“Everything starts with Chaco,” writes archeologist Steve Lekson.
Chaco: built in the northwestern corner of New Mexico between 850-1150 AD—the most advanced civilization in North America until the nineteenth century. Chaco: never before had semi-nomadic people built anything of this scale—200 great houses, some the size of the Roman Coliseum. Chaco: constructed in astonishing alignment, like a celestial calendar—a truly astronomical feat accomplished without the telescope, the wheel or a written language.
Scholars at this UNESCO World Heritage Site are still debatingChaco’s grand purpose. Was Chaco a religious centre? Military base? Government capital? Pre-Columbian shopping mall? Gambling domain?
Until we read House of Rain by Craig Childs, Magellan and I barely knew the name Chaco. We still say it wrong (chaa-ko is the correct pronunciation).
To reach Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Magellan wheeled Rove-Inn across 33 miles of dirt road so rough it scares off tour buses and keeps visitors down to about 70,000 per year. The Chacoans engineered more than 500 miles of roads that can still be seen from outer space. Although not likely the one we drove in on. It didn’t have sandstone pavers, wasn’t 30 feet wide and wasn’t rigorously straight like the ancient North Road at Chaco stretched for 30 miles in perfect alignment with true north. To align with sun and the moon, Chacoan roads didn’t curve or adapt to the landscape. Instead, massive earthen and masonry ramps and staircases were constructed around obstacles like cliffs and boulders and canyons.
Paul Devereux, a British scholar of archaeological mysteries, suggests Chacoan roads were “markings that represent the out-of-body spirit travels of ancient shamans.” These mysterious lines (five hundred miles of them have been charted), sometimes between no particular places, often lead to small shrine-like structures that reveal evidence of shamanistic activity.
Chaco‘s landscape today is dry and barren, almost ugly. Driving in, you immediately notice Fajada Butte rising 400 feet above the canyon floor in an almost-perfect naturally occurring north-south east-west axis. Believing in the vertiginous clarity of heights, Chacoans used Fajada Butte for astronomical, ceremonial and surveillance purposes and for managing crop cycles. Sun Dagger, a spiral petroglyph near its summit, marks the summer solstice through an ingenious arrangement of rocks.
We parked Rove-Inn at the Gallo Campground, campsite #21 right up against the canyon wall and set off to seedowntown Chaco, which used to cover three square miles, a small portion of the fifty-square-mile park.
Other than Fajada Butte, Chaco has few distinctive features. Its physicality doesn’t capture your soul and or spark your imagination like Mesa Verde with its entrance road spiralling to a mountaintop of remarkable cliff dwellings.
What’s most impressive is Chaco’s many great houses aligning perfectly with the cycles of the sun, moon, equinox and solstice and interrelated to each other on axes of major and minor lunar standstills. Master planning—everything here was built in relationship to something else. Magellan was incredulous. “I thought I had it tough with just a slide rule.”
Generations of archeoastronomers determined this elaborate geo-ritual positioning and orientation at Chaco. Could we even incorporate this complex solar and lunar cosmology into today’s architecture? And why did they?
Puebloan legends tell of their ancestors rising up in a sacred centre place where cardinal and solstice directions join. (Which explains the benches in the kivas that are reserved for the spirits of the ancestors.) Fred Eggan, a historian and archaeologist of Hopi culture, suggests, “Chaco Canyon may have been such a center place and a place of mediation and transition between these cycles and between the worlds of the living and the dead.”
Before dinner, Magellan and I hiked to the pictographs and Chetro Ketl before visiting the community of Casa Rinconada.
An archaeology professor traced a spirit line that ran from the great kiva of Casa Rinconada out the centre of its northern T-shaped portal, through a gateway at Pueblo Alto a mile or so away, and straight on to a group of buttes almost twenty miles away. Incredible.
Magellan barbecued pork chops for dinner but I could hardly wait to get back to Craig’s book, which I was reading online, interrupting Magellan with stories about Chaco. “Hey, listen to this. Pre-texting technology. Chacoans communicated using signal fires that could be seen twenty or thirty miles away!”
The next morning we toured Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house, which used to cover two acres, stood four storeys tall, had masonry walls three-feet thick, 650 rooms and a plaza at its core. Imagine a diagonal doorway exactly aligned so the sun shines through at the winter solstice. Imagine another doorway perfectly framing the moon during a lunar standstill (every 18.6 years) and what it would be like when super nova 1054 shone bright as the full moon for almost a month.
