Tag Archive | Chaco Canyon

SW National Parks Trip: Casa Rinconada

After Chetro Ketl, I made my way back to the car to warm-up a little, and Jon and I drove over to Casa Rinconada.  Casa Rinconada is a village site at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in contrast to the Great Houses that were constructed during the same time period.  It was a village where daily living would have taken place, and is a much more simple style of construction, one story, and without the formal open plaza that the Great Houses have.  Case Rinconada was excavated between 1936 and 1947, and after the excavation, many sites were covered over again to protect them from the elements and looters.

Walking around the trail, we were struck by the fact that everyplace you look there are mounds of earth that cover Chacoan construction.  During the height of its existence, this was the “downtown core” of Chaco Canyon.  Casa Rinconada’s homes are often built over other construction as well, including earlier pit houses.  The Puebloans seemed to love to remodel and reuse.  Some rooms were used for living, while others were primarily storage rooms that contained excess foods or materials.

Casa Rinconada village site

Casa Rinconada village site

Casa Rinconada contains one of the largest kivas in the Puebloan world.  It has T-shaped doorways that would have allowed for entrance into the kiva, instead of the only entryway being through the hole in the roof.  The kiva also contains several built-in notches in the walls; they don’t know why but suspect that some of them are astronomical markers.  The village also contains a keyhole shaped kiva, which is unusual.

The Kiva at Casa Rinconada – one of the largest in the Southwest Notice the T-Shaped Doorway on the Far Side

The Kiva at Casa Rinconada – one of the largest in the Southwest
Notice the T-Shaped Doorway on the Far Side

The excavations at Casa Rinconada revealed about 130 burials; these people were buried simply on twilled mats and without many grave artifacts.  Some had clay vessels, potsherds and shell bracelets, but they were not as elaborate as the burials at Pueblo Bonito, where burials were accompanied by large quantities of worked shell, turquoise pendants and musical instruments.  This gives researchers some insights into the social structure of the people who lived in Chaco Canyon.

There is so much about this culture that we will never know, but it was fascinating to spend some time wandering around the sites and artifacts that they left behind and trying to get a glimpse into what life was like here.  I hope I will get an opportunity to return, perhaps when the weather is a little warmer and I can hike to some of the outlying sites.  And if you get a chance to visit, I hope you will take it!

And with that, we got back on the long bumpy road and slowly made our way to the highway.  Next stop – Santa Fe!

SW National Parks Trip: Chetro Ketl and the Petroglyphs

In my last post, I described our visit to the Hungo Pavi and Pueblo Bonito sites at Chaco Culture, as well as the tiny cemetery where Richard Wetherill is buried.  But we still had a few that we wanted to visit.  Or maybe I should say – that I wanted to visit.  Jon had pooped out and decided to avoid the wind chill by spending some time reading on his Kindle in the car.

Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl share the same parking lot, but have separate trails out to each site.  But, there is a trail connecting them that runs along the bottom of the cliff, and provides wonderful views of the petroglyphs on the cliff face.  Petroglyphs are pictures that have been carved into the rock; usually by chipping away the outer, darker surface of the stone with stone tools.  They are found all over the Southwest, and give insight into the things that the culture found important.

The Park Service has several stops marked on the trail, and you can stop at each stop and read about the petroglyphs located there in the trail guide that is sold at the Visitor’s Center, or at the parking area for $1.00.  You can also borrow and return a guide if you don’t want to buy it, but for only $1.00, I took mine home with me so I could match up my photographs with what I was seeing later on.

The sun makes him a little hard to see, but this is clearly a bird

The sun makes him a little hard to see, but this is clearly a bird

The petroglyphs here depict lots of geometric shapes, swirls, animals and human figures, although there is speculation that some of the human figures are supernatural beings (I’ll let you decide for yourself).  There is also graffiti that was left after Chaco Canyon was “re-discovered” in the 1800s and some contemporary graffiti.  I find it sad that some people don’t have respect for these beautiful, historic sites, because once they have been defaced and damaged, they are gone forever.

Some researchers believe this is a supernatural figure

Some researchers believe this is a supernatural figure

The trail is also a great place to view evidence of the blocks of rooms that were once built against the cliff.  They have collapsed now, but beam seats, where the poles that supported the ceilings were once placed, are still visible.  There is also evidence of a staircase carved into the rock, with handholds to help the Puebloan people climb the staircase and travel to other Chaco Canyon sites built on the top of the cliff.

At the end of the Petroglyph Trail, I reached Chetro Ketl, and explored it in absolute solitude.  Due to the challenges of the road leading into the park, and the fact that it was so cold that day, I was all alone at the site.  Chetro Ketl is another Great House; it began as a single room block around 1010 A.D.  but eventually grew over the next 100 years to be almost three acres in size.  It was three stories tall, and at its height contained about 225 first floor rooms, and another 275 second and third floor rooms.

