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Ancient Strangers - The Anasazi

Some of our photographs of Anasazi sites in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. See more Anasazi pictures on our Alamy home pages:

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Click to a larger version of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

The Navajo named the ancestors of modern Pueblo peoples the Anasazi: the ancient ones, or ancient strangers. They lived throughout the plateau country of the Four Corners area of the American Southwest, where the modern states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. This region saw dramatic population growth in the period AD700-1130 and, from the C10th onwards, the building of magnificent, multi-storey Great Houses on the floor and mesa tops (table lands) of Chaco Canyon. By AD1000 the canyon had become the political, economic and ritual centre of a network of settlements on the Chaco Plateau, but less than 200 years later the system was in decline: the people moved away, their towns lay empty. The Chacoan Anasazi traded widely, hunted, collected wild plants and precious minerals, made turquoise and shell jewellery, crafted black-and-white pots, and irrigated the arid landscape. Canal systems diverted run-off from summer thunderstorms on the bedrock mesas to embanked fields where corn, beans and squash were grown. A ‘prehistoric’ culture in an inhospitable land, they built on a grand scale with sandstone, adobe and mud. An estimated 200,000 trees were felled with stone axes to build the nine Great Houses in a nine-mile stretch of Chaco Canyon. Ponderosa pines were carried from over 30 miles away to use as vigas (beams) along with local cottonwoods, piñon and juniper. Begun in the early 900s, the main construction period at Pueblo Bonito (the Pretty Village) was c 1030-79. In its final form it covered more than three acres, comprising well over 600 rooms plus 40 sunken and above ground kivas, circular chambers used for ceremonies and other community activities. This view shows the D-shaped plan with an open plaza divided by a N-S wall. There is one Great Kiva on either side of the wall, and the room blocks step up away from the plaza, rising from one to four storeys. To the rear are Chaco Wash - a seasonal river in a deeply eroded arroyo (gorge) - South Gap and the cliff of South Mesa.

Click to a larger version of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Jean Williamson

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Jean Williamson

During the ‘Classic Bonito Phase’ (AD1020-1130) a technique called core-and-veneer was used to build the apartment blocks. A thick inner wall of rubble and mud mortar was faced on both sides by shaped stones laid mainly in bands or courses. The walling here is Masonry Style III dating to the late 11th century. The construction of each room required up to 44 tons of sandstone to be cut from the cliffs without the use of metal tools. Much skill and care went into the building construction. It is thought that, as in historical times, Pueblo women were responsible for the veneer work which, despite its beauty, was covered with adobe plaster. Studies of the Chaco skeletons show that men and women took part in strenuous tasks, both suffering from arthritis and spinal degeneration from hefting heavy loads. Although a few individuals lived to the age of 50, the average life expectancy was 27: nutritional deficiencies and infectious diseases took their toll, infant and child mortality being especially high. These doorways give access to a chain of rooms on the ground floor of the south-eastern four-storey block. Ground floor walk-through rooms were often used for storage, or burial, and rarely have signs of domestic occupation such as hearths or the need for privacy. The sloping secondary jambs allowed the doors to be sealed by stone slabs.

Click to a larger version of Hungo Pavi Pueblo, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Hungo Pavi Pueblo, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

The sandstone masonry walls of Hungo Pavi pueblo nestle below the sandstone cliff of North Mesa as it swings NE into Mockingbird Canyon; to its SW is the arroyo of Chaco Wash. This Anasazi town or Great House dates to the 11th century when Chacoan culture reached its peak. There are eleven major ruins within the Chaco Culture National Historical Park and some 400 related settlements altogether in and around the canyon: population estimates for the area range from 2,000-5,000 individuals. At Hungo Pavi, and several other places in the canyon, stairways cut into the cliffs link the canyon floor with roads on the mesa tops connecting to outlying settlements.

Click to a larger version of Casa Rinconada Stairway, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Casa Rinconada Stairway, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Close to the Anasazi Great House in a rincon (box canyon) on the south side of Chaco Wash is a staircase cut into the sandstone wall of South Mesa. It joins a straight road leading to Tsin Kletsin Great House on the mesa top. The Chaco Roads system was mainly created and used in the 11th and 12th centuries when the population and outlying settlements were rapidly expanding. The wide roads were laid out in long straight lines which show up as dark marks on aerial photographs. On sloping ground, a level terrace was cut and filled to form a roadbed retained by a wall or bank on the downslope side. On bare rock the line of the road was swept clean and marked by side walls or by individual boulders. Over 400 miles of roads have so far been discovered, connecting Chaco to over 100 outlying communities with settlements on the N-S routes situated at about a day’s walk apart. But there may be more to these ‘old straight tracks’ than communications, trade and travel, as not all roads connect settlements. Some strike out for a few miles from a Great House or village before coming to an abrupt and puzzling halt. The Chacoans also constructed multiple roads, such as at Pueblo Alto where four parallel roads were laid out on the top of North Mesa, suggesting that some of the linear spaces may have served as processional ways or racetracks for people, gods or planets.

