One of the most famous archaeological sites in the southwest is Chaco Canyon. Chaco lies in northwest New Mexico somewhere between Gallup and Farmington. Actually Chaco Canyon is not a site but a district containing thousands of archaeological sites and it is recognized as a World Heritage Site.
I will be taking you to some of the lesser known places in Chaco Canyon in some later posts but for now I am stopping at an outlier about 50 miles south of Chaco and it is one that is integrally related to the prehistoric cities of the canyon.
Outliers in the professional archaeologist parlance are habitation sites that are somehow connected to a larger sphere of influence but located somewhere outside it’s core.
Driving from Gallup, exit at Thoreau (pronounced ‘threw’; it’s named for a former railroad man) as if to take the short cut to Farmington, New Mexico. Traveling by this back road toward the Bistii Wilderness, and eventually Farmington, as I am sure you have done many times, you may have noticed in passing an interesting rock formation east of the highway near Crownpoint. It looks much like a natural spire of sandstone when seen from the road traveling 70 plus miles an hour. Closer inspection though, discloses that while it is a stone spire, it is of man-made origin.
The Navajo (Dine′) have named it Kin Ya’a — the Tall House.
It represents the remains of what must have been an imposing structure in its day. Archaeologists refer to it as a ‘tower kiva’ because there appears to be a ceremonial significance to the interior room at the top of the tower. Modern kivas are ceremonial rooms in pueblo towns and by the referential process of archaeological interpretation, archaeologists have identified these rooms as being ceremonial in ancient pueblos also. Tree ring dates place the building of Kin Ya’a around 1100 AD.
Generally kivas make up a small percentage of the overall rooms in a village. Tower kivas are a unique structure even among these less common specialized rooms because rather than being subterranean as are most prehistoric kivas, they rise several stories into the air.
One theory is that building a kiva so high up gives it a stronger connection to the realm of the sky and therefore increases the viability of any prayers for rain that originate there. Since it appears that some tower kivas may be several of the structures stacked one atop the other, they may also replicate the four worlds of pueblo myths.
Tower kivas are not exclusive to sites that are linked to Chaco Canyon but they are most commonly found in Chacoan towns. The one at Chettro Ketl, the second largest town in the canyon, has some interesting stone projections that appear to allow for entry by those adventurous souls brave enough to ascend the exterior of the tower in that manner. A more likely function is to illustrate to the people when it was time to re-plaster the exterior walls. When the rock projections start to show it’s time to start mixing more plaster.
The Chettro Ketl tower kiva has been excavated to illustrate the amount of work that went into the foundations of the structure. Not surprisingly it sits upon an impressive stone base excavated more than twenty feet into the Chaco soil. West of Pueblo Bonito, the compact town of Kin Kletso has two structures that appear to be tower kivas. If you are interested in learning more about Chaco you can go to the NPS site. 1)
Most archaeologists agree that the tower kiva at Kin Ya’a has a very specific reason for its placement at this particular Chacoan town. But because they are archaeologists they don’t all agree on what that reason is. It all depends on who you talk to.
The purpose of the structure may have long been open to debate but I like the signal tower aspect that has been presented in many discussions. The idea is that fires built atop the kiva could be used to signal other sites far away, especially at night. Kin Ya’a lies along the Great South Road out of Chaco, in fact the road bisects the pueblo diagonally.
To read more information on Kin Ya’a and a nice interpretive reconstruction painting go to the NPS brochure 2).
If you want to go to Kin Ya’a I better tell you my story.
Anyone traveling to Chaco today normally enters by the Pueblo Pintado road between Bloomfield and Cuba, NM; built a decade or so ago to facilitate visitation to the remote site. Back in the day, a generation or more in the distant past, this adventurous explorer used to enter the canyon by the south road at the old trading post (TP) turnoff and return the next day by the Blanco TP or Nageezi TP road. I have always been a lover of bad roads.
Of course, while on tour, I also wanted to stop and see Kin Ya’a since I drove right by it. Not bothering to get directions, (Don’t say it!) I felt I could find my way to the site. After all, I am a trained archaeologist. I’ve surveyed hundreds of miles of desert without getting lost. I can surely find my way to a stone spire that anyone can plainly see.
On my first attempt I wound up in a local front yard somewhere south of Kin Ya’a. Sitting there slightly embarrassed but unashamed I watched as a Navajo granny in long skirts came out her front door. She looked at the huge white van loaded with bil-ganas (the term Navajos use for ‘white people’) that was being driven by some big guy with a nervous smile on his hairy face. She slowly shook her head, turned around and walked back in the house shutting the door behind her
As you can tell by my photos, I did finally find my way to Kin Ya’a but I still owe that granny an apology.