When was the last time you traveled off the beaten path into a journey back in time? This weeks Travel Blog is written by our newest addition to the Heritage Inspirations team, Emily Hill. Emily joins us leading our immersive and interpretive Chaco Canyon Day Tours which will be offered every Saturday starting May 27th departing out of Hotel Chaco located in Old Town Albuquerque. I’ve been asked recently about the new developments of Hotel Chaco and to clarify, NO there is not a resort being built in Chaco Canyon, one of three New Mexico UNESCO World Heritage Sites, rather designed after the Chacoan core and veneer architecture and in an urban yet nurturing basin, surrounded by dramatic landscapes. Learn from Emily 5 highlights that will enhance our mission to offer you an unforgettable experience diving deep into the soul of this ancestral puebloan story.
By Emily Hill
Chaco Canyon is an ancient world that is among the most studied, and most feared. Despite modern technology and years of excavation, scientists are left with countless unsolved mysteries about the why the Chacoan world was constructed in such a deliberate and mystical way. Here are some reasons Chaco continues to enthrall our hearts and minds:
1. They just…disappeared
After more than 300 years constructing fifteen major complexes of monumental and technologically advanced architecture (that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century!), the puebloans simply vanished. From what we can tell, they left in a mass exodus…but no one knows why. Some say drought, famine, tribal wars, (or…aliens). Whatever the reason, more than 2,000 inhabitants abandoned the enormous city, even sealing the doors behind them.
2. All things line up
The synchronization of the Chacoan world with the lunar and solar cycles is truly mind blowing. This incredible alignment, made without telescopes or tools, would have required generations of astronomical observations and centuries of skillfully coordinated construction. For example, buildings like Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito are oriented to face the direction of the rising and setting moon. When the moon reaches its lunar standstill (which takes place once every 18.6 years) it is framed perfectly by the doorways.
The Solstice Project, which did an in-depth analysis of the cosmological alignments at Chaco, found twelve of the major buildings not only align with solar, lunar, equinox, and solstice cycles, but also interrelate to each other, built in “symmetrically organized designs” on axes of major and minor lunar standstills.
And the Chacoans did it all without telescopes or tools!
But why, you ask? We don’t know for sure. However, in many Puebloan traditions, myths and legends describe a “sacred middle place” where the ancestors rose up from below in the north and south and came together in the middle. This was the center where the cardinal and solstice directions join, and around which the solar and lunar cycles revolve. Fred Eggan, a historian and archeologist of Hopi culture, suggests, “Chaco Canyon may have been such a center place and a place of mediation and transition between these cycles and between the worlds of the living and the dead.”
3. Heavy masonry and timber…without wheels or trees
The forethought necessary to build the incredible structures at Chaco Canyon is truly remarkable. The puebloans not only considered the solar and lunar orientation of their buildings, but also developed new masonry techniques and state-of-the-art architecture, building up to four stories high with stone, mud, and wood alone. The wood is particularly interesting. Where in the world did it come from? In the treeless landscape of the New Mexican desert, Chacoans had to travel over 50 miles to the Zuni and Chuska mountain ranges to collect trees for their monumental vigas, or ceiling beams. Without wheeled carts or pack animals, the puebloans traveled on foot, carrying the trunks on their backs in the baking sun. Researchers in the National Academy of Science report more than 240,000 trees were used in construction, and that 70 percent of timbers likely originated over 75 km or more from Chaco.
Photo Courtesy from Wikipedia Commons
4. A vision across generations
The puebloans didn’t just build a lot of impressive houses. They created a new world view. Their grandiose religious and trade center brought together generations of people and cultures. You can see this in the breadth of time it took to construct the Great Houses of Chaco. Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl are enormous – 800 and 400 rooms respectively. Scholars estimate that it required more than 500,000 man-hours, 26,000 trees, and 50 million sandstone blocks to erect Chetro Ketl. Pueblo Bonito was so gigantic in scale and imagination, construction continued over the course of 300 years. Generations lived and died, all of them contributing to this massive project, without wavering in their vision and mission. But how? And what was their purpose? How did they stay faithful to a building plan without maps or drawings? What was it all for? These are questions we still can’t answer…
5. Miles of ancient roads…but were they roads?
For a culture without wheels or pack animals, why did the Chacoans need over 500 miles of roads? Not just footpaths, these were expertly engineered with pavers and sandstone, 25 to 32 feet wide, and following rigorously straight lines. The North Road, for example, stretches for 30 miles in perfect alignment with true north. Also bizarre: the roads don’t curve or adapt to the landscape. Instead of avoiding topographical obstacles like cliffs or boulders, the puebloans constructed massive earthen and masonry ramps, and carved staircases directly into the rock. (Look for Jackson stairway or the ramp seen from from the Pueblo Alto Trail near Chetro Ketl.) When the roads do change direction, they take sudden, sharp-angled turns. Did they align with the sun or moon? Were these roads for travel or trade?
Paul Devereux, a British scholar of archeological mysteries, has a different idea. He suggests the roads are “markings that represent the out-of-body spirit travels of ancient shamans.” Sacred Sites reports, “Archaeological research does indeed indicate that the lines often lead to small shrine-like structures where evidence of religious and shamanistic activity is common. These mysterious lines, sometimes apparently between no particular places, are found in many parts of the region. More than five hundred miles of the lines have so far been charted.”
So come take a tour with us! Day tours begin this summer, providing exclusive access and insight into the curiosities and treasures of this sacred world. For more information and booking, click here.
Read more about the National Historical Park on the National Park Service website here.