Click to a larger version of Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

One of the longest roads heads north from Chaco Canyon towards the prehistoric towns now known as Salmon Ruin and Aztec Ruins some 50 miles away. Imagined by early American settlers to have been erected by Mexico’s mighty Aztec Empire, the Great House was first constructed as a Chacoan outlier by Anasazi people around AD1100. This ground floor room in the NW block retains an original ceiling. Pine beams (vigas) brought from 20 miles away are criss-crossed by local cottonwood poles, and juniper splits and bark, which support the thick clay floor of the room above. Sandstone blocks, carried from quarries over a mile away, were split, shaped and dressed using stone tools. Built in handy reach of the waters of the Animas River, Aztec was a major Anasazi town. A squat E-W rectangle (110x85m) in plan, the pueblo had 500 rooms arranged in apartment blocks around a central plaza containing a sunken Great Kiva. Low at the south to let the sunshine in, the stepped room blocks rose to three storeys presenting high, vertical exterior walls to the west, north and east. Flat roofs were accessed by retractable ladders, as were upper rooms and kivas via roof hatches. Aztec Pueblo was abandoned by the Chacoans around 1200; periods of severe drought and overuse of natural resources may have played a part in the collapse of the Chaco Canyon farming network. The town lay empty for 25 years before being re-occupied, and then abandoned again around 1300, by other Pueblo people from Mesa Verde 40 miles to the NW.

Click to a larger version of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

In the final hundred years or so of their occupation of Mesa Verde (green table), the Anasazi built their tightly-packed condominiums into the alcoves, caves and ledges of the sandstone canyon walls. This view looking SE, with the cliff dwelling lit by reflected light from the setting sun, shows the terraces, courtyards, circular kivas, circular and square towers, and other multi-storey apartment blocks. Cliff Palace contains 217 rooms, and 23 kivas; it was home to 200-250 people in the years around AD1200-1300. The structures were well built of shaped sandstone jointed with mud and water mortar and coated with a thin layer of mud plaster. Access was via natural crevices, rock-cut hand-and-toeholds and wooden ladders. Storage rooms were built on upper ledges, refuse was dumped at the rear of the cave or tipped into the canyon: burials were made in the refuse talus which was easier to dig than natural rock or frozen ground. The people farmed the usual trinity of corn, beans and squash, kept dogs and turkeys, hunted game including squirrels, rabbits and deer, and gathered wild plants and medicines such as mustard and willow bark used to relieve pain and inflammation. In the heat of summer a loincloth and yucca sandals would suffice, in the bitter winters deer and squirrel skins were worn along with sumptuous blankets (also used as burial shrouds) and ankle socks made of yucca and turkey feathers, and robes of rabbit fur. There are nearly 600 cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park, ranging in size from single houses or storage units up to the grandeur of Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace. Cliff Palace was rediscovered and named in December 1888 by two cowboys from the Mancos Valley on the trail of stray cattle. Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason caught their first glimpse of “a magnificent city” below the piñon and juniper forest on the top of Chapin Mesa, while peering across the canyon through blowing snow from a point near Sun Temple.

