The Bluff Great House

On the Periphery of the Chaco World

By: Christine Ward

Originally Published in 2003

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Towering red sandstone cliffs provide a dramatic backdrop to archaeological research at the Bluff Great House in southeastern Utah. The rubble mound that was once a massively constructed, multistoried building is visible from the valley below, as it must have been in ancient times. The Bluff Great House is just one of some 200 Chacoan community great houses scattered across the northern Southwest, but recent investigations at Bluff have lead to a new understanding of these sites and their users’ relationships with Chaco Canyon, located far to the southeast in New Mexico.

Great houses are just one kind of archaeological site attrib­uted to ancestors of the Puebloan peoples who reside in the southwestern United States. Dating primarily to the period from A.D. 900-1150 (the Chaco era), recent research, including that at Bluff, has shown that great houses continued to be used and built during the post-Chaco era. Great houses were first iden­tified in Chaco Canyon, so much of the research that has been conducted at Chacoan community great houses elsewhere in the northern Southwest can best be understood by turning first to the developments there.

Chaco Canyon and the Chacoan

Chaco Canyon was a spectacular place. During the Chaco era, Ancestral Puebloan constructed more than a dozen elaborate great houses that contrasted sharply with the average residen­tial hamlet (also called a unit pueblo). Both types of buildings are located in Chaco Canyon. Unit pueblos consist of a small arc of 10-20 living and storage rooms; one or two subterranean round rooms, or kivas; and trash middens nearby. These small sites were apparently used as residences for the vast majority of people living in Chaco Canyon.

Great houses, by contrast, are massively constructed, with floor plans easily 20 to 30 times the size of unit pueblos. Pueblo Bonito, the largest, had 750 rooms. Great houses in Chaco Can­yon were elaborately constructed and almost certainly served as an important focal point for ritual activities. As evidence of Chaco’s fole as a regional center, material goods poured into the Canyon from near and far. Mundane goods, such as pots and material for making stone tools, were brought in from areas elsewhere in the northern Southwest. Exotic items, such as macaws (parrots), copper bells, and turquoise were imported from tropical Mesoamerica, West Mexico, and mines near Santa Fe, respectively. The most rare and unusual of these goods have been found at great houses rather than at unit pueblos, sup­porting an argument that great houses were special places. Prehistoric roads radiating from Chaco Canyon in all direc­tions confirm Chaco’s role as the center of a much larger world.

Starting early in the 20th century, and accelerating with the research of the National Park Service’s Chaco Project in the 1970s, archaeologists recognized that great houses in Chaco Canyon were part of a bigger pattern extending across the northern Southwest. Some of the Chacoan roads lead out of the Canyon and straight toward other great houses. In fact, scores of other great houses have been found in this region. These sites, termed “outliers” or Chacoan community great houses, are presumed centers for their own residential commu­nities. They have been identified on the basis of a number of distinct characteristics — characteristics shared with great hous­es in Chaco Canyon but built at significantly smaller scales.

Research at these Chacoan community great houses has grown substantially. Many scholars feel that we will best under­stand Chaco Canyon by looking at it from the outside, explor­ing variations in great houses across space and through time. The University of Colorado investigations at the Bluff Great House in southeastern Utah play an active role in this new research.

The Bluff Great House Project, under the direction of Drs. Catherine Cameron and Stephen Lesson of the University of Colorado, has been underway since 1995.1 have been asso­ciated with the project since 1998. The original research design was aimed at understanding the Bluff Great House in three cul­tural contexts. First, we wanted to understand the relationship between great houses outside and those inside Chaco Canyon during the Chaco era (A.D. 900-1150). Second, we wanted to determine the relationship of Bluff with the larger Northern San Juan region of the northern Southwest; and, finally its rela­tionship with residential, or habitation, sites in its immediate vicinity. A more recent research design calls for us to pay greater attention to the post-Chaco era use of the Bluff Great House, and to expand our research to include another site nearby, the Comb Wash Great House, for comparison.

Bluff was almost certainly an important center for its local community, but our research so far suggests that it was not a political outpost of Chaco Canyon. More likely, the people at Bluff were attempting in some way to become a part of, or to emulate, the religious and social system that they had heard about or even seen far away in Chaco Canyon. When the cen­ter at Chaco collapsed in A.D. 1150, however, people did not stop using the Bluff Great House. A post-Chacoan occupation has been identified at the site, and recent research — at both Bluff and Comb Wash — is directed at understanding the new uses of the old Chacoan structure. Our research at Bluff is excit­ing, and this research project has already informed our under­standing of the Chaco and post-Chaco eras in the northern Southwest.

