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The Chaco Road System

Did the Chaco Road have an Economic or Religious Purpose?

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Jacob's Ladder at Chaco Canyon

Jacob's Ladder at Chaco Canyon

Jim McKenzie
Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

© George H. H. Huey/CORBIS
Casa Rinconada, Chaco Canyon

Casa Rinconada, Chaco Canyon

Charles M. Sauer

One of the most fascinating and intriguing aspects of Chaco Canyon is the Chaco Road, a system of roads radiating out from many great house sites such as Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Una Vida, and leading towards small outlier sites and natural features within and beyond the canyon limits.

Through satellite images and ground investigations, archaeologists have detected at least 8 main roads that together run for more than 180 miles (ca 300 km), and are more than 30 feet (10 m) wide. These were excavated into a smooth leveled surface in the bedrock or created through the removal of vegetation and soil. The Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) residents of Chaco Canyon cut large ramps and stairways into the cliff rock to connect the roadways on the ridgetops of the canyon to the sites on the valley bottoms.

The largest roads, constructed at the same time as many of the great house sites (between AD 1000 and 1125), are: the Great North Road, the South Road, the Coyote Canyon Road, the Chacra Face Road, Ahshislepah Road, Mexican Springs Road, the West Road and the shorter Pintado-Chaco Road. Simple structures like berms and walls are found sometimes aligned along the courses of the roads. Also, some tracts of the roads lead to natural features such as springs, lakes, mountain tops and pinnacles.

The Great North Road

The longest and most famous of these roads is the Great North Road. The Great North Road originates from different routes close to Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. These roads converge at Pueblo Alto and from there lead north beyond the Canyon limits. There are no communities along the road's course, apart from small, isolated structures.

The Great North Road does not connect Chacoan communities to other major centers outside the canyon. Also, material evidence of trade along the road is scarce. From a purely functional perspective, the road seems to go nowhere.

Purposes of the Chaco Road

Archaeological interpretations of the Chaco road system are divided between an economic purpose and a symbolic, ideological role linked to ancestral Puebloan beliefs.

The system was first discovered at the end of the 19th century, and first excavated and studied in the 1970s. Archaeologists suggested that the roads main purpose was to transport local and exotic goods inside and outside the canyon. Someone also suggested that these large roads were used to quickly move an army from the canyon to the outlier communities, a purpose similar to the road systems known for the Roman empire. This last scenario has long been discarded because of the lack of any evidence of a permanent army.

Chaco Road Economic Significance

The economic purpose of the Chaco road system is shown by the presence of luxury items at Pueblo Bonito and elsewhere in the canyon. Items such as macaws, turquoise, marine shells, and imported vessels prove the long distance commercial relations Chaco had with other regions. A further suggestion is that the widespread use of timber in Chacoan constructions--a resource not locally available--needed a large and easy transportation system.

Chaco Road Religious Significance

Other archaeologists think instead that the main purpose of the road system was a religious one, providing pathways for periodic pilgrimages and facilitating regional gatherings for seasonal ceremonies. Furthermore, considering that some of these roads seem to go nowhere, experts suggest that they can be linked--especially the Great North Road--to astronomical observations, solstice marking, and agricultural cycles.

This religious explanation is supported by modern Pueblo beliefs about a North Road leading to their place of origin and along which the spirits of the dead travel. According to modern pueblo people, this road represents the connection to the shipapu, the place of emergence of the ancestors. During their journey from the shipapu to the world of the living, the spirits stop along the road and eat the food left for them by the living.

What Archaeology tells us About the Chaco Road

Astronomy certainly played an important role in Chaco culture, as it is visible in the north-south axis alignment of many ceremonial structures. The main buildings at Pueblo Bonito, for example, are arranged according to this direction and probably served as central places for ceremonial journeys across the landscape.

Sparse concentrations of ceramic fragments along the North Road have been related to some sort of ritual activities carried out along the roadway. Isolated structures located on the roadsides as well as on top of the canyon cliffs and ridge crests have been interpreted as shrines related to these activities.

Finally, features such as long linear grooves were cut into the bedrock along certain roads which don't seem to point to a specific direction. It has been proposed that these were part of pilgrimage paths followed during ritual ceremonies.

Archaeologists agree that the purpose of this road system may have changed through time and that the Chaco Road system probably functioned for both economic and ideological reasons. Its significance for archaeology lies in the possibility to understand the rich and sophisticated cultural expression of ancestral Puebloan societies.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Anasazi and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Cordell, Linda 1997 The Archaeology of the Southwest. Second Edition. Academic Press

Soafer Anna, Michael P. Marshall and Rolf M. Sinclair 1989 The great North Road: a cosmographic expression of the Chaco culture of New Mexico. In World Archaeoastronomy, edited by Anthony Aveni, Oxford University Press. pp: 365-376

Vivian, R. Gwinn and Bruce Hilpert 2002 The Chaco Handbook. An Encyclopedic Guide. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

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