There is nothing to see but the cracked yellow earth, wiry bunch grass, and saltbush. Nothing, that is, until a practiced eye begins spotting a scattering of tiny black and red potsherds. Their presence here, 16 miles north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, along with their linear arrangement, as if they were used to mark a road, are part of a chain of clues that have been leading archaeologists farther and farther away from Chaco in their efforts to explain what Chaco was. The clues do, indeed, delineate a road, the Great North Road. Built around 1100 CE, it leads out of Chaco Canyon, its original purpose one of Chaco’s abiding mysteries. In Pueblo culture, roads represent spirit paths, symbolizing the journey from a place of emergence, a place somewhere to the north, often depicted as a deep hole in the ground where souls return after death. The Great North Road seems to disappear near the rim of Kutz Canyon, a yawning cleft in sandstone badlands some 50 kilometers north of Chaco Canyon.
In recent years, advances in aerial photography have shed new light on the Chacoan landscape, illuminating how it was tied together by a road system radiating from Chaco Canyon. Some roads lead to isolated communities with similar architecture. Others lead nowhere. Scholars increasingly believe that whether they were pilgrimage routes or corridors for trade and commerce, the roads are key to finally comprehending Chaco’s reason for being. Was the canyon complex, with its palatial buildings and arena-sized kivas, its troves of exotic relics — turquoise, parrot feathers, conch shells, copper bells, and cacao — a center of pre-Columbian trade? Was it the capital of a 12th-century city-state governed by an autocratic elite? Or did it serve primarily as a ceremonial center, more like the Vatican than Rome? Or was it all of those things? This has long been a subject of scholarly debate, but it’s been relatively recently that experts have come to agree that reaching a fuller understanding of Chaco requires a more thorough exploration of its environs. Whether that will be possible amid a terrain-altering energy boom like the one now forecast is an open question. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which governs land use throughout much of the region, has estimated that about 4,000 oil and gas wells will be drilled in the area around Chaco in the next several years.
Anticipating an onslaught of heavy equipment, drilling rigs, compressors, tanks, and pipelines, archaeologists fear their timeline for studying the landscape beyond Chaco Canyon will last only as long as the current slump in energy prices. They believe there is much to learn, even after more than a century of research. “We have a lot of facts but can’t agree on what Chaco was,” writes archaeologist Stephen H. Lekson in his book The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest (1999, new edition 2015). Why did people devote 250 years to the construction of a dozen grand buildings, called great houses, in the canyon — one of them, Pueblo Bonito, the size of the Roman Coliseum when it was completed? Why did the early settlers build where they did, in an isolated, inhospitable place that required importing more than 200,000 timbers over more than 50 miles of desert at a time when there were no wheeled vehicles? And what explains the scrupulous alignment of the buildings to solar trajectories? Was it motivated by a powerful belief system? Did the people of Chaco go to such lengths to mirror the symmetry of the sun’s movements as a way “to transfer the orderly nature of the cosmos onto what seems to be the chaos down here?” mused Phil Tuwaletstiwa, a Hopi and former deputy director of the National Geodetic Survey. Did the abandonment of Chaco in the late 1200s, with its deliberate sealing of rooms and burning of kivas, signal a failure of that belief system?
Chaco Canyon was protected as a national monument in 1907 and designated a national historical park in 1980. More recently, the Bureau of Land Management established a temporary 10-mile buffer around the park that prohibits new oil and gas leasing there. All of that ensures that the core of the Chacoan landscape will remain undisturbed for the foreseeable future. But aside from a handful of sites, the land beyond the canyon is not protected. About 90 percent of it has been leased to oil and gas companies.
Southwestern archaeologists offer different estimates of the size of the Chacoan landscape but generally agree that its range of influence extends well beyond the 53-square-mile Chaco Culture National Historical Park, with ruins and relics scattered across much of the 7,500-square-mile San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico and beyond in southern Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. It’s out there, in the hinterlands once described by archaeologist Alfred Kidder as “absolutely barren wastes,” that the case for preservation is being made.
Anna Sofaer, who has been writing books and producing documentary films about Chaco since 1978, speaks of the Chacoan outlands as a “ritual landscape” marked by shrines, earthworks, and faint trails of potsherds that were scattered as offerings. Easily displaced by well pads or crushed by heavy machinery, these subtle remnants of antiquity are the only markers of the roads that tied together ancient communities. Sofaer’s work emphasizes their role as pilgrimage routes to the canyon that served primarily as a devotional hub. Lekson, on the other hand, describes Chaco Canyon as a “palace culture built around the homes of noble families” that served as the political and economic capital of a region with 150 outlying communities and a population approaching 100,000.
Yet, Sofaer and Lekson agree, in his words, that “you are not going to understand Chaco, unless you get out of the park. The national park is the shining tip of an iceberg.” The roads are key, “the connective tissue,” Lekson said, just as overland trails were crucial to understanding the settlement of the American West by pilgrims, like the Mormons, or the fortune seekers who followed the California Trail to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada.
Archaeologists began thinking about Chaco as a regional phenomenon in the 1970s, said John R. Roney, who conducted the first aerial survey of Chaco’s ancient roads while working for the BLM. In a paper for the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, Roney wrote that the roads “might have formalized existing routes of transportation and communication, but it is equally possible that they were avenues for ceremonial processions or even cosmic expressions.” Today, thanks to a remote sensing technology that can penetrate forest canopies and ground cover (known as light detection and ranging, or LIDAR), archaeologists can see the footprints of the ancient world more clearly than Roney could. But LIDAR is expensive and time consuming; it could cost several million dollars to map undocumented areas of the San Juan Basin and require painstaking follow-up investigation on the ground. “Eighty percent of what is out there is not known,” Sofaer said.
