Thursday, July 25, 2013

Great Sites: Bandelier National Monument, Part 1: The Monument

Courtney and Lin Miller
Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is one of my favorite sites to visit.  Not because of the quality of the ruins but because of the diversity of construction by the ancient inhabitants and the beauty of the setting.  It is also convenient from Santa Fe, New Mexico, a fun place to stay.  The Monument is about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe and is nestled in the southern end of the Pajarito Plateau:
  1. --Take Saint Francis Drive (HWY 84/285) north toward Los Alamos.
  2. --After passing Pojoaque, merge right onto New Mexico 502 to Los Alamos.
  3. --Continue up 502 toward Los Alamos. Bear right and exit onto New Mexico 4 towards White Rock. Continue for 12 miles, passing White Rock.
Note: from May 24th through mid October, the Atomic City Transit offers bus service from White Rock visitor center to Bandelier.
The visitor center hours are 9 AM - 430 PM daily, year-round, except for December 25 and JanuaryCheck the website for special rates.
1.   It only costs $12 for a 7-day vehicle permit, $6 single entry, and both Senior and National Parks Pass are accepted. 
There are a lot of activities available besides the ruins including hiking, cross-country skiing, bird watching, and camping.  But, of course, the ruins are the focus of my interest.
When you first enter Bandelier National Monument, there is a pullout featuring a scenic overlook [see video].  Down in the center of the canyon, a small creek flows year-round nourishing the trees and vegetation which help make parts of the walk through the ruins shady and pleasant.  If you look closely, you can see the visitor center and the area where the ruins reside.
[video] As you drive down into the canyon you can see Cerro Grande peak to the north rising to 10,199 feet.  The canyon sits at 5,340 feet, almost a mile lower.  The Pajarito Plateau is the result of two volcanic eruptions 1.6 and 1.4 million years ago.  This elevation difference creates a unique diversity of habitats specific to Northern New Mexico. The diversity of habitats and quick access to water supported a relatively large population of Ancestral Pueblo people.
As you approach the visitor center you are greeted by a row of residences exhibiting that unique southwestern architecture so common around Santa Fe.  They were built between 1925 and 1941 when Evelyn Frey and her husband, George, took over and built the visitor center, the lodge, the road into Frijoles canyon and miles for trails.  At one point, Manhattan Project scientists and military personnel were housed here.  The visitor center hosts a museum, a documentary film, and a nice gift shop.
There are seasonal restrictions as well as advantages.  For instance, in the summer access is by shuttle only.  In the winter, you can expect snow and restricted access to some trails.  But all seasons are beautiful in their own way and Bandelier National Monument should be on your list of “sites” to see.
Next week we'll take a mini tour of Bandelier National Monument.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Great Sites: Aztec Ruins National Monument: Mini Tour

What is there to see at Aztec ruins?  Aztec Ruins National Monument is a small place, but has a big offering.   The restored great kiva is worth the visit by itself but there are also well preserved rooms with the ceilings intact, great examples of fine Chaco-style architecture, and it is easily accessible.  Let me give you a sample with this mini tour [Note: this week you have the option of watching a video with each section]:

[video] The great house, Aztec West, is only a few steps from the visitor center.  In the 1100’s it was a three-story building with over 500 rooms and many kivas including the restored great kiva in the plaza.  Right away you come face-to-face with the west wall where the significance of unique green rows of greywacke stone hauled from nearby quarries is a mystery.  We can only guess at reasons for the inclusion by the original masons. 

[video] As you follow the trail along the west wall  [of the Aztec West great house] you can peer into some of the outer rooms.  Most of the rooms were for storage, some were burial chambers, and one has a vented chamber suggesting it may have been a residence.

[video] We are now inside the great house at Aztec Ruins where the visitor trail allows us to explore
the rooms along the back wall.  Many of the ceilings are original construction that has survived the ages.  This One room was a burial chamber with over a dozen bodies found wrapped in shrouds of feathers or cotton cloth and rush matting and accompanied by offerings of pottery, jewelry, clothing and other items.  Many of the rooms were burial chambers with one or sometimes many corpses.  Other rooms were for storage and some contained trash heaps. 

