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Canyon Of Mystery

Culture, clues and questions inspired by the Great House of Pueblo Bonito

Black shiny ravens patrol the cliffs, swoop down and scold the approaching intruder— “Caw, caw, caw!” I try to communicate in ravenspeak that I’m here to visit, not to harm, as I descend into the ancient structure. The thick sandstone walls dampen all sound. No screams of ravens inside, just the scuff of my boots on the dirt floor.

Photo of the interior of the Great House of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Great House of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

It’s cool and dim, a stark contrast to the bright desert outside. A low opening leads into a small room with another opening into a smaller room. And then another and another. Like a mouse in a maze, I press forward, not knowing where I’m going. Stepping through a T-shaped doorway, I emerge outside onto an expansive plaza and peer down into a large kiva, a circular ceremonial room. There’s no one here but me, but there is a presence.

I’m standing in the Great House of Pueblo Bonito, one of many structures in what is today Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Constructed over three centuries from 850 CE to 1150 CE by Ancestral Puebloan peoples, Pueblo Bonito covers three acres and contains 700 rooms and 30 kivas. At one time, parts of the structure were four and five stories high.

It’s the most important site in Chaco Canyon, once the center of a highly sophisticated culture. In feats of remarkable engineering, the Chacoans built more than a dozen Great Houses in the canyon. The buildings were situated along celestial alignments, connected to one another by lines of sight and linked to outlying communities by an extensive road network. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chaco Canyon complex is as impressive as the pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu in Peru.

Upon arriving in Chaco, I sense that it’s a place that sparks more questions than there are answers. Why did the Chacoans construct such elaborate buildings in this harsh climate? What took place here? Why did the people abandon Chaco after 1150 CE?

Archaeological studies indicate that the Chacoans paid attention to the cosmos, cardinal directions and the seasonal shifts of the sun—knowledge critical for growing food, planning ceremonies and preparing for the frigid winter.

At 6,200 feet, Chaco sits in a high desert with extreme temperatures in winter and summer. I’m here in mid-May—hot but tolerable. I set out on a day hike to Peñasco Blanco, another Great House in the canyon. My boots sink into the soft sand, which makes for slow going. I pass walls of petroglyphs depicting people, horned ungulates, birds and spirals. What stories are carved in the sandstone?

Reaching for my water bottle, I notice that the Chaco Wash is bone dry, and there are no trees to provide shade. Did drought and deforestation force the Chacoans to leave? I cross a wide expanse of sand and sage to West Mesa and begin the winding climb to the top. Picking my way over lichen-covered boulders and stepping on fossils of ancient sea creatures, I’m reminded that time is relative. An overhanging ledge provides relief from the sun and a good place for a break. Tilting my head back for a long drink, I see it—the famous Supernova Pictograph—on the underside of the ledge.

In 1054 CE, a new bright star appeared in the constellation of Taurus the Bull during the moon’s crescent phase. Halfway around the world from Chaco, Chinese and Japanese astronomers recorded written observations of this remarkable star—known today as the Crab Supernova. Archeoastronomers speculate that the Chacoans also witnessed this unusual star and recorded their sightings in the pictograph above me—a 10-pointed “exploding” star, crescent moon and a human handprint, possibly the artist’s signature. Just below on a more exposed slab of rock, I see a faint radiating circle with a streaked tail, thought to depict the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066 CE. Did these two dramatic celestial events shake the Chacoans’ core beliefs of a predictable cosmos? Did this disrupt the rule of those perceived to control the heavens? Did this contribute to the people leaving Chaco?

We are left to wonder. But I like to think that the Chacoans looked up to the sky and paid attention, trying to understand the universe and their place in it. The same as us. 

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.