Mellon Foundation Grant Supports Digital Archive of Chaco Canyon

May 14, 2009 — A University of Virginia-based digital archive of material from Chaco Canyon – a World Heritage Site many scholars regard as the most important archaeological region in North America – has received a $538,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Located in northwestern New Mexico near the Four Corners, the Chaco Culture National Historic Park comprises thousands of masonry structures built between A.D. 400 and A.D. 1250 by the ancestors of contemporary Pueblo people. The buildings range from small houses that might have sheltered a dozen or so inhabitants to great houses with multiple stories, hundreds of rooms and numerous "kivas" – round subterranean rooms used for gatherings and rituals.

U.Va.'s Chaco Digital Initiative currently documents the most important of the Chaco great houses, Pueblo Bonito, and four related settlements that were excavated between 1896 and 1945.

Although Chaco has one of the longest histories of archaeological research in the Americas, much of the information is scattered, with artifacts, images and written documents deposited in more than two dozen institutions from New Mexico to New York. Much of the early research was never published.

With the click of a mouse, a scholar now can view and compare Chaco information without traveling to distant locations.

There are still many fundamental questions about the canyon and its people, said Stephen Plog, David Harrison III Professor of Historical Archaeology at U.Va. He is principal investigator of the project with Worthy Martin, co-director of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and associate professor of computer science. 

A central question is how the people used Chaco – as a site for seasonal gatherings for important rituals, the prevailing theory, or as a year-round community, a theory that Plog says closer investigation through the archive supports. And there are smaller questions: "How are the small houses different from the great houses? What was happening in the great houses? Were there hearths, were there storage pits, were there artifacts that suggest that a particular space was a room where people were living or a room where they were storing ceremonial materials?" Plog said.

Archaeological work in the canyon began in 1896 and continued throughout much of the 20th century. Today, with new attitudes and new techniques in archaeology, and in deference to the beliefs of the Pueblos that their ancestors and their lands should not be disturbed, preservation is encouraged over excavation. The digital archive at U.Va. is helping scholars decipher the clues to the puzzles of Chaco.

Maps of the largest of the great houses and lists of the artifacts found there are stored in separate institutions. "Until we did this, if someone wanted to know what came out of the rooms in Pueblo Bonito, they'd have to spend weeks in Washington, D.C., and weeks in New York," Plog explained.

But a visit to the digital archive will allow a scholar to pull up a map of Pueblo Bonito, click on a room and find links to images, lists of artifacts, notes on the excavation and more. The database can pull together all the information on all the kivas or on all the turquoise artifacts discovered in the canyon, for example, making comparative studies easier – and more likely.

"It's designed to allow you to easily collect and explore the data from excavations on particular settlements we've examined so far. If you want to compare settlements or contents within a settlement, the database is designed to let you go in and do that," he said.

"Through the incredible support of the Mellon Foundation, we're transforming what we know about Chaco Canyon."

The Chaco Digital Initiative was actually created six years ago with an earlier grant from the foundation. The archive now includes a searchable gallery of more than 7,000 images and more than 200 texts, including journals and notes on early excavations. Also on the Web site are records of stabilization of the structures carried out by the National Park Service between 1933 and 1986 – records that take up about 80 bound volumes and yielded roughly 16,000 images. A spreadsheet of tree-ring dates documents the canyon's chronology, and the database of individual rooms within the sites allows users to search each in great detail.

With the new Mellon grant, Plog and his colleagues will add four new sites, including the great house of Chetro Ketl and a significant small house site, Shabik'eshchee, which is the earliest site to have been studied extensively. The National Park Service surveyed more than 4,000 non-excavated sites in the 1970s, and that information will be added to the archive as well.

The Chaco Digital Initiative is one of more than three dozen archives that are part of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The institute's diverse subject matter includes a documentary history of the construction of the University between 1817 and 1828; The Valley of the Shadow, an archive of two communities on each side of the Civil War; the Salem witch trials; Pompeii; Rome; and the works of Walt Whitman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Blake, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. 

— by Elizabeth Wilkerson