Click to a larger version of Sun Temple, Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Sun Temple, Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Sun Temple lies on the opposite side of Fewkes Canyon to Cliff Palace; it is considered to be a ceremonial site aligned to important points on the solar and lunar cycles. A D-shaped enclosure wall contains two circular structures whose entrances face SE towards the midwinter rising sun. On the canyon floor to the SE, Sun Temple fire pit is illuminated by the first rays of the sun during the winter solstice. There are sunset views SSW to Sun Point and, looking back SW across the canyon from a platform at the south end of Cliff Palace, the winter solstice sun appears to set over Sun Temple. The observing, marking and anticipating of celestial events played an important part in the religious lives of the Anasazi, just as it does with their descendants the modern-day Pueblo peoples. Heads of the Hopi Sun Clan know the points on the horizon where, when observed from fixed back sights, their great-uncle the Sun God halts his travels at his summer and winter ‘houses’ (the solstices). These points are marked by small shrines, some containing light shafts which act as sundials to confirm the sun’s position, where prayers sticks and other offerings are made at the appropriate times. Special Officers guide the sun and physically clear his path to help him on his way. At Pueblo Bonito and other Anasazi Great Houses, some of the corner windows may have been positioned to align with significant celestial events, and to cast sunlight shapes onto interior walls which indicated the approaching winter solstice. On Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, three vertical slabs of sandstone deflect the sun’s rays onto two spirals carved on the rock face. The positions and shapes of the ‘sun daggers’ indicate the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes, which determine the correct times for such tasks as planting, harvesting crops, putting in store, hunting game, gathering wild produce, making war and performing the appropriate ceremonies and kachina dances. The Hopi believe that kachinas (ancestor spirits who mediate between Pueblo gods and the living to bring gifts such as summer rain to the community) emerge from the underworld at the winter solstice to live in and around the villages until midsummer.

Click to a larger version of Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA. Photo © Jean Williamson

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA. Photo © Jean Williamson

Spruce Tree House is the second largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. This view shows the most westerly courtyard in the SW-facing alcove. To the rear is the wall of a three-storey building containing some 20 rooms used primarily for sleeping, or for working when the weather was too poor to use the courtyards and rooftops for such tasks as grinding corn, weaving baskets, making pottery, preparing food, chipping and sharpening stone tools, crafting cotton or turkey-feather blankets. Entry was via ladders and rectangular or T-shaped doors; the projecting timbers once supported balconies. The ladders project through the roof hatches of two sunken kivas used for ceremonies, social gatherings and weaving (loom anchors were set into floors and walls or hung from ceilings). Kiva is the Hopi word for ‘ceremonial room’. Along with the system of clans, societies and kachina dances, the kivas are still central to the spiritual and social lives of contemporary Pueblo groups. The Hopi believe that their ancestors moved through a series of underworlds before emerging to live on the earth’s surface via an opening known as a sipapu. A symbolic ‘spirit hole’ is found in the floor of both ancient and modern kivas and the action of entering and leaving via a roof hatch may represent that emergence, and the endless movement of beings between the upper and lower worlds.

Click to a larger version of Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Kivas vary in size and design from small clan or family units up to Great Kivas serving a whole community. The reconstructed Great Kiva at Aztec illustrates some of the essential features. As well as a ladder entrance, the roof hatch acts as a smoke hole for the central firebox or pit. The lit fire usually draws in fresh air via a ventilator shaft and there is often a stone-built ‘deflector’ between the fire and air inlet. Kivas can be below the level of natural ground or built up terraces, partly subterranean, completely upstanding, the focal point of a plaza, embedded in multi-storey buildings or projecting from them as ‘tower kivas’. Roofs may be laid flat over criss-crossed beams and poles, or ‘cribbed’ and domed. Chacoan kiva roofs were supported by four massive vertical pillars of Ponderosa pine or, as at Aztec, alternating layers of masonry and wood. Stacks of circular stone pads acted as foundations for the pillars. At Mesa Verde six masonry pilasters were employed and banquettes encircled the floor rather than a continuous bench. Sacred objects were placed on the benches or in a series of wall niches. Rectangular floor vaults may be used as foot drums, sweat baths or for the ritual sprouting of seeds. An annexe at the north for storing ritual equipment is a feature of Great Kivas, as is a tunnel leading from below the annexe into a screened area of the kiva to facilitate ‘magical’ appearances, particularly useful when initiating children into kiva society. An unusual feature at Aztec is a series of 15 roofed surface rooms accessed from inside the kiva via wall ladders.

