Chaco “Roads”?

Jackson Stairway

Jackson Stairway

I’ve been reading about the prehistoric southwest, particularly Chaco canyon. In Chaco canyon around 9000-1100 AD there was an extreme fluorescence of complexity that has led to a large amount of debate.  Particularly Great Houses and Great Kivas. These are really interesting, and I’ve done a lot of reading on kivas for my dissertation and book. When I was reading though, I noticed some interesting discussion about the Chaco road system.  These roads are mainly apparent on aerial photography, but apparently can be seen sometimes on the ground.  Most archaeologists focus on the fact that they are very straight, not deviating from their alignment no matter the obstacle.  In some cases, the road turns into a staircase or a ladder to go straight up the side of the canyon, to continue in it’s original alignment at the top.

There is some debate over the function of these roads.  I gather that originally, it was pretty accepted that these roads were intended to connect Chaco canyon with the satellite settlements in the surrounding region and for the transportation of goods like wood into the canyon.  However, it is now clear that many of these roads simply stop.  With no apparent destination or origin point.  This fact has been taken by some researchers as a sign that the roads were a way of inscribing cosmology onto the landscape, and their radiating nature from Chaco was not meant for travel “to” someplace.

Roads are less for travel and more to emphasize the local ritual landscape. Are we hampered by terminology then? Calling them roads brings transportation to mind when we should be calling them something else? Similar to my discussion of terminology of outdoor spaces in my SAA2014 paper.  Are we limiting our understanding of space by using modern terms?

Were these roads?  Were they an act of ritual?  Were they something completely different?

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2 Responses to Chaco “Roads”?

  1. V important point – archaeologists continue to use modern defs when we always need to remember people’s understanding of such things may not have been the same in the past! PS would love to read your SAA paper, I suspect it is quite relevant to my own work on ‘middens’ !

  2. Yeah, I used your work on ‘middens’ quite a bit when writing it. One big annoyance of mine is the dismissal of ‘courtyard middens’ in the middle of settlements. People were actually using these spaces not just ignoring them!!! Anyway, I have an extremely rough draft outline that I used to prepare my SAA talk, but nothing very good. I had hoped to publish it some day, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Could send you the brain dump if you’d like!

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