THE SACRED WALL(S) OF CHACO CANYON: Great Houses and a Great Wall

Few subjects in American Archeology have received the attention in the last decades as have the amazing discoveries relating to the astronomical abilities of ancient Americans in and related to the massive stone structures of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico--the largest and possibly most complex prehistoric site in North America.  Having only just returned from my first visit to these incredible ruins in nearly thirty years and having viewed them for the first time almost exclusively with an eye towards their potential astronomical significance, one or two important observations are, I feel, in order.  However, before jumping into this subject in brief detail, first let me acquaint the reader with some of my more direct experience in this particular geographical region and my larger area of interest in ancient astronomy. 

Readers of this blog will quickly note this writer's frequent postings on ancient astronomy and related topics.  However, my initial entry into the larger subject of North American prehistory was as a graduate student in the early 1970's at Eastern New Mexico Univ. where I was fortunate to work briefly on two important Chacoan sites directly related to the larger center at Chaco Canyon.  In the summer of 1973 under the direction of Cynthia Irwin-Williams that school was excavating at the southern Chacoan outlier of Guadaloupe Mesa on the Puerco River northwest of Albuquerque, as well as the northern outlier of Salmon Ruins on the San Juan River just south of Aztec Ruins.  At that time, most of the excitement concerning the connections with Chaco Canyon centered around the recently identified Chaco road systems.  Additionally, excavations of the fairly unique (at least outside of Chaco Canyon itself) tower kiva at the Salmon Ruins site, along with the isolated and seemingly defensive position on a high mesa of the Guadaloupe site near the southern terminus of Chaco influence resulted in speculation of these outliers as occupying a defensive posture primarily within the greater Chacoan sphere of influence.  Obviously, more recent research has basically shown these and other peripheral Chacoan sites to be very involved in the larger astronomical complex centered in the Chaco Wash and Fajada Butte locations and that any apparent defensive postures ascribed to these sites were likely of a secondary or even non-existent function.  Likewise, the road systems, which were initially held to be part of a vast trading network centered in the Canyon have now become viewed as part of a more orderly view of the larger ceremonial (i.e. primarily astronomical) functions of the principal sites in Chaco Canyon.  (See this writer's earlier blog posting:  Stone Roads to Nowhere: Avenues of the Dead or Pathways to the Stars)  However, the important economic and possibly ceremonial ties with Mexico based on earlier excavated remains is still a prime consideration of any speculation on Chaco Canyon.


Despite the incredible advances in learning about the capabilities of the occupiers and builders of the many Great Houses of Chaco Canyon (Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Casa Rinconada will be focused on here primarily) most of the recent research and writing has tended to center on the amazing discoveries of the sun dagger and spiral of Fajada Butte at the southern entrance to the Canyon, along with the other primary alignments to solar and lunar risings and settings of the great houses throughout the canyon and beyond.  Additionally, re-evaluations of the materials, burials, etc. of earlier excavations, along with the work of Stephen Lexson and others on the road system and importance of southern connections and influences into Mexico of the Chaco builders have also re-focused attention on the larger implications of Chacoan culture.  So much new information concerning what went on for that brief period of only a couple of hundred years, before drought or other factors drove the people from the canyon itself to other sites mostly in the north or east and  thus seemingly ending the unique Chaco experiment, has been generated that we often lose track of a couple of the original mysteries of these not so distant Puebloan ancestors.  

For this writer at least, two basic questions, however, still remain to be answered in a more definitive way than has been provided to this point.  As someone who maintains a primary interest in stone working of all types among prehistoric peoples--from flintknapping to massive architecture--I would like to address two points relating to the great constructions in Chaco Canyon and associated sites which seem to continue to get left in the wake of the excitement over the greater celestial implications of what these amazing people have left us to think about.  I will address these two questions individually, even though I now believe that they are interconnected with the heavens in much the same way that so much else at Chaco Canyon appears to be.

