Chaco Canyon, Part 3: Casa Rinconada, The Autumnal Equinox, and Petroglyphs

The great kiva at Casa Rinconada is the largest in the canyon at 63 feet in diameter and is unusual in that it is not incorporated in any great houses, has a 39 foot underground entryway, and is located on the south side of the wash, facing the other great houses positioned to the north. Nearby are smaller structures that appear to be living units, unlike the ceremonial and more formal great houses. These unique features have led most to believe that this great kiva functioned as a community space. Because the Chacoans had such advanced knowledge of astronomy, all of their great houses and kivas are cardinally aligned and often incorporate structural elements that allow sunlight to mark important calendar dates. The great kiva at Casa Rinconada is no different; ongoing research suggests that it too, like the great house at Chimney Rock, was designed to be able to track major lunar standstills through precise placement of niches in relation to exterior windows. What is certain is that the two doors in the entryway are aligned to true north-south cardinality allowing the sun to rise precisely in the center of these doorways two times a year, at the equinoxes. And don’t I have impeccable timing? Guess when I was there.

The Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada, ca.1070 - 1110 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

The Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada, ca.1070 – 1110 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Autumnal equinox sunrise through north-south doors on September 22, 2013 6:59 AM, Casa Rinconada, ca. 1070 - 1110 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Autumnal equinox sunrise through north-south doors on September 22, 2013 6:59 AM, Casa Rinconada, ca. 1070 – 1110 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

As such an important place for the Ancestral Puebloan culture, the canyon contains hundreds of petrogylphs as well as marked in the canyon walls. Some of the best lie along the Petroglph trail which runs along the canyon wall between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl through there are many others, such as those behind Una Vida and the campsite at Gallo Wash. I had difficulty in capturing these in any kind of light so I have boosted the contrast in the photos below.

Petroglyph Trail Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyph Trail Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyph Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyph Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyph Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyph Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyphs behind campground, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Petroglyphs behind campground, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Finally, just below the petroglyphs in Gallo Wash lies a few small alcove homes inhabited between 1150 and 1200 AD. This style of construction embedded in cliff walls is believed to have been influenced by the populations in the north such as at Mesa Verde. What is so great about these though is their location – right in front of my tent.

My campsite, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

My campsite, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Incidentally, my diagonal orientation of the tent to face the houses may have in fact saved my tent because my second evening there a vicious thunder and lightning storm moved into the canyon, not just over the canyon, but in the canyon. I was sitting in the car with the doors open and in the time it took to write a postcard, it went from breezy with dark clouds to gusts that were shaking my car and pitch black skies with lightning hitting the canyon rim just above me. When the rain suddenly started it didn’t just pour – the water was hurled violently from the sky. Within 60 seconds the woman closest to me nearly lost her tent as it was ripped from ground, and lifted six feet overhead, saved only by a guy line which she had knotted to the bracket on the tent pad. Within another 60 seconds the lightening was hitting inside the canyon, hundreds of feet from camp. I watched as my tent was nearly collapsed by the wind. When I left the car, I was nearly blown over – no kidding – and the rain hammered my skin to the point of pain. It was absolutely insane.

I have seen some incredible thunder and lightning storms in my few months travelling but I cannot describe the incredible power behind this one. Thankfully it neither injured anyone nor completely washed out the road, which would have trapped us in the canyon. I had to drive through 2 feet of water in the washes on the way out, but I don’t think I would have been able to make it if I had stayed another day since more rain was forecasted. It was just another reminder of how precarious living in this canyon must have been for the Ancestral Puebloans. Little precipitation for months, heat over 100 degrees in summer, temperatures frequently dipping to 30 below in winter, sudden flash floods? It makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Even in 2013 we are still at the mercy of Mother Nature in places like these, and she doesn’t seem to mind reminding us of that fact.