Ghost Town: Chaco


Deep in the remote desert of northwestern New Mexico, accessible after miles of heavily washboarded roads that range from bad to worse, lies one of the greatest architectural achievements of north America’s early indigenous people — the Chaco Canyon complex. The jagged walls of the stone city stand out against the smooth rock of the cliffs behind, a beautiful juxtaposition of natural and man-made, both eroded by time. Chaco is otherworldly and spiritual, and like no place else I’ve ever been. The immensity and importance of the ruins equals Egypt’s pyramids, yet somehow despite the high visitation numbers, this ancient Ancestral Puebloan site has been preserved with dignity and protected from the worst types of touristic exploitation.

I wander slowly, purposefully, immersing myself in the experience of place. The presence of the ancient ones can almost be felt as I explore the stone walls of a “Great House.” Following a timeless path, I walk deeper into the ancient pueblo until I can no longer tell if I am “inside” or “outside.” The extensive ruins scattered across the canyon and beyond hold many mysteries despite the years of archaeological study. Chaco slowly reveals itself, on its own timeline, and safeguards some secrets forever.

What is known is that Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250. Pueblo descendants say that Chaco was a special gathering place where many peoples and clans converged to share their ceremonies, traditions, and knowledge. Archaeological experts believe it was a location for ceremonies, trade and political activity rather than everyday residences. The monumental public buildings and distinctive architectural style is unlike anything constructed before or since.

Chacoan society reached its height between about 1020 and 1110. The Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes that remained the largest buildings ever built in North America until the 19th century. The Chacoans built their city surrounded by sacred mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual meaning for their descendants. Many of the buildings seem to have been aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles, requiring generations of astronomical observations and centuries of skillfully coordinated construction. Lines of sight between the great houses allowed communication. The monumental public and ceremonial buildings and distinctive multi-story “great houses” were linked by an elaborate system of carefully engineered and constructed roads, many of which can still be traced. These achievements are particularly remarkable given the harsh environment of the region.

A large kiva at Pueblo del Arroyo hints at the possible ceremonial importance of the ruin site.
The Pueblo Bonito skyline defines itself with the canyon landscape.
Walls and multi-story construction of Pueblo Bonito illustrate the sophisticated construction style that characterizes all the Chacoan buildings.

No one knows for sure why the Chacoans left this canyon, but one widely accepted theory is that climate change led to emigration beginning with a fifty-year drought that started in 1130. In time, the people shifted away from Chacoan ways, migrated to new areas, reorganized their world, and eventually interacted with foreign cultures. Their descendants are the modern Southwest Native Americans. Many Southwest Native Americans look upon Chaco as an important stop along their clans’ sacred migration paths–a spiritual place to be honored and respected.

There are more than 3,000 architectural structures in the site, which has been studied by archaeologists since the 1870s, with formal excavation work beginning at Pueblo Bonito in 1896. The Hyde Exploring Expedition from the American Museum of Natural History spent five summers in the region, sending over 60,000 artifacts back to New York. In 1901 Richard Wetherill, who had worked for the Hyde expedition, claimed a homestead of 161 acres in the middle of the canyon, and the federal government sent a land agent, Samuel J. Holsinger, to document the site. After noting the physical settings of the sites, prehistoric road segments, stairways, dams and irrigation systems Holsinger urged the creation of a national park to safeguard Chacoan sites. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Chaco Canyon a National Monument in 1907.

Archaeological work continued under the National Geographic Society in the 1920s and has continued ever since. In 1971, researchers Robert Lister and James Judge established the “Chaco Center”, a division for cultural research that functioned as a joint project between the University of New Mexico and the National Park Service. A number of multi-disciplinary research projects, archaeological surveys, and limited excavations began during this time. The Chaco Center extensively surveyed the Chacoan roads, well-constructed and strongly reinforced thoroughfares radiating from the central canyon. There has been more archaeological research conducted in Chaco and on the subject of Chaco than on any other prehistoric district in North America.

Prior to the 1980s, archeological excavations within current park boundaries were intensive: compound walls were dismantled or demolished, and thousands of artifacts were extracted. Starting in 1981, a new approach, informed by traditional Hopi and Pueblo beliefs, stopped such intrusions. Remote sensing, anthropological study of Indian oral traditions, and dendrochronology—-all of which left Chacoan relics undisturbed—-were pursued. In this vein, the “Chaco American Indian Consultation Committee” was established in 1991 to give Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and other Indian representatives a voice in park oversight.

Current policy mandates partial restoration of excavated sites to safeguard the area’s ancient ambiance and mystique. “Backfilling”, or re-burying excavated sites with sand, is one such means.

Wandering through the ancient ruins, I paused to spend sometime in one of the areas that has not been fully excavated. This is closer to how many of these ruins would have appeared before being excavated, cataloged and restored for preservation by teams of archaeologists. To someone unaware of the significance of place it would have just seemed like a very ancient “ghost town.”

But these ruins tell a story. Walls built of sandstone and mud mortar stand more than five stories tall with pine roof beams illustrate the sophisticated complexity of Chaco social structure. A multitude of storage areas indicate a central economic role, and large ceremonial kivas suggest the site may have been important for religious rituals. The archaeological excavations have also uncovered objects that reveal details of Chacoan daily life. In one storage room within Pueblo Bonito, pottery sherds had traces of cacao imported from Mesoamerica. These black-and-white cylindrical vessels were likely used for drinking cacao, similar to the brightly painted Maya vessels used for a similar purpose. More than 15,000 artifacts have been unearthed during different excavations at Pueblo Bonito alone, making it one of the best understood spaces at Chaco.

The Chaco Canyon complex was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The sites in the canyon and on adjacent Bureau of Land Management and Navajo Nation lands remain accessible and under the protection of a multi-agency Chaco Culture Archaeological Protection Site program.

Wall of Una Vida with the Fajada Butte in the distance.
View from a window at Una Vida.


All text and photos ©2021 JoMarie Fecci/ Please contact us for any usage permissions or for further information about the journey or locations included in this reportage.