Significance, or Why I Love Chaco Canyon

Due to a recent fire at a CTA substation, this morning I was able to start and finish an essay while on the train from Places, titled, "Fixing Historic Preservation: A Constructive Critique of 'Significance'" by Randall Mason. While the essay's main points (lack of critically thinking about a place's meaning by preservationists needs to change, significance is not fixed but evolves over time, and multiple voices need to be heard concerning preservation decisions) were not lost on me, I framed these points through one example in particular that the author briefly mentioned: Chaco Canyon.

Ever since I happened upon a local PBS presentation of "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon" I have developed an interest in the Anasazi (Pueblo ancestors) and a greater interest in ancient architecture. Effectively narrated by Robert Redford, the short film was preceded by "The Sun Dagger", both masterminded by Anna Sofaer, an artist whose life was changed upon her discoveries in Chaco Canyon. In the earlier film, Sofaer rigorously documented astronomical markings that she discovered on Fajada Butte, itself a solar marker in the otherwise flat landscape around Chaco. Through papers and presentations, she proved the markings to be both solar and lunar markers, finding the Solstice Project to help and further the study. The later film picks up where the first left off, attempting to show that the Anasazi used solar and lunar cycles to locate pueblos in and around the Canyon.

I highly recommend reading the research papers featured on the Solstice Project's web page, but returning to Mason's essay, he uses Chaco Canyon as an example of how meaning is subjective and may create problems with significance. Originally made a historical monument because of the historical ruins - particularly Pueblo Bonito - and scientific research into the Anasazi, the place has become a sacred place for descendents of the builders and a hot spot for New Age worshippers drawn to the locations supposedly powerful aura (Needless to say I have yet to travel to Chaco but plan to sometime in the next year or two, if anything to experience the place and to draw my own conclusions). Chaco is unique in that these three meanings are in favor of preserving the site, but other places definitely won't be so lucky, as values of preservation need to be weighed against economics, politics, and other interests.

An additional piece of information not present in the essay is the atypical preservation of Chaco Canyon. Since scientific digs were harming the ruins it was decided that the site would be left as is, in effect allowing time and nature to have its effect upon the structures. Given that the Anasazi built the structure as if they grew from the ground, I find this fitting, regardless of the fact that stone was brought from miles away.

In 1988, Chaco Canyon became one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites, one of only twenty sites in the United States. Click here for more information and links.