This diary begins where part 1 left off and will take the community deeper into the web of intrigue of the most fascinating, if not the most enigmatic, archeological ruin on the planet.
I say enigmatic because there has always been a veil of mystery cast over this setting. Cultural scientists have debated the matter from a variety of perspectives, and there is some consensus about Chaco's fundamental purpose in Ancestral Puebloan society. Still, there remains seeming impenetrable answers in view of Chaco Canyon's occult-like reputation. If, as some people claim, the Hopis have the answers, then it's also a given such knowledge is held in secret. Thus something to do with the clandestine affairs of certain Hopi clans that may have once served as Chaco's high priests (or similar functionaries) here at Chaco. Of course, saying this merely adds to the stealth and conundrums that have withstood prying questions over the centuries and hardly any forthcoming answers.
(Continues after the fold.)
Geology: Geology, as I have always noted, dictates a region’s natural history, that is, if the materials of the landscape are conducive to a flourishing natural history. It follows if this is the case, then human history can be established, even where water resources are sparing and the climate is typically arid. This description especially matches Chaco Canyon’s geography.
However, there is a wash (actually, an "arroyo" in proper Southwestern terms), fittingly named the Chaco Wash.
Its conduit flows across the upper strata of the 400 foot Chacra Mesa.
Over a course of millions of years water has cut into the terrain and gouged out a broad canyon topography. The mesa is made from sandstone and shale formations dating from the Late Cretaceous Period (99 to 66 million years ago), and known as the Mesa Verde Formation. Chaco's bottomlands were further eroded, which eventually exposed a bedrock of shale subsequently buried under some 125 feet of sediment. Both the canyon and mesa are within the so-called Chaco Core, which is different from the ranging Chaco Plateau geography (itself a fairly uniform region of mostly grassland with sporadic stands of juniper and piñon pine). East of Chaco Canyon is the Continental Divide (15.5 miles), whose geological characteristics and contrasting patterns of drainage distinguish two separate regions, including the neighboring Chaco Slope (the northwestern portion of New Mexico), the Chuska Valley (close to Chaco and Chacra Mesa), and the Gobernador Slope (lies south of the San Juan Slope and drains into the San Juan River).
Because Chaco's alluvial canyon floor slopes, Pueblo Bonito, like Kin Kletso and Neuvo Alto, has elevations ranging from 6,200 to 6,440 feet. Chaco's terrain is thus noticeably bent downward to the northeast and bisected by the Chaco Wash, which is mostly dry throughout the year. There are, however, canyon aquifers, the largest located at a depth beyond the means of the original builders and inhabitants of this setting to draw its precious groundwater. Only smaller and shallower sources supported the minimal variety of springs in the region. Perennial water was therefore not an obtainable resource for the otherwise rustic and dry setting these people selected for their great complex and religious retreat. Perhaps the aridity accounts for the seasonable use of Chaco, while summer monsoonal rains were a blessing to the parched landscape. Likely, from spring-to-fall, Chaco Canyon would have realized its greatest population.
Climate At Chaco: Climate plays a major role in the American Southwest. One can also say here the sun rules with a fusion fist, as it were, on the fact precipitation is often miserly. Chaco's typical landscape is a high xeric scrubland and desert steppe (a biome, meaning a community, characterized by a mere 8 inches of rainfall annually, albeit centuries ago the amount of precipitation was more substantial. The park itself averages 9.1 inches. The low precipitation has to do with the fact Chaco Canyon sits on the leeward side of extensive mountain ranges to the south and west; indeed, affected by a rain shadow that sits in the lee of rainfall for neighboring regions. Chaco also endures striking climatic extremes, where temperatures range between -38 and 102 deg. F (-39 and 39 deg. C). Temperatures may also swing 60 deg. F (33 deg. C) in just one day! The region averages fewer than one hundred-fifty frost-free days per year, where the local climate swings wildly from years of plentiful rainfall to years of prolonged drought. The question naturally arises, “Why, then, did these people choose to build and live here?” There is uncertainty about this, though it’s thought by some cultural scientists the reason has to do with the geography of the setting, and that setting has something to do with the special archeoastronomy significance Chaco is famous for. Thus something both temporal and religious.
