The Riddle of Chaco Canyon

Sure, we’ve all heard of Chaco Canyon.  It’s one of the 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the USA. But I tended to lump it in with Mesa Verde and the other cliff dwellings and move on.

Then an ad in High West (“for people who care about the West”) caught my eye.  $25 for a year’s subscription to Archaeology Southwest, PLUS the Chaco archaeology report?  Yes!

Once you get going on Chaco Canyon, it’s hard to stop.

Bob Adams at Wikipedia

What was it?  Who built it?  How?  What happened?  What were they up to?  Why there?

Room 170 at source: this Gamblers House post

One of the most important conclusions that leaps out of this book is that most of the societies examined had attitudes toward nature that were fairly compatible with a responsible, sustainable relationship with the environment, but that nearly all of them ended up destroying their environment anyway, either because they lacked the scientific and technological knowledge to know how to act best or because they let their values change as they became wealthier and more powerful through exploitation of natural resources.

from this post.

Sometimes you start looking for something, more information, help, and you find exactly what you’re looking for.  You find a guide who can give you exactly the information you’re looking for, in a digestible way.

That’s what I found when I found The Gambler’s House.  A dense, rich blog about Chaco by a former Park Service seasonal guide, he / she seems to know this stuff at a deep level.  Here are two of the closest I find to autobiography.

source: Gambler’s House

The author, who signs the name Teofilio, writes with clarity, patience, intelligence, respect for the reader, restrained but confident style, and a steady, calm voice, walking us through questions, debates, and controversies within the scholarship:

So if great houses weren’t pueblos, what were they?  Here’s where contemporary archaeologists tend to break into two main camps.  One sees them as elite residences, part of some sort of hierarchical system centered on the canyon or,  alternatively, of a decentralized system of “peer-polities” with local elites who emulated the central canyon elites in the biggest great houses.  In either case, note that the great houses are still presumed to have been primarily residential.  The difference from the traditional view is quantitative, rather than qualitative.  These researchers see the lack of evidence for residential use in most rooms, but they also see that there is still some evidence for residential use, and they emphasize that and interpret the other rooms as evidence of the power and wealth of the few people who lived in these huge buildings and were able to amass large food surpluses or trade goods (or whatever).  The specific models vary, but the core thing about them is that they see the great houses as houses, not for the community as a whole (most people lived in the surrounding “small  houses” both inside and outside of the canyon) but for a lucky few.

In this camp are Steve LeksonSteve PlogJohn Kantner, probably Ruth Van Dyke (although she doesn’t talk about the specific functions of great houses much), and others.

On the other side are those who see the difference between pueblos and great houses as qualitative.  To these people, the great houses were not primarily residential in function, although they may have housed some people from time to time.  Most of these researchers see the primary function of the sites as being “ritual” in some sense, although what that means is not always clearly specified.  In many cases a focus on pilgrimage (based on questionable evidence) is posited.  This group tends to make a big deal out of the astronomical alignments and large-scale planning evident in the layouts and positions of the great houses within their communities.  They tend to see the few residents of the sites as caretakers, priests, or other individuals whose functions allowed them to reside in these buildings.  Importantly, they don’t see these sites as equivalent to other residences in any meaningful way.  They are instead public architecture, perhaps built by egalitarian communities as an act of religious devotion.  Examples of monumental architecture built by such societies are known throughout the world (Stonehenge is a famous example), and this view fits with the traditional interpretation of modern Pueblo ethnography, which sees the Pueblos as peaceful, egalitarian, communal villagers.  There is a long tradition of projecting this image back into the prehistoric past based on the obvious continuities in material culture, so while these scholars are in some ways breaking with tradition in not seeing great houses as residential, they are also staying true to tradition in other ways by interpreting them as a past manifestation of cultural tendencies still known in the descendant societies but expressed in different ways.

(from this post).

While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.  This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency.  This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco.  The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think.  Meanwhile, the mystery remains.

from the post “Plaster

I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved.  There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons.  That’s not necessarily a problem, though.  At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics.  Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco.  One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe.  The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent.  There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.

What of the Gambler legend for the origin of Chaco?  Alexandria Witze at Archaeology Conservancy tells us:

Navajo oral histories tell of a Great Gambler who had a profound effect on Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloan capital located in what is now northwestern New Mexico. His name was Nááhwiilbiihi (“winner of people”) or Noqóilpi (“he who wins men at play”), and he travelled to Chaco from the south. Once there, he began gambling with the locals, engaging in games such as dice and footraces. He always won.

Faced with such a formidable opponent, the people of Chaco lost all their possessions at first. Then they gambled their spouses and children and, finally, themselves, into his debt. With a group of slaves now available to do his bidding, the Gambler ordered them to construct a series of great houses—the monumental architecture that fills Chaco Canyon today.

when I picture The Gambler

What was up with Chaco Canyon’s roads?  They were thirty feet wide, perfectly straight, and seem to go… nowhere?

Once you’re into Chaco Canyon before you know it you’re into Hovenweep.

and where does Mesa Verde fit into this?

So what was the relationship between the two?  The short answer is that no one knows.

source: rationalobserver for wikipedia

This is a great post with a possible Chaco theory:

Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

The “sexiest” post title:


Hovenweep

What a name for a place.

between 1150-1350 these structures were built in, around, and above this canyon:

Gotta check that out sometime:

Was this era in the American Southwest something like roughly the same period, the early 12th century in Ireland:

To be glib, early medieval Ireland sounds like a somewhat crazed Wisconsin, in which every dairy farm is an armed at perpetual war with its neighbors, and every farmer claims he is a king.

Or was Hovenweep perhaps something more like a monastery?

Some Anasazi taking the Benedict Option?

Thought this was a good trip report from Hovenweep.

Got to Hovenweep trying to read about traditional architecture in the American desert regions. What kinds of buildings have people with few tools and tech built?  What lasts?

This guy took on the challenge of building a pit house and kiva.

Easier than a kiva would be a false kiva:

John Fowler for wikipedia

 

 


Barstow Woolly Sunflower

gotta check this out one of these days.


Pattern

The wind moves the arms of this plant back and forth and it sweeps this pattern on the sand.  


Luckie

If you’re like me you saw this and wondered who Luckie Park is named after

I didn’t have to look far:

“This Luckie Reilly may be a relation,” I thought.  Sure enough:

It’s this Dr. Luckie that the park is named after.  Here’s some good info about him in the Morongo Basin Historical Society’s newsletter:

There’s a mural of him:

That’s from Google Earth.  Better picture at Action 29 Palms – The Mural People.

I wonder if this James Luckie was the son or grandson of James Buckner Luckie, who was a doctor with the Army of East Tennessee in the Civil War, and performed one of the first ever triple amputations.  More info and (warning) a photo on this German language (?) wikipedia page.

Luckie Reilly sounds great.  From a 2006 article about her, “10 Things To Know About Luckie Reilly,” in the Hi-Desert Star in 2006:

10. Susan continues to weigh in on local land-use issues, sometimes speaking her mind at City Council meetings and through letters to the editor. “I’ve been an activist for years,’ she says. “I’ve opposed power plants, polluting industries and waste dumps in the desert. You can’t just sit back and watch things go to heck!