Region III Quarterly

Volume 1 - No. 2

October, 1939


By Dr. H. J. Spinden,
Curator of Indian Art and Primitive Cultures,
Brooklyn (N. Y.) Museum.

For the third time I have had the pleasure of visiting one of the most interesting ruins in America, namely, Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco Canyon National Monument, New Mexico. I saw it first in 1911, and again a decade later when the exploration of the site by the National Geographic Society was under way. Now it can be visited with much greater ease on long roads across the desert from several directions.

Although Pueblo Bonito is now in the middle of a very sparsely populated region, it was once the central town in a populous area enjoying trade which reached as far south as the valley of Mexico. We know from the dates recovered by means of the tree ring calendar that Pueblo Bonito was occupied during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is one of the ruins which represents the peaks of the civilization built up by the Pueblo, or village, Indians of the Southwest.

Already, it seems that the sedentary people were having trouble with others who envied them their prosperity -- perhaps the invading Navajo. Pueblo Bonito has a plan of building undoubtedly intended as fortification. The town has one long, high, curved wall, roughly forming a half circle that once stood from three to five stories in height. The sole gateway was through the street line of buildings closing the open part of this half circle. It seems that there were no doors on ground level, ladders being used to reach trapdoors in the roof. The plaza of the great conmunal edifice was more or less broken up by large ceremonial chambers of circular shape. These were partly underground, and the consolidated town itself rose in a series of receding stories, something like the seats of a grand-stand. We can even imagine that crowds standing on the various roofs, rising higher and higher towards the back, looked down on spectacular ceremonies performed in the open court.

Within a few miles of Pueblo Bonito are many similar ruins also of large dimensions, and of approximately the same date. Also in this region there are less spectacular remains of a much earlier time.

Pueblo Bonito has attracted the attention of archaeologists almost from the time of its discovery. A model of it was made by the Geological Survey of the Territories many years ago and copies distributed among most of the museums of the world. Extensive excavations have been carried on by the American Museum of Natural History, and more recently by the National Geographic Society. Pueblo Bonito is now deservedly protected as a national monument, receiving expert attention through the National Park Service. While no exploration is now being carried on, efforts are being made by the Indian CCC Mobile Unit to strengthen and support thee old walls. Of particular interest and value is the complete and accurate photographic record being kept of the work. At the same time, the ruin is open to public inspection under guidance.

Pueblo Bonito

To the archaeologist, Pueblo Bonito is particularly interesting because of the sequence in construction which can be proven by the several distinct ways in which stones are laid to form the walls. There are many evidences of tearing down and restoring operations while the town was occupied. We may assume that Pueblo Bonito continued to flourish almost up to the time of its final abandonment, sometime after 1127 A.D. This is evidenced by the fact of the extensive late constructions which are added to the ancient core.

What caused the abandonment of Pueblo Bonito cannot be stated with certainty. It is quite possible that a sudden cutting down of the stream-bed through the flat valley floor made cultivation much more difficult. The date of the abandonment is considerably earlier than the harsh drought which brought about the general abandonment of many large cities in the Southwest towards the end of the 13th century. Black and white pottery is the conmon product of this site, but the pottery shapes are often unusual. For instance, one type is a cylindrical bowl decorated with geometric ornaments and corresponding in shape to certain fine pottery of Mexico and Central America. Among the most famous objects taken from Pueblo Bonito are examples of turquoise mosaic on objects of jet and bone. Some of the turquoise is of the highest quality found in the Southwest. To the ancient Mexicans, turquoise was the most precious jewel, and in some way the people of Toltec times in Mexico discovered that supplies of this jewel could be obtained in the far north. It seems they set out on trading expeditions to exchange the bright plumage of parrots and macaws as well as occasional copper bells, for the much desired turquoise.

My special purpose in visiting Pueblo Bonito at this time was to secure a complete set of pictures of the outer and inner walls, for use in making a model of the town as it might have looked in its heyday. This model is now approaching completion in the Brooklyn Museum as a WPA project. When completed, it will be about 12 feet square, a scale sufficiently large to permit all the details of the stone work to be drawn on the wall surfaces. The position of windows in the upper stories, some open and some filled in with masonry, can be added, thanks to the new series of overlapping photographs. On a ground plan of the ruin, the position of the camera for the various shots has been carefully registered. There is considerable necessary research, especially on the exact way in which the different stories rose from the court level. As a rule the amount of debris removed in the cleaning of rooms gives a pretty clear idea of the original number of stories, and with the architectural style of Pueblo Bonito continued in modern Indian towns, the imaginations of modelers are held within reasonable limits.

Actually, a small model of Pueblo Bonito was made by the Geographical Survey of the Territories over sixty years ago. This was used in early drawings and photographs. Since that time ground plans have been carefully drawn, and the relative age of the various parts of the ruins determined by a study of the way in which the stones are laid in the walls. The masonry of Pueblo Bonito at its best is a very pleasing arrangement of bonded courses. That is, several layers of small rectangular stones may be followed by one or two of much larger rectangular stones. The weakness came from the floors laid over beams and the wooden lintels of doors and windows which finally decayed.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005