CHACO CANYON (USA) : The Chacoan outlier Great Houses
The Chacoan outlier great houses
Part II to the Chaco Canyon Story:
Every Capital Needs its Sister Cities
The largest kiva in the Southwest, the Casa Rinconada in Chaco Canyon, incorporated a special window for viewing the summer solstice sunrise.
Photo: Brad Olsen
Outside of Chaco Canyon are several dozen other clusters of Great Houses, the most accessible being Aztec, Casamero, Escalante, Salmon, Lowry Ruins, and Village of the Great Kivas. The expertly designed buildings characterizing the larger Chacoan complexes did not emerge until around 1030 CE when Chaco Canyon was already a thriving metropolis. The outlier villages were built in the 11th and 12th centuries when a period of plentiful rainfall allowed Chacoan culture to expand. The outlier Great Houses combined pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, sacred geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of unique public architecture. Researchers have concluded that most of the Great House complexes may have had a relatively small residential population, with larger groups assembling only temporarily for annual events and ceremonies, linked by a highly sophisticated network of roads.
Radiating out from Chaco Canyon like spokes on a wheel is a mysterious arrangement of straight lines and wide roads that extend for many miles into the desert. Most of the roads, some as wide as 30 feet (10 m), connect with most of the 75 other Chacoan outlier Great Houses, all within a day’s walk, while a few seem to go astray.
The longest northbound roadway extends for 42 miles (68 km), leading to the prehistoric communities of Salmon and Aztec. The Great North Road is arrow straight and wide enough for eight men to walk shoulder to shoulder. In fact, most of the outlier roads are arrow straight regardless of terrain. Stairs are carved directly over mesas, up and down vertical cliff faces, and along courses that oftentimes make them impractical for travel.
Seen from the Air
Aerial photographs reveal more than 400 miles (644 km) of roadways, visible almost exclusively from the air in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun casts deep shadows. Inspecting the roads at ground level it is evident that they were expertly engineered, planned, and involved a significant amount of labor in their construction and maintenance. The extensive link of roads demonstrates that the Anasazi people had a well-developed network for the distribution of goods.
Some researchers suggest the roads had another purpose, such as a charting of the region’s ley lines. The direction north is a known point of origin to most Pueblo people, and the Great North Road is almost perfectly straight and astronomically aligned. Others argue that the markings represent an out-of-the-body experience familiar to ancient native shamans. Archaeological research does confirm that a few of the roads lead to small shrine-like structures where evidence of religious and shamanistic activity took place. It seems reasonable to suppose that these roads, prior to recent erosion, could have been followed across great expanses of land, thereby delineating an enormous grid or map ofshamanistic geography. These mysterious lines, often apparently between no particular places, are found in many parts of the Anasazi realm. The roads certainly provided open communication between communities and reveal an advanced social structure.
Two of the finest Chacoan outlier Great Houses remaining in the Southwest are preserved at the Salmon and Aztec ruins in northwestern New Mexico. The large dwellings of the Anasazi — termed pueblosby the Spanish — consisted of terraced apartment houses, each self-contained, and having populations from a few families to several hundred residents. Frequently set into cliffs, some of these remarkable habitations towered five stories in height. Both the Salmon and Aztec ruins were freestanding Great Houses in the distinct architectural style of the Chacoan Anasazi. The Salmon pueblo consisted of 300 rooms, situated on the alluvial terrace above the floodplain of the San Juan River. The Aztec pueblo had an estimated 405 rooms on three levels, and 28 ceremonial kivas. Aztec is situated on the banks of the AnimasRiver, located a mere 12 miles (18 km) from the Salmon ruins. Striking similarities between these two sites and the Chaco Canyon ruins suggest a long-lasting interaction in such matters as architecture, ceramics and ceremonial life.
