Monday, January 28, 2019
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored . . .
-- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, "East Coker"
Over a thousand years ago, around 950 CE, in a remote valley of what is now northwest New Mexico, indigenous people began building some amazing structures that served as a cultural center for their civilization for 300 years -- longer than the United States has been an independent nation. The buildings were the largest in North America until the 19th century, but were abandoned around 1250 CE, most likely due to a prolonged drought.
The area is now called Chaco Canyon, and it's not only a national historical park, but is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It constitutes the largest collection of pre-Columbian ruins north of Mexico. The sites are considered sacred ancestral homelands by the Navajo and Hopi people. You can read more about the geography, architecture, archaeology, and history of the area here and here.
There are also fascinating theories about the alignment of the structures for astronomical events such as equinoxes and the transit of the moon. For an interesting video on this topic, click here.
I visited Chaco for the first time in early November last year with my wife, and was so impressed that I made a second trip six days later with a photo buddy. The site is very remote -- about 140 miles from our house, with the last 14 miles a rough dirt road. As a result, we were there in the middle of the day on both trips, so the light for photographic purposes wasn't ideal. But for sheer amazement the visits were well worth the effort.
The main area of the park includes the largest of the Chaco "great houses" -- stone and timber complexes consisting of hundreds of rooms, sometimes four or five stories high, built near 100-foot sandstone cliffs on the north side of the canyon.
Besides the erosion of the structures themselves, the sandstone cliffs behind the structures have crumbled over the centuries, crushing portions of the structure.
Here's a view of a portion of Pueblo Bonito from above, showing the Chaco Canyon valley and the debris from the cliffs (behind the camera position).
Each great house had multiple kivas -- large, circular, underground rooms believed to have been used for religious ceremonies or political meetings. The Chaco great houses have kivas of varying sizes, from 12 feet to over 60 feet in diameter.
Kivas at Chetro Ketl:
Kivas at Pueblo Bonito:
Kiva at Pueblo del Arroyo:
Most interior rooms in the great houses are off-limits, but at Pueblo Bonito you can explore some of them. You enter through a narrow passageway . . .
and emerge into a series of rooms connected by doors and windows:
In the image above, you can see the timbers that remain embedded in the wall to support a second story room.
Photographically, the doors and windows of Chaco are iconic images:
The other beautiful aspect of these buildings is the masonry. You have probably already noticed the amazingly smooth surfaces of the walls, the sharp corners, and the intricate arrangement of millions of pieces of finished sandstone.
The walls are constructed in the "core and veneer" style, where two parallel walls were built with finished stone, and then the space between the walls was filled with rubble and consolidated with mortar or cement. You can see this technique in the exposed cross-section of the wall below:
If you would like to see these images and more in a larger format, please visit my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.
In the meantime, we'll let the raven have the last word: