I’ve been many times in 20 years to chaco and read much and I’ve been forming a blasphemous opinion; what makes pueblo bonito the greatest of the great houses? Assuming all the other great houses were controlled by different entities even while sharing the same religion, why should there have been no successful challenges for bonitos status or position?
I responded, but I think this issue is actually important enough for a post. I think john is quite possibly on to something, for reasons explained in my response, but here I want to talk about a slightly different way to look at the question of Pueblo Bonito’s uniqueness. In my response I said that in my view the main thing that makes Bonito the greatest of the great houses is that it’s the best known and most thoroughly excavated. There are really two parts to this. On the one hand, the fact that so much is known about Bonito from the extensive excavations there and so little is known about other great houses means that all interpretations of Chaco are necessarily skewed by an overemphasis on Bonito and an underemphasis on the other sites. The importance of this skew is impossible to tell, of course, because it depends on what the actual nature of the Chaco system was and what the roles of the different great houses were within it, which are basically unknowable with the information we have now. So in that sense, Bonito is the “greatest” of the great houses just because we know more about it than we know about any of the others, and it quite possibly was not actually the greatest at the time. In other words, the Bonito-centric nature of current models of the Chaco system could just be due to the historical accident of choices about where to excavate first, and Bonito may not actually have been the greatest of the great houses at the time.
In another sense, though, Bonito really is the greatest of the great houses regardless of whether or not it was the greatest when it was in use. This is precisely because it has been so extensively excavated and left open for visitors to see. It’s really a very impressive site, and the visual impact of seeing it and wandering through its huge maze of rooms is one of the highlights of a visit to Chaco. Because none of the other great houses have been been excavated and left open to that extent, they can’t possibly have the same effect on visitors despite. They’re all impressive, of course, but the unexcavated and less-excavated ones are not impressive in the same way as Bonito. The only other great house that can be experienced in anything like the same way is Aztec West, which was also extensively excavated and left open. It’s bigger than any other great house except Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, but it is smaller than those two, and less of it is open to the public than is the case at Bonito. It’s also somewhat less impressive just because the setting of the Aztec complex is much less striking than Chaco Canyon.
Back when I was giving tours of Pueblo Bonito, I began to get tired of it after a while, and I would think it was a bit overrated and that the other sites should get more attention. I, of course, had been reading about all these sites and was interested in them based on that, and it took me a while to realize that for most visitors they’re just not going to have the same effect as Bonito. All the sites at Chaco are worth seeing, but once I realized just how different Bonito is from all the rest I began to heavily emphasize it when advising people about what to see during their time in the park. Places like Una Vida and Pueblo del Arroyo are definitely interesting, but I think for most visitors they’re a lesser priority, and rightly so. Pueblo Bonito is what people come to Chaco to see.
When you look at it that way, it doesn’t actually matter if Bonito was the most important of the great houses in the eleventh century (or the tenth, or the ninth). It’s the most important of the great houses now, because it’s the one that impresses people enough to draw them to the canyon from all over the world. It’s the most impressive not because it’s the biggest, although it is, nor because it was at the center of the Chaco system, although it probably was, at least at the height of the system in the late eleventh century. It’s the most impressive because it’s the only one you can actually walk through and experience personally. It is of course largely because it’s the biggest of the great houses that it was excavated early on and left open as an exhibit for visitors to see, so in that sense it is the greatest of the sites because it (probably) was the greatest of them originally. Even if a new, bigger, more important great house were somehow discovered tomorrow, however, it would not displace Pueblo Bonito as the most important of the great houses to visitors today, because there’s no way it would be excavated and left open the way Bonito has been. Archaeology has changed over the past century, as has Park Service policy. Pueblo Bonito is still there, though, open and accessible, and it will remain so for at least the near future.
As I explained in my response to john, I suspect that Pueblo Bonito may well not have always been the most important of the great houses, although I find it most plausible that any shift of influence would have been to increase rather than diminish Bonito’s role over time, at least up until the decline of the canyon and the probable shift of the system to Aztec. Understanding the changing dynamics of the Chaco system over time is, I think, a very important part of understanding the system in general, and one that has been largely neglected by most research, although this is starting to change. None of that matters much for the average park visitor, though, who will remain most impressed by the stunning remains of Pueblo Bonito from the period of its height. Whether there were other great houses that were even more impressive at that time is a rather abstract question when the grandeur of Bonito is right there, and whether earlier versions of Bonito were less important than other sites at some earlier time is even more abstract and immaterial. It’s Bonito that people see, and they are impressed by it. That’s a core reality that I think those of us who tend to delve deeper into the world of Chaco research can easily forget. It’s important, though, and an occasional reminder of it is a useful reality check.