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Deterioration in Chaco Canyon

The twentieth century has taken its toll on the remnants of prehistoric civilization in Chaco Canyon.

By Robin Wakeland

Sun washes it with white light, wind beats desert grit in and out of its plumbline crevices, and relentless rain dissolves adobe plaster with which it was built.  Tourists trample tops of the ruin’s walls and looters look elsewhere for artifacts, having already ransacked the site before security was tightened by the Park Service.

The twentieth century has taken its toll on the remnants of prehistoric civilization in Chaco Canyon.  In the broad canyon which was the home to a 12th century urban population numbering 5,000, the skeletons of town houses now stand naked, vulnerable as is the expansive site itself to escalating disintegration of architectural, graphic, and material culture remains of native American habitation between 5,000 B.C. and 1300 A. D.  Looking like a religious supplicant praying for immortality to the limestone cliffs at its north and south boundaries, this cultural resource begs the modern world for a solution to its demise.  And the beauty of the artifacts and architecture which attest to the complexity and artistry of the society which created them demand that we create an equally complex definition of and commitment to preservation adequate to deal with the present state of affairs.

Twelve large condominium-like buildings, each providing living space for up to 800-900 people, evidence knowledge of mathematics, engineering, stone craft, and astronomy.  Dating from 1000 A.D., these structures have not withstood well the baring of their core structure by industrious archaeologists, and are crumbling back to earth. 

Their walls are sagging and buckling from their own weight, their original mud and whitewash plaster gone.  The dirt cover which preserved them for 600 years has been removed with pick, shovel, and paintbrush.  The bentonitic clay on which they were built serves as a poor foundation, melting during rainstorms and contributing to the walls’ leaning.

Passing tourists have carved their initials into original mud plaster of interior rooms as if it were a bathroom wall.  Night thieves have stolen pottery set out in in-situ exhibits by the Park Service.  Hikers are admonished by Park Rangers to stay out of interior rooms and to re-bury exposed artifacts such as shell beads and pottery sherds for the benefit of posterity.  One wonders if graffiti artists and professional pot hunters would have so much self-discipline.

At the cliff site at the north entrance to the Canyon, sheepherders have chipped their signs and names next to ancient petroglyphs marking their trail.  Inspired by the geometry of Indian artwork, or the demands of their own rigorous map-making, some possessor of metal tools, possibly the USGS survey team who passed by in the 1910s, has left a star-square design.

Here a sheep trail follows the wagon supply route and original wagon wheel ruts still carved into the fragile desert floor.  The rock billboard conveys a desperate but probably typical message left for the latecomer in an aborted rendevous:  “I can’t get no grain. . . .”

Interacting with the ecology of the Canyon, maybe, was the right of the early explorers and sheepherders since it was their home.  Their tracks are history for us now.  The most perfectly cut blocks of limestone, and the largest ponderosa pine vigas were salvaged from the ruins by the first Anglo settlers in the Canyon, Richard Wetherill and his family, to construct a ranch house and trading post.  Welcomed by the Navajos who lived on the fringes of the Canyon then as they do now, the Wetherills brought coffee, sugar, flour and metal implements to the frontier.

They exported Navajo rugs and prehistoric pottery as far away as Chicago and New York, while taking up homesteading.  They were the first to record, and the first to sell the Canyon artifacts which we value so highly today.  According to the Wetherills’ wishes, the land was deeded to the Park Service soon after Richard’s death in 1910.  In the 1950s, the Park Service decided the ranch buildings and store were an eyesore and bulldozed them, carefully preserving the Indian-cut vigas.

It is the meticulous digging, charting, and surveying by archaeologists which have discovered and reconstructed the Chacoan world from which we learn of another, distant and strange people.  With stone age technology and an economy based on agriculture in an arid environment, these people utiized city planning in a highly structured and highly organized way.  They were civil engineers who built roads and irrigation systems.  They were artisans who imported raw turquoise and exported worked turquoise.  No doubt they exported expertise in all of these disciplines as well.

They established and made extensive use of trade with other pueblos – Cerrillos to the Southeast for raw turquoise, and Mexico.  The nature of Mexican influence, which cannot be denied, is debated: was it direct or through a series of links in a chain of trade outposts?  Was it commercial only, or based on a ruling political group?

It is the aesthetics behind and beyond the artifacts and architecture which inflames our romance with the Chacoans.  It is the manifest value systems -- social, scientific, monetary and artistic – which we are constantly seeking in our quest for knowledge from their remains.  But even though we are appreciative recipients of this gift of knowledge in the 20th century, we have done poorly in our efforts to preserve it.

Money for cataloguing and writing about artifacts is scarce, and as a result, the bulk of unearthed material culture awaits analysis and discussion.  The gallery trade in antiquities, forbidden by no law, hastens the total elimination of future discovery.

Some site stabilization is maintained through setting of drainage systems.  A policy of backfilling parts of structures not needed for interpretation was implemented at Gran Quivira, and recommended for the convento at Pecos, and also at Chaco’s Una Vida.  Attempts to preserve stone walls with the use of cement is faulty – ice collects under and between the cement and causes cracking.  “Pointing” (the replacement of adobe mortar with cement mortar) seems phony.

“When the bomb went off in Chaco Canyon in 1150,” says Archaeological Society of New Mexico’s tour guide, it led to the disipersal of inhabitants into outlying areas and beyond.  What was the bomb?  Nobody knows.  But the bomb of time and cultural consumerism is currently going off every day in the Canyon, as the Park Service referees in a war zone beseiged by nature and hungry humans.  However much we say we adore the beauty of Chaco, will our lust for its experience eventually destroy it? 

[La Crónica de Nuevo México 29 (September 1989): 2.  Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]