Thursday, June 27, 2013

Great Sites: Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Part 3: Chetro Ketl

Chetro Ketl
Original Collonades are filled in

Mayans in New Mexico?   In the Chaco Culture National Historical Park there is a Great House built by the ancestral Puebloan culture that is a glaring example of the influence of the Mayan culture.  If you look closely at the front wall facing the plaza at Chetro Ketl, you can see that it “was originally built as a row of masonry columns which once held horizontal timbers to support a roof over an open cloister-like porch.”   This quote is from the guide book provided by the NHP.  It goes on to say, “Sometime later the spaces between the columns were filled with masonry to completely close the passageway.”  And later the area was divided further into smaller rooms.
Chetro Ketl
Artist's Rendering by Courtney Miller
To give you an idea of what it would have looked like originally, I have drawn a sketch with the porch as it was before it was filled in.  “Pillars and colonnades are features of prehistoric architecture in central Mexico, but were unknown to the American Southwest before the Bonito Phase.”  Note the similarity of style in the drawing with the buildings in the Mayan city of Palenque.  This is just one more piece of evidence that there was extensive trade between the Chaco Culture and the Central American cultures.

Mayan building in Palenque
Note colonnaded porches
Chetro Ketl is due east of Pueblo Bonito.  A line extended from the front wall of Pueblo Bonita bisects the heart of Chetro Ketl and they are clearly visible to each other.   There are many similarities between the two, but some striking differences as well.  Chetro Ketl’s floor plan is more the traditional rectangular design as opposed to the unique “half moon” shape of Pueblo Bonito. 

Chetro Ketl was also the termination point of three great roads.  Just to the northeast an ancient stairway hewn into the canyon wall led to a prepared roadway at the top of the bluff.  This road once led north to the village known today as Aztec ruins.  Due south there is the remnants of another stair leading out of the valley and connecting with a north-south road that led to the southern outliers.   
West and a little south there is the remnant of a stairs that once connected to a short road to the Great House “Pueblo Alto”.  Watch a video on this stairs.  You can still see the final steps terminating in one room, part of a small house of about 30 rooms and five kivas.  All that remains of the stairway above the house are the holes where supports were placed and a few stairs hewn in the rock cliff.  Above the bluff a 16-20 foot road led to Pueblo Alto.  Typically, the first stop for visitors.  The steps would have landed on the roof of the back room and then a grand rock staircase would have brought the visitor into the front room.  A regal entrance onto the canyon floor just behind the Great House, Chetro Ketl.

The ancestral Puebloans built over 200 miles of roads connecting most, if not all, of the pueblos of the Chaco world.  These roads were 16 to 20 feet wide and bordered by berms of soil or loose rock and often filled with soil to keep them level .  “The roads are not simple trails following the easiest routes, but are straight for miles, connecting points not in sight of one another, and disregarding rough terrain.”

Chetro Ketl also hosts both subterranean Kivas, which are common and tower Kivas built on the third floor which was peculiar to this era in the canyon.  See the Kivas.

Chetro Ketl is a fascinating site to visit and should definitely be on your list when you visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Great Sites: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, part 2: Pueblo Bonito

Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito
It is the largest of the Great Houses at Chaco Canyon and possibly the largest anywhere in North America.   It is the most thoroughly investigated and excavated and there is good evidence that the massive structure was intricately pre-planned down to its odd placement in the canyon.  For instance, the thickness of the walls on the ground floor rooms indicate that it was planned to be five stories high from the beginning although construction, started in 850 A.D., would take 200 years to complete.

Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito
Note the remains of "Threatening Rock"
in upper right
And it was placed too close to the canyon wall indicating that its placement was based on a higher
purpose.  Despite a large piece of the canyon wall, later named “Threatening Rock”,  that had broken loose and would undoubtedly fall someday, they stubbornly stuck to their plan.  Threatening Rock did come down and knocked out a good portion of the back wall January 1941 (note the rock pile in the lower left of the picture above).  Something about that spot made it critical that it be placed there.

