Welcome to the Explore! New Mexico blog
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Saturday, May 28, 2011
During our visit to Chaco Canyon, we hiked 3-1/2 miles from Pueblo Bonito to Peñasco Blanco, sitting atop the bluff some 300-400 feet above the canyon basin. I had wondered why these villages were sited in such disparate places. Why was Peñasco on top the bluff and Bonito at the base of the cliffs? It wasn’t until I returned to Las Cruces and had time to stick my nose in my reference books that I got an answer. Peñasco was an observatory – of sorts.
Astronomy was important to the Chacoans and many of the pueblos are precisely aligned to some aspect to the solar cycle or the lunar cycle. Astronomy apparently had a major influence on customs, rituals, and ceremonies.
Peñasco Blanco, Spanish for white bluff, is called by the Navajo “tableland tapering to a point house,” an apt description of the great house sited above the confluence of Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash.
That, however, does not tell the story. Peñasco is in perfect alignment with Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida, along a straight line eight miles long. All three were built in the mid to late 800s.
What truly makes Peñasco unique is its alignment to what astronomer’s call the lunar major standstill. I’ve tried to find out what that means, and it gets complicated quickly. The moon does not orbit the earth in the same plane as the earth orbits the sun, a plane called the ecliptic. If it did, we’d have an eclipse every two weeks. Instead, the moon’s orbit is tilted about five degrees above the ecliptic.
The lunar cycle from one major standstill to another is 18.6 years and the cycle was first measured and explained by Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer who lived from 190 to 120 BC, so there’s nothing new about it. It all has to do with very complex celestial mechanics that govern the orbit of one body around another [moon and earth] while under the influence of a third body [the sun].
Here’s the technical definition ... “As the earth travels its annual orbit around the sun, with its rotational axis tilted at about 23.5° from the vertical, the sun’s declination changes from + 23.5° at the summer solstice to -23.5° at the winter solstice. Thus, in the northern hemisphere, the sun is higher in the sky and visible for a longer period of time in June than it is in December. It’s why we have seasons.
“Unlike the sun, the maximum and minimum declination reached by the moon varies. This is because the plane of the moon’s orbit around the earth is inclined those five degrees to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, and the direction of this inclination gradually changes over the 18.6-year cycle, alternately working with and against the 23.5° tilt of the earth’s axis.” [Source:Wikipedia]
At the standstill, the moon appears to stand still in the sky for a brief period before changing directions and moving oppositely, either north or south.
Keep in mind this has nothing to do with the phases of the moon. It just means, if you stand facing the north star, how far to the south of it is the moon at its zenith. Sometimes, at an equinox, it appears farther north than you might expect it to be. Other times it’s farther south, just like where the sun peeks over the Organ Mountains in June and December.
I’ve taken time to mention this because we have loads of instruments to measure precise angles and times and computers to do calculations to however many decimal places we desire. The Chacoans had none of this, and yet their calculations were just as precise. It’s built into the architecture of Peñasco Blanco and Pueblo Bonito. Anna Sofaer, director of the Solstice Project Survey [in Kendrick Frazier’s book, People of Chaco] said, “It suggests the Chacoans may have favored these particular angles (lunar standstill) in order to incorporate a geometry of the sun and moon in the internal organization of the buildings.” An illustration in Frazier’s book refers to “inter-building bearings” that correlate to the orientation of individual buildings to the cardinal directions and to the lunar major and minor standstills. There are walls in perfect alignment not only with the cardinal directions and standstill angles but also with other walls in other pueblos. How Chacoans achieved such precision is unknown but marvelous to contemplate.
Observant Chacoan holy men, whom Park Rangers referred to as Sunwatchers, would have noticed the relationship between eclipses of the moon and its standstill cycle. They perhaps used their observations to establish precise dates for major festivals and ceremonials, so vital to the sacred rituals of the society.
What binds a society, then and now, are adherence by individuals to a community-accepted body of behavior and beliefs. We often hear people talk about the decay of our society. What actually does that mean, except individuals no longer choose to conform? It puts the society in flux until a new belief system emerges to unify the community.
Archeologists assume Chacoans used solar and lunar cycles to reinforce societal behavior. For instance, we were told during the full-moon lecture at Pueblo Bonito, at the solstice, the date was set for a ceremonial during which people recommitted to the community, “to do good.” If they failed to hold the ceremony and the people had been “bad,” the sun would continue south and the earth would die. The recommitment assured the sun of the people’s devotion to each other and the world, and it began its return.
What was practiced at Peñasco Blanco was ancient when the great house was new. We were assured by the Ranger, it is still part of today’s puebloan ceremonials, so sacred it cannot be talked about publicly less it offend the sun and it continues south on its journey through time.
Posted by Bur Russo
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
There are things in Chaco Canyon older than the stone ruins. The stone from which the pueblos were built was cut from the 400-foot-tall sandstone bluffs remaining where the wash has eroded them.
The sandstone formed from a seabed of 60 to 80 million years ago. Any examination of the sandstone quickly reveals things that look like twisted, corroded rebar. It’s not.
