Shored up wall of Pueblo Bonito. Round cylinders behind it are kivas.
photo by Ron Lussier

History of Exploration

Dan Greening

Chacoan architecture was discovered by the Mexican Republic in 1822, and references to Pueblo Bonito appeared as early as 1844. The area was transfered to the United States in 1946. The name "Chaco" was first used by Lt. James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Chaco is probably the Anglicized version of Chaca or Chacat, which is probably from the Spanish transliteration of the Navajo name for Chacra Mesa, namely Tzak aih--"white string of rocks."

The first large scale scientific excavation in Chaco Canyon began in 1896, when George H. Pepper, and Richard and Clayton Wetherill began excavating Pueblo Bonito under the guidance of Harvard University and the sponsorship of Talbot and Fred Hyde, Jr.. The 1896 collection, filling one freight car, was shipped to New York City's American Museum. From 1896 through 1900, the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavated and documented many sites in Chaco Canyon, mostly gathering artifacts from older refuse-filled rooms in Pueblo Bonito.

President of New Mexico Normal University Edger Hewett, concerned that New Mexican artifacts were being transfered to New York, accused the Hyde Exploring Expedition of selling artifacts or otherwise vandalizing the Chaco sites. Although these charges were found wholely false, the US Department of the Interior ordered the cessation of Chaco excavations by the Hyde Exploring Expedition in 1901. Hewett drafted legislation which would become law as the Federal Antiquities Act (also called the Lacey Act) on June 8, 1906. On March 11, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt established part of the canyon as Chaco Canyon National Monument.

Between 1901 and 1935, three people directed the majority of research on Chaco Canyon and its outlyers: Hewett, primarily sponsored by the School of American Research, Earl Morris from University of Colorado, and Neil M. Judd sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Hewett focused on excavating Chetro Ketl, doing the majority of his work in conjunction with students in a summar study program. Excavation began in 1929 and proceeded through 1935.

Morris began by excavating Aztec West Ruin and then did field work at two other sites outside Chaco Canyon: sites 39 and 41.

Unlike the others, Neil M. Judd came with a specific task and proceeded systematically to complete it. The National Geographic Society directed him to completely excavate the most promising "great house" in Chaco Canyon. His group chose Pueblo Bonito, began excavation in May 1921 and by 1924 had almost totally completed it. Judd published the majority of his research by 1927.

Between 1935 and 1970, most research in Chaco Canyon was directed by Hewett in an archaeology program sponsored by the University of New Mexico. Much of this research was primarily targeted at educating students rather than publishing research, and so much work done during this period was unpublished.

In 1969, the National Park Service and the University of New Mexico decided to conduct a long-term interdisciplinary research program on Chaco Canyon. This effort attracted several highly-qualified researchers from a variety of fields. The resulting publications between 1970 and 1980 were 20 times more voluminous than those generated over the previous 100 years.

It was during this period that researchers began to look seriously into the relationships between structures inside Chaco Canyon and other structures in the San Juan Basin. A system of roads, first thought to be canals, was discovered to connect many important "outlyer" sites to the Chaco Canyon core. Investigations into water control structures yielded results. Early theories of the relationship between south and north Chaco sites began to emerge.

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