The Great House – Chetro Ketl – approximately 500 rooms

The Great House – Chetro Ketl – approximately 500 rooms

Chetro Ketl shows signs of intentional burning.  Archaeologists don’t know why, but some guesses are to prevent others from using the site after it was abandoned, or to represent a ceremonial closing of the structure.  This Great House is also unique because the builders intentionally elevated the open plaza above the surrounding landscape, by hauling tons of dirt and rock to create a platform.  Reasons for this are also unknown, but it is believed that the builders may be been trying to mitigate the effects of flooding in the area that occurs after heavy rains.

Chetro Ketl – Do you see the beam seats in the cliff wall? They are towards the top, center of the photo

Chetro Ketl – Do you see the beam seats in the cliff wall? They are towards the top, center of the photo

Chetro Ketl also once had balconies, similar to the ones seen at Balcony House at Mesa Verde.  When Chaco Canyon was re-discovered in the 1800s, these balconies were still there, and were documented to be intact in 1901.  Sadly, over the next 20 years, scavengers looking for firewood and building materials destroyed the balconies.

The original wooden support beams – called vigas – wood doesn’t last 1,000 years where I live!

The original wooden support beams – called vigas – wood doesn’t last 1,000 years where I live!

There is also evidence of building with columns.  This style of architecture was not seen at other Puebloan sites, and archaeologists believe that the Chacoans borrowed this style from Toltec builders in Mexico.  The Chacoans traded turquoise and macaws with the Toltecs, so it makes sense that the influence would go beyond just trade goods.  Later construction at Chetro Ketl filled in the spaces between the columns, so now they are solid walls.

Much of Chetro Ketl was covered back over with sand after it was excavated, in order to protect the site from further decay, so it is a bit tougher to imagine what it was once like than Pueblo Bonito.  But it has so many unique features, that it is a fascinating structure to see.  I loved my time there.  I’ll tell you about the village site we visited next!

 

SW National Parks Trip: Great Houses at Chaco Culture

In my last post, I explained just how brutal the road to Chaco Culture is…  But once you are there, the sites are very accessible.  Chaco Culture has six major sites on a nine mile stretch of road through the park. You can park at the parking area for each site and then it is a short walk out to the ruin. A few of the sites have trails between them, if you want to make it a longer hike. The trails are hard packed dirt with fine gravel and some paved sections; it was pretty easy hiking overall.

We decided on the sites we wanted to visit, and figured we could see more if we still had time when we finished. We decided on Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Bonito, the largest Great House in the complex. We also wanted to visit Casa Rinconada, which was more a residential site, rather than a ceremonial complex. I was excited to see them all!

Our first stop was Hungo Pavi. Hungo Pavi was named when the site was rediscovered; according to some, it stands for Reed Spring Village, but others say that the meaning of the name is not known.  It was built between 943 and 1047, and once may have been up to four stories tall, containing 73 rooms.  Hungo Pavi is unexcavated, so you can see the site as it was when it was rediscovered, after sand and vegetation have covered over the structure.

View of the Canyon through a window at Hungo Pavi

View of the Canyon through a window at Hungo Pavi

The next site that we visited was Pueblo Bonito; the largest Great House in Chaco Canyon, and a significant building in the Puebloan community of sites.  It contained more than 650 rooms; with some estimates as high as 800 rooms.  The Great House contained sections as many as 5 stories tall.  Pueblo Bonito was constructed in stages over 300 years – from approximately 850 A.D. to almost 1150 A.D.; its period of construction and occupancy was longer than any other site in Chaco Canyon.  There is evidence that Pueblo Bonito was occupied into the early 1200s.

Pueblo Bonito – the blue sky makes it look warmer than it was

Pueblo Bonito – the blue sky makes it look warmer than it was

We wandered around Pueblo Bonito for awhile, checking out all of the different rooms and kivas.  Pueblo Bonito has several interesting features, including T-shaped doorways similar to the ones seen at Mesa Verde, and a back wall that contains several rooms with doorways that open to the outside of the complex, rather than having doorways into the rest of the complex.  Sadly, looters before the turn of the last century used explosives to blow holes in the back wall so they wouldn’t have to dig through hundreds of years of accumulated sand and debris.  It allowed them to easily reach and steal priceless artifacts, but destroyed many rooms and compromised the structural integrity of the back wall.

