southwest certainly involved a lot of stone (although in other areas construction involved large amounts of adobe instead).  Chaco’s distinctiveness lies largely in the combination of the enormous size of its great houses and the enormous amount of care and effort that clearly went into their construction.  Making a building as big and well-built as Pueblo Bonito took a lot of work and skill, but the acquisition of stone took only a very small portion of the effort involved.

Soft, Yellowish Sandstone at Base of Cliffs

Soft, Yellowish Sandstone at Base of Cliffs

In any case, while the question of where the Chacoans got the stone for their buildings puzzles me by the fact that it is asked at all, it’s actually pretty easy to answer.  Most of the major great-house sites are built largely of what’s known as “Bonito-style” masonry, which is distinguished by both its very strong, stable, and useful core-and-veneer wall-construction technique and its use of a particular type of sandstone.

South Gap from Mesa Top Showing Outcrop of Tabular Sandstone

South Gap from Mesa Top Showing Outcrop of Tabular Sandstone

This is not the soft, yellowish, massive sandstone seen at the base of the cliffs, but the next level of sandstone up, a hard, tabular, gray or brown type of stone that is thinly bedded and tends to break cleanly in straight lines and right angles, which makes it very easy to shape either by simply snapping it or by scoring it with a sharp stone and then hitting it with a hammerstone to form a very straight edge.

Type IV Masonry at Chetro Ketl

Type IV Masonry at Chetro Ketl

This tabular nature makes this type of stone, which outcrops on top of the mesas surrounding the canyon approximately a mile from the major great houses, particularly well suited for the elaborate coursing involved in the Bonito-style veneers.  While the soft, yellowish stone from the lower level is used in some types of Bonito-style masonry, it is much less common than the hard, tabular stone, presumably since it doesn’t break cleanly and requires a considerable amount of effort to grind it to a reasonably straight edge.  While it would certainly have been easier to acquire the yellow stone, which is lying around on the ground all over the canyon, it would take so much work to shape it that it probably didn’t end up saving any overall effort compared to the tabular stone, which was a little harder to get but a lot easier to use.  It was likely broken off along natural horizontal planes in whatever sizes came most easily, then carried down in baskets to the construction sites in the canyon, where it was worked further, if necessary, along the vertical edges and then laid in the walls.

McElmo-Style Kiva, Pueblo del Arroyo

McElmo-Style Kiva, Pueblo del Arroyo

In the early 1100s, toward the end of the Chacoan era, a new style of core-and-veneer masonry using the soft, yellowish sandstone almost exclusively became popular in the canyon.  This is known as “McElmo-style” masonry and was used mainly in the construction of extremely standardized, symmetrical, modular buildings that were much smaller than the Bonito-style great houses (although some additions to Bonito-style sites used it as well).  These are known as McElmo-style great houses or McElmo units.  They include Kin Kletso, New Alto, Casa Chiquita, and others.

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

The name “McElmo” comes from McElmo Creek, just north of Mesa Verde, and was originally applied to this style at Chaco because it seemed to some archaeologists to reflect influence or even population movement from the north at a relatively late time in the canyon’s occupation.  While Steve Lekson, in his seminal study of great house architecture, has argued persuasively that the McElmo style is largely a local development that bears only a superficial resemblance to Mesa Verdean architectural styles, the name has stuck.

New Alto Sign

New Alto Sign

It’s not clear why the McElmo style used the soft, yellowish stone rather than the hard, tabular stone.  The yellow stone is considerably harder to work, but it is obviously possible to work it to a fine condition, and the McElmo units show typically Chacoan care and elaboration in their masonry despite the material.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

The use of the stone may indeed be a reference or homage to northern styles, either from Mesa Verde or from the Totah area along the San Juan River and its major tributaries.  Aztec Ruins is built almost entirely in the McElmo style, and much of the most impressive building there was done around the same time that the McElmo units were being built at Chaco.

Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

In any case, both the Bonito-style and the McElmo-style masonry used stone that was easily accessible nearby.  Although there are few resources present in large quantities in and around Chaco, sandstone is one thing that is extremely easy to find.  I don’t know why people keep asking about it, but the answer to the constant questions about where they got the stone is: right here.

Walls at Una Vida

Walls at Una Vida

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