The Village of the Great Kivas
When my girls were younger they loved going to places like Sea World and Disneyland. For me it was Chaco Canyon. Chaco Canyon is the place where archaeologists go to vacation. But Chaco is not just one place, it had an enormous effect on the world of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Prehistoric roads stretch out from the canyon enfolding a huge expanse of the region within its grasp. The towns of Chaco spawned many smaller sites, called outliers by archaeologists.
For years I had heard tell of an amazing Chaco outlier site on the Zuni Reservation, excavated by Frank H.H. Roberts, a legend of early southwestern archaeology, in the 1930s. It was called The Village of the Great Kivas because there were two of the huge subterranean rooms at what was otherwise a relatively minor site. The implications for archaeologists were that it served as a regional center for all the local Chacoan villages, a materials redistribution point and political symbol of Chaco Canyon’s long reach. I wanted to go there.
I knew from my readings that it was near lower Nutria Lake in the northeast corner of reservation lands. From the time I started doing Chacoan tours in the 80s I marked a spot with bright red in my personal itinerary that said, “locate the Village of the Great Kivas.”
As often is the case with me, I chose to look upon it as a quest and a personal challenge rather than a research project. There were certainly people I could have asked for specific instructions and without much doubt they would have probably just told me how to get there but where is the fun in that?
I did mention to one of my Zuni friends, Charles that I was going to look for the site and smiling he responded that he used to like to go out there to fish off the dam, back when he had time. Unfortunately he was just too busy to go fishing now.
Charles had introduced me to Hawikuh, the site where Esteban the Moor had met his end and Father de Niza reported cities of gold. But Hawikuh, a Zuni historic place, had been very close to is family’s traditional farm at Ojo Caliente, so he felt that he had a right to take people there. Nutria was also an area of summer farming communities for Zuni families but Charles’ family was not one of them. He had intimated I was on my own.
I could have asked the Zuni Tribal Office of Tourism about the site. Because security has been greatly augmented over the years, they are the ones you have to see if you want to go there today. They would have helped me, but this was back in the day and I was Illinois Smith (think about it). I’d just do it myself.
It wasn’t the first time or the last that I would follow my guiding principle in life: “It’s easier to offer a heartfelt apology than to gain a requested permission.”
My first sally was when I was going from Zuni to Gallup. I took the Nutria turnoff saying, somewhat enigmatically, to the group with me that I wanted to ‘take a look at something’. They being mostly vets of previous trips with me were not the least surprised at the serendipitous event. I had driven in a couple of clicks toward Nutria lake on a good gravel road when I hit a muddy road that caused my van to fishtail and spin out. Looking ahead I saw no improvement. Never having been one to avoid bad roads when I knew where I was headed, I decided that at this time I would bow to discretion being the better part of valor, I turned around and at the time none but me were the wiser.
I would have to try to find the site again, another time.
The next try came about a year later, in better weather the road was dry and easy driving.
We got to the lake and I kept watching for signs that I was there. It had to be off to the left somewhere, towards the sandstone talus slopes of the Zuni Mountains.
All the turnoffs looked like they lead to small farms comprised of several dressed sandstone buildings with corrals and clear fence lines. All except one; that one lead back to a rail fence but I saw no buildings. That might be the place but to me it seemed to be too close to the lake.
A few more miles I realized I was gaining altitude, heading for Upper Nutria and I decided. At the first pullout I turned around, went back to the one road near the lake and turned toward the pale stone cliffs. Reaching what I had thought to be a rail fence it revealed itself to be road blocks, meant to prevent vehicles from continuing. Just up ahead I saw the telltale indication that the search was over — stacked sandstone blocks in the classic Chacoan style. We were there.
I knew from others that had been there that one of the best features of the site was the rock art. We spent a considerable time wandering around the ruins but the trail beckoned so we trudged up the side of the hill to where the petroglyphs were.
It was a stiff climb and the old trail up was largely gone now so it was more of a scramble but we got there and were amply rewarded. Nearly all the panels that were exposed on the sandstone boulders above were covered with graphic expressions of the prehistoric world. Humans, animals and creatures of indeterminate etiology vied with symbols and lines and unusual figures.
The climb was more than worth it when we found all that the artists had previously left for us to see. Most exciting for me was the star and moon pairing which seemed to echo a famous pictograph at Penasco Blanco in Chaco Canyon. The meaning of the pictograph is generally agreed upon by archaeologists to represent the Crab Nebula supernova event of 1054 AD.
(Wow! You mean there is actually something that is generally agreed upon by archaeologists? Who knew?)
After a slow leisurely viewing of the Ancestral Puebloan artistic expressions I thought it couldn’t get any better than this. But I was wrong; the best that this incredible archaeological site had to offer the to diligent and persistent traveller was yet to come . . .
(To be continued.)