Flora And Fauna: Life forms of Chaco Canyon are typical of the high and sandy desert. For example, sagebrush, cactus, and a drought-resistant pygmy forest consisting of piñon pine and juniper trees. The most notable species of mammals include coyotes, mule deer, elk (at times) and pronghorn (antelope), along with bobcats, badgers, foxes and skunk. Rodents and prairie dogs are ubiquitous, as are avian species such as hawks, vultures and ravens. Snakes of many kinds, as well as lizards, also live here in abundance.
Archeoastronomy And Fajada Butte: The basis of this discipline is mentioned in this diary due to the archaeoastronomy significance of Chaco. To further address the question stated earlier, Fajada Butte's significant relationship with this science is likely the sole reason why this Ancestral Puebloan layout was originally created. In this broken mesa country, the elevated landmark rises nearly 443 feet above the canyon floor. It's also one of the more prominent features for miles around. Analysis of pottery shards found here show that these structures were used between the 900s and 1200s. What's so special about this butte is what the famous sun dagger petroglyph reveals: the position of the sun on specific and key days throughout the year. Remains of the ramp leading to the petroglyph are still evident on the southwestern face. The magnitude of the ramp-building project, although not relating to an obvious utilitarian purpose, indicates the considerable ceremonial importance this prominent and squared landmark had for its star-minded observers. The sun dagger site is also the most famous feature of Chaco relevant to archeoastronomy and the cosmological significance of why these people chose to build their complex in such an isolated setting.
The hallmark of this celebrated glyph is located at a southeastern-facing precipice near the top of the butte. There, three relatively large stone slabs lean against the cliff, channeling light and shadow markings onto two spiral petroglyphs inscribed on the wall. At about 11:15 a.m. on the Summer Solstice (between June 20 and 23), a dagger-shaped light image pierces the larger of the two spirals. Similar sun daggers mark the Winter Solstice and both equinoxes. At one extreme in the moon's 18-to-19-year cycle, called the lunar minor standstill, a shadow bisects the larger spiral. This event happens just as the moon rises, while at the other extreme, and precisely 9.5 years later, the lunar major standstill is highlighted, wherein the shadow of the rising moon falls on the left edge of the larger spiral. In each case, these shadows align with precision grooves that are part of the spiral design. At two other sites on Fajada Butte, and located a short distance below the sun dagger site, five other petroglyphs are also marked by visually compelling patterns of shadow and light, indicating solar noon, and distinctively occurring during the solstices and equinoxes. It’s apparent these star gazers had acquired an amazing knowledge, possibly even long before the architects arrived and built the Chaco complex. It also takes countless generations of keen-minded observers to track the cosmos and figure out what the changing light and shadows on select days indicates. The knowledge to predict such science is nothing less than extraordinary. Indeed, the meticulous instruments, in this case the stone slabs and their alignments with the petroglyphs, are in themselves amazing products of human ingenuity.
For these people this is where they first searched to balance their lives in temporality:
Bonus Details: Access to Fajada Butte in the 1980s was closed due to the delicate nature of the site, but also following damage and erosion caused by tourism. Fortunately, my first time visiting Chaco, in the early 1970s, provided an opportunity for me to see the sun dagger site. Who could have predicted such a misfortunate and minor earthquake event that damaged this valuable glyph?
Nevertheless, the site has historically proved invaluable, as well as just about everything else Chaco Canyon offers. For instance, scholarly studies by the Solstice Project indicate that the major buildings of the ancient Chacoan culture of New Mexico also entails solar and lunar cosmology in three separate articulations: the orientation of Chaco’s structures, internal geometry, and geographic interrelationships that were developed in relationship to the cycles of the sun and moon. From this evidence it’s apparent Chaco’s inhabitants directed their lives, at least their religious ideals, using such knowledge. Otherwise, we have only the modern day Puebloans (the cultural successors of the Ancestral Puebloans), particularly the Hopis, to suggest what religious significance the cosmos had for their ancestors. On the other hand, Hopis are reticent about betraying too much of their culture's spiritual or religious insight. This general rule equally applies to most of the other Puebloan tribes (number twenty-one sovereign nations).