During the Cretaceous a shrimp-like crustacean burred into the sandy seabed, creating a network of tunnels. To keep the tunnels from collapsing from sea wave motions, these crustaceans cemented sand particles to the walls.
As the ocean receded, heavy particles of iron, mercury, and other minerals suspended in the water settled into the and filled the crustaceans’ abandoned tunnels. The particles hardened as the seabed dried. The time and the weight of sediments laying on top compressed the sand into sandstone.
So while the crustacean is long gone, its home remains ... just like the Chacoans.
Posted by Bud Russo
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Type I Wall Type II Wall
We toured Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses, with Ranger Adrian Jones, who talked of the history of the pueblo. He pointed out the four types of walls found in the canyon.
The walls at Chaco were first just slabs of sandstone laid in such a way as to reinforce each other. The wall was relatively weak and would support only a single story. It was also as rough on the outside as it was in the center of the core. But construction evolved at Chaco over the 3-1/2 centuries it was occupied. Builders began to face the rough Type I wall with a veneer. With each successive style ... there are four types of walls ... the veneers became smoother, stones fit tighter, and there was increasing artistry in the construction. “Ah,” I thought. “I see.” Only I didn’t.
Ranger Jones told us, after building the walls, the Chacoans plastered them inside and out. That sort of made sense, too. Lighter colored plaster increased reflection from light sources. Plaster made a smoother wall. It gave the building a uniform consistency.
Why, then, would the people have gone to so much trouble to build walls with beautiful veneers if they were only going to plaster over them? Were they just building styles that reflected changing generational ideas of how things were done and have no particular significance, including artistry? What was the purpose of investing so much time and energy in something no one would see? Was it sort of like a woman wearing fancy underwear no one but her ever sees just because it makes her feel good? Was there a self-serving satisfaction the builders derived knowing beneath the plaster lay their remarkable work?
Or ... is there something more going on? Is there meaning in the distinctive patterns, meanings we can not know? Something of which we are unaware and can never fathom just from looking at the walls?
I sat and studied the patterns. I might as well have been watching paint dry for all the good it did me in expanding my understanding. I photographed each style in various pueblos and I look at them now ... each style is represented in the blog from Type I to Type IV, left to right ... and all I see is artistic architecture that I might find anywhere someone is working with sandstone. You be the judge and help me understand the why.
Posted by Bud Russo
Friday, May 20, 2011
Chaco: the name evokes ancient mystery. Chaco: home to Americans from approximately 850 A.D. until 1150 A.D. Then ... so the early theories go ... they disappeared. Vanished. Of course, they didn’t. In the face of insurmountable drought, they migrated to land where they could live. They became today’s Acoma and Zuni. Those who traveled south to Paquimé live at today’s Casas Grande in Mexico. The Chacoans didn’t disappear. They are with us today.
But the mysteries surrounding Chaco persist. We came to Chaco May 15 to learn what we could about this fascinating remnant of human history. The Ranger, in his recounting, tells us they who how Chaco came to be and when, but they don’t know why.
Chaco canyon runs southeast to northwest. Water drains from higher elevations to the south into the wash that formed the mile wide canyon, cut through hundreds of feet of sandstone. The Chaco River, as the dry bed is known, when wet, drains into the San Juan and finally the Colorado. The sandstone bluffs are the result of sand bedding ancient shallow seas that covered the central part of what today is North America.
Within the canyon proper are a dozen great houses, immense stone pueblos. They range from Wijiji in the southeast about a dozen miles to Pueblo Peñasco in the northwest but high atop the bluff. This was the center of the universe for these people and it was the focus of power that controlled more than 40,000 square miles and more than 100 other pueblos across the Colorado Plateau and San Juan Basin.
With so many villages and so much land, you’d think Chaco was inhabited by tens of thousands of people. That wasn’t so. Total population ranged closer to 2,000 upwards to maybe 8,000 [and that number is contested]. Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house with over 700 rooms, may have been home to less than 200 people.
As I digest all that I saw and experienced, I will write more. But for now I have more questions than answers. I wonder about these people; who they were, why they chose this place to live and for what purpose. I am convinced something special took place here. Life wasn’t static. Society evolved over 3-1/2 centuries, more than 10 generations. The actual meaning of what when on here is lost in time.
No matter how carefully scientists search, no matter how they analyze and compare data, we will never really know the full story of chaco.
Posted by Bud Russo
Friday, April 29, 2011
If you’d visited Lake Valley in the 1850s, you would have seen mostly flat, grassy plains, low rounded hills, and the majestic Black Range ensconced on the horizon. You might have thought the valley serene, even idyllic.
Then in 1878, a rancher named McEvers or perhaps a prospector named Lufkin found silver ore. It was however low-grade, not much more than 40 ounces or 2-1/2 pounds of silver for every ton of rock dug. Remember, in those days, there were no electric or steam-driven mining machines. Dug meant pick and shovel, a hand-hammered drill, and maybe some dynamite, which had been invented in 1867.