What is the structure?  It is Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

Another interesting anomaly is the design of Pueblo Bonito.  The floor plan is in the shape of a “D” or, as our tour guide pointed out, a “half moon”.  Looking at the aerial view are you seeing another striking similarity to the moon?  The craters?  Well, before we get too carried away, the round kivas would have been covered!   Most Great Houses were square or rectangular or, if they had a curved wall, it was in front of the courtyard.  But almost always, the back wall was straight. (Of course, other would be houses that were unplanned or built on covered ledges like at Mesa Verde).   At Pueblo Bonito, the entire back wall is curved and the wall in front of the courtyard is straight. 

Tour of Casa Rincanada
Canyon wall between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl
is in the background
An interesting phenomenon resides between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, the Great House to the east, according to our guide.  This cliff face produces great acoustics.  The field between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl showed signs of use, but was not used for agricultural purposes.  Our guide speculates that it was a community gathering place.  The sound from drums and flutes played next to the cliff face would have carried across the valley.

Although Pueblo Bonito probably contained over 800 rooms in its heyday,  research suggests that very few people lived in the Great Houses permanently.  For instance, there were very few burials found in the canyon.   This would suggest that the Great Houses in Chaco canyon were more like resorts than villages.  Goods from all over the southwest, Central America, and the east support the theory that Chaco Canyon was a central trading hub.  It is more likely, that people came to the canyon to trade their goods and while there experience the lavish ceremonial events staged in the Great Kivas, large dance fields, and great plazas.

Pueblo Bonito would have been a most impressive place to visit back then.  With the best architecture and construction, oversized rooms,  grand courtyards, huge Kivas, and massive storage facilities, it would have been a spectacle.   It was like no other place in the southwest.  Even in a canyon where Great Houses dotted the valley and canyon rims, it was (and is) unique.

Imagine approaching this enormous, five-story “hotel” covering three acres with an enormous courtyard in front where dancers in brightly colored costumes were dancing to the thundering beat of massive foot drums, melodious flutes, rattles and chanting singers.  A massive round Kiva sitting in the center of the courtyard held impressive ceremonial rituals.  I imagine that it might have been like going to New York City on business and taking in Broadway plays and shopping.


These cylinder jars from Pueblo Bonito contained chocolate!  It was in liquid form and imported from Central America for elite guests.  In some Maya ceremonies a cacao beverage was frothed by pouring the liquid from one vessel to another.  The Maya were known to ground cacao beans, mix them with spices, chilies, and water, and frothed the drink for consumption either hot or cold.  In addition to this exotic drink, trade with Central America included rare Quetzal feathers and parrots.





Thursday, June 13, 2013

Great Sites: Chaco Culture National Park part 1

Part 1: Introduction to the Park

Approaching Chaco Canyon
Fajada Butte can be seen in the distance
Recently, I revisited Chaco Culture National Park.  It is one of the most magical/mystical places I’ve ever been to.  There is nothing else there—no amusement park, no big city, no hotels or restaurants, no residents (other than National Park staff)—just the remains of the ancient Puebloan center we call Chaco today.  Even though you may occasionally be passing other tourists, you cannot help but feel a personal connection as you wander among these large and imposing silent ancient structures and wonder what happened here.

This beautiful site is located in north-western New Mexico.   I usually come into the park from Hwy 550 either from Bloomfield (north) or from Albuquerque (south).   I turn off US 550 at CR 7900--3 miles southeast of Nageezi and approximately 50 miles west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). This  route is clearly signed from US 550 to the park boundary (21 miles). The route includes 8 miles of paved road (CR 7900) and 13 miles of rough dirt road (CR7950).   But if you are coming in from I40, take the Thoreau exit north Hwy 371, after Crown point turn east on hwy 9, then north on Hwy 57 all the way to the park entrance.  Click for more specific directions


Be sure to check “Traffic and Travel Tips” on the National Park Service web site before leaving.  Sometimes the roads leading in (which are dirt roads) are closed.

The park is open every day from 7:00 a.m. to sunset. The Visitor Center is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Visitor Center is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day but the park's roads, sites, trails and campground remain open. 

