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:

Vivian Maier

stole that straight from Artnet.

The tale of who owns Vivian Maier’s work is interesting.  Through some twists, John Maloof, the Chicago real estate developer (?) who found and bought most of the physical photos at a storage auction, does not at present own the copyright:

Until those heirs are determined, the Cook County Administrator will continue to serve as the supervisor of the Maier Estate.



Cowen and Taleb (and Norm)

It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.

It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.


TALEB: Before 15, and I reread it many times. I’d say, before 15, I read Dostoyevsky and I read The Idiot. There’s a scene that maybe I was 14 when I read it. Prince Myshkin was giving this story. Actually, it was autobiographical for Dostoyevsky.

He said he was going to be put to death. As they woke him up and were taking him to the execution place, he decided to live the last few minutes of his life with intensity. He devoured life, it was so pleasurable, and promised himself, if he survives, to enjoy every minute of life the same way.

And he survived. In fact, it was a simulacrum of an execution, and Dostoyevsky . . . effectively that says the guy survived. The lesson was he no longer did that. It was about the preferences of the moment. He couldn’t carry on later. He forgot about the episode. That marked me from Dostoyevsky when I was a kid, and then became obsessed with Dostoyevsky.


I discovered that I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I realized to have an edge as a writer, you can’t really know what people know. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff that they don’t know.


Also re: Jesus, how about Norm Macdonald on the topic:


View story at

Go Inside

They’re making progress on the dome/orb that will one day hold the Academy Museum (motto: Go Inside The Movies).

At neighboring LACMA the American Outliers exhibit is terrific.

The Great Good Man by Marsden Hartley of Lewiston, Maine.

Struck by Horace Pippin’s John Brown Going To His Hanging:

Pippin served in K Company, 3rd Battalion of the 369th infantry, the famous Harlem Hellfighters, in Europe during World War I, where he lost the use of his right arm after being shot by a sniper. He said of his combat experience:

I did not care what or where I went. I asked God to help me, and he did so. And that is the way I came through that terrible and Hellish place. For the whole entire battlefield was hell, so it was no place for any human being to be.

While in the trenches, Pippin kept an illustrated journal which gave an account of his military service.

How about this one, Miss Van Alen:

attributed to “The Ganesvoort Limner (possibly Pieter Vanderlyn).”

Generally untrained and itinerant, limners were a class of artists who helped shape the image of colonial Americans, securing the social status of their middle-class sitters in portraits that convey an air of refinement.

says The National Gallery.

Proposed motto for LACMA: Go Inside The Art.

Meanwhile in Australia

It started when Greens leader Richard Di Natale called Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan an “absolute pig”, after the Senator said there was a “bit of Nick Xenophon in” Ms Hanson-Young.

“He’s an absolute pig. He should be booted out. He’s a disgrace,” Mr Di Natale shouted across the chamber. “You grub.”

An emotional Senator Hanson-Young said Senator O’Sullivan and conservative independents Fraser Anning, Cory Bernardi and David Leyonhjelm were “cowards” who had spent months levelling slurs at her.

“You are not fit to be in this chamber. You are not fit to call yourselves men,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

She backed the Greens leader for calling out Senator O’Sullivan’s “reprehensible” remarks.

“That is what real men do. Real men don’t insult and threaten women,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

“You grub.”

Enjoy reading news stories about the goings-on in other English speaking countries, you usually have to fill in the gaps just enough to piece together what’s happening.

(thanks to our Sydney correspondent for the link and background)


CIC of USS Spruance, 1975. USN-1162165.

But the most intriguing chapter is Hone’s study of a critical but largely unrecognized reorganization that transformed Navy operations beginning in late 1942. The problem was that commanders of warships were being cognitively overwhelmed by all the new information thrown at them in battle. In addition to traditional sightings and signaling, they were now receiving reports by radio from aircraft and from other ships, as well as from radar readings. The Navy’s answer was to design a new Combat Information Center on each ship. Through it, all that data could be continually funneled, sifted, integrated and passed to the captain and others on the vessel who might need it, like gunners. Such an improvement may seem mere common sense, but then many great innovations do seem obvious — in retrospect. Interestingly, Adm. Chester Nimitz told skippers what to do (establish the new centers) but not how to do it. This meant that different ships devised different approaches, which provided the basis for subsequent refinements.

CIC aboard an unknown destroyer escort during WWII, found here

Really interesting paragraph from Thomas Ricks, writing about this book:

which I will read when I have time, Trent Hone sounds serious!

Late 1942: is that the point in time where the age of information overload began?  Sorting, digesting, processing the enormous amounts of information that flow our way, telling signal from noise, is that a/the prevailing cognitive problem of the post 1942 world?

Tom Ricks=boss.