Energy companies have been pulling oil and gas from the basin since the early 1920s. But most of the activity has been distant from Chaco. What threatens Chaco’s splendid isolation now is a combination of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that for the first time enables profitable extraction of oil and gas from tight shale deposits like those beneath the canyon and its environs. The BLM’s Farmington office estimates about 40 percent of the nearly 10,000 wells forecast for the basin will be drilled near the canyon. Even now, with oil and natural gas prices hovering near record lows, renewed activity by energy companies has the earmarks of a classic western boom, promising new jobs and revenue along with the heavy traffic, noise, haze, spills, toxic emissions, and occasional fires that are part of the bargain.
Energy companies are obligated to identify and leave intact important sites through a process known as “flag and avoid.” But the process misses the big picture, said Paul Reed of Archaeology Southwest, who has been doing research at Chaco for more than 30 years. “The system gives you dots on a map where major sites have been identified, but well pads, storage tanks, and pipelines are allowed to go in between. In the process, whatever linkage might be there is lost, and any sense of community is destroyed. We want to connect the dots before the links disappear.” Reed was referring to short road segments, blocks of 10 rooms or fewer, small kivas, and shrines that often define the boundaries of ancient settlements.
The BLM acknowledges that despite the precautions energy companies are obligated to take, the likelihood of damage to ancient sites will increase with more roads, traffic, workers, construction — and later, as new service roads make the countryside around Chaco more accessible to vandals and looters. All that, in the words of an agency analysis, will probably cause “a general downward trend of site integrity and scientific potential.” The agency, nonetheless, has rejected calls to postpone new energy development as recently as January, when it leased 843 acres of land 20 miles from Chaco to the oil and gas industry. With nearby Navajo residents petitioning both for and against the leasing, the controversy illustrates the pressures being brought to bear on the two agencies, the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which share responsibility for land use decisions.
Chaco figures prominently in the origin stories of Navajo and Pueblo people, their cultural meanings expressed in features of the same landscape that archaeologists are trying to protect. Daniel Tso, a Navajo activist who lives near Chaco, said there are tens of thousands of undocumented sites, many of which are considered sacred. In March, Navajo Nation officials and the All Pueblo Council of Governors signed a joint statement condemning fracking and horizontal drilling and calling for a moratorium on drilling in the greater Chaco environs. Several environmental organizations, including a Navajo group, have been unsuccessful in federal court in efforts to suspend drilling until the BLM has updated a 14-year-old analysis of the impacts of drilling on the environment. Citing the benefits of oil and gas production in New Mexico, which account for more than 20 percent of the state’s budget, the courts have twice ruled against the environmentalists, acknowledging that while fracking could cause “irreversible” harm, the likelihood is not great enough to merit even a temporary halt in drilling.
Meanwhile, several other organizations, including Archaeology Southwest and the Wilderness Society have been advocating a “master leasing plan” that would establish stricter guidelines for oil and gas development on nearly 900,000 acres around the park. The plan would extend protection to more than 70 traditional cultural properties and sacred sites, set strict air and water quality control standards, and limit noise and artificial light near rural homes and schools and other important cultural sites. The plan is a tall order. It would apply to nearly 19 percent of the San Juan Basin and impose regulations previously reserved for individual cultural properties across a broad landscape. And it would do so at a time when both Congress and the White House are moving aggressively to remove obstacles to oil and gas drilling on federal land. The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association has already signaled its opposition. To date, the BLM and BIA have been noncommittal. “We are analyzing a range of alternatives, which include looking at the master leasing plan,” said Victoria Barr, manager of the BLM’s Farmington district.
If the plan is rejected, and surviving remnants of the Chacoan landscape are lost to a new energy boom, it will limit the scope of research into the ancient world but won’t put an end to it. There’s still more to be learned from inside the canyon itself, as evidenced by recent analyses of human remains excavated more than 100 years ago from a ninth century crypt in Pueblo Bonito. Archaeologists believe all 14 bodies — which were adorned with seashells, turquoise pendants, and other tokens of high social status — were descended from the same female ancestor. Whether there is greater significance to the finding is a subject of debate. Some scholars believe it shows that Chaco was governed by a matrilineal elite, perhaps reinforcing Lekson’s view that Chaco was ruled by a privileged class whose influence extended across the San Juan Basin. Others maintain that the only conclusion to be drawn is that the 14 people were the offspring of the same woman. So, once again, one of the abiding mysteries of Chaco persists: whether it was an egalitarian society or one dominated by a despotic minority that was eventually overthrown. More conclusive evidence may lie buried in Pueblo Bonito or inside some other great house in Chaco Canyon. Or, as archaeologists fear, the answers may rest in an undiscovered Chacoan site located miles away from Chaco Canyon in the path of a construction crew preparing the ground for a new well pad.
“Chaco left no written language. The history is written in the landscape,” said Acoma Pueblo archaeologist Theresa Pasqual. “When we disturb the landscape, we erase the pages of the history book.”
Frank Clifford is a former staff writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times.