Chaco Culture National Historical Park
by Lynne D. Escue
Origins of the Chaco Great Houses
At one time it was thought that the great houses of Chaco Canyon
represented the beginning of Anasazi glory. Today, with many years
of research and a greater understanding of Chacoan culture, archaeologists
believe that great house architecture was the peak of Anasazi
culture. The beginning can be traced back into the Basketmaker
III period and its final manifestations lie in pueblos such as
Second Mesa and Acoma. The 50-year drought that probably caused
the decline of Chaco culture sent its people south, east and west
to establish new settlements where they continued the Chaco tradition
and the next stage in the evolution of Anasazi culture.
Pit houses were a common form of dwelling across much of Native
North America, including the Southwest. They were easy to build,
relatively cool in the summer and warm in the winter but not very
defensible, and were for protection from the elements, not from
enemies. It was only in the area of Chacoan influence that pit
house communities developed into the unique structures known as
In the late 400s of the Common Era, two large pit house villages
were built at either end of what is today Chaco Culture National
Park. In "The Rise of Early Chacoan Great Houses," Thomas
C. Windes states that these sites spanned an area one to two miles
long starting at the canyon bottom and extending southward into
the plains. Each village contained more than 100 pit houses and
a community great kiva. After about a century the inhabitants
burned their great kivas and left.
The origins of Chaco architecture, according to Windes, may be
found as far north as Dolores, Colorado where the McPhee Pueblo,
built between 780 and 860 CE shows some of the inspiration for
Chaco's great houses. The builders of McPhee Village experimented
with masonry walls. What began as a crescent shaped structure
having 20 to 25 rooms with jacal walls built on sandstone slab
footings, was enlarged about 860 CE to a stone masonry structure
containing about 100 rooms (housing for 18 to 20 families) with
a central stone pit house-not a great kiva, Windes emphasizes-as
the focal point for community activities and rituals.
To the south of Chaco in the Red Mesa Valley, between 750 and
900 CE a group of pit house dwellers began to construct small
masonry houses at the base of the cliffs. Then in the late 900s
to 1000s, innovation led them to erect a two story building of
shaped limestone blocks containing large rooms set around a central
plaza. This new form of architecture appears at most of the villages
in Red Mesa Valley. The same architectural style appears in northern
communities across the Chacoan world. There is still disagreement
about the inspiration for this new architectural style.
The first archaeologists to see Chaco Canyon believed that its
architecture had been influenced by that of Central America. They
cited rubble-cored masonry, colonnades of square columns, circular
structures in the shape of tower kivas, and alignment of buildings
and architectural features for observing and recording astronomical
data, to list but a few characteristics shared by Chaco great
houses with their southern neighbors. Too, copper bells, shell
trumpets and bracelets, macaws and parrots, ceremonial wooden
canes, decorative techniques in cloisonné and mosaic were
common to both Chaco and the south.
On the other hand, Stephen H. Lekson and others, argue that Chaco
architecture evolved from regional pueblo construction, not from
What is certain is that by about 700 to 850 A.D. (Pueblo I Period)
a distinctive new style of building was emerging. Pit houses began
to be accompanied by surface houses where timber was gradually
eliminated from wall construction in favor of stones held together
with mud mortar.
By 1100 CE, three different styles of architecture coexisted
in Chaco Canyon: what is called the Bonito phase--the 12 great
houses; the Hosta Butte phase represented by many small houses
built in the same puebloan style found throughout the region,
and; the McElmo phase, represented by a small number of great
houses built later and having the same masonry style as the buildings
at Mesa Verde. It appears to mean that at one and the same time
that many families lived in and around Chaco Canyon in the small
Hosta Butte style houses, a few families lived in the great houses.
And, it is speculated that finding the Hosta Butte, Bonito and
McElmo style structures together indicates that the different
groups of Anasazi people lived peacefully together.
At some point human enemies appeared in the vicinity of Chaco
Canyon causing the denizens of the great houses to reduce or eliminate
exterior wall openings. In some cases the only type of entrance
was by means of a removable ladder extending through an aperture
in the roof. Originally, archaeologists had speculated that migrating
Athabascan peoples such as the Navajo and Apaches may have caused
the decline of Chaco culture, but current theory is that they
did not arrive in Northwestern New Mexico until several centuries
after the abandonment of Chaco Canyon. It's possible that migrating
Shoshonean people may have come into the area, but the most likely
threat, according to the Listers, is other groups of Anasazi.
Quick lecture on Chaco masonry styles: In order to follow archaeological
thought on the origins and development of Chaco architecture,
it's necessary to have a basic understanding of the various masonry
The National Park Service publishes an attractive and informative
brochure on Chaco Canyon. In it they define the earliest style
of masonry, found in Pueblo Bonito's oldest walls, as a wall made
of unshaped stones laid horizontally in a heavy mud mortar.
This style was superseded by the core and veneer style wall using
an inner core of rubble between veneers of fairly thin facing
stone. The walls were tapered as they increased in height and
were faced with large blocks of sandstone chinked with many smaller
stones set in mortar.
During the 11th century, more sophisticated styles of core and
veneer masonry were developed which used shaped sandstone blocks
mortared with mud, or shaped sandstone blocks chinked with small
stones, and separated by horizontal bands of smaller stones set
The McElmo style of masonry uses a thin rubble core and thick
veneers of shaped stones chinked with smaller stones and mud.
However, the stones are not as carefully shaped or placed as are
earlier styles of core and veneer.
Despite the attractive textured appearance of Chacoan core and
veneer construction, evidence shows that most of these walls were
originally covered over with a mud plaster.
Copyright 2005 by Lynne D. Escue "Reproduction without permission prohibited."
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