Mysteries of Chaco

The Aerial Perspective

Pueblo Bonito Ruin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

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The Ancient Chaco World

Between about 900 to 1150 AD a mysterious Stone Age culture arose, flourished, and then vanished in the semi-desert region of the Southwestern United States. Named the Chaco culture, after the canyon in which the principal ruins are found, nearly everything about this ancient society remains a mystery.

At the height of its influence, buildings in the Chaco style were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Four Corners area of the Southwest (where the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet; see map, 10K). At the center of the Chaco world was Chaco Canyon itself, in the northwest part of what is now New Mexico, where the largest and most important of the ancient towns (pueblos) were located. In Chaco Canyon are the ruins of 30 large masonry buildings, each containing hundreds of rooms, as well as many smaller structures. The most well known of these pueblos, and indeed the most famous ruin on the North American continent, is Pueblo Bonito ("Beautiful Town," photo above).

The architects of the ancient Chaco world were the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, known today as the Anasazi (a modern Navajo Indian word translated roughly as "the Ancient Ones"). However, little is known of how Chaco society was organized or functioned. Since the Chacoans had no writing, and could leave no written accounts, everything we know about their culture must be inferred from archaeological evidence. Although archaeological theories about Chaco culture are plentiful, they are often contradictory. Each archaeologist seems to see a different meaning in the evidence.

For example, there are differing ideas about the purpose of the roads radiating from Chaco Canyon across the desert for as far as fifty miles. Some archaeologists think these roads were for ceremonial purposes only, connecting Chaco Canyon to sacred places on the landscape. Others think they were primarily avenues of trade and communication between the canyon and outlying colony towns. Still others believe they may have served both purposes.

Today Chaco Canyon is in a remote part of New Mexico, surrounded by the vast Navajo Indian reservation. The ruins in the canyon itself, as well as a few important ones nearby, have been set aside by the U.S. government as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is managed by the National Park Service. The canyon may be visited by anyone willing to make a long drive down primitive roads to reach it. The state of New Mexico has proposed paving the road to make access easier, and private entrepreneurs have considered building hotels and other tourist accommodations in the area. Other people have objected that such changes will spoil the wild and remote atmosphere of the canyon. That controversy continues.

The larger part of the Chaco world, outside the canyon itself, consisting of the many smaller "outlier" towns scattered throughout the region, remain largely untouched by archaeologists. More outliers are still being found.

The Chaco World and Aerial Archaeology

Many of the mysteries of Chaco are highly suited to investigation by aerial archaeology. Only in the aerial view, for example, can many of the Chaco roadways be seen at all, since centuries of neglect have reduced them to only faint depressions in the ground. From the air, however, these shallow swales appear as definite grooves across the landscape, and can easily be photographed and followed.

The overall designs of Chaco architecture are best seen from the air. Only in the aerial view does the masonry of Pueblo Bonito, for example, assume its distinctive D shape. And what appear to be only scattered mounds of rubble at unexcavated Chaco sites take on much of their original geometry in the aerial perspective. The layout of Chaco towns, their architectural style and features, and their relationship to the land are all best analyzed from above.

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