White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly

The Big Picture Portfolio, #11

Of all the cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, the White House Ruin of Canyon de Chelly is one of the most iconic. Set deep in a canyon below a soaring overhang of streaked sandstone it inspires you to wonder what life would have been like here when it was built almost 1,000 years ago, during an age when it was a good time to be a pueblo builder.


Where: Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona, U.S.A.

What: Ancient pueblo, composed of both upper (within the cliff) and lower (on the canyon floor) ruins

Depth below canyon rim: ~600 feet

Cultures: Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi), Historic Hopi and Navajo, Navajo

Date construction began: AD 1070s

Wall composition: Core-and-veneer, ashlar masonry; adobe masonry

Size: Approximately 20 rooms (upper) and 60 rooms (lower)



The mystery that hangs about a place like White House concerns less its establishment, and more its “abandonment.”

Several lines of evidence tell us when it was built. The best, and most specific, comes from the wood incorporated during its construction. While the pueblo is built primarily of stone, local wood was used for features such as windowsills and mantels above the doorways.

By analyzing tree rings in wood (the first core taken for such purposes was collected at White House in 1923) an exact range of calendar years that a tree lived can often be pinpointed, and can inform the age estimates of the structure it was subsequently built into (see dendrochronology).

Based on dating wood in this way, White House Pueblo (including its upper and lower sections, probably connected by ladders!) was built in the AD 1070s.

But by who?


Pottery offers clues as to who built and lived in White House. Sherds recovered in association with the pueblo are linked to a succession of related cultures known as ancestral Puebloan.

In the early part of the first millenium, early Puebloan peoples were building larger, community based structures – exactly like this – that included ceremonial spaces like kivas and increasing agricultural capabilities. Archaeologists generally refer to this as the Pueblo II era (not so original, I know).


Excavations at White House suggest that the pueblo was built and then continuously occupied until perhaps to as late as AD 1300. One well-known archaeologist – Alfred Kidder – reported on evidence (an intense burning event and human remains) of what he interpreted to be an “abandonment ritual” within one of the kivas.

Other areas of the pueblo – linked by their design and construction type to Chacoan culture – were also extensively burned. Was the pueblo burned and rebuilt? By who and why? It is not clear.


One thing is for sure. The beauty of Canyon de Chelly doesn’t wear off with time. Although change has visited the canyon more than a time or two, people have never stopped calling it home, or coming for a visit.

Today, Canyon de Chelly is managed by the National Park Service together with the Navajo Nation.

The modern name, White House, is derived from a Navajo appellation – Kiníí’ Na’ígai, “house with white streak across.” The site holds particular importance in Navajo culture, who moved into the American Southwest around AD 1400 and have been there ever since.


An ultramarathon (34 mile trail race) started in the canyon in 2013, which was when I had the chance to visit and photograph the ruins.

Watching the event (I did not compete) was the perfect reminder of how sites like White House Pueblo don’t exist in isolation, they are inseparable from the setting and the times that they occupy – both in the past and present.



The good news is that you don’t need to go back in time to meet people who call Canyon de Chelly home. The Navajo who live in and around the canyon today are well connected to the past in this place, and are ready to share it with people who make the journey.

One of the most famous photographic visitors to Canyon de Chelly is Ansel Adams, who photographed White House Ruins in 1942, and who in turn referenced an image made by Timothy O’Sullivan in 1873.

I’d seen both images, but not recently before hiking into the canyon myself. Looking at them all now, I find it interesting that Adams eliminated the lower ruins by carefully hiding them behind vegetation, although during the 1910s a large portion of the lower structure was lost to erosion – perhaps he viewed them as less intact.

One should be warned that there is a rather sizable fence and signage around the ruin today – good luck hiding those behind vegetation!

To dig deeper into the archaeology of Canyon de Chelly, see this paper by F. Michael O’Hara III and Christian Downum (my undergraduate advisor at Northern Arizona University, go Jacks!)