[video] Two rooms in the Aztec Ruins Great House are very interesting.  One room once contained a door, but then the room was sealed off.  Perhaps it was a burial chamber or was filled with trash and access was no longer needed.

Next to the sealed off room is a square room that has many of the characteristics of a kiva including benches around the outside and a vent chamber on the south side.  All kivas were built inside a square room, but this one is missing the characteristic enclosed, round walls.  Maybe it was just too small.

[video] T-shaped doors became common in Chaco-style great houses after being introduced by the Mesa Verde outliers.   They look strange but had an exquisitely practical function.

They were built this way so that occupants carrying a load from the plaza with their arms full could easily enter the room.
[video] In one of the two great kivas in the plaza at Aztec Ruins, The timbers resting atop one another demonstrate the lower part of a domed, cribbed roof.  A cribbed roof uses many more large timbers than a flat, horizontal roof so archaeologists  believe that Chacoan kivas with domed roofs were used less often.   The restored great kiva across the plaza demonstrates the more traditional flat roof.

[Video] The reconstructed great kiva is what Aztec Ruins is most famous for.  

After Earl Morris excavated the great kiva in 1921, exposure took its tole and it weathered away.   So, the park service decided that rather than bury what was left, they would bring Mr. Morris back to consult on the reconstruction.  Everything in the reconstruction is based upon evidence Morris had found in his excavation.

The huge room could have held hundreds of people.  A smaller room may have hidden the performers while people entered.  The main room had a square floor vault where the sacred fire greeted guests entering from the south.  Two large, rectangular foot drums would have echoed loudly as dancers stomped on would covers. 

[Video] The main room of the great kiva was built to facilitate impressive productions.  Sacred fires crackled from the square hearth.   Foot drums of different sizes produced different sounds as the dancers stomped on them.  The four sandstone discs originally supported each of the four pillars to keep them from settling under the weight of the massive roof.  Small rooms encircled the main room with ladder access.  Perhaps to enable dancers to flood dramatically into the room?

[Video] Encircling the main room of the great kiva at Aztec are small antechambers.  Someone could descend into the room by using the ladder built in to the wall.  The room also had a door to the outside.
By the late 1200's, the Ancestral Pueblo culture in Aztec like the other Chacoan great houses gave up on this site and abandoned it.  The people moved south and established new pueblos as the Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo cultures of today.

-- Courtney Miller

Want more?  Watch this five-part video tour by Ranger Tracy Bodnar

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Great Sites: Aztec Ruins National Monument, Introduction

Aztec ruins in New Mexico?  Were the Aztec ruins really built by the Aztecs?  No, the Aztec ruins in northern New Mexico were built by the Ancestral Puebloan people, but early settlers thought they must be Aztec buildings and the name stuck.
Courtney Miller
Aztec Ruins National Monument

This week I want to share my recent visit to Aztec Ruins National Monument with you.  It is an amazing archaeological site, a friendly and easily accessible National Monument, and an important historical landmark with a wonderful story.  Aztec Ruins National Monument is located on Ruins Road about ½ mile north of New Mexico Highway 516, in the City of Aztec, New Mexico near Farmington and Durango, Colorado.

As stated on the Park's website ( )“Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.”

Aztec Ruins National Monument is open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. most of the year and 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. The park is closed Thanksgiving, December 25th, and January 1st.

The restored Great Kiva, pictured to the left, sits in the courtyard of the Great House.  It wasn’t really a House so much as a community.  Ancestral Pueblo people at Aztec planned and built it but were greatly influenced by The Chaco Culture 55 miles to the south.  At first Aztec may have supported Chaco Activities.  Later it may have been a center in its own right when Chaco‘s regional influence waned after 1100.

In addition to the Great Kiva, Chacoan-style Great Houses also had many smaller kivas used by kinship groups.  Pictured above is a typical "keyhole"  kiva. Note the six stone pilasters used to support the cribbed roof.  A square hole in the center of the roof allowed guests to enter and smoke to escape.

