It sure was windy when we started on the trail towards Pueblo Alto, on the mesa north of Chaco Canyon. Cold air was sweeping fast across the vastness of the Colorado Plateau that day. It pushed us forcefully forward, and made the legs of my hiking pants flap wildly. I wondered, if I had a strong umbrella, could I just Mary Poppins my way up the trail to the top of Pueblo Alto’s outer wall? Wouldn’t that be cool… The ranger at the Visitor Center had warned us about record strong winds but after many flight re-routes and unexpected overnights in snow-covered places, we had finally made it to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. We were not about to turn around.
The park, in northwestern New Mexico, contains a mind blowing collection of ancient ruins, having been a cultural center for pueblo peoples between AD 900 and 1150. It is mesmerizing to think that approximately one thousand years ago, this empty, vast, gorgeous and harsh high desert was the center of a culture and that people came here from several directions to congregate and celebrate. Why this place? And what fed the flourishing of this intricate culture? What gave Chacoans the strength and motivation to carry sandstone blocks and haul timber from great distances, and create the complexes whose ruins are now protected by Chaco Culture National Historical Park?
Many Chacoan buildings, petroglyphs and pictographs are known for a strong archaeoastronomy aspect. They appear to have been designed purposefully to align with lunar and solar movements and to have been inspired by the close observation of the skies. We were particularly interested in seeing what is sometimes referred to as the Supernova Pictograph, so we braved some more wind and sleet, and took to the sandy trail towards Penasco Blanco. After a couple of miles and a wet crossing of the cold waters of Chaco Wash, there it was.
Probably one of the most frequently photographed pictographs in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, this tasteful design is known as the Supernova Pictograph based on the theory that it may be a representation of a supernova seen in the skies of the year 1054 AD. Now the Crab Nebula, it was so bright that it was visible by day for 23 days and by night for 653 days. It was depicted in Japanese and Chinese records as well as two brief reports from medieval Europe.
To give you a sense of proportion:
Chaco Canyon was eventually abandoned, all its complex and artful constructions left behind. Why? A possible explanation is that a fifty-year drought commencing in 1130 made the already arid canyon impossible to inhabit. Now part of a Unesco World Heritage Site, the ruins and lands of Chaco Canyon are considered sacred by the Hopi and Pueblo people, whose oral history and heritage goes back to the migration from Chaco. The whole atmosphere of the park did impress me as a highly introspective, spiritually inspired place. The architecture oriented towards the skies, the combination of the wide open landscape, colors and the human stories attached to the ruins put me in a state of wonder that stuck with me for several days.
How to get there: There is no public transportation to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, so you have to drive. The Park’s website offers directions, as well as good maps of the trail to Pueblo Alto, a great way to get a sense of the vastness of the area and to see the impressive ruins of Pueblo Bonito from the top. To see the Supernova Pictograph, you will need the Penasco Blanco Trail. And please do me a favor? Be very careful as you cross Chaco Wash as the currents can be mischievous. Do not attempt to cross it if it is raining.
Useful information: For details on the Supernova Pictograph, I like the website of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I was also inspired by the information and accounts on this region provided by Craig Child in his book House of Rain: Tracking a vanished civilization across the American Southwest. A more comprehensive review can be found in Archaeology of the Southwest, 2nd Edition, by Linda Cordell.
For more images of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, please visit my Flickr page.
Come back soon!