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Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is a series of architectural ruins built between the years 850 and 1150 by Ancestral Puebloans. In the park, we explored the Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chetro Ketl ruins, and hiked the petroglyph tour with offshoots leading to Kin Kietse and Casa Chiquita ruins. With that said, most of our time was spent observing petroglyphs and taking a ranger-led tour of Pueblo Bonito.

Chaco Canyon [Image created in Google Earth at an altitude of approximately 12 miles]

Chaco Canyon [Image created in Google Earth at an altitude of approximately 12 miles

Looking at the fractal-like Chaco Canyon above, it would be very difficult to differentiate the landmarks from the landscape without the labels provided. That is a theme at Chaco, not that the park is in any way poorly marked or confusing, but that a little effort is needed to discover the true treasures within. Its ruins, walls, and anciant marks left over a thousand years ago, all seem to come directly out of the earth, painted in the same red and orange tones. Pass by too quickly and you may miss something. One of the things I respect most about Chaco is its lack of interruptive signage. As a substitute, the park disperses information through very well designed pamphlets and extremely knowledgeable tour guides, allowing the grounds to remain undisturbed, intact, and preserved.

Arriving at Chaco Culture poses a challenge. As far as park entrances go, Country Road 7900/7950 between Cuba and Nageezi is the lesser of three evils. It is the Northern entrance and consists of 8 miles of paved road and 13 miles of very rough dirt road. I thought the paved road was rough, but when we hit the broken red gravel at mile 8, I was convinced that our Ford Focus wagon would vibrate to pieces. I am certain that I did lasting damage to the car’s wheels, suspension, and undercarriage. Luckily, the weather was perfect. We passed many washes that, had it been raining, could have potentially eliminated Chaco from our itinerary. While I would reccommend a rented 4×4 vehicle for this stretch of road, I must say that part of the fun of visiting Chaco was simply getting there in my car. If it’s a real challenge you’re looking for take one of the two Southern routes, consisting of 20 and 33 miles of even rougher road!

Country Road 7050 winding toward Chaco Canyon

Country Road 7050 winding toward Chaco Canyon

After our rocky off-road adventure, we stopped at the visitor center to get our bearings and to purchase tickets for a tour. Looking back, that last minute decision to spend a few hours with a ranger in Pueblo Bonito greatly enhanced the experience. Again, like so many other times on our summer trip, extremely well made dioramas demanded our attention. In the following model, we can imagine what life was like in Chaco Canyon 1000 years ago.

Our campsite in the park was excellent, a raised patch of sand with a giant sandstone wall as backdrop. Since our visit to Chaco in the summer of '08, Galo Campground has been on the mend, with many sites closed due to septic system replacement.

Our campsite in the park was excellent, a raised patch of sand with a giant sandstone wall as backdrop. Since our visit to Chaco in the summer of ’08, Galo Campground has been on the mend, with many sites closed due to septic system replacement.


After purchasing tickets for the ranger-guided tour of Pueblo Bonito, we parked at the foot of the trail to the ruins and waited for our guide. I suddenly remembered something that I had read in a park pamphlet, “THERE IS NO SHADE!” This fact became painfully obvious as we sat hanging out of the car, the sun’s rays beating down mercilessly and unimpeded on everything around us, including the black top parking lot, which of course only radiated even more heat back up. Thankfully, the park pamphlet will soon be out of date. The workers in the photo above will change the phrase, “THERE IS NO SHADE!” to read more like, “THERE IS VERY LITTLE SHADE!” These folks have volunteered, which means they drove in on the same crazy roads and are devoting their time, to erect a shade shelter. This particular shade shelter will act as a refuge for those awaiting a tour of Pueblo Bonito.

Our one and a half hour guided tour through Pueblo Bonito was led by an AMAZING guide, Briana Franks. While I don’t have specific information on Briana, I can say that at the time of our tour she was a volunteer from one of the area universities. Her insight into the Pueblo Bonito ruins really gave meaning to a pile of bricks that would otherwise have been, at the most, neat to photograph. Her understanding and appreciation for the Ancient Puebloans was obvious as she enlightened us on all aspects of the structure including original construction, later discovery, excavation, and now preservation. We walked through Bonito, and in each room she was able to expound on every nook and cranny.

