What is Chaco?

American Indian peoples have continuously occupied the Colorado Plateau of the Southwest for over 10,000 years. From about AD 1000 -1150, Chacoan culture presided over much of the Four Corners region. The Chacoan people created an urban center of spectacular public architecture by employing formal design, astronomical alignments, geometry, unique masonry, landscaping, and engineering techniques that allowed multi-storied construction for the first time in the American Southwest.

The people built monumental public and ceremonial buildings in the canyon. The buildings were massive, multi-storied masonry structures of rooms, kivas, terraces, and plazas. The largest building-Pueblo Bonito-is estimated to have contained over 600 rooms and rose four, possibly five, stories high. Hundreds of miles of formal roads radiated out from the canyon and linked Chaco to distant communities.

The cultural phenomenon centered in Chaco Canyon was the achievement of a group of people archaeologists call the Chaco Anasazi. Today, their descendants are members of 20 Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona. The accomplishments of the ancient people of Chaco Canyon are part of the history and traditions of the modern-day Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, the Hopi of Arizona, and the Navajo.

Understanding Chaco

For over a century, researchers have carried out extensive excavations, studies, and surveys in Chaco Canyon. From 1969-1985, the National Park Service conducted a multidisciplinary research undertaking, known as the Chaco Project, to better understand the Chacoan people. Over 3,600 prehistoric and historic sites were identified. A comprehensive excavation program was established to investigate the entire span of human history in Chaco Canyon.

Excavations were designed to answer a series of questions, such as, when were these sites built? How long were they occupied? How did the people make a living? What did they eat? What products did they make? What kind of community life did they participate in? To help answer these questions, artifacts such as ceramic vessels, stone projectile points, bone tools, construction beams, ornaments, fauna, soil, and pollen samples were collected. Today, scholars continue to use these collections to better understand the Chacoan world.

After a century of research, there is now an enormous body of knowledge about Chaco, gained from archaeology, architecture, ethnography, geology, history, physical anthropology, and, more recently and importantly, the oral history of the descendants of the people of Chaco. The objects – everyday and exotic – made by the people of Chaco help tell part of the story about this fascinating culture.

The Chaco Collection

The Chaco Collection contains approximately one million artifacts from over 120 sites in Chaco Canyon and the surrounding region. Because most of the artifacts were systematically collected and documented, the collections are extremely valuable for scientific studies.

The Archive documents over 100 years of excavation in Chaco Canyon, and contains approximately 300 linear feet of records, 30,000 photographs, 7,000 color slides, 600 glass lantern slides, 2,000 maps, 1,000 manuscripts, and field notes, reports, and other written records.

The objects in this exhibit represent the range of materials in the Chaco Collection. They give us insight into the remarkable achievements of the Chacoan culture, and help us connect more directly to the past.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

A Presidential Proclamation created Chaco Canyon National Monument in 1907 to preserve and protect the “extensive prehistoric communal or pueblo ruins . . . of extraordinary interest because of their number and their great size and because of the innumerable and valuable relics of a prehistoric people which they contain.”

Expanded and designated a National Historical Park in 1980, Chaco Culture National Historical Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of Cultural Properties in 1987, in recognition of its worldwide cultural importance. Chaco Canyon’s spectacular architecture, seen at the great structures at Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Alto, Chetro Ketl, and the Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada continues to enthrall visitors.




Everyday objects used at Chaco Canyon a thousand years ago remind us how similar people are through time. Like us, Chacoans needed food and water containers, building and hunting tools, and clothing. They used fire starters, awls and needles, and cordage to make life easier. Pipes, gaming pieces, and effigy figurines made their leisure time more pleasurable.

Chaco Canyon is famous for its pottery. The Chacoan people used pottery for food preparation, serving, and storage. Bowls, jars, canteens, seed jars, pitchers, and ladles came in a dazzling variety of shapes and sizes. Although ceramics were present in the American Southwest by AD 200, clay cooking pots at Chaco first appear around AD 450 – 500. As Chacoans became settled farmers, they built more permanent structures, and increasingly used ceramics. Pottery was more durable, took less time to produce than basketry, and could be used over a fire for cooking.

The first pots at Chaco were plain grayware. Early on, Southwestern potters began decorating their pots with black-painted geometric designs. Over time these designs became elaborate and distinctive. Highly decorated whiteware and effigy vessels may have had special uses and meanings, now lost to us. Duck shaped pots occur throughout the Anasazi sequence, but their significance is unknown. Chacoan potters also made miniatures of many vessel shapes. Some archeologists believe that children made them while learning to craft pots, or that they were toys.

