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.
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.