I have stayed at the campground before both with a travel trailer and with a tent.  Be aware that there are no hookups in the camp ground but there is a bath and restroom facility.  Note that the roads in are rub-board most of the way, so batten down the hatches and check for rain—you don’t want to attempt these dirt roads when they are muddy.  If you set up a tent, make sure you are not right below the canyon rim.  If there is even a small rain storm, water from all around will cascade down over the rim and flood you; I know because we got drenched one summer.  So place your tent away from the rim on high ground.

Park tours of the ruins are excellent and I highly recommend you join one.  There were two each day we were there.  Just check with the visitor center for time and location.
The main, excavated ruins are easily accessible from a paved road inside the park.  But if you are a hiker, there are some great hiking trails to remote sites.  And experiencing the ruins from the rim is awe inspiring.

Next week, I will talk more about the ruins and their significance.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cherokee Witchcraft: How the medicine men dealt with a Raven Mocker

Part 4

The Raven Mocker witch
could shape-shift into a raven
The most feared Cherokee witch, the one they called “Raven Mocker”,  was not completely invincible.  The skilled medicine man knew the signs of the Raven Mocker and its malicious intents.  He knew that the Raven Mocker preferred the nights and that he preferred preying on the sick and the weak.  So, when a loved one was sick, these special medicine men (or women) were sought out and asked to sit with their loved one through the night.
There were numerous methods that were known to enable the detection of the witch.  The Raven Mocker, according to accounts recorded by James Mooney, “… flies through the air in fiery shape, with arms outstretched like wings, and sparks trailing behind … Every little while as he flies he makes a cry like the cry of a raven”.  [refer to the previous article from Native American Antiquity:  Cherokee Witches: Kâ'lanû Ahkyeli'skï]
Ayunini (Swimmer)
Famous Cherokee Medicine Man

Another method, quoting from “The Swimmer Manuscript” by James Mooney, revised and edited by Frans Olbrects (Swimmer was a famous Cherokee medicine man that was Mooney’s principle informant on the history, mythology, … medicine and botany of the Cherokee), “This work consists in smoothing a small heap of ashes, about 20-25 centimeters in diameter, aside from the hearth, and occasionally dropping a tiny pinch of finely crushed tso’ lagayo-nli (“old tobacco,” Nicotiana rustica L) on it; the center of the hot ashes are thought of as representing the patient’s cabin; any particle of the tobacco dust catching fire, to the right or to the left of the center, indicates the position from where the witch is approaching.  If the dust alights on the center of the ashes it is a sign that the witch is right overhead, and should the tobacco, as it drops on the center, take fire with a crack or a burst, it shows that the witch has already entered the room.  In this case the burst will cause the death of the witch within four days, if she is one of the kind that has fasted for four days to attain her occult power; within seven days if she is one of the kind that ‘has got the utmost’”

It was also believed that by drinking a special mixture, sometimes called the “witch’s tea”, the
consumer could “see” the witch in his natural form and, thereby, cause the witch’s death.  According to Alan Kilpatrick, in his book “The Night Has a Naked Soul”, “… the four ingredients of this exotic brew (which were crushed and steeped in water) were algae collected from rocks in a mountain stream, phosphorescent wood extracted from a putrified stump, and two species of insect plants (Cordyceps) that contain the hallucinatory properties of ergot and lysergic acid diethylamide.”

Witches, whether a Raven Mocker or just a common witch, were blamed for a person’s sickness.  When interrogating a patient, the medicine man would usually ask if the patient knew “who put the thing [curse] under them” that disrupted their healthy condition.  The medicine man didn’t treat the sickness as we think of it today, they worked to remove that which was interrupting their health by restoring harmony and balance.  So, a treatment would not only include medicine but required the appropriate prayers or conjures to address the complete health of the patient.  A person’s physical health was linked with his mental health and both had to be addressed to be well.  It bothers me that our doctors today have not learned this and rarely address both when treating their patients.  It is too easy to just prescribe a drug and hope it drives out the sickness.