The arid Southwestern climate has preserved many fragile items. At Chaco Canyon, dry caves offered special protection. Sandals, cordage, bone awls and needles, and wooden fire drills have survived over a thousand years. Most of the sandals, matting, and cordage in the museum collection were recovered from a cliff shelter dwelling. Sandals and matting were woven from yucca and reeds. Cordage was made from yucca, cotton, human hair, sinew, and occasionally animal fur. Cordage was used to hang canteens and seed jars, weave feather and fur blankets, to make sandal ties, and to haft tools. Fur from animals, such as prairie dog, beaver, bear, rat, mouse, rabbit, and mountain sheep, was twisted between plies of yucca cord to create fur string. Fur string was then intertwined with turkey feathers to create fur blankets.

The objects you see in here give us a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of the men, women and children of Chaco.



  The people of Chaco Canyon were farmers, hunters, and gatherers. They made full use of the limited resources of their arid plateau and range desert environment. In the early periods, [Archaic through Basketmaker, from about 5500 BC to AD 700], hunting provided most of the food. Hunters needed large arrows or projectile points to successfully hunt large game such as mule deer, bison, mountain sheep, and elk. During this period, points were mounted on spears. The atlatl or spear thrower was used to increase thrust and propel the spear forward.

Around AD 700, with the start of the Pueblo Period, bows and arrows began to replace the atlatl. Projectile points diminished in size to fit the small reed arrow shafts. The small projectile points were suited to hunting the small mammals and birds that were plentiful and easy to capture at Chaco. Cottontail, jackrabbit, prairie dog, and turkey were also hunted as their bones are found in profusion in prehistoric trash middens in Chaco Canyon. Changes in the types of hunting gear used over time corresponded to changing animal populations, an increasingly sedentary village lifestyle, and population growth.

The Chaco museum collection contains over 1,500 points, made from a wide variety of materials. These include petrified wood, chert, chalcedony, and obsidian. Unfortunately, fragile bows and arrow shafts have not survived well. Only a few fragments of historic-era Navajo made arrows remain. However, in size and style they are similar to ones reported from other Anasazi sites.

The Southwestern trinity of corn, beans, and squash dominates Chaco Canyon agriculture. Corncobs survive well in the arid Southwest. Remarkably, archeologists have also found seeds such as squash, watermelon, and pinon shells. The Chacoans practiced dry farming supplemented by water control management. Canals, check dams, and ditches took advantage of the water runoff during summer storms. Digging sticks and tchamahias or stone hoes were used for planting. After the harvest, seeds were stored over the winter in seed jars. Dried corn kernels were then ground into flour using manos or hand-held round or oval grinding stones and metates, large grinding slabs, often in a series of graduated coarseness. Evidence indicates that ancient Chacoans flourished in this semiarid landscape on a varied diet of plants and animals, cultivated and wild.



  The people of Chaco Canyon were master artisans, even though they only worked part-time on a range of crafts. They left huge quantities of utilitarian and decorated ceramics, delicately carved pendants, beadwork, and refined stone artifacts such as projectile points. Workshop remains have been found in several rooms in small and great structures at Chaco.

Ornament making involved first finding the raw materials, and then shaping and grinding, drilling, and polishing. Beads, many less than two mm in diameter, were made from turquoise, bone, shell, shale, and argillite. Pendants were also created from these materials, as well as gypsum, selenite, and schist.

Animal effigies were carved from serpentine, jet and geothite, or sculpted in clay. Common representations of local fauna include antelope, badgers, birds, deer, dogs, ducks, frogs, and snakes. Some effigies were stylized, but bird and frog figures are readily identifiable.

Beads were shaped and polished by abrading raw materials against lapidary stones made of sandstone. The extraordinary smoothness of these abraders indicates heavy use over a long period. Cactus spines or porcupine quills may have used to make holes in beads and pendants. The small stone drills that survive may have been too coarse for the tiny perforations of stone beads and pendants. Turquoise and argillite were also carefully shaped into small squares and used as inlay on vessels, bone tools, and effigies. The quantity of beads produced is staggering: Over 15,000 turquoise beads and pendants accompanied two burials at Pueblo Bonito.

Color was important to the people of Chaco. In addition to the colorful stones used for ornaments, minerals were ground into pigment for paints. Hematite [red], limonite [yellow], azurite [blue], malachite [green], and gypsum [white] were ground on stone mortars. They were then mixed with water or vegetal grease, and used to decorate objects, including arrows and other wooden items. Pigments were also used to paint murals on plastered walls. Unfortunately, few of these murals have survived.