Me with Pueblo Bonito in the background – the guy with the yellow shirt gives a good idea of scale

Me with Pueblo Bonito in the background – the guy with the yellow shirt gives a good idea of scale

Another 30 rooms were destroyed on January 22, 1941, when an enormous block of sandstone collapsed from the cliff above.  It was 97 feet high, 140 feet long and 34 feet thick – it weighed about 30,000 tons.  It is still at the site, giant boulders that sit where they fell that day; an overlook gives a better view of the huge stones and the damage that they caused.  Interestingly, the same rock threatened Pueblo Bonito when the Puebloan people lived here – they knew of the danger that it posed.  They placed prayer sticks in the crevice and built a supporting masonry terrace at the base of the rock.

Pueblo Bonito From Above – You can see the large rockfall that destroyed part of the site

Pueblo Bonito From Above – You can see the large rockfall that destroyed part of the site

We also saw one room that still contained its original plaster walls and roof!  It is pretty amazing to think about the fact that this roof survived intact through hundreds of years in the harsh conditions of the desert.  The roof contains timbers that were transported 40-60 miles from the closest forests.  The trees were cut, peeled and allowed to dry for months or years to reduce their weight.  Then the ends were cut and sanded with stone tools.  Some of the best estimates about the age of the structures in Chaco Canyon are due to the fact that the timbers can be dated with dendrochronology – tree ring dating.

A series of rooms at Pueblo Bonito

A series of rooms at Pueblo Bonito

It was really cold that day, with a biting wind, so Jon decided to head back to the car while I continued checking out the Pueblo Bonito site.  I was tempted by a sign that pointed out a trail leading to the cemetery, so I walked the quarter mile trail to see what was there.  As it turns out, it was the gravesite of Richard Wetherill, who was murdered here in Chaco Canyon in 1910.  Wetherill is the same guy who explored the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings.  There are a few other people buried there; the last burial that I saw was in 1981.  I was a bit surprised by that, because Chaco Culture has been a part of the National Park System since 1907.

Richard Wetherill’s Grave (with Misspelling) – with Puebloan construction in the background

Richard Wetherill’s Grave (with Misspelling) – with Puebloan construction in the background

Everything about Chaco Culture was amazing – I’ll post about the other sites we visited next!

 

 

SW National Parks Trip: The Road to Chaco Culture

As we left Farmington, New Mexico the next morning to make our way to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the weather was again bitingly cold and windy. My one warm sweatshirt, hat and gloves were getting quite the workout! We made our way out to the highway and began the couple hour drive to the park. Where we found that once again it was starting to snow…

As the snow got worse and worse, and started to blanket the fields next to the road, the wind continued and made it difficult to see. We saw a sign indicating that the turnoff for Chaco was 10 miles away, and my heart started to sink. The road out there is not a good one, and with questionable weather it would probably be impassable. We made the decision that we would need to skip our planned visit.

There’s a storm brewing – Driving in Northern New Mexico (and yes, that sticker the rental car agency put in the corner of the windshield annoyed me the whole trip!)

There’s a storm brewing – Driving in Northern New Mexico (and yes, that sticker the rental car agency put in the corner of the windshield annoyed me the whole trip!)

Almost immediately after deciding we wouldn’t go, the snow started to lighten up, and the skies began to brighten enough that we could see blue skies off to the West in the direction of the park. By the time we had driven the 10 miles to the turnoff, it was looking good enough to take the chance. We did decide that if the weather started to turn worse, we would turn around immediately.

Chaco Culture NHP is 21 miles from highway 550. The first 8 miles are paved. The next 13 miles are unpaved gravel, then hard packed dirt road. According to the NPS website, the road is suitable for all passenger vehicles, but the last 4.5 miles are very rough. The Park Service’s warning about the rough road is no understatement. As we jostled around in our rental car, we felt very anxious. There are no fences, and signs warn you about livestock in the road. We didn’t see any animals in the road like we did at Canyonlands, but we saw cattle, goats and wild horses very close to the edge.

Wild Horses on the Road to Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Wild Horses on the Road to Chaco Culture National Historical Park

The ruts tossed us around, and we had multiple conversations about whether it was better to go faster and take the bumps in one spine compressing fell swoop, or slow down and feel each jarring bounce individually. This, even though we never went more than 20 miles an hour on the rougher sections. There were two discussions about turning around, even though the weather no longer seemed threatening.

Even though it was on Jon’s must-see list for the trip, he was having serious second thoughts. In short, you don’t go to Chaco Culture NHP on accident. You have to really want to go there.

Looks fun, right!?

Looks fun, right!?

We finally arrived, and what a relief it was to reach the boundary of the park and hit paved road again! We passed the primitive campground; I’m not much into camping, but I would camp there just to experience to absolute silence and the absolute darkness of Chaco Culture at night. I bet the stars are amazing!  Then we stopped at the Visitor’s Center.

This is what relief looks like. I love the way they styled this sign too.

This is what relief looks like. I love the way they styled this sign too.