Click to a larger version of Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

Wooden ladders, some painted white, give access to the flat roofs of kivas and multi-storey houses at Acoma. Modern Pueblo peoples, such as communities in the Rio Grande Valley, the Hopi of northeastern Arizona, and the inhabitants of Zuni, Laguna and Acoma in New Mexico, are descendants of the Anasazi who so mysteriously quit their settlements in the San Juan Valley in the 12th and 13th centuries. Founded around 1150 (or earlier), the Pueblo of Acoma is described as the “oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States”. Acoma land lies within Cibola County to the west of Albuquerque. Sky City, as the pueblo is also known, is situated at 7,000ft above sea level atop a sandstone mesa rising abruptly 367ft above the valley floor. To the NE, close to the border with the Laguna, the forbidding sandstone cliffs of Enchanted Mesa rear up 400ft above the surrounding plain. Oral tradition describes the Acoma’s search for HaK’u, their special place prophesied to have been made ready for them to occupy. For centuries they were virtually invisible and secure on their 70-acre raised plateau. The Spanish first entered Acoma in 1540: Francisco Vaques de Coronado describes the city as “One of the strongest ever seen….The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top. The houses are three and four storeys high.” The villagers had “abundant supplies of maize, beans and turkeys like those of New Spain” (in Mexico). In December 1598 there was a three-day battle with Spanish troops led by Vincent de Zaldivar, and in 1629 the building of San Esteban del Rey Mission began under the direction of Friar Juan Ramirez. Built of flagstone, adobe mud, and trees from distant mountains, the Mission has priests’ quarters, square bell towers, high ceilings and walls ten feet thick: most of the building materials, including water, were carried or hauled up the steep slopes by the inhabitants.

Click to a larger version of Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Jean Williamson

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, USA. Photo © Jean Williamson

Most Acoma people now live close to Interstate 40, some dozen miles to the north of Sky City, in communities which started as seasonal farming villages: Anzac, Acomita and McCartys. Each year around 50 people are chosen to live in Old Acoma, the rest return en masse to their ancestral home for feast days, dances and celebrations: the Harvest Dance & Annual Feast of San Esteban is held on 2 September. Acoma may be visited on feast days or by guided tour; no video photography allowed, and no still photography on feast days or of restricted areas. When we were there in 1992 there was no electricity and, apart from rainwater cisterns, no water supply on the mesa, but a roadway had been constructed. Pickups were parked beside some of the houses which had domed clay ovens in their yards and shucked ears of sweetcorn drying on lines. Distinctive thin-walled pottery with “op-art” patterns was on sale, the visitor centre on the valley floor included a museum, craft shop and restaurant, and a bingo hall lay close by. Like other Pueblos, the Acoma live on their own land “granted” to them by the Spanish and then endorsed by the Mexican and American governments. They maintain many of their ancient traditions and religious beliefs while accommodating Christianity and the ways of the modern world.

Click to a larger version of White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, USA. Photo © Mick Sharp

These sandstone canyon walls were formed from dunes some 200 million years ago. The Anasazi ruins beside the Rio de Chelly comprise a multi-storey masonry pueblo on the canyon floor with rooms in the cliff above once reached by wooden ladders placed on its flat roofs. A village of 100 or more people, in use c AD1060-1275. Despite abundant water and fertile land, the many cliff dwellings were abandoned by the Anasazi who moved to the west and south-east to become the Hopi and Zuni Indians of today. The area is now part of the large reservation owned by the Navajo, a tribe of nomadic Plains Indians who moved into the Southwest in the 15th and 16th centuries. From around 1700, they began to settle in Canyon de Chelly and the adjacent canyons which became their stronghold, and a refuge after raiding against the Spanish colonists and, as the land changed hands, the Mexican and US authorities. In the winter of 1801, Spanish forces killed 115 Navajo in Massacre Cave in Canyon del Muerto. In 1864 Kit Carson led a detachment of cavalry into Canyon de Chelly in response to the 1860 Navajo attack on Fort Defiance. Carson’s men had systematically destroyed the Navajo crops, livestock and hogans (homes) and weakened them with small scale attacks before forcing the majority to surrender. They were marched 400 miles (the Long Walk) to Fort Sumner where some 8,000 Navajo were forced to live in impossible conditions until 1868 when, much reduced, they were marched back to their homelands. A few hundred live in the canyons now, tending their crops and animals on the canyon floor in the spring and summer months, moving up to the warmer canyon rim to avoid the severe winter floods and cold. As we walked down into the canyon, two Navajo jewellery sellers were laying out their wares on blankets before the ruined dwellings of the Ancient Ones. As well as our own observations, sources used for the text of this gallery include National Park Service trail guides and information panels; Indian America by Eagle/Walking Turtle; Insight Guides American Southwest; Astronomy Before the Telescope edited by Christopher Walker; Discover New Mexico by Dave DeWitt; Ancient Ruins of the Southwest by David Grant Noble; and Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest by Stephen Plog which includes some of our photographs and features a version of my White House Ruins photo on the cover of the 1997 paperback edition.

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