These two questions basically can be stated as follows:  1.  Why did the original builders of the Great Houses choose to locate them--with all the available and even better sites available in the canyon or even beyond--exactly where they did? Some are dangerously close to water run-offs and subject to flooding, while others could have been situated more advantageously to take advantage of shaded or sunlit areas at critical times or separated better from other sites extremely close by.   2.  Why did they choose to employ a wall construction technique--the core and veneer method--of stone masonry that is both highly complex and difficult to execute as well as unique in all the other pre-Pueblo sites, earlier and later, throughout the larger region?  Indeed, we often classify an outlier site as "Chacoan" strictly on the basis of this unique masonry technique, since pottery elements across the region are often truncated and very complicated to compartmentalize at a given site.

                                     THE GREAT STONE WALL OF CHACO CANYON

Despite many natural features of amazing visual distinction at Chaco Canyon--Fajada Butte perhaps being the most impressive--anyone standing in front of Pueblo Bonito or its nearby companion Chetro Ketl, the second largest of the dozen or so "great houses" in the canyon, is immediately struck by the regularity of the sheer sandstone cliff face to their rear that neatly divides these two major sites and seems to frame them as bookends almost to the two impressive ruins.  When viewed from across the Chaco Wash at the keystone site of the entire Canyon complex, the Great Kiva of Casa Rinconada, this bookend effect is immediately apparent. The triangle formed from Casa Rinconada to Pueblo Bonitio and Chetro Ketl, with the natural "Great Wall" forming the back leg of the triangle is clearly an impressive sight--even without the many astronomical implications of the alignments of these three sites considered.  It is clearly established that Pueblo Bonito's main construction axis is on an absolute East/West perpendicular to the North/South sight line from Casa Rinconada to the horizon above the Great Wall.  Directly on that sight line horizon and above the canyon just beyond view from below is the equally important site of Pueblo Alto, centered above the Great Wall and situated almost equidistant from the two solstice aligned, bookend Great Houses below.  This sheer rock face (upon which several important petroglyphs between the two great houses have been noted) provides the flat horizon marker from the Great Kiva across the Chaco Wash for stellar risings to the North, which, I believe, is the essential "Zero Point" for fixing the heavens that is essential to all such astronomically aligned complexes.  In an earlier blog article in this series (Stone Markers on the Horizon:  Ancient Astronomers in the Americas) this writer noted the existence of the fixed longitudinal marker of 90 degrees west for important Mayan sites extending all the way to Cahokia in Illinois.  Stephen Lexson has also noted the existence of the so-called Chaco Meridian of 107 plus degrees longitude for roads and sites leading out of Chaco Canyon all the way south to Mexico.  My own recent trip to several Mayan sites led me to believe that the fixing of a north south/east west axis was the critical point for building an astronomically based ceremonial center, and that this could only be done by establishing a fixed north star observation point directly in line with another such fixed point at some other location in the larger extension (i.e. outliers) of any such larger ceremonial complex lying beyond direct line-of-sight.  This north/south line is frequently noted as the 'initial' public space construction at such a site (Tikal in relation to the earlier site of Mirador in Guatemala, to name but one well-known example).

It has also been shown (Peter Nordgren, for example) that the summer solstice sunrise when viewed from the east/west line of the front wall of Pueblo Bonito occurs just at the top edge of the Great Wall towards Chetro Ketl ruins before descending in subsequent risings below that horizon marker.  If then, we can assume, as others already have, that the construction of the Great Kiva of Casa Rinconada is the "keystone" construction element for locating other sites in the canyon, then we need ask only:  Why was Casa Rinconada situated where it is?  I believe this can be answered simply that it was chosen to center the northern horizon on the flat top of the Great Sandstone Ciff to observe stellar, as well as solar and lunar risings and that Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl were then built to fix the east/west sunrise horizons at either extremity of the cliff face.   Pueblo Alto was built above the hidden canyon to mark the first fixed and observable north point from the canyon on the straight road that led north toward Aztec and its near equally impressive "Great Kiva".  The site of Pueblo Alto has been shown to be a point from which fires built at elevations along the north road out of the canyon could be observed and marked in a direct line over long distances directly back to or from Pueblo Alto, perhaps as far as the San Juan River to the north.