Metropolis in the Mesas
The Salmon and Aztec Ruins were originally Chacoan outlier communities, abandoned once, then reoccupied by the Mesa Verde Anasazi. Salmon and Aztec stood midway between two distinct centers of Anasazi culture, Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Both cultural centers introduced unique building techniques and new artistic styles during two separate inhabitations. Under Chacoan influence the Salmon and Aztec northern communities prospered for several decades as administrative, trade, and ceremonial centers. But by 1150 CE activity diminished as the Chacoan social and economic system waned. An extended drought in about 1130 may have contributed to the decline and abandonment of both sites. About 1200 CE the area saw renewed activity. Aztec and Salmon were both re-inhabited with Anasazi people, but this time they came down from Mesa Verde, 40 miles (64 km) to the north. During the Mesa Verde period, in the year 1263 CE, a major fire broke out in the Salmon pueblo, spreading out of control. 35 children and two adults fled to the kiva rooftop for safety, but the roof collapsed. All perished in an inferno reaching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—so hot that it fused sand into glass. Shortly after this blaze Salmon was abandoned forever, and about 35 years later Aztec was also deserted for reasons still unknown.
In their heyday, the centrally located Aztec and Salmon communities were ideal crossroads for trade. In one room at Aztec alone, archaeologists uncovered tens of thousands of shell beads, hundreds of quartzite arrowheads, mosaic pendants of abalone shell, a 75-foot (22.5-m) necklace made up of 40,000 beads, 200 bushels of charred corn, and quantities of pottery vessels and effigies. Extensive trade with Chaco Canyon is evident, as well as much farther away regions including the Mesoamerican high cultures of southern Mexico. Tropical bird feathers were especially prized among the Anasazi. Some of the most telling artifacts uncovered at Salmon and Aztec—turquoise jewelry, tropical shells, macaw feathers and copper bells—illustrate a robust trade with Mexico and far-reaching North American tribes. Simple and elaborate burials, along with animal skulls, have been uncovered at both sites. The most famous burial was a 6.2-foot (1.85-m) man found in an Aztec tomb adorned with jewelry, a large decorated basketry shield, wooden swords, numerous bowls and jars, and wrapped in a turkey feather blanket.
The Anasazi originated from Utah’s Great Basin and reached their cultural pinnacle a thousand years later during the Chacoan era. The Mesa Verde Anasazi were successors for a century before the entire culture dispersed, died off, or relocated along the Rio Grande River. DNA extracted from Anasazi burials at Chacoan outlier pueblos genetically matches that of contemporary Pueblo Indians. The first Navajo Indians came down from Canada in 1385 CE as a separate linguistic group to settle where the “Ancient Ones” once lived. The Navajo have strong cultural ties with the Anasazi whose ruins scatter across their reservation. The Anasazi certainly influenced the religious practices of the Pueblo Indians, as well as their Hopi cousins who were descendants of Kayenta Anasazi. To the Navajo and Puebloans, spiritual life is an integral part of day-to-day living, a belief that incorporates a symbiotic relationship with humans and all living things. There is no word in the Pueblo language equivalent to “religion.” But in their worldview all things are interconnected and form a part of the whole—sharing in the essence of life through endless cycles of birth and death. They believe where the sky and the earth touch, such as across the majestic Colorado Plateau, the boundaries are set for all things to live. The Chacoan outlier Great Houses are considered extremely sacred ancient sites by the Puebloan people of New Mexico, the Hopi in Arizona, and the Navajo of the Southwest.
Getting to the Chaco Outlier Great Houses
The Casamero Ruins can be found about 4 miles (6.5 km) north of Prewitt, New Mexico. Escalante is located in southwestern Colorado between Cortez and Dolores. The Lowry Ruins are in southwestern Colorado near the town of Pleasant View just off U.S. 666. Village of the Great Kivas is located on the Zuni Reservation in west-central New Mexico. Permission and guides can be arranged at the Zuni Pueblo located along New Mexico route 53, about 17 miles (27 km) north of the ruins. The Salmon Ruins and museum are located on U.S. 64 between the towns of Bloomfield and Farmington, in northwestern New Mexico. Aztec Ruins National Monument is on Ruins Road, about a half mile (0.8 km) north of U.S. 550 on the north side of the town of Aztec, 14 miles (20 km) north of Farmington. There are self-guided pathways through both the Aztec and Salmon archaeological sites. Aztec has the largest fully reconstructed kiva on the North American continent.