A Visitor's Guide to Chacoan Great Houses - Seeing Chaco Canyon

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Guide to Chacoan Great Houses - Resources and Websites

Map of Chaco Canyon Great Houses
Map of Chaco Canyon Great Houses. Urban

Chaco Canyon National Park, in the San Juan basin of the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, is an archaeological and architectural delight. The 13 kilometer (8 mile) long canyon and its surrounding mesas hold the remains of the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) culture, most notably the immense monumental apartment blocks called Great Houses. Chaco is an awe-inspiring place, combining arid natural beauty with soaring prehistoric buildings. I visit there as often as I can.

But, when you go to Chaco Canyon, it's easy to get blinded by the monuments. Like other big archaeological ruins, after a while, the Great Houses all run together. That's a terrible shame, because they are each unique and interesting in themselves. So, to combat that, I've compiled this Guide to Chacoan Houses, listing them in order from the oldest ones to the most recently constructed, and passing along some great web sources for more specific details.

For information about Great Houses in general, see What Science has Learned about Chacoan Great Houses

Cited Resources

In addition to some things here on About, there are five great free web resources that I heartily recommend for further exploration. One was built by the National Park Service; one was built by scholars who have spent their careers at the site; and three were built by aficionados like me, people who have dedicated time and wordy efforts to pull together information about the Great Houses they have come to love.

  • The Chaco Research Archive was developed by archaeologist Steve Plog and a slew of other southwestern specialists. Clearly a labor of love and science, the in-depth pages on specific Great Houses and other sites include detailed plans, excavation histories, dates and historical images of the sites and artifacts. 
  • The National Park Service's Chaco Canyon Unit includes detailed data on several of the Great Houses, focused on helping the visitor make the most out of his or her trip.
  • J.Q. Jacobs is an archaeologist whose voluminous pages include Photo Galleries with fine images of many of Chaco's Great Houses and several articles on southwestern archaeology topics
  • The Gambler's House is a blog written by an anonymous former National Park Service volunteer, who obviously loves the canyon and has lots of stories about the Great Houses, some of which are focused on astronomical features.
  • Finally, Dennis R. Holloway is an architect who has created and made available several 3-D computer reconstructions of Chacoan Great Houses.
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Early Bonito Phase Chacoan Great Houses

Overview of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon
Overview of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Chris M. Morris

The earliest Great Houses at Chaco include these four built in the 9th century, although all of them were elaborated in later periods. 

Una Vida means "one life" in Spanish, and it is the oldest of the Chaco Canyon houses. First constructed in the mid 800s, Una Vida holds about 160 rooms, some of which have a second story. Una Vida has four kivas (semi-subterranean ritual rooms) and one or perhaps two great kivas. The rooms are arranged in a plan shaped like the capital letter L, with a plaza in the opening. 

​​Pueblo Bonito means "beautiful town" in Spanish, and it is the largest of all the Great Houses. It has at least 700 rooms in a D-shaped layout, and stood in places 4-5 stories tall, with 32 kivas and 3 great kivas. A D-shaped layout is the most common layout for Great Houses, with the flat edge typically marked by room blocks and the arc filled with a plaza. Construction on Pueblo Bonito was begun in the mid-9th century, and it experienced several re-modelings between the 10th and 12th centuries. The site covers an astonishing area of more than 18,000 square meters.

Peñasco Blanco, or "white rock point" in Spanish, was started in the early 10th century and rebuilt several times.It has an oval plan, with hundreds of rooms in five rows stacked up to three stories high. Peñasco Blanco has four great kivas and five smaller ones around a central plaza.

Hungo Pavi might mean "Crooked Nose Pueblo" in the Hopi language--there's some debate about that--and the D-shaped layout holds 140 rooms and two kivas, distributed around a central plaza. The first rooms here were built in the late 900s.

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Early Classic Bonito Phase Great Houses

Chetro Ketl, Great House Site in Chaco Canyon
Chetro Ketl, Great House Site in Chaco Canyon. Chris M. Morris

Chetro Ketl's name might mean "the Rain Pueblo" in the Navajo language (Dine). The second largest of the Great Houses, Chetro Ketl has about 400 rooms in 3-4 stories, and 12 kivas. Its layout is D-shaped, with a tower kiva and a very unusual masonry colonnade. The first rooms were built in the early 11th century, and the house was remodeled several times thereafter.

Pueblo Alto, or "high village" in Spanish, is a D-shaped Great House with 18 kivas, a large plaza and about 130 rooms: but all of them were at ground level. Construction started on it about 1020 AD. An alternative name of this Great House is the "Gambler's House" according to Navajo Traditions. 

Pueblo del Arroyo, or "village by the wash" in Spanish, holds 300 rooms in a D-shaped layout that stood perhaps four stories tall. It had 17 kivas around a central plaza, and it was first built during the 1060s.

Pueblo Pintado, Spanish for "painted village", is an L-shaped Great House, of 135 rooms in 3-4 stories, 19 kivas and a great kiva around an enclosed plaza. The first rooms were probably built in the 1060s.

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Late Classic  Bonito Phase Great Houses

Kin Kletso Great House, Chaco Canyon
Kin Kletso Great House, Chaco Canyon. Robert Wilson

New Alto is a square Great House with an enclosed kiva, and 58 rooms in 1-2 stories. It was built between 1100-1120.

Casa Chiquita (the Spanish name means "Little House"), is a rectangular Great House siwth a symmetrical layout and 1-2 kivas which has never been excavated. Dated to the Late Bonito period, it was built between 1100-1130. It has 59 rooms and probably reached 1-3 stories

Tsin Kletzin's name (sometimes referred to as Tsin Kletzo) means "hard wood", "black wood", or, just possibly "charcoal place" in the Navajo language. It was built between 1110-1115, and has an L-shaped unit with 89 rooms, 3 enclosed kivas and a great kiva, with two plazas.

Wijiji's name might mean "black greasewood" in the Navajo language--it's my favorite name for a site, right up their with Wupatki. Wijiji is a C-shaped (or, more precisely bracket-shaped) Great House, built around 1110 or so. It holds about 200 rooms arranged in 2-3 stories, and two kivas. It is the only Great House in Chaco without a Great Kiva or an enclosed plaza.

Kin Kletso, or "yellow house" in the Navajo language, was built between 1125-1130. It includes 65 rooms and 5 kivas laid out in a symmetrical rectangle 2-3 stories tall.