  Today, Chaco Canyon is a resource-poor locale. A thousand years ago, the outlook was not too different. The Chaco Wash ran with water only seasonally. Agriculture was always a risky business on the Colorado Plateau. As a result, the Chacoans engaged in regional and long-distance trade.

Utilitarian goods were imported into Chaco from close by. Ceramic wares came from the San Juan region to the north, the Chuska Mountains to the west, and the Zuni area to the south. Few pots were made in Chaco Canyon, probably because the demand for wood to construct the great houses depleted fuel sources needed to fire ceramics.

High quality cherts, used for stone tools such as projectile points, knives, and scrapers came from the same nearby areas. These include Brushy Basin chert from the northwestern San Juan Basin, Narbona Pass [formerly Washington Pass] chert from the Chuskas, and Zuni Spotted chert from the Zuni Mountains. Obsidian, a volcanic glass, was also imported. The nearest sources are the Jemez Mountain range to the east of Chaco, and Mt. Taylor to the south. Obsidian was widely used prehistorically because of the extremely sharp edges produced by flaking obsidian nodules into knives and blades. Local trade also allowed people to share information. Reliable, timely information about where there was abundant game, a good piñon nut crop, or where the rains were falling was crucial to people living in a marginal environment like the arid Southwest.

The people of Chaco Canyon also traded for non-utilitarian goods, sometimes called 'exotic goods.' Turquoise was brought in and made into ornaments such as pendants and beads, and used as inlay to decorate other objects. The nearest turquoise source is Cerrillos, New Mexico. Turquoise is still highly valued among Southwestern Native American peoples. Workshops were common in Chaco. Some archeologists have speculated that turquoise production helped make Chaco Canyon a ceremonial or religious center. Other goods came from even further away. Long-distance trade brought macaws, shell, and copper into Chaco Canyon. Shells from the Gulfs of Mexico and California, and the Pacific Ocean were made into a variety of ornaments, such as pendants, beads, and bracelets. Macaws were valued for their feathers and were kept in captivity in Pueblo Bonito, a central Chaco Canyon settlement. Long-distance trade routes were well established and long-lived. Puebloan trading expeditions to Sonora and the Gulf of California continued well into the mid-1800s.



Although the ancient people of the Southwest didn't have a written language, they had effective ways to communicate. Cultures worldwide have used rock art to transmit ideas and beliefs. There are two types of rock art, petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are images carved or pecked into a rock surface. In Chaco Canyon, petroglyphs are carved into the sandstone cliffs that form the canyon walls. Many are located on boulders. Pictographs, images painted on a rock surface, are less common in Chaco Canyon because the paint erodes over time.

At Chaco, and throughout the American Southwest, rock images were probably an important form of visual communication. Some are images of clan symbols; others are records of important events during migrations. Still others are memory aids for recalling stories, songs, and ceremonies. Today, descendants often recognize Chaco's petroglyphs and pictographs as records of the migrations of clans, and as other affirmations of meaningful and ongoing associations with sites.

Many Chacoan petroglyphs are geometric designs such as spirals, mazes, and hatching. There are some depictions of stick figures or stylized humans, flute players, hands, sandals, mountain sheep, birds, and insects. One of the most famous petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon is the Sun Dagger. It consists of two spirals that mark the annual solstices and equinoxes. More recent historic-era pictographs and petroglyphs depict scenes of dancers, men on horseback, and Navajo deities.

Since the 1970s, there have been several surveys documenting petroglyphs and pictographs at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Several of these can be seen in the slide show.


Masonry Styles

The Chaco people were skilled masons.  Working with stone tools, they erected vast communal buildings that still compel admiration.  Their masonry techniques evolved over centuries and archeologists can date sections of structures by masonry style.  The earliest dwellings were built with simple walls one stone thick, with generous courses of mud mortar.  The oldest walls in Pueblo Bonito [AD 860- late 900s] were built using Type I masonry.

When the Chacoans began to build higher and more extensively, they employed walls with thick inner cores of rubble and thin veneers of facing stone.  These walls tapered as they rose to distribute the weight, reflecting the planning that went into the large-scale construction in Classic times [AD 1020-1120].  The early core-and-veneer style [Type II] is characterized by large blocks of tabular sandstone chinked with smaller stones set in mortar.

About half the ground floor rooms of Pueblo Bonito were built using Type III and Type IV masonry styles (late 1000s). These styles were employed at roughly the same time. Though the patterns are attractive as they stand, there is evidence the Chacoans covered most of the stonework with plaster.


