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.


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)

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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.