Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What were the buildings used for?
A: There are many theories which attempt to answer this question, but none are fully agreed upon. Our ideas of what the buildings were used for have changed over time. Today, many believe that the great houses were public buildings and centers for ceremonies, trading, and administrative activities. Others argue that the buildings were living spaces.
Q: What are the round rooms?
A: The round rooms are kivas, or ceremonial rooms. The Chacoans constructed two types of kivas, great kivas and clan kivas. Great kivas, such as Casa Rinconada, typically contained benches, niches, floor vaults, a fire hearth, and a north-oriented doorway and may have been used for community or regional gatherings with hundreds of participants. Smaller clan kivas may have served as ceremonial rooms for separate clans or religious societies. Kivas were multi-purpose rooms used by men and women for different kinds of ceremonies, including preparation, dance, prayer vigils, and other types of social events.
Q: Where did the timbers come from?
A: Researchers at the University of Arizona recently completed strontium testing of the fir and spruce beams used for the roofs in some of the great houses. Plants absorb the element strontium in relation to how much strontium is in soil. By taking samples from beams and matching them with soil samples, the beams in Chaco were primarily sourced to the Chuska Mountains and the San Mateo Mountains. These are both approximately 60-70 miles away.
Q: Why are the doorways so short?
A: The average height of a Chacoan man was approximately 5 feet, 5 inches; the doorways are shorter than this height. Smaller doors are easier to place a slab over and seal up. They are more stable for building multi-stories. Doorways may have been kept small for heat retention and for defensive purposes.
Q: What did the sites look like before they were excavated?
A: Typically, unexcavated sites look like large mounds of sand and fill with the tops of the walls sticking up. Una Vida (behind the Visitor Center) is an example of an unexcavated great house. There are good photographs of Pueblo Bonito before excavation in Lister and Lister's book "Chaco Canyon: Archaeology and Archaeologists."
Q: How much of the buildings have been reconstructed?
A: Typically, the top foot of the buildings has been reconstructed or "capped" to prevent further erosion. The wood beams are generally original if one sees a small, circular plug where a tree-ring dating sample was taken. We have a preservation crew that maintains and stabilizes the buildings. They are skilled workers who often learned the trade from their parents or grandparents.
Q: Where did the Chacoans get their water and food?
A: The Chacoans found and created a number of opportunities to get water. There are a few seeps and springs in the box canyons. It is also thought that they modified natural drainage areas into canals to channel water into fields. They built many water control devices in the canyon including catch basins and diversion dams. Since some geologists believe the water table was only about three feet beneath the surface at the time when the Chaco culture flourished, it is also possible that they created wells by digging in the wash area. Chacoan people took advantage of the native plants including beeweed, pinon nuts, rice grass, cactus fruit, etc. They grew corn, beans, and squash in the canyon. Some archaeologists now believe that agricultural goods were also imported. Meat sources included turkeys, rabbits, and larger game such as antelopes and deer.
Q: What happened to these people (where did they go)?
A: Chacoan people did not suddenly vanish! Though we are not exactly sure why they left, possibilities might include drought, resource depletion, social, religious, or political collapse, time to move on, or a combination of these factors. In the 13th century, there were migrations to the south, east, and west. Today, twenty Puebloan groups in New Mexico, as well as the Hopi in Arizona, claim Chaco as their ancestral homeland and are tied to this place through oral traditions and clan lineages. A number of Navajo clans are also affiliated with Chacoan sites through their traditional stories.
Q: Where are the artifacts stored?
A: Chacoan artifacts are located all around the world. The largest collections are located at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and the Chaco Collections at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Q: What are the things that look like squiggly iron rebar (or fossilized corn cobs) sticking out of the sandstone on top of the mesas?
A: These are fossilized shrimp burrows. During the Cretaceous period, approximately 60 to 80 million years ago, the Great Inland Sea covered this area. Crustaceans known as Callianasa major constructed tunnels under the sand, which filled in with iron deposits after the sea receded from the area, leaving casts of their burrows.
Q: Where is the nearest gas station/food/lodging?
A: The nearest gas station is 21 miles north of the park at the junction of US 550 and CR 7900. The station also has a convenience store. The nearest gas station to the south is located in Crownpoint (39 miles south of the park off HWY 371). Lodging and restaurants are available in Farmington/Bloomfield/Aztec area and Cuba.
Q: What facilities are in the campground?
A: The Gallo Campground consists of 49 sites which are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Each campsite has a picnic table and a fire pit with a grate. Reservations can be made in advance for two group campsites. Each site can accomodate a maximum of 30 people. No fewer that 10 people can book a group campsite. The campground has non-potable water and flush toilets, but no hook-ups or showers. Drinking water is available 24 hours a day in the Visitor Center parking lot. Site #16 is handicap accessible. Supplies (including food, firewood, or charcoal) must be purchased in advance outside of the park.
Q: Where are the bathrooms?
A: The bathrooms are located next to the Visitor Center in the parking lot. There are also facilities at the Pueblo Bonito/Chetro Ketl parking area, near Kin Kletso, and at Casa Rinconada. Drinking water is available in the Visitor Center parking lot.
Q: What is the big pipe on the mesa (behind the Visitor Center)?
A: Our water comes from a 3200 ft. deep artesian well that gets pumped to the maintenance area, treated, and then pumped to a water tank on the top of the mesa. The pipe channels gravity fed water down to the canyon floor to create our water pressure.
Q: What kind of telescope is in the observatory?
A: The observatory houses a 25-inch Dobsonian telescope. Both the telescope and the dome were donated to the park in 1998. The park also has a 13-inch, 16-inch, and a Charged Coupled Device (CCD) imaging system for astrophotography. The observatory is open on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights from April through October.
Did You Know?
The climate of Chaco Canyon 1,000 years ago was very similar to the climate in the park today, with annual precipitation of only eight to nine inches. The Puebloans constructed water control features like dams, canals, and headgates for farming in such a dry environment.