Browsing through the brochures of New Mexico, an image of a ruin with an elegant half circle wall and circular kivas stood out from the rest. “What is this place?” I wondered. We were excited to find out that it was the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site in the remote northwest New Mexico. The size and scale of the “great house,” Pueblo Bonito, rivals that of Colosseum. Built a thousand years ago, it was the cultural center for ancient Puebloans.
Despite the bad review of the road to the park, we made our pilgrimage to the isolated Chaco Canyon after surviving a 20-mile washboard dirt road driving from the south. Just like a thousand years ago, the imposing Fajada Butte welcomed us at the entrance of the canyon as it greeted pilgrims of native Americans. We were in the “center place” of ancient Puebloans.
The inside of the trailer was a mess. Pots flew out from the cupboard, screws fell on the countertop, a kitchen burner ring jumped out and landed in the sink, even the top of the faucet was popped up… After cleaning up, thankfully we found no damages. Our campground was tucked among mesas and ancient alcove houses, and the landmark Fajada Butte was seen in the distance. Camping in the ancestral homeland of native Americans was special. We were eager to explore and learn this sacred place.
According to the park’s guide Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon is “the home of the Great Gambler, who came from the south, enslaved the Pueblo people, and forced them to create the great buildings of Chaco, before he was outwitted and driven away.” I asked the Native Indian staff at the Visitor Center who was the Great Gambler. She said it was a mystery and she didn’t know. Because of no written language, history was passed on through stories. The mystery of Chaco culture is hard to uncover and prove. Archeologists found that most great houses were “oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions” (map of Chaco Culture provided by the park). Without a compass, it is amazing that the ancient Puebloans built these great houses in such fine alignments. Most researchers hold that great houses were multi functioned buildings used for ceremonies, trading, and other special events.
Chaco Canyon has over 140 great houses. The heart of Chaco is the largest great house – Pueblo Bonito (meaning “beautiful town” in Spanish). An archeological icon sitting against the towering sandstone cliffs in the north, it almost blended in with the cliffs. The broken walls and collapsed rooms stood still telling the stories of the Chaco Canyon. Starting from CE 850, it took over 300 years to complete this structure based on the original design. Pueblo Bonito has a roughly D-shaped design sitting along east-west line. U.S. National Geodetic Survey found that it sits on “an axis that captures the passage of the equinox sun” (wikipedia.org). It features a high north wall that is four stories tall, a long and low south wall, enclosed plazas, and a restricted entrance.
The park’s guide Pueblo Bonito states that ancient Puebloans used dark-brown sandstones from the top of the cliffs for the construction materials. Core-and-veneer walls are a distinctive feature of Chacoan structures. Sandstones laid in mud mortar form the “core” of the wall, and both sides of the wall were then laid with selected stones to create the “veneer.” The original building was plastered. Over a thousand years, the plasters were eroded and the exposed veneer of walls exhibited extraordinary masonry workmanship. There were probably more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas in Pueblo Bonito. Most rooms were probably used as storage because the lack of hearths and poor ventilation. As a ceremonial center for ancient native Indians, there might be only 50 to 100 people lived at Pueblo Bonito. Population for Chaco Canyon is estimated at 2,000 to 6,000.
A key element of great houses is great kivas, a subterranean circular structure for worship, gatherings, dancing, and other social activities. Native Americans believe that they emerged from the earth and live in earth. The underground kiva is also warmer than other rooms above ground in winter. There were four great kivas at Pueblo Bonito. The roofs of kivas were gone, and the main elements of a kiva were easy to see: a bench around the wall, a firebox and a deflector, pits for supporting posts, raised floor vaults, and an entryway at the plaza level. I could only imagine the fire, the smoke, the chanting prayer, and the dance happened in the great kivas.
The coolest thing of Pueblo Bonito was the well preserved little room near the southern wall. We were in the ranger guided tour, the rain started to pour down. Ranger Debbie told us to get in the little room. I bent down and went in first, but tall people had to bend over and barely came through the small doorway. A heavy guy didn’t even want to try, and stood under the T-shaped door instead. Ranger Debbie stood outside of the room in the rain and explained the features of this little room to us. From the light coming from the door and a small window, we were awed to see the intact ceiling. Primary beams and secondary beams were laid perpendicularly, and the closing materials (such as willows) were placed on top of the secondary beams, then a mortar was applied on top of the closing materials. The holes on a viga (a primary beam) were drilled for dendrochronology to identify the age of the wood. The dry air in the desert preserved the roof well and left us to marvel at the ingenuity of ancient Puebloans. The rain created a temporary waterfall on the cliffs behind Pueblo Bonito. A guy said a gopher snake drank deeply from a pool of water at the entrance to a little room at the oldest section of Pueblo Bonito. I saw it creeping along the side of the wall in the dark room. Rain was appreciated by everything in the canyon.
