Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ancient Urban Planning

Several years ago, my nephew and I visited the center of the Anasazi culture in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The Anasazi were the ancestors of the Hopi and Navajo, and their name means "ancient ones." From 800-1200 A.D., the Anasazi built a most remarkable city that has the mark of modern urban planning.

Original painting by L. Kenneth Townsend for Reader's Digest

There are a number of building sites in Chaco Canyon, but the primary one is a D-shaped structure known as Pueblo Bonito. Pueblo Bonito was discovered by a U. S. Army expedition in 1849, and was excavated from the 1870s into the 20th century. Above is an 1880s archeologist and an aerial view of Pueblo Bonito today. The two bottom images show the site as it would have appeared in Anasazi times.

Pueblo Bonito contained more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas (round ceremonial chambers). The Anasazi transported thousands of trees many miles for timber, they devised a sophisticated watering system, built raised plazas for ceremony and established approximately 400 miles of roads. Some roads were 30 feet wide and in straight segments for 40 miles.

The Great Kiva — this is a community center the size of a small stadium.
The Anasazi were great masons. These bricks may appear to be adobe, but they are all cut stone. Archeologists date different building periods by the evolving masonry styles. The bottom right example is the late period, the mid-1100s A.D.

My favorite photo from the trip. I call it "Inner Sanctum."

Holes for rafters indicate that the canyon face was used as a back wall for apartments.
From 1921 to 1927, Neil Judd headed an archeological excavation funded by the National Geographic Society. One of his interesting discoveries was that the burial grounds were not big enough to reflect the huge population that would have inhabited Pueblo Bonito. Judd concluded that the center was not fully inhabited year round, and that there were seasonal influxes of distant tribes for ceremonies.

Those photographs not my own were taken by George H. H. Huey
and are courtesy of the Western National Parks Association.


  1. Mark, what an interesting place and great photos! I am very interested in urba planning id fot for the architucture alone and this is wonderful. Thnaks for the post

  2. David, my nephew and I were in awe of this place (which is considered sacred ground) and we both had the feeling that there was one very powerful intellect who prevailed over the building there. I think it's a very modern design.

  3. Such technical achievements are all the more impressive when one considers the lack of conveniences, steel tools, electricity, measuring devices, computers, etcetera.

    I admire the careful stone work. How did they do that without levels and plumb lines? It looks especially beautiful when one sees the crisp corners at the doorways. I wish I could do that.
    And of course the natural setting is as breathtaking as what man has put in this situation. I had never heard of this site, and found your post interesting. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, SwF. It should be noted that Pueblo Bonito was built over a period of about 400 years, so they had a lot of time to chip away at stones. One thing I didn't mention is that the Anasazi situated windows, some of them slits, to mark equinoxes.

  5. The situation of the windows is fascinating. I am reminded of our National War Museum in Ottawa. There is an important feature in the museum that is only illuminated by the rays of the sun on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That is our November 11th Remembrance Day.

    In our modern world of artificial light, such devices in the design remind us of how dependent ancient civilizations were on the solar cycle. Really amazing.

  6. The artistry of these early stonemasons simply astound me!! Thank you for sharing....

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