On the plateau above Chaco Canyon rests the multi-room ruins of Pueblo Alto. The human made trail up the cleft in the canyon’s cliff and along the plateau dates back a thousand years. During the summer monsoon season with its afternoon thunderstorms, a person climbing up out of the canyon and hiking to Pueblo Alto sometimes dodges downpours and sees nearby lightning strikes. Standing in the ruins of Pueblo Alto, buffeted by wind, I saw a broad road sweeping north toward the Salmon and Aztec ruins some thirty miles away. In fact, Pueblo Alto is one of the gateways into Chaco Canyon, the end of a massive network of roads which funneled peoples and goods to this desert center from around North and Central America.
|Artist's Recreation of Pueblo Bonito in 12th Century (NPS)|
As the largest complex in the Chaco valley, Pueblo Bonito had 650 rooms spread out over two acres in a D shaped structure. The long edge of the D faces south for solar gain but also for the important orientation along the cardinal points treasured by the Chacoans. Pueblo Bonito, with its earliest construction begun in the 10th century, rose five stories. Until the 20th century, Pueblo Bonito was the largest built structure in the United States.
|Pueblo Bonito (Photo by J. Hunner)|
|Room at Pueblo Bonito with vigas (Photo by J. Hunner)|
In the middle of the pueblos’ plazas and interspersed among their numerous rooms are often circular kivas where clans gathered to worship, socialize, teach, and work. At Pueblo Bonito, thirty-five kivas grace the ruin. These numerous places show that the Chacoans were likely a deeply religious people.
|Kiva at Pueblo Bonito (Photo by J. Hunner)|
Here’s where it gets pretty interesting. Rising up out of the east end of the canyon lies Fajada Butte, a tall lone mesa where Anna Sofer found a spiral petroglyph she calls the Sun Dagger half way up the mesa. This spiral, carved into a rock hidden behind three large slabs, is a time keeper. A dagger of sunlight bisects the shadowed spiral on the summer solstice. At the equinoxes, a dagger of light frames the spiral. On the solstices and equinoxes, signal fires spread the news to the whole Four Corners region. Using their built environment as time pieces, the Chacoans had a precise seasonal calendar.
|Slab casting sunrise shadow on spiral with inset of Sun Dagger (Photo from www.solsticeproject.org/lunarmark.htm)|
|Prehistoric Stairways climbing out of the Canyon|
|Chacoan Road network (Map by USGS)|
The diaspora from Chaco spread to all directions. When they left the Chaco region, the Ancestral Pueblo people migrated to places with more abundant and steady sources of water like the San Juan River to the north and the Rio Grande to the east. Many of the modern pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona are descendants of the Chacoan people.
Pot hunters in the late 19th century destroyed the ruins looting the valuable artifacts left behind by the Chacoans. Protection and preservation began with Richard Wetherill, an amateur archeologist and cowboy. He hired 100 Navajos to help with his excavation of the ruins and sent more than 60,000 pieces of turquoise, pottery, and stone tools to the American Museum of Natural History on the East Coast.
In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt created the Chaco Canyon National Monument under a provision of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Chaco Canyon then became part of the NPS at its creation in 1916. In 1987, UNESCO designated Chaco as a World Heritage Site.
Walking through the impressive ruins of Chaco Canyon, climbing out of the valley on ancient stairs 1,000 years old, hiking across the desert plateaus on wide roads lined with boulders to outlier complexes, I feel in awe of the people who lived here so long ago. With stone tools, they fashioned a complex civilization which documented the movement of the heavens and passage of the seasons with the alignments of their large structures. They built roads to bring their far flung peoples to the canyon and to trade with other civilizations 1,500 miles away. It is one of the most amazing and inspiring places in the United States.
|Fajada Butte looking southwest (Photo by J. Hunner)|
Nageezi, New Mexico 87037
Related NPS sites:
Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument, New Mexico