Our tour guide, Briana Franks, leads us down the footpath to the ruins of Pueblo Bonito.

Our tour guide, Briana Franks, leads us down the footpath to the ruins of Pueblo Bonito.

I recorded the tour and hoped to post the audio here alongside the images, but wind noise rendered the sound unfit for posting. I was, however,  able to transcribe the audio. What follows (in italics) are the nearly exact words of our tour guide Briana Franks.

Alright, so this is where I usually like to stop to talk a little bit about the history of this place. I think it makes it easier to understand what you’re seeing here, and you can sort of put it into context. There is quite a bit that we don’t know about the history here, mostly because they didn’t leave us with good language. That’s one of the main limiting factors of how much we can know about Chaco.

If you look around you, this canyon looks pretty barren. We do find evidence of human habitation here for over 10,000 years. Most of the early inhabitation doesn’t look like anything you see here though. This is very temporary. We find hearths, arrow heads, stone tools, animal bones usually sort of scattered around, and that would indicate that a group of people lived there. What most archaeologists visualize is that there were small groups of people coming here, following animals or simply following whatever plant was in season, staying for a while and then moving on. These people could have been anyone. They probably were not related to the people who built this site but simply passing through on the way to wherever they were migrating to.

We find the first major permanent settlement here around 500 AD. Corn arrived in the region sometime between 2000 BC and 1000 BC, and it wasn’t until the arrival of corn that you start to get more permanent, major settlements. That’s usually the pattern that civilizations around the world will follow. You get agriculture which allows people to produce a surplus, which then enables them to build larger buildings, and the surplus basically enables civilization. It was the same case here. Corn was the staple crop of most civilizations in North, South, and Central America, from the Cahokia down to the Inca. All of their societies were based on corn. It was the same here. Corn grows in the region, and then over time people started to incorporate that into their diets. They would grow it and instead of simply moving on, they would stay for a season, grow corn, and then move on. So around then we start finding more permanent settlements and by 500 AD they were very permanent.

There were two major pit house settlements here in Chaco that have been discovered so far, one on either end of the canyon. The one I’ve been to is called Shabik’eshchee and at that village there were 18 pit houses found in the 1920s. Later some other archaeologists looked at it again, and found 60 more throughout the mesa. So it’s a pretty good sized settlement. They also found a couple of much larger pits which looked almost like kivas. They had some of the features of kivas. For that reason, the archaeologists called them “proto-kivas”. So you’re already starting to see a transition. However, this place did happen pretty suddenly – From 500 and then the years following you have mostly pit houses, and then suddenly we get above ground buildings. The earliest form didn’t look much like what you see now. We’ll go in and see that towards the end of the tour. The building was quite different. They clearly weren’t as experienced. But suddenly you’re moving from living completely underground to going above ground. 850 AD is when we get the first section. After that, the rest of the building was built periodically, sort of in phases.

So if you can imagine, this placed sort of looked very different at different times depending on when you’d come here. They did not have the whole thing planned and didn’t build the whole thing at once. However, each individual section shows evidence of having been highly planned in advance. This place sort of grew somewhat organically. By the 1100s that was the last building. By the mid-1200s, as far as we can tell, they had left. We don’t know exactly when it occurred or how long it took, but the last deposition of pottery and pine is approximately dated to the 1250s. Their reasons for leaving are still debated among archaeologists today. It might have been a drought, it may have been some other factor. We don’t know for sure. We do know that they did not simply disappear. They migrated to different regions and assimilated with other people, there are some people still alive today that are descendants of the Chacoans: the modern Hopi people in Arizona, and a number of Pueblos mostly along the Rio Grande where the people there trace their ancestry back to Chaco.

Pueblo Bonito panoramic, created by stitching together several photographs.