Principle Ruins: The Chacoans built their site along a 9-mile-stretch of hard-packed canyon floor, with the walls of some structures aligned cardinally, while others align with the 18.6-year-cycle relative to minimum and maximum moonrise and moonset. At the base of massive sandstone mesas, nine Great Houses are positioned along the north side of Chaco Wash. Other similar structures of prominent importance and design are found on mesa tops or in nearby washes and drainage areas. Altogether, there are fourteen recognized Great Houses. These, the more important structures of Chaco, are grouped below according to geographic positioning within the canyon. Chaco's smaller kivas numbered around one hundred, each hosting rituals for fifty to one hundred worshipers; the fifteen much larger Great Kivas each hosted up to four hundred people. Kivas, incidentally, were only open to males, while females had their own special ceremonies in other dwellings throughout the Chaco complex. (Today’s Puebloans also deem certain activities for either males or females.)
The central portion of Chaco Canyon contains the largest dwellings. The most studied is Pueblo Bonito (meaning "beautiful village"). This site covers almost two acres. It's plainly the largest Great House in the complex, as well as in the region. Built like a gigantic beehive, and possibly replicated from such, its single, half-moon-shaped design is larger than most contemporary skyscrapers. The builders use of core-and-veneer architecture and multistory construction entailed massive masonry walls up to 3 feet thick. This major pueblo is divided into two main sections by a wall precisely aligned to run north-south, bisecting the central plaza. A Great Kiva was placed on either side of the wall, creating a symmetrical pattern common to many Chacoan Great Houses. Originally, Pueblo Bonito was four stories high and contained over seven hundred rooms, possibly as many as eight hundred. It also contained an amazing thirty-six kivas. In its longest dimension, the structure measures 492 feet. It was one of the two largest structures in the Chacoan cultural region. Notably, its semicircular shape is unique among Chacoan buildings. Some cultural scientists think the scale of this complex upon completion rivaled that of Rome's Colosseum.
Pueblo Bonito's Colosseum from high above:
Nearby is Pueblo del Arroyo (Spanish for" town of the gully," while to the Navajo it means "home beside water's edge"). The pueblo was planned and constructed in two short stages from about 1026 to 1126 and sits at a drainage outlet known as South Gap. Its most unique feature, the tri-wall (which has a single tree-ring date of 1109), suggests a connection with the northern populations of the Animas region. As with other tri-wall structures, its function is uncertain.
Almost directly across from Pueblo Bonito, Casa Rinconada is a great subterranean kiva that sits to the south side of Chaco Wash. Its structure is also next to a Chacoan road leading to a set of steep stairs extending to the top of Chacra Mesa. With its numerous T-shaped windows and doorways, Casa Rinconada is constructed like a massive stone compass. These openings are like eyelets intended for alignment during seasonal changes. (Indeed, Chaco’s Great Houses appear to have been specifically designed to function as architectural calendars marking these four major seasonal events. Such precision to the finest details demonstrates how the sun or moon casts light into and through certain rooms by way of the windows and doorways. Some of the dwellings are also oriented toward the 18.6-year lunar standstill cycle, while others are aligned toward the spring and fall equinoxes.) Casa Rinconada’s sole kiva stands alone with no residential or support structures whatsoever. At one time it had a 39-foot (12 m) passageway leading from the underground kiva to several above-ground levels.
Lunar standstill between Colorado's "Chimney Rocks" archeological site:
And such a rare celestial event it's worth howling about. . .
Chetro Ketl, also located near Pueblo Bonito, is another famous Chacoan structure that bears the typical D-shape of many other central complexes, but is slightly smaller. Begun between 1021 and 1051, its 450 to as many as 500 rooms shared one Great Kiva. Experts estimate that it took nearly thirty thousand man-hours to erect this structure. (The derivative of this name might mean rain pueblo, or else it's the Navajo translation of corner house.) Some industrious archeologist also estimated that its construction took five thousand trees and fifty million stone blocks.
Kin Kletso ("Yellow House") was a medium-sized complex located 0.5 miles west of Pueblo Bonito. It shows strong evidence of construction and occupation by inhabitants from the northern San Juan Basin. Its rectangular shape and design are related to the Pueblo II Era cultural group, rather than the Pueblo III style or its Chacoan variant. It contained around 55 rooms, four ground-floor kivas, and a two-story cylindrical tower that may have functioned as a religious center. Evidence of an obsidian-processing industry was discovered near the village, which was erected between 1126 and 1131.