There’s also a summary here that summarizes the “archaeological” investigations made at Canyon de Chelly since the Spanish first encountered it in the late 18th century, although a great deal of activities listed – as pointed out – are more akin to looting than to any kind of scholarship. When you visit, be sure to enjoy and to leave no trace.


How to See Petra

Luckily most of the planes that fly in and out of Jordan look better than this!


If you’ve always wanted to go, just do it. You won’t be disappointed with a visit to Petra.

Traveling into and around Jordan is easier and smoother than you might expect.

I flew into Amman (AMM) on Royal Jordanian, a oneworld airline that offers a daily direct flight from Chicago’s O’Hare that I booked on AA (at 14 hours or so, it’s a long haul).

Upon arrival, I grabbed a simcard for my phone at the airport I was ready to roll.



Once in country, I attended an archaeological conference (WAC-7) for the better part of a week, basing myself around Madaba and the Dead Sea.

I stayed at the cheap and cheerful Mariam Hotel in Madaba on the advice of a fellow archaeologist who’s worked in the region. Basic, no nonsense, affordable lodgings with a “rooftop” breakfast that is awesome. Think hummus and eggs!

Madaba is a great place to get up and running if you’ve just flown into Jordan. Cheaper than either Amman or the Dead Sea by a fair stretch, it’s a conveniently located (30 minute cab ride from airport) non-descript town that has a colorful history and several sites (the Madaba Map, to start) well worth checking out.

I used the time in Madaba to get my bearings. After that, I rented a car to get myself to Petra. The car seemed a bit worse for the wear but it never broke down. I arranged it through the hotel, where they dropped it off for me (with a near-empty tank). Their name? Reliable Rentals, but of course.

I drove from Madaba to Petra on the Dead Sea highway and back roads via Karak, and afterwards back to Madaba via the Desert Highway. I was stoked for the freedom my wheels afforded and felt safe traveling alone (although I didn’t stop or linger all that much between my destinations, but most certainly would have if only I had more time).


Petra at sunrise


In Petra I stayed at the Petra Moon Hotel, which is one of the closest hotels to the entrance of the World Heritage site itself at just a few minutes walk.

It had a decent breakfast (that I mainly missed as I left too early) and a room that felt downright fancy after the Mariam in Madaba – but somehow less personal too.

Petra itself is huge. It really is a city – you could wander around for days. For a good look, head in there prepared to stick around.

Here are the essentials that I packed in every day:

  • food
  • cameraThere is no end of things to see in Petra
  • guidebook
  • headlamp
  • knife/multitool
  • down vest
  • beanie
  • rain jacket
  • money in small bills (for trinkets, snacks, and last minute donkey rides)


I primarily relied on the map and route descriptions from my guidebook, the Rough Guide to Jordan to get around. This worked great as I was able to survey the options and make plans but also able to look up places as I came upon them to learn a little context.

I wore long pants with a wicking tee, and a long sleeved shirt that I took on and off depending on the conditions. Hot and cold with variable weather means it’s good to be able to cover up but also to keep cool. It’s a desert, with the according highs and lows.



Petra is truly a photographer’s mecca. If you’re a photographer with any weakness for history you will be simply overwhelmed. You should be spending at least a few days here, or more.

One thing I would have loved to have with me is Canon’s 24mm tilt-shift lens. Staring up at all these incredible carved faces of rock means that convergence is everywhere. Being able to take that out in the field would have been fantastic.

Another great mission would be going after epic time-lapses at Petra. Given the desert environment, the light, and the ruins, rich potential definitely exists.

One can obviously shoot a variety of lenses. As I wanted to travel light, my approach was to spend one day shooting a wide angle lens and another shooting a long lens. The first day I toted a tripod, the second I did not. It was interesting to “see” the place differently depending on what I had with me to shoot it.

Take your time. I could happily set up shop there for weeks. I’d be in with the camels!



Here’s an fascinating account of a 19th century photographer’s visit to Petra:


This is what I believe to be the official government site for Petra:


This is a fine account of a 4th of July softball game hosted by Brown archaeologists working at Petra:


Extensive scholarly bibliography on archaeology at Petra from Brown, and much more:



Good luck and safe travels!