In 1881, J. Whitaker Wright arrive in Lake Valley with George Daly, an Australian immigrant. The two men, along with George Roberts, formed the Sierra Grande Silver Mining Company. Their efforts to exploit the silver was frustrated because there appeared to be none but the low-grade ore.
Meanwhile, Apaches, led by Nana, decided the ranchers and miners had been in their homeland long enough and began raiding. They burned a rancher’s home and kidnapped his wife and children. George Daly led a group of miners in retaliation. His efforts cost him his life.
It was when they brought Daly’s body back to Lake Valley, the miners found the motherlode at a depth of 40 feet. I am reminded of a scene in Paint Your Wagon, where the vagabond miners are digging a grave for a compadre killed in a wagon accident, only to see gold glittering in the dirt. The response is hilarious if crude. And I wondered if Lake Valley silver was found that way when Daly’s grave was dug.
However, it worked out, miners excavated what became known as the Bridal Chamber and found a vein of silver so pure it was assayed at thousands of ounces per ton. One writer referred to the mine as having walls of pure silver. The Bridal Chamber gave up $2,775,000 in silver, becoming known as the richest silver mine ever found.
Of course, that’s when the trouble began. A rich strike brings more miners to town, sort of like vultures drawn to a corrupting carcass. The quiet town grew to have upwards of 4,000 residents, mostly men. So there were nearly two dozen saloons and a few bordellos. There were also “legitimate” businesses – general stores, hotels, drug store, barber shop, post office, livery, stage line, and assay office. There were also a church, school, and doctor in residence.
In a short time, miners had dug hundreds of shafts looking for more of the elusive silver. To keep cash flowing for mining operations, Wright and Roberts apparently salted areas or convinced naive investors the ore was richer than it was. These promotions made Wright a multimillionaire, while it made paupers out of many investors. By 1882, Robert’s fraudulent promotions threatened the company, and he sold out to Wright. Meanwhile, Wright’s questionable promotions led to a conviction of stock fraud in London in 1902, and he swallowed cyanide, committing suicide in the courtroom.
But I’m ahead of my story. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland changed the standard upon which paper money was based from silver to gold. Not only did silver prices plummet, the change also contributed to the Panic of 1893, a major economic depression that tipped the scales on many Lake Valley businesses. Silver mining was pretty much done by then.
Besides all the mining activities, ranching had remained a major industry in Lake Valley. Cattle in large numbers bring in rustlers in large numbers. Bob Alexander, in his book, Desert Desperadoes, recounts an episode of “door-bustin’ roundups at Lake Valley, Hillsboro, and Kingston.” The roundup was led by Major Albert Fountain and was intent on rooting out and destroying rustlers, led by John Kinney, whose Lake Valley ranch served as headquarters for the outlaws. The gunfights that followed were brutal. One newspaper reported alleged escaped prisoners were shot to pieces.
So went life in Lake Valley, a town in decline. One night in 1895, a man named Abernathy, a disgruntled and perhaps drunk customer of William Cotton’s saloon, set the bar on fire. Tinder dry wood and high winds fanned the flames, which consumed nearly all of Main Street, including the Keller, Miller & Company mercantile. Today, you know exactly where that store stood. Its safe sits in the dirt right where it was after the fire burned itself out.
Like all ghost towns, Lake Valley was never totally abandoned. Its life simply ebbed away every so slowly. Mrs. Blanch Nowlin, who became the local dealer for Conoco, lived in her house on Railroad Avenue until 1982. Pedro and Savina Martinez bought the Belle Hotel next door. He lived there until his death in 1994, having been a Lake Valley resident for 90 years.
During World War II, manganese was mined in the town, but that too was mined out and abandoned in the early 1950s.
I thought about this history as I walked the remains of the town. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for Lake Valley [along with the still remaining Sierra Grande Mining Company]. The BLM restored the 1907 schoolhouse and turned it into a museum. Mrs. Nowlin’s Conoco store was the original school built in 1880. It’s awaiting a new roof and other restoration. I looked in at the chapel, where Episcopal services were held until the 1970s, and examined the remains of the Keil House and Dr. Beal’s House. The Nowlin and Martinez houses are privately owned and undergoing stabilization, efforts to prevent them from collapsing, so they might be opened to visitors.
Bob Denison, resident BLM manager, took me in his ATV to see the Bridal Chamber and other mines still on private property. I saw what’s left of the manganese ore processor. I saw head frames standing above a few of the 430 mine shafts dug throughout the area. One mine, the Last Chance, is home to bats and monitored by the state, watching for white-nose syndrome. Another, Denison told me, is the den of a mountain lion. None of them ever produced silver as rich as the Bridal Chamber, which has mostly collapsed as its timbers have aged.
Time is not kind to the remnants of our history and, unless someone values Lake Valley at lot more than it is now, it too will fade away, leaving behind decaying piles of lumber and melting mounds of ancient adobe. And that will be too bad because at Lake Valley, we can examine our colorful past and know better the roots from which we have grown.
Posted by Bud Russo