A Visit With Lizard Man, The Spirit of Pueblo Bonito
When I arrived at Chaco Canyon in May 2011, it had been two years since my previous visit. That two-year hiatus represented one five-hundredth of the time since the crash of Chaco’s Pre-Puebloan culture. From the perspective of Chaco Canyon history, my time away was insignificant.
Arriving at the park after nightfall, I had searched the visitor’s area for water to fill the tank on my RV. To my chagrin, the old water tap lay capped-off and hidden behind the temporary park headquarters. After searching for a while, I found the new water tap in a far corner of the parking lot. Whoever placed it there was not thinking about RV service. The only way to use the faucet was to fill containers and then transport them by hand. The new manual system encouraged conservation, but mainly through inconvenience.
After investigating Gallo Campground, I visited a large yurt that serves as the temporary visitor’s center. Across the parking lot, the old center had disappeared, almost without a trace. Early that morning, I had seen a large cement truck rolling in. Where the old center had stood, construction workers were busy pouring a concrete slab for the new one. Based on the remoteness of the worksite and progress to date, I estimated summer of 2012 for the opening of the new center.
After paying my park entry fee, I purchased the book, “ Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession”, by author and naturalist Craig Childs. Early twentieth century archeological exploitation at Chaco Canyon had left it barren of in-situ artifacts. In the name of twentieth century archeological science, every human-made object found at Chaco Canyon disappeared into private or institutional collections. Today, many of those treasures linger on dusty shelves at various museums and universities. That void leaves Chaco Canyon as a place with insufficient context. For current visitors, putting the ancient puzzle together from only its architectural ruins can be daunting.
At the northwest end of Chaco Canyon lies Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most elaborate of the park’s great houses. At its zenith, as a gathering place of the ancient world, Pueblo Bonito was still centuries away from European contact. Seeing its similarity to historical Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo Indian dwellings, early Spanish visitors named it as such.
Early European visitors found Chaco Canyon deserted and destroyed by its ancient inhabitants. It was that event, about 1100 CE that we now call the Great Disappearance. Within less than one hundred years, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep and Mesa Verde all fell to disuse and abandonment. Until the ancestral Navajos arrived centuries later, most of the Colorado Plateau remained uninhabited.
Why did the Pre-Puebloan residents of Chaco Canyon build their grandest structure in the shadow of “Threatening Rock”, or tse biyaa anii'ahi (leaning rock gap) in Navajo? Archeologists say that early reinforcement of that fractured sandstone slab indicates ancient knowledge of its peril. Was their choice of location an example of ancient risk-taking behavior, or was something else involved?
Seeking answers to this ancient mystery, we may wish to look at contemporary human behavior. If you visit Pueblo Bonito in the late afternoon, you will find others awaiting sundown from within its walls. With few exceptions, those pilgrims wait in reverent silence. Was ancient Pueblo Bonito also a place of silence? Once twentieth century archeologists began studying and excavating the ruins at Chaco Canyon, automobile traffic became ubiquitous in that area. Accompanying those vehicles were new and louder sonic vibrations, thus ending one thousand years of silence in that place.
In January 1941, Threatening Rock, which stood 97 feet (30 m) high and weighed approximately 30,000 tons crumbled on to the northern section of Pueblo Bonito. As it fell, the once intact slab broke into untold numbers of jagged boulders, both large and small. Like a flood of stone fragments, the rock fall released its energy over a large part of the great house ruin. Since the fallen rock and the building blocks of the great house are similar in color and texture, only their haphazard angles of repose help an observer to differentiate the natural elements from the constructed ones.
Threatening Rock stood both before, during, and for a millennium after habitation at Pueblo Bonito. Why, within forty years of modern rediscovery did the great stone slab crash down upon the ruin? Did the sound of human voices, the vibrations from their machines, or time alone topple and shatter that monolith?
During my recent visit to Pueblo Bonito, I made a clockwise circuit of the ruins, observing in turn, the south, west, north (rock fall area) and finally the east. Although there is much to see and feel within the walls of the great house, I was intent upon finding and visiting with an old friend that day. With any luck, I would find him hiding among the broken boulders of the rock fall. Was he still there, or had he vanished in the two years since my last visit?
As I walked along the path leading to the rock fall, there was no trace of my friend. Then, at a sharp left turn, I saw him under the overhang of a large boulder. He stood in profile, as if part of a natural frieze, sculpted and then released from ageless bondage in stone. Freed from his bondage in stone after one thousand years of silence, I offered my silent words of greeting to Lizard Man, the spirit of Pueblo Bonito. Although his wise countenance stared back at me, he remained silent.
It was not until I edited the photos that accompany this article that I noticed a vertical slab of stone framed in my first photo of Lizard Man. In the gap between boulders, behind where he stands a tall fin of sandstone stands away from the canyon wall. Was Lizard Man nonchalantly asking us to observe more of this scene than just him? Indirectly, was he pointing to the new Threatening Rock?
After taking several photos of my friend, I continued on my circuit of Pueblo Bonito. While taking the longer, temporary path to the parking area, I turned to look back. From there I could see the wavelike pattern of broken stone left by the 1941 rock fall. Turning my gaze to the canyon wall, I realized that I was now on the far side of the rock fin that Lizard Man had pointed out to me. It was indeed a new Threatening Rock, which had sliced away from the canyon wall. Narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, this slab was far smaller than the original Threatening Rock. How much longer that second Pillar of Hercules might stand, I cannot say. Only Lizard Man knows, but he is not talking.