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Chaco Canyon - The Center Of Chacoan Culture
Text from U.S National Park Service Chaco Culture National Historical Park Guide - GPO: 1998-432-903/60262 Reprint 1998
Chaco Canyon, for all its wild beauty, seems an unlikely place for a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture to take root and flourish. This is high desert country, with long winters, short growing seasons, and marginal rainfall. Yet, a thousand years ago, this valley was a center of community life, commerce and ceremony. People built monumental masonry buildings that were connected to other communities by a wide-ranging network of "roads". In architecture, complexity of community life, social prganization, and regional integration, the master builders of Chaco Canyon attained a unique cultural expression.
The cultural flowering of the Chacoan people began in the mid-800s and lasted over three hundred years. We can see it clearly in the grand scale of the architecture. Using masonry techniques unique for their time, they constructed massive stone buildings (great houses) of multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms much larger than any they had previously built. The buildings were planned from the start, in contrast to the usual practice of adding rooms to existing structures as needed. Construction on some of these buildings spanned decades and even centuries. Although each is unique, all great houses share architectural features that make them recognizable as "Chacoan". Chaco Canyon Masonry
   The Chacoans were skilled masons. Working with stone tools, they erected vast communal buildings that still compel admiration. Their masonry techniques evolved over centuries. The earliest dwellings were built with simple walls one stone thick, held together with generous courses of mud mortar. The oldest walls in Pueblo Bonito (left) used this type of masonry.
   When the Chacoans began to build higher and more extensively, they employed walls with thick inner cores of rubble and fairly thin veneers of facing stone. These walls tapered as they rose, evidence of the planning that went into the large-scale construction in Classic times. An early example of this wall (right) is characterized by large blocks of tabular sandstone chinked with smaller stones set in mortar.
About half the ground floor of Pueblo Bonito was built in masonry (far-left) and late 11th century styles (left). These styles were employed at roughly the same time. Though the patterns are attractive as they stand, there is evidence the Chacoans covered most of the stonework with plaster. The last distinctive masonry style (right), called McElmo, appears in Kin Kletso and in other early 1100s architecture. Walls were built with a thin inner core of rubble and thick outer veneers of shaped sandstone resembling the masonry of the Mesa Verde region.
During the middle and late 800s, the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñansco Blanco were constructed, followed by Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and others. These structures were often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. Lines of site between the great houses allowed communication. Sophisticated astronomical markers, communication features, water control devices, and formal earthen mounds surrounded them. The buildings were placed within a landscape surrounded by sacred mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual meaning for American Indian descendants. By 1050 Chaco was well on its way to becoming the political, economic, and ceremonial center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. Dozens of great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to over 150 great houses built throughout the region. Current thought is that the great houses were not traditional farming villages occupied by large populations. They may instead have been impressive examples of "public architecture" that were used only periodically during times of ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations arrived in the canyon for these events.
After prevailing for 300 years, Chaco Canyon declines as a regional center during the middle 1100s, when new construction ceased. Chacoan influence continued at Aztec Ruins and other centers to the north, south, and west into the late 1100s and 1200s. In time, people shifted away from Chacoan ways, migrated to new areas, reorganized their world, and eventually interacted with foreign cultures. Their descendants are the modern Southwest Indians. Many Southwest Indian people today look upon Chaco as an important stop along their clans' sacred migration paths - a spritual place to be honored and respected.