Monday, September 9, 2013

History mystery: Pueblo Bonito, A settlement lost in the desert -1

For more than 300 years the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico wrung life from their harsh environment. Beneath the towering cliffs of Chaco Canyon they built their dwelling place – an apartment block of 700 rooms. In 1849 Lieutenant James Simpson of the American army was member of a punitive expedition sent to New Mexico against a group of Navajo Indians. One day he camped neat the ruins of a massive dwelling-a cross between a primitive village and a modern high-rise apartment block. Lieutenant Simpson later described the experience in a journal published in 1852: ‘Two or three hundred yards down the canyon; we came across another old pueblo in ruins called Pueblo Bonito… The circuit of its walls is about 1300ft. Its elevation shows that it has had at least four storeys of apartments. ‘The number of rooms on the ground floor at present discernible is 139…

‘Among the ruins are several rooms in a very good state of preservation, one of them being walled up with alternate beds of large and small stones, the regularity of the combination producing of very pleasing effect. The ceiling of this room is also more pleasant than any we have seen – the transverse beams being smaller and more numerous, and the longitudinal pieces which rest upon them only about in diameter, and beautifully regular. The later have somewhat the appearance of barked willow. ‘The room has a doorway at each end and one at the side, each of them leading into adjacent apartments. The light is let in by a window, 2ft by 8in on the north side.’ Simpson’s discovery of this huge pile of terraced houses aroused a rush of interest, but it was another 50 years before serious excavations began.

 When, toward the end of the 19th century, American archaeologist started to explore Pueblo Bonito, they unearthed a village which in the 12th century AD may have housed 1200 people. Pueblo Bonito (‘pretty village’ in Spanish) is a remarkable monument to a North American Indian culture that flourished 500 years before Columbus set sail for the New World in the late 15th century. Its inhabitants were a Stone Age people who left no written record of their culture, but their story can be read from the shards of broken pottery they left behind. The civilizations of the south-western United States trace their origins to around 7000 BC. At this time, hunter-gatherers started to roam the dust bowl of the Great Basin, mostly in present-day Nevada and Utah. By about AD 100 the Anasazi, or ‘Ancient Ones’, had begun to develop a distinctive culture.

As they became increasingly dependent on cultivated crops, such as maize and beans, they abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and built settlements of underground houses. The Pueblo (village) period began in about AD 700, when houses began to be built above ground. Pueblo Bonito is just one of 13 villages to be found in the Chaco Canyon in north-west New Mexico. At the foot of a cliff, the settlement has the outline of a huge semicircle with the straight side facing south towards the Chaco river. Its 700 rooms rise in terraces around the central courtyard like some great amphitheatre. Access to the pueblo was by ladder over the straight front side. The complex covers an area of 1.5ha (4 acres): it was the largest apartment block in the world until a bigger one was built in New York in 1882. Pueblo Bonito’s first stone was laid in about 850. The walls of the settlement were solidly built around a core of the stone or adobe-mud bricks dried in the sun. They were faced with sandstone flags which fitted together so perfectly that it is difficult to insert the blade of a knife between them.

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