Pueblo Bonito panoramic, created by stitching together several photographs.

Briana continues:

Onto more modern history – this place lay abandoned from 1250 when it was abandoned to the early 1800s. Some people may have come here and inhabited the area briefly, some from Mesa Verde. The Spanish have been through here, sheep hearders have been here, and the Navajo lived here. Some of those people may have made changes, but as far as we know it was mostly left alone. In that time it accumulated about two stories of windblown sand and rubble from the building falling down, but when the excavations began in 1896 what they were excavating wasn’t something like this. It was basically a big mound about two stories high with some occasional walls sticking out. The walls were how they could tell there were ruins underneath, and it looked very different back then. There was probably more of it intact. We have lost some of it over the years simply because we can not maintain every single inch of it, and the early excavations didn’t focus as much on preservation.

The first excavation started in 1896. It was led by a man named Richard Wetherill, he was not actually an archeaologist but a rancher from Colorado. He did some excavation at Mesa Verde, and that’s where he started to change his ideas in archaeology. For a long time he was mostly just a treasure hunter. He was into it for the artifacts and that was about it. He didn’t really care to study it, then he worked with a man named Gustaf Nordenskiöld at Mesa Verde who started to change his mind, and when Wetherill came down here, he actually was interested in studying the place instead of just digging in it. He did a pretty good job for his day, but realize that much of the mystery of Chaco might be due to the fact that it was excavated so early and that the methods are not what we have now. He got funding from the Hyde brothers of New York, and that money hired a crew of local men. There was also a grad student that the Hyde brother hired named George Pepper. He was a trained archeologist and he was supposed to be in charge. I’m not sure if he was or not, but he and Wetherill had a lot of disagreements. They had an archeologist who was leading it, but Pepper didn’t have much experience so he didn’t do all the excavation. He wasn’t involved with all of it. In 1896 is when they started. They excavated four years and in that amount of time they uncovered 190 rooms. So comparing that to modern archaeology, they are working extremely quickly, and that was the way it was done in that day. Basically the technique was to remove whatever they found in the room, sift through it, keeping back the artifacts and really interesting stuff, and then all that dirt and rubble and stone just got ditched. They dumped it in the wash and it got washed away. Now we know that it would have told us a lot about this building, with the things found in it – the corn remains, the pollen, and also the building material. One of the things that we don’t know about this site, and may never know, was how high it was. You can see when we go inside that there are many walls that are at least three stories high. In some places it might have even been five. We have no way of knowing because all that stone, rubble, and wood that we would have used to reconstruct it is gone, and we don’t have any record of how much or what kind of stuff was taken out of here. That was basically Wetherill, even with his change in view he was more interested in the artifacts than the building. Most of the artifacts that he removed from here were sent first in wagons and then on railway cars to museums, and that’s where they still are to this day. A very very small fraction of what was taken out of Chaco Canyon is still here in Chaco. Some of the most spectacular pieces are indoors, in the Smithsonian for example, and no one ever sees them. But they’re preserved there so you can debate whether they should be here or its better that they’re there. Wetherill was not allowed to renew his permit after those four years, mostly because of a man named Hewett who was an archaeologist at UNM. He sort of started a case going against Wetherill. His claims were that Wetherill had taken materials out of the building to build his own structures like the trading post, which Wetherill did operate mostly selling things he traded with the Navajo, and also that Wetherill was selling artifacts on the open market. We don’t really have any proof either way, but Hewett really wanted to come here himself and that was partially his motivation for stopping Wetherill. Wetherill didn’t excavate after 1900, but he did continue to live here until 1910 when he was shot and killed. He is buried in the cemetary behind Pueblo Bonito.

