Anasazi Great Houses of the Chaco Canyon Region

Native American architecture varies greatly from region to region throughout North America, and was influenced by factors such as climate, kind of community, and the natural environment. Whereas some buildings were designed and constructed for specified functions, others, such as Anasazi great houses, were massive multi-purpose structures. Because great houses from Chaco Canyon are so well preserved, it is possible to have a decent understanding of the structure of Anasazi architecture for analysis. A close examination of the innovative Anasazi great house architecture of the Chaco Canyon region reveals its utilitarian value.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwest New Mexico, is full of plateaus and canyons. Though the area may appear unsuitable for habitation, the Anasazi were able to adapt to this environment by building homes using materials found in abundance around the Chaco Canyon region. (Fig. 1) The apartment style of building of great houses, “multistoried communal strongholds”1 , began to appear during the late ninth century, dying down into the twelfth century A.D.2 While wood usually had to be imported from a distance, sandstone was readily available and used primarily in this geometric style of architecture. Although no one knows the exact reasons why, the Anasazi moved to create these large complexes now known as great houses, breaking away from previously more traditional pithouse communities. Perhaps it was safer to commune as a large group, protecting themselves from enemies. Another possibility can be seen through examination of the heating and cooling benefits of the Chaco Canyon great house style of architecture.

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Solar energy and climate were major contributing factors in the building plans of Anasazi architecture. The climate can be harsh in the Four Corners region of the country, with extremely hot days and very cool nights, unbearably hot summers, and frigid winters. In order to protect the inhabitants from their environment, the Anasazi architects incorporated their knowledge of the effect of solar energy on building materials, as well as location of the sun in determining how the structures may most efficiently either absorb or reflect heat. “A southern exposure would have taken advantage of the low, southern winter sun angle, helping keep rooms warm and light during colder seasons.”3 In addition to heating and cooling the community, windows were strategically placed to focus the sun’s rays, during the summer solstice, through the complexity of the architecture of these great houses.4 The summer solstice was not the only time of the year that interesting lighting would project through Anasazi homes; almost all great houses were constructed to face the south/southeast.5 As the sun rose in the winter, each room would warm progressively, and as the sun set, the insulation of the construction helped maintain a livable temperature. Another elemental factor in Chaco Canyon great house architecture was the greater ability to protect against wind and rain, as compared to smaller, less densely populated communities. Keeping most daily functions within one very large building area, work and play of the inhabitants did not have to suffer during inclement weather.

Focusing primarily on utilitarian and geometric form, the Anasazi were able to construct architecture not before seen in the Four Corners region of the United States. The very innovative Anasazi architecture form focused around common needs of the inhabitants, centering around a relatively focused area that would provide most life sustaining functions within some small distance. Figure 2 is a view of the masonry of the rear wall of the great house at Pueblo Bonito, a Chaco Canyon community, as well as circular rooms with benches.6 Without any method of transportation aside from walking, the majority of daily functions must take place within a reasonable distance of a permanent settlement. It was important that water, food, and shelter all were readily available in a somewhat condensed area. Though at times it was necessary to use irrigation techniques while farming, the Anasazi people were able to cultivate plenty of corn, beans, and squash, which could be stored in grain rooms to provide sustenance throughout the year. A source of water seems to have been one of the most important points in Anasazi building concepts. Though much of Anasazi great house architecture was built near a spring or other water source, most inhabitants of the Chaco Canyon region innovatively constructed dams and reservoirs to maintain the level of water they would need, to the best of their ability.7 This kind of water tapping was of great importance to the Anasazi people, as the environment of northwest New Mexico is extremely arid, leaving much of the naturally available water sources with very limited amounts.

