A while back I wrote about the extraordinary site of Chaco Canyon in my book Sacred Places. I now hear that the Bureau of Land Management is planning to sell the drilling rights in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This will be an awful violation of a sacred area. Please sign the petition to protest against this. And see more on the threat of fracking to this area here. If you don’t know about this mysterious place here is an extract from ‘Sacred Places’:
The stark arid landscape of the Four Corners area of America’s southwest, where the borders of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico converge, was once home to the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, also known as the Anasazi.
The Navajo Nation now occupies 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles) of this region – an area larger than many states – and it is here that the most remarkable and well-known examples of these peoples’ ancient culture can be found: Mesa Verde in Colorado and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, with Chaco Canyon a little to the east of Navajoland in New Mexico.
Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly are famous for their spectacular cliff dwellings, built within caves and under cliff outcrops. Chaco Canyon at first sight seems less spectacular and is less visited, but research over the last thirty years suggests that the canyon was the centre of a fascinating and complex civilisation that flourished for about 250 years before mysteriously vanishing.
Here in the desert steppe of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park 4,000 archaeological sites have been recorded, mostly dating to between 900 and 1130 AD.
The Great Houses and the Solar Dagger
The most striking of these sites are large D-shaped buildings known as ‘Great Houses’. 150 of these have been identified, and at the heart of the Chaco Canyon area lies Pueblo Bonito – the largest and most impressive of them. Standing in front of the north wall of the canyon, much of this huge complex was originally five stories high, containing around 800 rooms. Two Great Kivas (vast ceremonial rooms), and 37 smaller ones suggest this was a site of much ritual activity.
Today only a rough dirt road leads to the site – putting off only the keenest visitors. There are plans to surface it, which will be a disaster if it brings more tourists here, but protests are afoot. For now only the intrepid are treated to campfire talks by the enthusiastic astronomer and park guide G.B.Cornucopia who for nearly twenty years has regaled visitors with insights into the extraordinary history of this place and provided telescopes for them to view the night sky.
At night and at dawn and sunset you avoid the sometimes scorching heat of the place, and can appreciate the way in which the Anasazi built their structures to be in harmony with the rising and setting of the sun and the movements of the moon.
Thirty years ago an archaeoastronomer Anna Sofaer climbed Fajada Butte opposite ‘Downtown Chaco’ – Pueblo Bonito – and discovered a spiral carving which by chance or synchronicity was being illuminated as she arrived by a dagger-like sliver of sunlight. Careful study determined that the carving was a complex device which used slits in the rock above it to mark the solstices and equinoxes.
Over the years it has been found that the whole site has been laid out according to astronomical principles, which are eloquently explained by Robert Redford in a one hour documentary produced by Sofaer’s Solstice Project and viewable online.
Various rock paintings have also been found in the canyon and one, known as the Supernova Petroglyph, may depict the supernova seen on earth on 4 July 1054.
Radiating from the Chaco complex is a mysterious network of straight lines that extend from ten to twenty miles into the desert. Reminiscent of the Nazca lines in Peru, hundreds of miles of these tracks have now been identified from aerial photographs.
Although some of these tracks may have served a utilitarian function, it seems more likely that they were used ceremonially. In the Hopi tradition initiates run in straight lines to shrines to plant prayer sticks, and a Navajo legend tells of the lines being ‘tunnels’ that the Ancient Ones used to travel in safety. The fact that the tracks are often bordered with stones and broken pottery suggests a connection with the Ancestors, since smashed pottery was used as an offering to the departed. Earth Mysteries expert Paul Devereux suggests that they may have developed as a result of shamanic trances in which initiates undertook ‘spirit flights’ – out-of-body experiences of flying in straight lines over the landscape.
The Place Beyond the Horizon
Ten Hopi clans and several Navajo clans trace their ancestry to Chaco and feel a strong spiritual connection to the area, and Chaco is honoured in their prayers and songs and by pilgrimages here. Chaco Canyon is called Yupkoyvi by the Hopi, ‘the Place beyond the Horizon’, and still today they perform their ceremonial dances at the site.
Although now abandoned, Chaco Canyon is filled with a sense of life and of the presence of the Spirit-world. As the Hopi say ‘the people never left’. At a mundane level they did of course leave. Having spent several hundred years hauling vast quantities of wood and stone for miles through the desert to create this city, in the 12th century the population migrated, carefully sealing their buildings before leaving. Although there is some evidence that massacres involving cannibalism occurred in the area, these happened later and the most likely explanation for their departure comes from evidence of a severe drought that began in 1130 and lasted half a century.
Chaco Canyon holds a fascination for many people. At the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 thousands of people were drawn to meditate and pray for a new era of peace and harmony here. To preserve the site fewer visitors rather than more are needed, but by learning about it – by watching the ‘The Mystery of Chaco Canyon’ film online about it, and by reading about it – we can come to a deeper appreciation of our place in the world.
Civilisations rise and fall like the passing of the seasons and though we might be tempted to mourn this, somewhere deep inside we can be strengthened, knowing that the true source of the human spirit lies beyond its outer forms – however magnificent. The ceremonial city in the canyon lies in ruins, but its Spirit remains. The people never left.