                                             THE VENEER WALLS OF THE CHACO BUILDERS

Perhaps, the most puzzling and least addressed question of the Chacoan builders is why they chose to face their rubble-filled walls with such a unique and difficult to construct veneer surface.  Anyone who has seen these elegant walls, particularly at Pueblo Bonito. or the greenish interfaced chinking at Aztec Ruins is immediately struck by both the beauty and the time-consuming effort that went into their construction.  Furthermore, their uniqueness in time and place to the brief Chaco experiment is also something of a mystery, since they seem to disappear quickly in subsequent occupations of Chacoan immigrants at places like Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, and elsewhere.  Why would they build such an extravagance in a place where the populations were, as we are now told, never very large and on buildings that were perhaps occupied only ceremonially?  And then, why would they cease this type of construction almost immediately after the principal abandonment of the main complex at Chaco Canyon?  These are questions that I, for one, have asked almost since my first encounter with these amazing walls back in 1973.

During my just completed visit to Chaco Canyon, I was standing in Pueblo Bonito in the early afternoon of a very warm day (nothing unusual as any who have gone there between May and October will have noted) and gazing at the light reflecting off the "Great Wall"  just at the canyon edge behind the principal ruins.  As my eye bounced back and forth between the banded stratigraphy of the sandstone wall and the exquisite masonry of the walls of Pueblo Bonito, it suddenly struck me that I was looking at the same thing but in two different size perspectives.  As I began to see the vertical cracks in the larger, smooth-faced sandstone as building blocks between the two separated but narrow bands of compressed stratigraphy running parallel across the wall about one-fourth of the way up and one-fourth of the way down, I realized that I was seeing the larger wall blocks with the thin chinking strips in-between of a classic Chaco Wall. "Could it be as simple as that",  I asked myself, as I stepped back, viewed the entire perspective once more and then asked my companions to tell me if they could see it as well.  When my wife responded that the Great Wall certainly seemed to be a larger reflection of the veneer block and chink walls of the Pueblo, I had to admit that, at the very least, here was something worth noting for others who spend more time at the Canyon to look at perhaps.  If the Great Wall was, indeed, the initial impetus for the major constructions of the four sites already mentioned in the Canyon, then what better way for the builders to acknowledge this and to tie their buildings at other locations to this " sacred origin point" for their celestially-based ceremonial system and building efforts at other related points.  Further, once Chaco Canyon had been abandoned as the primary center of whatever larger complex evolved there, the rapid disappearance of this unique and difficult building technique could easily have occurred as fractionalized populations adapted more localized remains of the larger system they had taken from the Canyon with them.  As annual pilgrimages to the important kiva sites that framed the Great Wall ceased for all but the dedicated few, the necessity and even the rationale for such unnecessarily complicated wall masonry techniques would surely have disappeared.

These observations are intended to be but hypothetical answers  to two larger questions that have always puzzled this writer and other more competent scholars, perhaps.  However, as we learn more about the incredible abilities of ancient peoples around the world to observe, record, and preserve complex information about the events in the skies revolving over their heads over long periods of time, we must continue to look for answers to seemingly unrelated problems, I believe, with at least one-eye--if not both--fixed on the possibility that what we are viewing must be seen at some level as being tied to events being played out in the heavens above these ancient people's equally curious eyes and minds.

In the subsequent article that will shortly appear on this blog page, the writer will address other related observations made as a result of his recent trip to other Chaco period sites at Aztec Ruins, Salmon Ruins, Mesa Verde, Chimney Rock, CO, and Hovenweep.  As always, the reader is strongly encouraged to login to our secure website to post comments directly to this article or to contact the author directly through the email address also given through the Contact icon at the top of the page.

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