Al Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra

The Big Picture Portfolio, #10

The Treasury, Petra

A doorway that effortlessly blends reality with fiction. Deep in the sandstone canyons of Jordan at Petra, monumental carvings are around every corner. Thanks to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this particular one – known as Al Khazneh or The Treasury – is easily the most iconic. But here’s the thing – this magnificant facade is only the tip of the iceberg, and I’m not (just) talking about the Holy Grail.


Where: Petra, Jordan

What:  Temple carved from solid sandstone, in the side of a cliff, at the bottom of a canyon

Height: Over 40 m (130 feet) – roughly a twelve story building

Founders: Nabateans (during the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris)

Date carved: 1st Centuary AD

Purported Function: Funerary (mausoleum/crypt)

Date of “rediscovery”: 1812 (by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt)

Please specify a Flickr ID for this gallery


Legend has it that pirates hid their treasure here, hence the name it’s known by today.  But then again maybe that was just a convenient excuse for an itchy trigger finger (note the bullet marks in the urn up top). Whatever the case, the truth of the matter is that The Treasury has more than a few stories that go along with it.

Part of Al Khazneh’s real treasure is its location.

The near walls in the image above mark the very end of a slot canyon known as the Siq. Audaciously narrow, nervously deep, and suitably long, there is no getting in and out of the Siq – only through it. At one end lies an open desert, and on other the fabled lost city itself. The perfect gateway and a very grand entrance.

As you navigate the final throes of the Siq a sliver of Al Kazneh emerges into view, the masterpiece in worked stone still framed by its parent material. With every step, the visibility of the monument increases and so also its scale in relation to you. Whether alone or in a crowd (both possible) it’s an experience not easily forgotten.

The Treasury was at least partially designed, placed, and protected for the purpose of impressing people. We’ll never know who exactly walked, trotted, or rolled down the Siq and how they felt upon seeing this building in the stone for the first or fiftieth time, but we can be pretty sure they were looking.

Don’t miss it for yourself.


In front of the Treasury you will be confronted with a desire that you may not yet know you harbor – the urge to ride a camel. Panicked, I shunned this urge and distracted myself otherwise. I’m still not sure whether to be: a) proud of resisting; or, b) shameful of squandering such an opportunity.

Locomotion in Petra is actually a fascinating subject. Various beasts of burden (you’re the burden) and their masters make a roaring trade (one can pay handsomely for the honor) out of specialized kinds of movements all around the place.

Horses try to snag you at the very beginning, to take the “Indiana Jones” way into Petra by riding the escarpments to get a first look of the city from above. Camels bask in front the Treasury and cruise the canyon floors and valley bottoms beyond, counting on your innermost dromedarian desires. Mules and donkeys are rather more opportunistic, often popping up in places of topographic difficulty like the climb up to the Monastery – “Helicopter ride to the top, Sir?”

Not opposed to dropping a dinar or two if the time was right, I imagined enjoying a horseback approach one of my mornings, or a camel cruise some late afternoon after a long day of playing pedestrian.

It didn’t work out quite that way and despite traipsing around the desert for kilometers on end I ended up sticking to my own two feet. As I got to know my way around I started to become rather proud of the fact that I’d done it all on my own, inwardly spurning the thought of ever taking out my wallet for the dubious privilege of tottering around on high, a hapless tourist stranded on the back of some ass.

On my last afternoon in Petra I lingered as I had every day, enjoying, watching, and shooting the sunset. I had a sneaky plan in mind to leave the lost city by a different route that night. As everyone else walked one way up and toward the Siq, I walked another. My smugness quickly wore off, however, when an hour later deep pools of water made my more creative canyon route impassable. I was well prepared for it all, but the development definitely meant an extended and indirect walk back to Wadi Musa.

I shouldered my pack, got moving again, and had resigned myself to a very late dinner when I heard the click and clack of hoof on stone. I turned, and the dark outline of a donkey and his master appeared from under the stars before me.

I rode the damn helicopter out.