Like all of Chaco’s great houses, Pueblo Bonito was constructed of quarried limestone and beams cut from Ponderosa pines hauled from the Chuska Mountains fifty miles away. More than 240,000 trees were used in construction, carried in procession without pack animals or wheeled transportation. Big blocks with no mortar alternate with bands of little rocks to strengthen the walls so the houses could be built taller. To hold up the ceilings, which weighed up to ninety tons, stout tree branches were inserted into round holes in the walls. Storage areas held water diverted from the canyon by earthen and stone-lined canals. Just like today, older houses were demolished to make way for expansions. But at Chaco, the rubble went into new foundations.
Now here’s something else that’s mysterious and fascinating.
Guess how many people lived in Chaco?
Permanently, only a couple of thousand residents.
With as few as ten residents in fifty rooms, these great houses weren’t homes.
Some scholars say Chaco was the cultural centre of the Colorado Plateau, a destination for pilgrims and traders from across the Southwest and as far away as Mexico, perhaps on winter and summer solstices.
From the wealth that’s been excavated, it’s clear that nearly everything came from somewhere else. Copper bells and pots of cacao from Mexico. Amber-coloured ceramics from northern Arizona. Chonosierie rose mirrors. Exotic tropical birds. A thirteen-foot long turquoise necklace. As our friend Don Dabbs used to say, “Wretched excess.”
But there’s a hitch—nothing appears to have left Chaco. Why this glut of privilege to Chaco’s few permanent residents? Was it tithing? A form of taxes? Religious offerings?
Room 33, a crypt for elite Chacoans in Pueblo Bonito—the richest burial in the American Southwest—gives important clues. Craig writes that, “Two richly dressed skeletons were discovered lying on a bed of fifty-six thousand pieces of turquoise, surrounded by fine ceramic vessels, and covered by a sheet of ivory-colored shells imported from the ocean six hundred miles away.”
Researchers also discovered that nine of the dozen individuals buried in the aristocratic crypt had identical mitochondrial genomes, the ones you inherit from your mother. “One elite matriline was maintained in Pueblo Bonito for at least 300 years,” according to researcher Dr. Stephen Plog.
But wait, there’s more.
Craig writes that an archeologist working here found evidence at one site of eighty thousand ceramic vessels intentionally smashed, which is seen as a ritualistic act.
Episodic layers of trash were left behind by thousands of people who seem to have arrived in waves and stayed for only a short time. When archeologists pick apart their garbage, they find the remains of feasts and construction events that would have filled the canyon with noise…In this vein I have heard Chaco called an ancient Las Vegas with flashy ceremonies and people leaving their wealth behind before heading back home.
Is this why the place felt soulless to us, like Vegas?
Whatever Chaco was, drought, over-farming and civil unrest led to the great houses becoming living quarters rather than temples of concentrated wealth. Craig writes that, “During the dry years of the twelfth century, communities of the Colorado Plateau could no longer afford to keep pumping Chaco full of corn, pottery and other finely crafted wares… A new center was needed, one closer to reliable water sources.” Chaco was abandoned. It’s been called one of the greatest vanishing acts in human history.
After lunch, Magellan and I hiked through the “natural inner passage” over to the Pueblo Alto Complex on top of the mesa, the junction of many prehistoric roads. From this vantage, where the wind blew gently and a calm prevailed, the grandeur of Chaco lined up within us.
Childs, Craig. House of Rain:Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. New York: Back Bay Books, 2008. Thanks to Russ Nordstrand for recommending this book to us, a must if you’re visiting ancient sites in this corner of the US.
Graber-Stiehl, Ian. “In Ancient Chacoan Society Women Ruled.” Discover Magazine. February 17, 2017.
The National Park Service site on Chaco outlines their special programs on the solstices and from April through October. During spring, summer and autumn equinoxes the program is at Casa Rinconada to observe the alignment of the building with the equinox sunrise. summer equinox you get to see the solstice marker of light inside the kiva. During the winter equinox you go up to Pueblo del Arroyo to the Kin Kletso Great House.
“Find epic stargazing at ‘New Mexico’s Machu Picchu.’” National Geographic. March 25, 2019.