A. Brockway's Ancient Southwest— Report #6 (Con't)


Suburban Chaco 2

Standing at Peñasco Blanco, we could squint our eyes and, by looking carefully to the southeast along Chacra Mesa, might be able to make out the tallest remaining portion of Tsin Kletsin, a great house located about two miles almost directly south of Pueblo Bonito. (Get oriented again by checking the Park Service map of the Canyon.) Its name has been translated variously as "black wood place," "charcoal place," or, earlier, "house in the beautiful wood." It has also been called "house on top" by modern-day Navajos (Leckson 1986: 231).

A small great house (70 rooms), Tsin Kletsin has never really been excavated, though the portions that are exposed are maintained by the National Park Service Stabilization Unit. Many of the Navajo workers are members of families that have been engaged in the stabilization project for generations (Vivian and Hilpert 2002: 227).

Unlike Peñasco Blanco, which was begun about 900, Tsin Kletsin was constructed early in the 12th century, more than two centuries later. Moreover, its masonry is McElmo style, which is different enough from that of earlier Chaco great houses that even the untrained eye can notice it. In the mid-1960s, Gordon Vivian and Tom Mathews (Vivian and Mathews 1965) thought Chaco McElmo was an intrusion by Mesa Verde people (thus the name, after the McElmo Valley in Colorado). On the other hand, twenty years later Stephen Leckson became convinced that the McElmo buildings were a late development of the indigenous Chaco tradition (Leckson 1986: 269). There is no common mind among archaeologists even now.

Though unexcavated, the D-shape of the great house is evident: east and west room blocks and an arc of rooms connecting them. There are at least three kivas (Leckson = "round rooms") set into the room blocks but no associated great kiva, which is typical of other McElmo style great houses. The arc that completes the D-shape, however, is not usual in McElmo buildings. There may be a good reason for that— the building's location and function.

Tsin Kletsin sits high on windswept and barren Chacra Mesa. There is no surrounding cluster of small houses. Water, nonexistent today, probably was provided by a large dam and reservoir to the east ((Vivian and Hilbert 2002: 249). What was it doing there? A hint about the answer lies in the fact that we were able to glimpse Tsin Kletsin from Peñasco Blanco. On very clear days an observer at Tsin Kletsin's highest point ("Kiva A") would be able to see, not only Peñasco Blanco, but also Pueblo Alto, on the mesa a half-mile north of Pueblo Bonito; Kin Klizhin, ten miles to the southwest of Downtown; Kin Kletso, in the Canyon only half a mile west of Pueblo Bonito; Kin Ya'a, twenty-five miles to the southwest; and Bis sa'ani, eight miles northeast of Downtown. This collection of views is possible only from Kiva A. "A shift of 10 meters in any direction would have made (it) impossible." (Lekson 1986: 231).

From Tsin Kletsin on Chacra Mesa, New Alto is visible across Chaco Canyon to the north.

It's hard to imagine that that 6-fold line of sight was accidental, particularly in light of the fact that there appears to have been little purpose for the structure otherwise. Many students of the Chaco Phenomenon have postulated that a function of the roads and the placement of great houses had something to do with a signal system, possibly with flares. Tsin Kletsin looks as though it was what we might call an "information coordinating center for the Chaco Homeland Security Agency." Signals could reach there from any direction and be relayed to the other information sources and, particularly, to the great houses in Chaco Canyon itself.

By the 12th century the threat of enemy attack had increased (though who or what that enemy might have been is unknown), so much so that some of the later great houses, including Tsin Kletsin, added the curved row of rooms that completed the enclosure of their plazas, making them more defensible. (For a discussion of warfare in Chaco times, specifically with reference to Tsin Kletsin, see LeBlanc 1999: 180ff.; also Wilcox 1993: 87f.)

Adding to the perception that Tsin Kletsin was a defensive command center is the road, with its wide rock-cut stairway, that leads into the Canyon, which would have facilitated the descent of messengers to the inhabitants of the great houses in downtown. It is thought that this road probably continued across Chaco Wash to link with a road, near Chetro Ketl, leading to Pueblo Alto.

About nine miles as the crow flies northeast of Tsin Kletsin is Bis sa'ani, a small great house composed of two sections, each perched on a narrow ridge south of Escavada Wash. (Escavada Wash runs more or less parallel to Chaco Wash before joining it at the west end of the Canyon.) While they share many characteristics, every great house is unique. Bis sa'ani is no exception.

Construction at Bis sa'ani began in 1130 and was finished about ten years later after major construction in Chaco Canyon itself had ended. If Tsin Kletsin was built to be a defensive command center, Bis sa'ani was no less purpose built. It has been called a "fortress" (Wilcox 1999: 136) and a "citadel" (Stuart 2000: 121) and, indeed, it is hard to imagine why it is where it is if not for defense.

It wasn't easy to build on this razor-thin ridge. In fact, all the construction material for Bis sa'ani had to be carried up from below (Cordell 1997: 323), which could well have been a factor in the choice of puddled adobe for the walls of one 20-room building.

Puddled adobe? That's right, liquid mud and straw poured between wooden frames and allowed to dry. This construction method was used at Aztec's North Ruin at about the same time or perhaps a little later, and at Paquimé well over a century later (I'm ahead of my story). But Bis sa'ani is the only great house with puddled adobe walls within the Chaco Core. The Chaco builders generally adhered to the outlines of the great house canon but they used whatever materials were at hand to do it. In the case of Bis sa'ani, no materials were readily to hand and, though they brought up stone for exterior walls and for kivas, it made obviously good sense to carry up as little heavy stuff as possible—thus poured adobe. As it was, as much as 1250 m³ of rock and dirt had to be hauled up the steep slopes and, furthermore, lots of it came from a whole kilometer away (Cordell 1997: 323).

There are other unique aspects to this "suburb." It was built relatively quickly—1130-1140. I grant you, ten years seems like a long time but it's the blink of an eye compared to the centuries that went into the building of Pueblo Bonito. Even more significant than the short time period is the fact that it was built in one go, no stopping and starting. The adobe part, which was built first, must have gone up rather quickly.

Something else: there is no great kiva at Bis sa'ani, not on the ridge, not anywhere around. There are four regular kivas in the "East House" and one in the "West House" but no great kiva. Moreover, no roads have been found leading to or from Bis sa'ani. And, then, one final interesting facet of this site is the presence of a group of small houses south of the great house—that are contemporaneous with it. Controversy among archaeologists surrounds the relation between great houses and small houses, but it would seem that here the two must have been united in a single project—construction and maintenance of the fortress. One more tidbit: studies of pottery and of corn and squash remains suggest that this site was not occupied year-round; only in late summer and fall was it fully utilized (Cordell 1997:323).

So Bis sa'ani sounds like a frontier outpost, equipped to transmit signals to Tsin Kletsin when danger to Downtown Chaco threatened from the north. Was it really? The idea is provocative, to say the least.