The niche in the south wall gave the kiva a “key-hole” shape and provided  a vent to the outside.  The users would sit on the benches around the firepit near  the center.  Across the firepit opposite the “niche” there would have been a small hole in the floor called a Sipapu.  It is covered by back fill here.  This honored the ancestors who ascended from the underworld. 
Next to the keyhole kiva is another one that is not typical.  This one does not have the niche, just the vent.  All the kivas were slightly different which was probably reflective of a different kinship group.
Aztec’s population ebbed at times but persisted through cycles of drought and cultural changes in large part thanks to the Animas river that flowed year-round.  It  still flows just beyond the visitor center.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Great Sites: Chaco Culture National Historical Park -- Casa Rinconada

This week's article can be viewed as a video [click here]
Casa Rinconada great kiva
The mystery to me is, “Why here?”  Casa Rinconado is the largest and most elaborate great kiva built by the Chacoan Culture.  The other great kivas comparable to Casa Rinconada are in Great House plazas, but not this one.  This Great Kiva was constructed across Chaco Wash; across the canyon valley from the major great houses amongst smaller, poorly constructed villages probably occupied by plebeian workers and farmers.  And yet its size, beauty and accommodations were fit for royalty.

It was constructed atop a natural hillside and the imposing architecture of this great kiva dominated the view from the smaller villages and the valley.  A segment of Chacoan road connected Casa Rinconada to Pueblo Bonito.  So, was it built for the poor villagers or did the ellite cross regally on the grand road across the creek to attend glorious ceremonies?

A line drawn down the north-south axis of Casa Rinconada connects to Pueblo alto on the canyon rim across the valley above Pueblo Bonito.  The positioning and placement of buildings within the landscape seems to have been of paramount concern to the Chacoan people.  Great house orientations were often aligned to cardinal directions.  Researchers believe most aspects of the Chacoan world were part of a planned, designed, and constructed environment that reflected the Chacoan worldview. 

This great kiva would have seated 100’s of people.  And its circular design gave everyone an intimate
view of the proceedings.  The dancers and performers entered from the large antechambers attached to the north side of the kiva.
 It is easy to imagine the colorfully dressed guests filing in and taking up seats on the benches surrounding the center of the huge room.   They would be important representatives of outlier communities who have come to Chaco Canyon to trade their goods and make arrangements to store their surpluses.  Chaco Canyon provided a type of cooperative where surpluses could be stored and then retrieved to cover bad times.

The sacred fire would have been flaming and crackling in the square, raised firebox near the entrance.  A large, stone shield once stood between the fire and the entrance to shield the incoming crowd.

Four circular pits encased massive timber posts that supported the flat, circular roof.  Two to four carefully shaped round stones weighing ½ ton each rested underneath the timbers to keep the roof from settling.

The raised floor vaults, oriented north-south are a typical feature found in the great kivas.  They were most likely covered with wooden planks, poles, and willow matting.  Beautifully costumed dancers danced on these “foot drums” causing them to echo loudly in the chamber.
Casa Rinconada
looking north

Note the lower trench coming out from beneath the northern entryway.  The covered passageway enabled dancers and performers to sneak into the room unseen and then pop up in the spiral opening for a dramatic effect.  Other dancers and performers entered from the “T-shaped” opening above the passageway from the large antechamber connected to the north side of the kiva.

It was undoubtedly quite a spectacle.

Summer soltice

There are a total of thirty four wall niches encircling the great kiva.  Twenty-eight of them are uniform in size and evenly divided by the north-south axis of the kiva.  Valuable turquoise objects have been found in niches like these and oddly, they were hidden beneath a plaster coating.

The lower six niches (two on the east and four on the west) do not reflect an obvious pattern.  However, one of the lower niches appears to be a solstice marker.  At sunrise on the summer solstice, sunlight passes through an opening in the eastern portion of the wall and shines on the interior western wall.  A small rectangle of sunlight slowly moves downward along the wall until it lights the lower niche and finally reaches the kiva floor.

Although it is not certain that this alignment is a true solstice marker, other astronomical alignments in Chaco have been verified.  Knowledge of astronomy was an integral part of the Chacoan world, and is also important in modern Pueblo cultures.

Great kivas are a key element of Chacoan public architecture and are found in nearly every Chacoan community built between A.D. 900 and 1200.
Note: Park Trail Guides were the source for some of the information in this article