Chaco Canyon, in NW New Mexico, is an unassuming panorama of badlands, grasslands, buttes, and mesas. It is dry, dusty, desolate, and appears to be filled with nothing but monotypic stands of blackbrush as far as the eye can see… unless you go with an archeology major. Ranger Casey’s birthday gave us a great excuse to drive the 200 miles to her favorite place.
Ancestral Puebloans built and occupied this remarkable place between 850 and 1150 A.D. The National Geographic Society started excavations in the 1920s. It is a World Heritage site, like Machu Picchu and the Pyramids of Giza.
Take an expert next time you go someplace; you will have new eyes with which to see. All those mounds of earth along the canyon walls are NOT mounds of earth, but buried ruins. Casey would point out when a piece of wall protruded from the boring desert scrub, or how one ruin lined up with and balanced other ruins along the axis of the valley. She took us to an ancient route behind a minor complex that scrambled up ten or twelve stories of sandstone, for our cool photos from above. She sighted a ruin complex three miles away that, to my untrained eye, looked like a rock outcropping. She showed us an ancient 30-ft-wide staircase carved onto a cliff, part of the road system that linked Chaco with other scattered communities. We peered into kivas and great houses and tried to grasp how they would have been used.
We looked at different masonry styles; the preservation workers there can tell which walls were done by the same worker a thousand years ago, they are so stylistically unique. And, thanks to dendrochronology, each ruin can be dated by tree ring analysis of its ceiling timbers. Wild!
A philosophical shift happened in archeology about thirty years ago. Costly, time-consuming, and disruptive excavations have been set aside in favor of using underground imaging techniques with instruments I’ve never heard of. This is much more acceptable to the Hopi, Navajo, and other present-day descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.
As I wandered this broad flat valley, with only my two companions, a few ravens, and my imagination, I pondered the life I would have led as one of the residents here twelve centuries ago. Evidences of their daily routine were scarce: only metates, or grinding stones, and a few potsherds. The rest has gone to museums.
What I know for sure is that I would have been highly in tune with light, seasons, cycles, weather, plants, animals, and the stars. When survival itself depends on these things, they assume an importance I will never experience. Thanks, Chaco, for inviting me to glimpse my world anew.