Between 1900-1920 nothing happened here. Tourists started to arrive, but it was pretty difficult to get here. In one of the books we have there is an advertisement, “See the beautiful ruins – ten days by wagon and mule from Crown Point.” So people started to come here, but mostly nothing happened. In 1920 is when Neil Judd came here. Neil Judd was a trained archaeologist. He had funding from National Geographic and the Smithsonian, and so he was more accepted in scholorly circles. He was somewhat better than Wetherill. He was pretty good for his day, but again the technique hadn’t changed much by the 20s. He did the same – took stuff out, sifted it, and dumped most of it, and so Neil Judd didn’t do a whole lot better in that respect than Wetherill. What he did do was a whole lot of preservation work on these buildings, which was sorely needed because once you start to excavate down and expose them to this wind, water, and people, they become very fragile. In the days when these were built they could have been maintained constantly. Now they’ve been sitting here 900 years, what’s going to happen? Well, they’re going to get a little bit fragile. That’s what Neil Judd helped with in a way. He did some restoration work, and I can show you, not necesarily Judd’s work, but what’s been restored and what has not.

Since Judd’s day, there’s been excavations in various parts of the canyon, especially Chetro Ketle and Casa Rinconada. Those places were excavated in the 30s and then later from the 60s to the 80s. Since then there’s been very little. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is that modern archaeology is very expensive. Also like I said once you excavate you have to preserve, and a major part of the park’s resources goes towards preservation. If we go and excavate another building, that’s another building we have to preserve. They’re much better protected under the ground, and we can save them for the future. Maybe in 100 years the technique will be much better. The most important reason that we are not excavating is that, like I said there are people who trace their ancestry back to here. Many of them would prefer if we left it alone, and now the park service is starting to give consideration to them. Many of them would prefer it left alone. Since NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), which was passed in 1996, the park service has started to consider what Native Americans want, so now before we do any excavation or even restoration work we consult with these people. So now what you’re seeing is the current state of things. It may change in the next ten years, it may not. In ten years what I’m telling you may be proved wrong.

The point is to protect the wall, so we add about a foot and a half of stone and then it’s sealed with concrete. That concrete keeps water from soaking in and also holds these stones into place. Imagine that we had a high wind storm and one of the stones got knocked out. We want it to be our stones that we’ve placed to get knocked out, not the original stone. Along all the walls here and in all the buildings you’ll see that layer about that thick. You can’t always see it, but it’s always there. Apart from that it’s mostly original. The mortar is mostly new because mortar is basically mud, and when they made it they had this place plastered. This mud, it runs away pretty quickly, and so we’ve had to add lots of what you see. When they first started doing it the preservation method was to actually use concrete, so try to imagine cracks running down with concrete in it. It seems fine for a while, but the problem with concrete is that it’s very rigid and it doesn’t have any give to it. When the wall moves, both the temperature changes and the wind, that concrete won’t give. The wall cracks even more. The other problem is that when it rains, some water will seep into these walls, and when it comes out it usually comes out where the material is softest – the mortar. The mortar falls out, we put it back in, no big deal, however if the mortar is harder than the stone, and this is sandstone, that water will come out through the stone and wear the stone away. We end up with a wall that’s all concrete and no stone, and that’s the opposite of what we want here. Now we use a mud mortar with is a mix of dirt, sand, water, and industrial strength elmer’s glue. That’s what’s holding most of what you see here together.

