Situated in a dry, isolated canyon in northeastern New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historic Park is both a destination for those seeking solitude (unlike other, more “accessible” National Parks, according to the NPS Chaco only sees around 45,000 visitors annually) and a place to delve into the early history of the Four Corners region.
Beginning in the mid 800’s AD and peaking in the early 1100’s, the Anasazi living in Chaco Canyon began building the iconic “Chacoan Great Houses” and “great Kivas” that dominate the landscape, if this landscape can actually be dominated. They also constructed astronomical observatories, complex irrigation works and an extensive system of roads. These features of Chacoan culture did not stay in Chaco Canyon.
By the mid 1100’s the “Great Houses”, “Great Kivas” and roads were, for lack of a better term, exported out of the Canyon. There are the remains of “Great Houses/Kivas” as far away as Chimney Rock in southwestern Colorado, the town of Bluff in southeastern Utah and Alkali Ridge, also in southeastern Utah. To say that Chacoan culture had an extensive reach, in my opinion, is an understatement.
How did the ancient people living here organize and build these huge (800 plus rooms in Pueblo Bonito alone) structures? Why was this dry, isolated canyon an apparently major trade and ceremonial destination? Why did they abandon it, fairly soon after their biggest construction boom? Every year it seems that opinions and theories as to who the Chacoans were, how they built up and maintained this complex and why they left it change/evolve.
I’m in the midst of re-reading A History of the Ancient Southwest by archaeologist Stephen Lekson, a professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. He brings forward some new and compelling ways of thinking about Chaco, as well as the surrounding area: the Four Corners region does extend beyond the confines of Chaco Canyon, after all.
With the impending demise of summer almost here, and the fast approaching and even faster fleeting autumn, I’m tempted to plan an early winter voyage down to Chaco Canyon: explore all of the south/southwest facing bits and revel in the silence. Of course, if I do that, then I’m forced to swing back up through Montezuma Canyon and Alkali Ridge in Utah, on my way home, to crawl around the possible “Great House” sites there. Then, I can’t really travel that far without visiting the “Chacoan Road” remnants on Comb Ridge and their associated petroglyph/pictograph panels, or stop by the museum at Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding and explore the partially restored “Great House” there. It is a problem I have–so many sites, so little time.