Bigger and Better: Chaco Canyon Archive Gets a New Look, New Tools

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

October 18, 2010 — A digital archive of more than a century of archaeology and scholarship relating to New Mexico's Chaco Canyon is celebrating a new name, a new design with new tools for better access to its resources and an expansion that almost doubles the information housed there.

Located in the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet, Chaco Canyon was the center of civilization for the ancestors of today's Pueblo peoples from about 850 to 1250 A.D. Elaborate, multi-room structures, some as many as four stories high, cluster in "downtown Chaco" and also are scattered throughout the surrounding high desert.

Created in 2002 as the Chaco Digital Initiative, the newly renamed Chaco Research Archive offers scholars instant access to a cornucopia of data. It's the result of a collaboration of University of Virginia scholars and technology experts with 19 museums, federal agencies, universities and libraries that stretch geographically from Massachusetts to New Orleans on the East Coast and to New Mexico and Colorado in the West.

Instead of having to visit all of those places to view the Chaco records in their entirety, a researcher can now compare records housed thousands of miles apart with just a few clicks.

In the late 19th century, archaeologists using techniques of the time earnestly excavated the ruins, while entrepreneurs dug for artifacts that were then legal to sell. Today preservation is encouraged, due in large part to honoring Chacoan descendents' belief that the canyon is a sacred place and that their ancestors' lands should not be disturbed. So the digital archive is a way to study these early structures without turning a shovel of dirt – or leaving the laptop.

"The archive's new tools make finding the information much easier by providing multiple ways for scholars to explore the information, whether through a formal database query or clicking on a site on a map of the region or clicking on a map of a site and selecting an individual room or kiva," said Stephen Plog, David A. Harrison III Professor of Historical Archaeology in U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. He is co-principal investigator of the project with Worthy Martin, professor of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and interim director of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The archive was "designed not only for scholars, but also so the interested general public can easily learn Chaco by exploring the website," Plog added.

A World Heritage site, Chaco has always been something of a mystery to anthropologists and lay people alike. Scholars are still trying to put together definitive evidence of its use – how many people lived in the great houses, or was Chaco a trade and cultural center?  

The Chaco archive is "an invaluable new source of data critical not only for testing current models, but for use by a growing cadre of students investigating Chaco's past," said Gwinn Vivian, curator emeritus of the Arizona State Museum and a second-generation Chaco archaeologist. "The archive is particularly important at a time when the National Park Service and Native American peoples are limiting new fieldwork at Chaco and in some surrounding areas."

Vivian will speak at U.Va. on "Interpreting Chaco: Levels of Knowledge and Sense of Place" on Dec. 3 as part of a celebration of the archive's re-birth.

Collaboration, persistence and flexibility – letting the collaborators set the terms of access to and handling of the materials –helped make the project possible, said Carrie Heitman, a Ph.D. student in anthropoligy in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and co-director of the archive with fellow Ph.D. student Abigail Holeman.

"We were able to help institutions preserve these archival materials and increase public access," Heitman added. "Our partnership with IATH also inspired the confidence and trust of various institutions." 

The Chaco archive is one of about two dozen collaborative humanities research projects – in disciplines as diverse as anthropological linguistics, architectural history, Asian studies, British literature, art history and film – that IATH comprises. Professional staff and student researchers at IATH collaborate with faculty (U.Va. faculty through IATH's fellow program, and both U.Va. and non-U.Va. faculty with externally funded projects) on these scholar-driven projects.

The Chaco archive's images range from the first known photographs from 1887 to drawings made by the earliest archaeologists to an inventory of almost 800 specific structures in the canyon. For many settlements, visitors to the site can click on a single room to bring up the information on everything that was found there, or they can search on one term, such as "turquoise," to see everything that has been discovered.

Beyond that, the query would provide access to unpublished manuscripts and field notes that help put those things in context, Plog said. "Those are scattered all over the country." The new Web design also allows the archive's contents to be downloaded for the first time.

Heitman, along with a recent graduate and two current U.Va. students, worked intensely for three months last fall to gather and digitize information from the Chaco Culture National Historical Park Museum Collection at the University of New Mexico. "We came back with a terabyte and a half of data," Heitman said. All that and more have been added to the already robust archive for Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Christopher S. Peebles, an professor emeritus of anthropology and former associate vice president for information technology at Indiana University, called the archive "the exemplar of how regional archaeological databases (text and image, artifacts and measures, maps and manuscripts, monographs and articles) should be constructed and offered for research."

"It is a benchmark against which all other similar efforts should be measured."