The Great Lower Chaco River Ruins Expedition (part A)
The Great Lower Chaco River Ruins Expedition

Expedition to the lower Chaco River
West of Chaco Culture National Historic Park
In Northwestern New Mexico - On the Navajo Reservation
Saturday, July 12, 2003

 Some of the most daunting, desolate country in the Four Corners encompasses the Chaco River drainages in northwestern New Mexico.  For archaeologists, however, the attractions presented by numerous Ancient Puebloan ruins associated with these drainages west of Chaco Culture National Historic Park are stronger than the mere discomfort of brutal heat, gasping dryness inviting dehydration, horrible washboard, confusing dirt roads, and the relative impossibility of finding any prehistoric sites.
 In the quest of acquiring an informal education and having fun while exploring relatively unknown territories, Dave Breternitz, retired University of Colorado archaeologist now living in Dove Creek, Colorado, organized the South Gappers in 1973.  It is a loosely dis-organized bunch of professional archaeologists and lay persons who get together the 2d weekend of July to investigate some area of interest to one of the archaeologists who knows where "his" sites are and what it takes to get there.
 For this 30th annual meeting, I was invited by a longtime Cortez participant to attend this my first South Gappers "conference".  We gathered along the Chaco (dry) River at the El Vida Mission Boarding School (operated by the Seventh Day Adventists) located some 60 miles south of Farmington, NM.
 This year we were led by Tom Windes, Prof. of Archaeology at the University of New Mexico and also a staff researcher for the National Park Service for Chaco Culture National Historic Park, 20 miles east of our campsite.  He is Mr. Chaco these days, at least for associated sites outside of the park itself.
 We met Friday, July 11th, establishing our base camp under 3 large Cottonwood trees to get ready to drive west in carpools all day Saturday on the washboard road south of the nearby Tsaya Trading Post.  The dirt road we took shadows the Chaco Riverís bed, with many opportunities for wrong turns along the way.  We would drive about 30 miles west, as far west as the Chaco Riverís Great Bend where it turns north for some 60 additional miles to its confluence with the San Juan River.
 We visited only these 7 sites described. Many more exist in this area.

Our campsite Friday July 11th, 2003, on the south side of the Chaco River Wash at La Vida Mission, New Mexico.  Folks were still arriving at this point.  My dome tent is in the middle of the photo, under the leftmost Cottonwood tree.


 The first site visited was on the east side of Indian Creek Wash which flows north into the Chaco River.  It is typical of many such sites in that it is not easily recognizable until you look closely.  Pottery shards littered the ground.  Even the guide Tom Windes, was not able to find this site until his third try.  Mostly we see low rubble mounds and midden piles to tell us we are here.  The 2 photos show the 11 vehicles and crowd of explorers discussing the site, and an arrowhead I found here among the pot shards.

Disembarking from the 11 vehicles at Indian Creek Wash site, Prof. Tom Windes gives us a short presentation on the low rubble mounds just left out of photo.  Indian Creek is to the right (a dry wash, draining from south to north).  We are looking south in the photo.

Here is a point I found among the shards at this site.  The shard concentration was heavy.


 The Escalon Staircase site is unique: a large, stone ramp up to a pinnacle Pueblo.  Nearby stands a Pueblo 1 Great House Pueblo in rubble with some wall masonry still intact.  None of us accessed the top of the pinnacle for obvious reasons that day (see photo of pole " ladder! ").  Nearby we found a nearly intact corrugated pot.  None of these sites have been excavated, but they were mapped by Marshall (Marshall, Michael P., John R. Stein, Richard W. Loose, and Judith E. Novotny. 1979. "Anasazi Communities in the San Juan Basin. Santa Fe: Public Service Company, Albuquerque, and the Historic Preservation Bureau.") and others over the years.  Prof. Windes (in red shirt in photo) interprets most of these sites as Pueblo 1 architecture, ca late 9th century - early 11th century.  The Escalon Staircase may be later.

Prof. Windes in red shirt leads the crowd up the Escalon Staircase.  The shinny pole to the top did not look too friendly, especially those last 6 feet of bare smooth rock spanning the gap, so no one even considered trying to attain the top pueblo.

Here I am, dressed for hot weather and searing sun, on the Escalon Staircase.  Note the massive masonry style used to build this phenomenal structure.  Most of the pedestrian ramp is now gone.  We assume it was wide and long and not a problem to get up there!

Looking south across this siteís associated surface ruinís walls to the Escalon Staircaseís pinnacle pueblo.  A prehistoric Ancient Puebloan road we explored at the next stop is aligned such that it goes right between this surface site and the pinnacle pueblo with staircase!


 This prehistoric road was discovered by the archaeologist for the Enron gas pipeline which cuts through this area.  He is shown in the first photo in the pith helmet, looking east at two berm mounds on the horizon which demarcate the roadís north and south edges as it surmounts that rise coming from the east.  It aligns with the Escalon Staircase community, cutting directly between the staircase and its associated community building just north of the pinnacle pueblo, all east of where we are here. We are standing in the roadbed in the photos.  The road is littered on its berms with pottery shards, one of several evidences for the prehistoric road which helps to define its presence and course.

The professional archaeologist for the Enron pipeline laid through here several years ago is wearing the pith helmet.  He is pointing to the 2 road berms on the eastern horizonís ridge which demarcate the prehistoric roadís south and north edges.  This is several miles west of the Escalon Staircase with which it is aligned.  The blue arrows point to the 2 berms.

The group is standing in mid-prehistoric road here, now looking west.  You can see the low berms on each side of us.  Pot shards are found on the roadís edges but not many were in the road proper.  A scientific sampling of shards was professionally performed along the "highway" for helping to define the road.

(part A)    (part B)    (part C)




Out There    The Navajos

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