Saturday, August 23, 2008

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico - Ancestral Puebloan Ruins

One thousand years before Phoenix or Albuquerque or Salt Lake City, another civilization was building cities across the four corners region of the American Southwest. By the eleventh century, the Anasazi (now referred to as Ancestral Puebloans) had built an amazing cultural center in Chaco Canyon that could have been the Las Vegas of it's day. A few hundred years later they had moved on, leaving behind an incredible amount of artifacts and abandoned buildings along with mysteries that no one seems to be able to solve.

Rob and I just spent five days exploring some of the most significant sites in Ancestral Puebloan history. I snuck out of work early on Friday so we could head down to the Moab area and get a head start on our road trip. We found a nice campsite along the Colorado River and tried to get a good night's sleep despite the bright moon and occasional sand blast from the canyon winds.

our campsite along the Colrado River in Moab

On Saturday we headed into southwestern Colorado to visit Mesa Verde National Park. This site actually comes a little later in the timeline of the Ancestral Puebloans, in a time when they had mostly moved on from Chaco Canyon and built huge dwellings in the cliffs of Mesa Verde. This seems to indicate a defensive period in their timeline since many of these dwellings are hidden and very difficult to reach. It was probably a time of cultural upheaval as Chaco Canyon was abandoned, possibly due to climate change or dwindling resources. Maybe they took comfort in the protection of these cliffs.

Step House in Mesa Verde National Park

Step House in Mesa Verde National Park

Long House in Mesa Verde National Park

Spruce Tree House - the best perserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde - with some classic T-shaped doorways

Me at our campsite in nearby Mancos State Park - to escape the crowds at Mesa Verde

Mancos State Park in Colorado

On Sunday we headed south into New Mexico to explore the highlight of the trip - Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This may be the most significant site in Ancestral Puebloan history and it contains some of the largest "great houses" and kivas in the American Southwest. 400 miles of ancient roads lead from all directions into Chaco Canyon. The houses and kivas are aligned with astronomical events with high degree of accuracy. This was not a hospitable place and it seems like almost all the food and resources were carried into the canyon from distant locations. Despite the massive structures and large number of rooms, it seems like this was more of a place to vist than to live. Chaco was probably a place of pilgrimage where groups from across the Southwest converged. Chaco reached it's peak around 1050 and a few hundred years later it's people had moved on.

Rob at the entrance to the canyon

Hungo Pavi - Chaco Canyon

Pueblo Bonito - occupied from the 800's to 1200's - the most famouse great house in Chaco Canyon. It contained over 400 rooms.

Doorways in Pueblo Bonito - Chaco Canyon

T-shaped doorway

Chetro Ketl - another great house in Chaco

Casa Rinconada - a great kiva in Chaco and the site where the summer solstice sun shines a square of light directly into a special window at sunrise

Fajada Butte in Chaco - a spiral petroglyph is located at the top and a dagger of light strikes the center of the spiral at noon on the summer solstice

Rob climbing on the rocks near our campsite

On Monday we made our way from Chaco to Santa Fe. We took a longer and more scenic route through Jemez Pueblo and Jemez Springs. We stopped in Bandelier National Monument, another Ancestral Puebloan site that was occupied in the 1200's and 1300's before being abandoned as well.

near Jemez Pueblo

Soda Dam made up of massive calcium carbonate deposites left behind from the water that used to flow over the area

Valles Caldera National Preserve - the remains of an ancient supervolcano that erupted over 1 million years ago

Tyuonyi in Frijoles Canyon of Bandelier National Monument

Me climbing up to Alcove House in Bandelier National Monument

Inside a kiva at Alcove House in Bandelier National Monument

Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Inside the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

Santuario de Guadalupe in Sante Fe

On Monday night we camped in Black Canyon just outside Santa Fe. Tuesday was a 12 hour drive back to Salt Lake City - long, but well worth it.