If you look at this piece of wood right here, you can see where a core sample has been removed. That core sample is taken mostly in order to get a date for this building. Any time you see that in any piece of wood, and this work continues on down that way, it means that you’re looking at something original, so over 900 years old. We’re lucky that we have such a climate that preserves the wood very well. We have thousands of pieces of original wood in Bonito and the other buildings. The way it works, we take a core sample and we compare it along a scale of what we’ve established before to see where it matches and we get our date. Actually, let me go back further. This technique is called dendrochronology. Basically every tree will grow one growth ring for every year that it’s alive. That ring varies in width depending on what kind of conditions the tree grew under, so if you have a very wet year you tend to get a wider ring. A very dry year would produce a narrow ring. So over the years, say you have a 20 year old tree, you get 20 years of climate data. You get this pattern established. If you take a tree that started growing 40 years ago and cut it down today, we have 40 years of that record. Take one that grew 1930 to 1970, you’ve got ten years of overlap, those ten years will also match if the trees were taken from approximately the same climate region. So using that, we can trace backwards. Now we’ve gone back at least a couple thousand years with those trees. So, get a new sample, compare it along that timeline or that database, see where it matches, then you get the date that tree was cut. We’ve dated almost every piece of wood in the whole building, every piece of wood that we can. Some species can’t be dated, but most of them can. With that we get a much better idea of the timeline than they had when Wetherill was excavating. So you might hear me call this the 1077 wing, and that’s because the vast majority of the wood that came out of this particular wing dates to having been cut in 1077. That’s amazingly precise. Not every piece of wood, but the vast majority of it. So it would appear that they cut all this wood, stockpiled it, and then this was built. That’s one of the main bits of evidence we have that they planned this in advance. As we go further back in time it gets somewhat less precise. In the older section you might have a whole room that dates back to 850, but the wood is all over the place. Or the whole room dates later because they would use a piece of wood, build something with it, and then tear it down and reuse it. You might find a room that looks like 1040s masonry with 850s wood, and that’s pretty confusing until you realize that this isn’t pristine. They did change things and they did reuse things. Apart from that, you know, it’s not perfect. We can only extend this technology to this region because you know that the climate would vary once you go too far away. Also, not everything you see can be dated. We have whole rooms in here where we have no date.

The reason I made you all crawl through that door is this. If you look up, this is an original roof. (Tourist – Ooh, it’s beautiful! Are we allowed to use flash?) Yep. I don’t think there’s anywhere where you can’t use flash. Well, there’s one room in Chetro Ketl where you shouldn’t because there’s an original painting. This roof, you can see, is very well preserved, mostly because of our climate. If you look up you can see what most of the roofs in most of the buildings looked like. So try to image as we keep going, every single room would have had a roof like this. At the base layer we have what are called vigas. Those are the largest and are made of Ponderosa Pine. Above that are what are called latillas, made of a different species. Above that in the gaps, you can see what looks like Split Cedar, and then above that we usually find a plywood mat, either woven grass or Yucca fibers. Above that you find adobe which forms the floor above us. Earlier I said Ponderosa Pine. Anyone see any Ponderosa Pine around here? (tourists – laughs) The nearest source for that is twenty miles away in the Chuska Mountains which is west of here. That’s twenty miles as the crow flies.

These are called metates. They are used for grinding corn, also other grains, seeds, nuts, or whatever they could find. Corn was a staple here. The other part, which I don’t have here to show you is called the mano, which literally means “hand” in Spanish, and it is the handheld part. It is approximately oval in shape, about almost as wide as this trough here, also made of sandstone like this, but sometimes something harder like granite. The motion goes like this (Briana moves her hands back and forth across the metates), and the corn is ground in between the two stones. This started out as a flat sandstone, and then over time when they used it, this groove was worn in. Eventually it will break because you wear it down too much, or they are broken intentionally. Those pieces are often found in the walls. There was actually a study that I was reading about this woman who had an idea to take one small site, I don’t even know if it was in Chaco or not, but take one small site, get a count of all the metates, and then calculate, based on the groove here, how much food they were eating. It didn’t work, and the reason for that was that you find them in pieces. Until you get all those pieces together, you’re counting each fragment as one metate. You have to be able to get all the pieces and then you can assemble it. Then instead of counting eight, you count two which is what you’ve got.

So right here (image above), we’re standing on what would have been the elevated plaza. If you’d been here 1,000 years ago, you would not have seen all those kivas. You would have seen basically a flat surface, a hole there, and a ladder sticking out, and that ladder was the only entrance into the kiva.