The Visitor’s Center had the first picture stamp of the trip for my National Parks Passport; it was a picture of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture’s largest Great House, as it would have looked at the culture’s peak. I shopped for some postcards (you didn’t think I could pass up postcards?!) and talked to the ranger about the sites we should visit. And I asked him about the weather forecast and what that would mean for the road, as there was still a chance of rain or snow continuing through the day. He said that it was very unlikely that there would be measurable precipitation, and that the road would be fine. That allayed my fears; but I don’t think it did much for Jon.

I’ll tell you about the historic sites at Chaco next!

Have you been on a road like this?  What’s the worse driving experience you have had?

SW National Parks Trip: Chaco Culture History

The next day on our trip was our visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Chaco Culture is located in the San Juan Basin, between Farmington, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a canyon cut by the Chaco Wash.  It is situated at an elevation between 6200 and 6400 feet.  The wash rarely contains water, only filling when a storm rolls through the area.  The area where the park is located receives an average of 9.1 inches of rain annually.  Although the temperatures fluctuate wildly, from -38 degrees in the winter to 102 in the summer, there are only 3 or 4 snow storms each year.

Evidence of human habitation goes back to about 7,000 B.C., with about 70 campsites in caves and on the canyon floor found in the area.  As with other areas in the Southwest, the first people to live here were nomadic or semi-nomadic, but the first evidence of farming dates to about 900 B.C.  As time went on and farming techniques improved, the population increased and people became less and less nomadic.  As in nearby areas, the first housing structures were pit houses, with a portion of the home dug into the ground and timbers, grasses and mud laid over top.  About 800 A.D. the first stone construction began.

Between 900 and 1150 Chaco Canyon evolved into a major cultural center for the Puebloan people; they began building Great Houses that consisted of anywhere between 200 and 700 rooms, and were up to 4 stories high, with spiritual kivas.  The Great Houses were designed and planned, rather than other types of Puebloan architecture where rooms were added on in stages without a formal architectural plan.  The final look of the Great House was known before construction even began, even though some of the Great Houses took decades, or even centuries to complete.  The lack of hearths in many Great House rooms lead researchers to believe that they were not residential complexes, but existed more as spiritual centers or places were people gathered periodically through the year to trade.

Looking out at Pueblo Bonito from above

Looking out at Pueblo Bonito from above

The boundaries of the current park contain 14 known Great Houses.  The archaeological record shows that these Great Houses were built along precise directional lines, with points lining up to mark event like equinoxes and solstices.  The fact that this complex construction was so precise indicates that the builders at Chaco Canyon had considerable knowledge of astronomy.  In fact, one pictograph at Chaco Culture NHP is thought to be a depiction of the Supernova of 1054.  I first heard about the Supernova when we did the Moab Astronomy tour.

Excavation at the sites also uncovered evidence of turquoise and obsidian manufacturing here.  Raw materials were transported here and then fashioned into beads, necklaces and pendants.  Seashells, copper bells, and the remains of macaws and parrots native to Central America also indicate that the Chacoans had an extensive trading network.  Roads were created that link the Great Houses at Chaco to over 150 other Great Houses in the area.  These are more than just foot paths, rather they are planned and engineered roads; over 400 miles of roads are known today.

Like other sites of the Puebloan people, Chaco Canyon and its Great Houses were abandoned beginning in the late 1100s; there were several severe droughts in the area that may have been the catalyst for the populations of the area to move elsewhere.  The ruins were “re-discovered” by the Western world in the 1800s; the governor of New Mexico documented them in a trip to the area in 1823.  The U.S. Army surveyed the area in 1849, but due to the remote location, Chaco Canyon was not visited with any regularity for another 50 years.  Formal archaeological work was begun in 1896 by the Museum of Natural History.  An excavation of Pueblo Bonito, the largest Great House at Chaco Canyon, yielded over 60,000 artifacts that were sent to New York.

One of the walls of Pueblo Bonito

One of the walls of Pueblo Bonito

In 1901, Richard Wetherill, the same man who led all those people up into the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, claimed a homestead of 160 acres at Chaco Canyon.  His homestead included the Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Kelt, and Pueblo del Arroyo sites.  The controversy surrounding his homestead claim was one of the major catalysts for the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which paved the way for the designation of Chaco Canyon as a federally protected site.

Theodore Roosevelt designated Chaco Canyon National Monument on March 11, 1907; Richard Wetherill relinquished his homestead claim.  The area was designated on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and on December 19, 1980, another 13,000 acres were added to the park.  At that time, it became Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  It currently encompasses about 33,978 acres.

Its remote location limits visitation even today; in 2011 it received only 39,175 visitors.  Some of this is due to the challenging road leading to the park.  We were lucky enough to make it there on our recent trip, so in my next posts, I will tell you about our visit!