Written by BawBaw on 05 Dec, 2004
A "great house" of the pre-Columbian peoples of the American Southwest was a multi-storied pueblo compound that almost always included at least one "great kiva." In turn, a kiva, great or otherwise, was (and still is among modern Pueblo tribes) a round ceremonial chamber used…Read More
A "great house" of the pre-Columbian peoples of the American Southwest was a multi-storied pueblo compound that almost always included at least one "great kiva." In turn, a kiva, great or otherwise, was (and still is among modern Pueblo tribes) a round ceremonial chamber used to mark occasions of special significance. Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico protects and showcases the great houses that lay at the spiritual center of the Chacoan universe.
Scholarly opinion regards the great houses of Chaco, constructed incrementally between 850 and 1150, as an extraordinary example of public architecture. They were built to accommodate the ceremonial needs of a scattered people—probably a people diverse enough to speak different languages despite their common culture. The year-round population of Chaco is thought to have been relatively small, perhaps as few as several hundred people, whereas at peak ceremonials the great houses were able to accommodate several thousand pilgrims.
Modern visitors to Chaco Canyon have no such grand accommodations, but they are free to visit several important sites. Each one is impressive in a different way. The paved loop road in the heart of the park brings five of the great houses to within easy walking distance. Each of these five sites is connected to the loop by means of well-laid, self-guiding trails of a mile or less (roundtrip), some of which are accessible by wheelchair. Several other great house sites may be reached by means of the park’s four backcountry trails, ranging from 3 to 6.4 miles (roundtrip). Our overnight stay of less than 24 hours didn’t allow time for the backcountry trails, but it did permit us to take a good sampling of the sites accessible from the loop drive.
Our first goal was Pueblo Bonito, the best known and most extensively excavated of Chaco’s great houses. Its stunning architecture, characteristic "D" shape, and well-preserved doorways have come to exemplify the accomplishments of pre-Columbian Pueblo peoples in general and the Chacoans in particular. Such was the craftsmanship of its builders that when excavations began in the 1890s, after six centuries of abandonment, more than 50 rooms at Pueblo Bonito were still fully intact.
At its zenith, Pueblo Bonito consisted of an enclosed compound containing more than 650 rooms and at least 35 kivas built around a double plaza. Rising as high as five stories and covering an area of about 7½ acres, it was and is magnificently beautiful. In its heyday, its walls would have been plastered and painted. Today the warm, sand-colored walls blend perfectly into the desert landscape.
Walking around and through Pueblo Bonito is a humbling experience. The approach recommended by the Park Service starts at the southeast corner of the pueblo and leads directly back to where one of those towering pillars of rock along the canyon wall has recently collapsed—recent, that is, in terms of how the canyon measures time. The Chacoans deliberately chose to build in the wake of that huge, tilting column of rock, apparently because doing so allowed them to achieve an alignment with cardinal north. To compensate for a threat that they clearly recognized, they built a retaining wall at the rock base and placed prayer sticks in the fissure between the pillar and the cliff face. And who can argue against the effectiveness of their prayers. The Chacoans were long gone by 1941, when the pillar finally collapsed, crushing a section of the pueblo.
We followed the path from the back of the compound through a series of rooms, into the western plaza, and past several kivas—including Pueblo Bonito’s great kivas. Along the way, we encountered grinding stones once used for making meal from grain, an enduring reminder of domesticity from the past. Crossing the eastern plaza, we skirted several smaller kivas and descended a stairway into the interior of the pueblo, where we passed through a series of low doorways and into several rooms. Wandering in solitude through these rooms is an experience not to be forgotten. The high ceilings, well-preserved wooden beams, bits of plaster clinging to the walls, and the magnificent low doorways all serve to fire the imagination. Little wonder that Pueblo Bonito is an object of pilgrimage for modern followers of New Age mysticism.
On emerging from the intact rooms, we had but to turn and look above us to find an intriguing corner doorway, apparently designed to catch rays of sunlight from the winter solstice and reflect them into the room beyond. This doorway is only one of many features illustrating the depth of astronomical knowledge possessed by the Chacoans.
Chetro Ketl is located about ½ mile east of Pueblo Bonito and is separated from it by the Petroglyph Trail. Smaller and almost two centuries younger than its more famous neighbor, it is the second largest of Chaco’s great houses. The first thing one notices when approaching Chetro Ketl from the west is a long straight line of masonry that faces the canyon wall. At the height of the pueblo’s glory, this long back wall would have risen three stories high, with balconies extending from its second and third levels. Today, when viewed from a distance, it resembles a ghostly avenue.
The Chetro Ketl compound once consisted of about 500 rooms and 16 kivas, including elevated or "tower" kivas as well as the more conventional subterranean type. It covers more than 3 acres and is distinguished by a unique colonnade that once faced south along the site’s large plaza. The colonnade is a feature that archeologists attribute to the influence of the Casas Grandes region in what is now Mexico. For me, however, the highlight of the self-guided tour through the pueblo was one of the elevated kivas—or rather the underpinnings thereto. The self-guided trail allows the visitor to descend several steps into the pueblo in order to view the intricacies of the architecture that supported this unusual structure. The odd angles of straight and curved walls of masonry in the depths of the pueblo gave rise to flights of fancy. I visualized pre-Columbian architects with clay tablets and stylus in hand directing workers to build in such-and-such a place. The image was out of time and place, or course, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
Pueblo del Arroyo is located ¼ mile west of Pueblo Bonito, and it is the only Chacoan great house located on the banks of Chaco Wash itself. It also differs from its neighbors in that its orientation is east-west rather than north-south. At its peak, Pueblo del Arroyo probably had more than 280 rooms and 20 kivas, although it apparently never had a great kiva. Tantalizing aspects of a visit to this pueblo include evidence of how its residents dealt with flooding and indications that the pueblo once housed a macaw aviary. The idea of those colorful birds held captive in these high desert surroundings makes the canyon and its residents seem all the more exotic.
Hungo Pavi and Una Vida are both largely unexcavated great house sites located east of Pueblo Bonito. The lack of excavation at these locations places all the more emphasis on their natural surroundings and, indeed, allows the visitor to explore the interrelationship between various Chaco features. For example, it can hardly have been accidental that both Hungo Pavi and Una Vida have extraordinary, uninterrupted views of Fajada Butte. Our party was intrigued by a spectacular petroglyph panel on the cliff wall behind Una Vida and by the remnants of a nineteenth-century Navajo sheep camp. The confluence of Mockingbird and Chaco Canyons at the Hungo Pavi site make for exquisite views. Moreover, its long segments of masonry show signs of stress that both explain the collapse of neighboring walls and left us to marvel at the survival of those remaining.
Another major site along the paved loop road focuses on the great kiva of Casa Rinconada, which is not part of a great house but is surrounded by several small pueblo communities. Casa Rinconada is the largest of the Chacoan great kivas with a capacity that could have accommodated hundreds. The chamber is aligned on a north-south axis with only a minor deviation from cardinal north. The view from rise that houses Casa Rinconada includes Pueblo Bonito, located directly across the canyon, and the walls of Pueblo New Alto, located atop North Mesa above Pueblo Bonito—both of which share the giant kiva’s north-south orientation. There can be little doubt that this kiva had special significance.
Visitors to Chaco should also take time to view the stone stairway cut into the southern wall of the canyon near Casa Rinconada. This wide stairway was once part of the elaborate system of roads that connected the great houses of Chaco with the world beyond the canyon. There are other such stairways elsewhere within the park, but none are both as visible and accessible as this one.