According to the exhibition at the Visitor Center, Chacoans planned the public structures in the canyon. The alignments were intentional. For instance, sunrise at fall equinox can be seen through the aligned doorways at Casa Rinconada. The naturally curved cliff wall between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl was carved into an amphitheater. Thus the sound from these two great houses can be heard at the opposite Casa Rinconada half a mile (600 m) away in the south.
Research shows that the climate back then was similar to today. Why would ancient Puebloans choose this high desert as their cultural center? It is a mystery. It took tremendous manpower to build the great house complex in Chaco Canyon. Wood were cut and dried and then carried from distant mountains. Water was stored to mix mortar. Stones were picked from top of the mesas and were cut into rectangular shapes for the walls. All these organized tasks, the scale of the Chaco system, the planned landscape indicated there might be a governed society. But we do not know what kind of society it was.
Each great house has its unique feature and shares common traits. Chetro Ketl has an elevated plaza and an elegant north wall with thin layers of stones for veneer. Una Vida has a nice petroglyph panel on the cliffs behind it. Pueblo del Arroyo features a tri-wall structure. Casa Rinconada had the largest excavated great kiva in the canyon. The style of masonry evolved and the layout design varies. Kin Kletso, a great house built in the late era of Chaco culture, has no doors. The entrance was on the roof. It only took ten years to complete the rectangular structure. How did they accomplish it? Ranger Kathy told us that Kin Keltso was built by northern people, and they took roof beams from other sites. The veneer of the walls used bigger stones, too. We asked what was the meaning of the spiral. She explained that it might symbolize the spirit journey of life. Native Americans believe that they came from underground, they carved spirals on the rocks and talked to the rocks on how to get back to the center of the world. Sources from the Internet states that the spiral is a powerful sun and life symbol.
The setting sun painted Fajada Butte and the mesas crimson red. The observatory was not opened for viewing the stars due to clouds and rain. But ranger G.B. showed us the possible astronomy observed by ancient Puebloans at Piedra del Sol. Native American Sun priests kept tracks of the sun, and talked to the sun to bring clouds and rain. Two weeks before summer solstice, the sun rises at the top of the pyramidal boulder on the hillside of mesa. This told native Indians that they had two weeks to prepare for the summer solstice ceremony. The pictographs on the big boulder might depict Venus near the Sun at solar eclipse. A Sun Dagger site is on top of Fajada Butte. “Sunlight passed between three boulder slabs onto a spiral petroglyph to mark the sun’s position on summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinox,” the interpretive sign noted. But the Sun Daggers do not show the correct positions anymore due to tourist’s traffic. Now it is closed to the public. Ancient astronomy guided native Indians to plan for agriculture and ceremonies, and to connect the physical world to the spiritual world, and to seek harmony with the sky and earth and among people. What caused Puebloans to leave Chaco? Ranger G. B. said drought might have forced them to leave. The last drought lasted some 47 years. Chaco’s influence radiates to the four corners and can be seen in places like Aztec, and Mesa Verde. Most Southwest Indian Peoples claim they are the descendants of Chacoans. They consider their ancestors still live here and continue to migrate to Chaco Canyon to connect to their ancestors and to worship the spirits.
The rain in the canyon brought a beautiful rainbow early in the morning the next day. It was a full rainbow stretching across the southern sky, encompassing Fajada Butte and the mesa. I ran and then walked towards Fajada Butte chasing the rainbow. Fajada Butte glowed like a golden castle in the morning sunlight. It was mysterious and mesmerizing. A ramp was built on its base by ancient Puebloans for easy access to the cliff house. The air was fresh and aromatic after the rain. The sounds of mocking birds and ravens broke the tranquility. There I was, under the big sky and a rainbow, in the ancient Chaco Canyon, facing the Fajada Butte, paid my respect to the ancient Puebloans, and appreciated their wisdom and hard work.