Anasazi architecture of the Chaco Canyon region proves to be a very innovative form utilizing the surrounding environment to maintain a relatively permanent settlement for its inhabitants. These early architects incorporated very sound building techniques and mainly local materials to create the massive structures known as great houses. Though the structures were heavily labor intense during construction, the maintenance factor was very low, due to the durability of the materials. In Chaco Canyon structures, the use of sandstone was prevalent as a major building material because of its ease of use. “The soft sandstone is easily worked, and both soft blocks and hard tabular pieces are easily stacked, facilitating construction and stability of tall, multistoried walls.”8 Sandstone can form a banded, layered appearance, but it is not purely aesthetic, however. The layering effect of the sandstone and mortar material is a structural stronghold as well. The method of leaving almost no mortar exposed is extremely long-lasting.9 According to Ruth Van Dyke, later structures that used less mortar and more brick on brick style, were stronger because the increased stone-on-stone contact resulted in stronger walls.10 The platform building process of the Anasazi included building a series of parallel long walls on top of a rubble and mortar foundation, followed by cross walls, and roofs of either juniper, pinyon, cottonwood, or pine. (Fig. 3) Douglas fir and ponderosa pine were preferred because of their very long, straight formation, however, pinyon pine and juniper were more resistant to
deterioration, and therefore could be used for the shorter beams needed in some aspects of the construction.11 These roofs formed the foundation of the floor for the level above.12 To reach such heights, the builders incorporated post-and-beam methods, acting as a major support, complimenting the use of load-beaming walls, which are for support and to divide space.13 The complex and massive apartment like structure at Pueblo Bonito contains more than 650 rooms, enabled by the innovative architectural techniques of the Chaco Canyon inhabitants. (Fig. 4)
Anasazi great houses of the Chaco Canyon region served multiple purposes within one monumental structure. Areas were designated for a certain purpose, in an effort to structuralize space use. With the plaza and rooftops serving as major work spaces, rooms could be freed for living and storage environments. There are cases, however, where work spaces are in fact indoors.14 This factor is functional in that in times of extreme weather conditions, work need not be delayed, or lives risked, when there are open indoor spaces with plenty of room for whatever may need to be done. Rooms with wide platforms were either used for sleeping or storage, but not all of these rooms contained fire pits. This could be because fire pits were generally placed “in rooms with direct access to the outside.”15 As rooms were built not only upward, deep, there may be windows in a room, but no door directly leading out. Rooms were constructed for worship, play, art activities, craft works, and sleeping, as well as rest areas for when workers may wish to relax from their hard day. Terrace farming was also common. With farming performed in the great house building, the community is localized nearly in its’ entirety with a structured environment.

During the years between 900 and 1200 A.D., Chaco Canyon Anasazi great house architecture flourished, producing the astounding constructions, some of which still stand proudly in northwest New Mexico. The inhabitants lived in a communal setting, performing most daily functions within one large building, sheltering work, play, ritual, and sleeping spaces, in addition to plenty of storage facilities. Awe inspiring as they are, these great houses served primarily utilitarian purposes, and were constructed as such, with mostly local materials.

Works Cited
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Burley, Jon Bryan. “Anasazi Site Planning: Historic Precedents, Modern Contructs, and Multi-Cultural Dynamics.” Michigan State University, College of Social Sciences Home Page, Sept. 1995. Online. Available from: http://www.ssc.msu.edu/laej/historypapers/Burley3/Burley3text.html. Internet. Accessed 5 february 2001.


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Royo, A.R. “The Anasazi.” Desert USA home Page, 1996-2001. Online. Available from: http://www.desertusa.com/indl/du_peo_ana.html. Internet. Accessed 5 February 2001.


Scarborough, Vernon. “Site Structure of a Village of the Late Pithouse-Early Pueblo Period in New Mexico.” Journal of Field Archaeology (Winter 1989) 405-25.


Schreiber, Stephen D. “Engineering Feats of the Anasazi: Buildings, Roads, and Dams.” In Anasazi Architecture and American Design, ed. Baker H. Morrow and V.B. Price, 77-87. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.


Stuart, David E. and Susan Moczygemba-McKinsey. Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.


Van Dyke, Ruth M. “The Chaco Connection: Evaluating Bonito-Style Architecture in Outlier Communities.” Journal of Anthropological Architecture (December 1999) 471-506.

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