Sunday, July 24, 2005

On alcove residences and Chaco Canyon

More than a millennium ago, Native American communities – those that are today referred to as the Anasazi or Pueblo – used a geological feature distinctive to the dry canyon country of the American Southwest to construct their houses. Though water was and still is a scarce commodity, run-offs from seasonal rainfalls and melted snow slowly permeate through the porous sandstone of canyon walls. Over hundreds of years and many seasons, the constant cycle of freeze and thaw causes exfoliation, or peeling off of the sandstone layer, leading to the formation of alcoves, located well above the base of the canyon. Usually, such high alcoves occur at the intersection of a sandstone layer and a solid impermeable layer of shale that eventually forms the base of the alcove.

I did not expect alcoves to be so big as to be the setting of an entire village until I saw a long-abandoned dwelling at the Navajo National Monument. It was a startling sight: a hundred or so box-like rooms, of the same color as that of canyon walls – as if the intent were to camouflage – and sloping precariously towards the edge. Since the alcove is gouged high in a canyon wall, it is accessed only by steep trails. The advantages of such a setting are immediately obvious: water seeping through sandstone meant the presence of an aquifer, though any supply of water from it could only have been meager; protection from the hot sun; and a natural vantage point from which to detect approaching danger.

There are many such abandoned alcove dwellings in the southwest, but the most famous ones are at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado in the San Juan Mountains. The park was mentioned in some tour-book as the Disneyland of the Pueblo sites, and indeed, it seemed very much like a theme park when I visited it this summer: car doors slamming everywhere; large families; long lines of people waiting to reserve a spot for a ranger-guided tours of the alcove sites; and a crowded restaurant with a lunch buffet.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, by contrast, is a quiet spot in a remote part of northeastern New Mexico, accessed only by a dirt road with washboard bumps. Here, from the 8th to 10th centuries, the Puebloans constructed structures that are today called the Great Houses, massive complexes that were once four to five stories high, used possibly for ceremonial and religious purposes. The Great Houses are not alcove dwellings and represent a break from the past architecture of the Puebloans; they are indicative of the emergence of a stratified, hierarchical society, which might have been on of the reasons for its decline.

If you go to Chaco Canyon, do attend a 90-minute tour of park ranger Kirk Peterson, who will take you through Pueblo Bonito, one of the largest sites in the canyon. His tour touches on everything from the history of preservation of the site, to the ingenious construction techniques of the tenth century Chacoans, and why it might have been abandoned. Peterson readily acknowledges the shortcomings of attempting to understand an antiquated culture using such fields as anthropology or archaeology; his talk, therefore, is informed by a nuanced understanding of the worldviews of the present day Puebloan communities who consider themselves as descendents of Chacoans.

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