Not pictured, Briana points to a small room in the corner of the building:

This room right over here, we call room thirty three. It doesn’t look like much, only eight feet by eight feet. This room is where one of the biggest burials in Bonito was found. There were about thirteen people found in here, and at the very bottom layer were two men, sort of set at different corners. Both were over six feet tall. Associated with them, on and around those men was found more turquoise than was found in the rest of the Southwest combined. So it was somebody important, but why would you bury them in a room like this? This room has had so much strange stuff going on. These men were also found with a lot of pottery, with flutes, and both of them showed evidence of a lot of damage to their skulls which some people may interpret as murder. There’s so much strange stuff going on here that you could make up twenty different stories for what happened based on this room. I’ve heard that perhaps they were not from Chaco but people from somewhere else, and that’s why they were treated the way they were. Maybe they were revered for their height and that’s why they got buried with all that stuff. Either way this is one of the most important rooms found in the whole building. A huge number of artifacts came out of there. Another mystery for you – why that room? Why those people?

Pueblo Bonito from rockfall view

Pueblo Bonito from rockfall view

This fell January 22, 1941. They actually had an employee here who’s job among other things was to monitor this and other rocks that looked like they might be falling soon. The park service was well aware that it was going to come down at some point, so this man, I think it was a man, came out on the mesa every day, jumped on the rock, took a measurement, and jumped back. The day would have been January 21, 1941. He came, he jumped, and something went wrong. It moved, and so he quickly took his measurement and jumped back. It turned out to be twelve inches further away from the furthest point it had ever been before. Based on that, he told the parks people, “Hey, it’s probably going to fall soon.” It actually did fall but not until the next day. That morning they gathered everyone on the other side of the wash, to watch it come down. Among those people there was a photographer, and if he’d planned it right, this shot may have made his career. However, it appears that he was not very good at planning, or something went wrong, because he ran out of film. He realized this at about noon, went running back inside, and while he was inside it fell. And so we don’t have any pictures of it falling. We have pictures of before and we have the after which you can see all around you. You may have noticed a few places inside where the walls are pulling apart a little bit. That’s probably not due to faulty building, but due to 30,000 tons of rock hitting it. Imagine your house after 30,000 tons of rock falls next to it. These buildings were built remarkably well for those times.

This was the end of our tour. We were able to meander through the rockfall and peer into the kivas for a while before moving to another part of the park. Thanks to Briana Franks for one of the best national park tours ever. She really helped to make the place come alive. After Bonito, we hiked to a series of petroglyphs in the northwest corner of the park. It was very hot, but the payoff was huge – real petroglyphs! We took our time through the glyphs – Angela sketched as I photographed. Incidentally, we saw a small snake and an interesting lizard on the trail.











Common Name: Glossy Snake, Scientific Name: Arizona elegans, Non-venomous

Common Name: Glossy Snake, Scientific Name: Arizona elegans, Non-venomous

Common Name: Eastern Fence or Sagebrush Lizard, Scientific Name: Sceloporus Graciosus, "Found in all of the habitats in Chaco, the fence lizard is the most abundant lizard in the canyon. You can see them climbing on rocks, at the Chacoan buildings and around the Visitor Center." - Information from the Chaco Culture Reptiles and Amphibians pamphlet.

Common Name: Eastern Fence or Sagebrush Lizard, Scientific Name: Sceloporus Graciosus, “Found in all of the habitats in Chaco, the fence lizard is the most abundant lizard in the canyon. You can see them climbing on rocks, at the Chacoan buildings and around the Visitor Center.” – Information from the Chaco Culture Reptiles and Amphibians pamphlet.


Fajata Butte near - visible from the visitor center

Fajata Butte near – visible from the visitor center

About Taylor Lasseigne

Taylor Lasseigne has written 87 post(s) for Slices of America.

Taylor Lasseigne – Slices of America Webmaster / I was born and raised in the south Louisiana coastal parish of Lafourche. There, I was exposed to the good Cajun people, a bounty of amazing foods, an easygoing way of life, and a lush “sportsman’s paradise” where I first learned to appreciate nature. From a young age, I always showed interest in music. In my college years, after percolating through several state schools, I took a position as a high school music teacher in New Orleans. While music education is my calling, photography has always been a fun escape for me. I enjoy peering through a lens to document our world, and I hope that I can continue to share this pastime with others through Slices of America. / e-mail: taylor at