The last distinctive masonry style, called McElmo, was used at Kin Kletso, New Alto, Casa Chiquita, and other early 1100s buildings.  These walls were built with a thin inner core of rubble and thick outer veneers of shaped sandstone resembling the masonry of the Mesa Verde region.



Kivas are an important Southwestern architectural form.  ‘Kiva’ is a Hopi word used to refer to specialized round and rectangular rooms in modern Pueblos.  Men’s ceremonial associations use modern kivas.  Archeologists assume that ancient kivas served similar functions.  Chacoan kivas are round, usually semi-subterranean, and built into great houses.  Like modern kivas, they were entered by a ladder from the roof down to the center of the kiva floor.  During ceremonies today, the ritual emergence of participants from the kiva into the plaza above represents the original emergence by Puebloan groups from the underworld into the current world.  Late in the Chaco sequence two-to-three story tower kivas were also built.


Archeologists believe kivas developed out of earlier pit structures that were used as dwellings.  Chacoan kivas have formal features like fire pits, floor vaults, wind deflectors, and benches, and contain evidence of domestic as well as ritual life.  Historically, Puebloan men used kivas as sleeping quarters and meeting rooms at various times of the year.


Kivas come in all sizes. The largest are called great kivas. Two great kivas in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada and Kin Nahasbas, are free-standing; the other great kivas are located in plazas of great houses.  Great kivas are assumed to have housed community-level activities, whether ceremonial, social, or political.  Small kivas are sometimes called clan kivas, and suggest use by small kin-based family groups. 




Ceramics appeared in the Southwest around AD 200.  In Chaco Canyon, clay pots were common by AD 450-500.  As Chacoans began to depend on agriculture as a primary food source, they became more settled.  A sedentary life style was conducive to building permanent structures, and the use of ceramics.  As pottery is heavy and breakable, it isn't easily portable.  However, it has several advantages over baskets.  Pots take less time to construct, are watertight, and can be placed directly on the fire and used for cooking.  They don't deteriorate with age.


Broken pieces of pottery, or sherds, tell the story about the ceramics made in this region or brought here in trade.  Archeological investigations reveal that the first pots were plain gray. They were built by coiling thick ropes of clay.  Pots were finished by smoothing the inside and outside surfaces with an object such as a gourd rind or a small pebble.  By AD 550, the Anasazi began to produce painted pottery and plainware that was used for cooking and storage.  Utilitarian ware was pinched with the fingertips to produce corrugated designs.  Small, simple designs evolved over time into intricate designs that covered the exteriors of jars and interiors of bowls, the two primary vessel forms. 


Archeologists group ceramics into "types" that date to different time periods.  Types are identified by style, design and technology.  Descriptive names are assigned to these types, often based on the locale where the type was first identified, such as Red Mesa Black-on-White, Gallup Black-on-White, and Puerco Black-on-White.


Painted designs on sherds found in Chaco are predominately geometric.  They echo patterns used by Anasazi throughout the Southwest.  Black-on-White painted vessels are the hallmark of Chacoan pottery.  Paints were made with mineral and organic substances like ground hematite and beeweed plants that turned black when fired.  Analysis of pigment, firing technique, temper, and design style establishes when and where a pot was made.  For instance, red-on-black pottery has traded into Chaco from the west and north, where this style was popular.


The type of clay and how it is fired determine the final color of a pot.  Archeologists have found evidence of kilns in the Southwest, but most pottery was fired in the open.  Controlling the amount of oxygen in the fire gave the potters control over the final color of the pot and the painted designs.


Temper, a substance mixed with clay to increase hardness and heat resistance, varies from region to region.  If the temper identified in a sherd can be found in Chaco Canyon, the pot may have been made there.  If not, then Chaco potters either traveled to get their temper material or the pot was made elsewhere or traded.  Archeologists believe that most pottery was made elsewhere and brought into Chaco Canyon.  The slip, a fine clay paste, applied to the exterior, provided the background for distinctive designs.


Pottery is a useful tool for archaeologists because changes in designs reflect changes in cultural preferences over time.  These changes can be used to form a temporal sequence. For instance, using a variety of dating techniques, archeologists have determined that Red Mesa Black-on-White designs were earlier in time than Gallup Black-on-White, the classic Chaco design style.  Ceramic sequences help archeologists date sites based on surface sherds.  This is why it is important not to pick up sherds from archeological sites.  Doing so destroys valuable dating information and deprives us information about the people who once lived there.