Pueblo Alto, another Great House with 89 rooms, is located on a mesa top near the middle of Chaco Canyon, 0.6 miles from Pueblo Bonito. Its structure was begun between 1021 and 1051 during a wider building boom throughout the canyon. The location of Pueblo Alto made the community visible to most of the inhabitants of the San Juan Basin; indeed, it was only 2.3 miles north of Tsin Kletsin, on the opposite side of the canyon. The residing community lived at the center of a bead-and turquoise-processing industry that influenced the development of all the villages in the canyon. Chert (a silica-rich micro fibrous sedimentary rock) tool production was also common. This particular site suggests that only a handful of families, perhaps as few as five to twenty, lived in the complex. This small number may imply this pueblo served a primarily nonresidential role.
Yet another Great House, Nuevo Alto, was built on the north mesa near Pueblo Alto, founded in the late 1100s during a time when the Chacoan population was declining.
Outliers––The Other Sector Of Chaco's Singular Layout: In Chaco Canyon's northern reaches, there lies another cluster of Great Houses. Among the largest are Casa Chiquita (meaning small house), a village built in the 1080s when Chacoan culture was expanding and during a period of ample rainfall. This pueblo's layout features a smaller, squarer profile; it also lacks the open plazas and separate kivas of its predecessors. Larger, squarer blocks of stone were used in the masonry, and kivas were designed in the northern Mesa Verde tradition. Located 2 miles down the canyon is Penasco Blanco (meaning white bluff). This arc-shaped compound was built on top of the canyon's southern rim in five distinct stages between 901and 1121. A cliff painting (the "Supernova Platograph") nearby may record the sighting of the epic supernova of 1054.
It was said the supernova's light was so bright it was possible to read by it (that is, for those who had reading material):
More Bonus Details: On July 4, 1054, Chinese astronomers were the first to note a guest star in the constellation Taurus. This engaging and mysterious light in the night's sky was about four times brighter than Venus during its brightest light, and was even visible in daylight for twenty-three days. The Chacoans were compelled to record it, as did other North American tribes. Europeans, however, ignored it because it was dubbed heresy by the Catholic Church to consider any star brighter or more important than our own sun. But the Ancestral Puebloans were an astute people and recorded this stupendous event now preserved as a famous Chaco glyph:
Directions: From the north, turn on US 550 at County Road (hereafter, CR) 7900 3 miles (4.8 km) southeast of Nageezi and about 50 miles (80 km) west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). The route from 550 to the park boundary is 21 miles (33 km) and includes 8 miles (12.8 km) of paved road (CR 7900) and 13 miles (21 km) of rough dirt road (CR 7950). From the south, there are two routes to Chaco from Hwy. 9 (between Crownpoint, Pueblo Pintado and Cuba). Both routes vary from very rough-to-impassable and are not recommended for low clearance vehicles or RVs. If traveling from Hwy. 57 (which is listed Hwy. 14 on some older maps), this turnoff is located on Hwy. 9 and is 13 miles (21 km) east of Hwy. 371 (at the former Seven Lakes Trading Post this includes 20 miles/32 km). If traveling from Pueblo Pintado, turn north on Navajo 46 for 10 miles (16 km). After this rough dirt stretch, turn left on CR 7900 for 7 miles (11 km), then left on CR 7950. From there follow the signs 16 miles (26 km) to the park entrance).
Caution: Both the northern and southern routes include, respectively, 13, 20, and 33 miles of unpaved roads (21, 32 and 53 km). Although these sections of road are infrequently maintained, they are sometimes impassable during inclement weather. For current road conditions call the park: 505-786.7014
Watch for these signs––both approaching and spent storms over Chaco:
Contact Information: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, P. O. Box 220, Nageezi NM 87037. Phone (Visitor Center): 505-786-7014. Fax 786-7061. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)
I hope the community has enjoyed this tour of a bewildering, sensational, and primal window to the past, where spirits (or some unusual presence or atmosphere) hovers about this hallowed ground. Each time I have visited the site it was like being there for the first time, yet somehow I felt an historical connection, but don’t ask me why I felt this way. Let me just quote the Bard, where he wrote: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Hamlet Act 1: Scene 5, I believe)
And from another Shakespeare play. . .Is this a dagger I see before me? Yes, but by now I am sure this image is firmly embedded in the DKos community's mind. . .
As always, intelligent and thoughtful commentary is welcomed.
And if you've never been to Chaco Canyon, may you one day enter through a portal of this magnitude. . .