What is a Chacoan Great House?

“Great house” implies a single structure, but the term also refers to the complex of features found together. These include the great house, one or more great kivas, road segments, and berms, or earthen mounds. Each of these features is discussed in turn below.

Great houses and residential unit pueblos exist side by side in Chaco Canyon and at outly­ing great houses like Bluff. Great houses themselves were probably only home to a few families — but very special fam­ilies — and more likely were centers for ceremonial and other community-wide activi­ties. Great houses are massive masonry constructions with blocks of rectangular and round rooms. In cross-section, the walls are very thick, employ­ing a construction method called core-and-veneer, where stones are placed to form two faces, or veneers, and the space between is filled with a rubble core. Although these thick walls support multiple stories, they are often far thicker than neces­sary. Such “overbuilding” — more effort than needed simply to keep the building upright — is characteristic of Chacoan con­struction. Great Houses were clearly labors of love — like the cathedrals of Europe — and not simply functional municipal buildings.

Chacoan great houses have extra large rectangular rooms. Additionally, round rooms (“Kivas”) are blocked in, or built into square rooms, throughout the structure. The function of round rooms has been long debated in southwestern archaeol­ogy, with some seeing them as ceremonial chambers and oth­ers seeing them simply as another form of living room. The round room form comes from the ancient below-ground pit structure, which was the primary residence for Pueblo people prior to about A.D. 700. The round, subterranean form contin­ued in unit pueblos, where pit structures or kivas were located in front of the pueblo itself; Chacoan blocked-in kivas are thought to be a continuation of this historical tradition.

Great kivas, or extremely large subterranean structures, are found in plazas fronting many of the great houses and in isolat­ed areas between communities. There is no doubt these were ceremonial chambers. Great kivas come with a very specific set of features, including wall niches (often containing offerings), foot drums, a raised fireplace, and antechambers, many having distinct ceremonial connotations. Plazas front the great house and are often at least partly enclosed by short walls. At Pueblo Alto, which lies on the mesa top above Chaco Canyon, archae­ologists found a well-defined prepared plaza surface. It had postholes, storage pits, and earth ovens. Plazas likely provided community space for food preparation as well as cooking, danc­ing, and other group activities.

Prehistoric roads are a key element of the Chacoan land­scape. Chacoan roads are wide and linear, generally heading straight across the landscape, regardless of topography. They have been found linking great houses in the Canyon, and lead­ing out of and into the Canyon in all directions. Scholars have debated their Function, with ideas ranging from trade or military routes, to symbolic ways of tying the surrounding landscape and other great houses to Chaco Canyon. Some roads run for long distances, while others are simply short segments associated with a Chacoan great house community

Large earthen mounds are associated with some of the Chaco Canyon great houses. At Pueblo Bonito, there are two large, formally constructed mounds of trash that stood nearly 6 meters high. Pueblo Alto’s 4 m high mound contained trash deposits unlike those found in domestic trash seen at residen­tial unit pueblos. Instead, the layers within the mound seem to have been deposited periodically — during gatherings of large numbers of people. Some Chaco scholars argue that deposition of trash and the creation of large mounds were part of sacred activities for which Chaco was almost certainly renowned.

The Bluff Great House

The Bluff site has all of the characteristics of a Chacoan great house — a large, multi-storied masonry great house, a great kiva, a “berm” (the outlier version of Chaco trash mounds), and prehistoric roads. Like many outlying great houses, it has a prominent location, perched where it would have towered over the surrounding community. It looks south over fertile farm­land and the San Juan River.

We have investigated all of the major features at the Bluff Great House. The great house was constructed in at least two, or possibly three, different episodes. It was multi-storied, though many walls supporting it were narrow. In the central section we found core-and-veneer walls, but their similarity to Chaco wide walls diverges through the use of poor-quality local sandstone. The great house probably had between 20 and 40 rooms; only a few have been fully defined. Four blocked-in kivas run along the front of the great house.

Formal, constructed mounds, like those fronting Pueblo Bon­ito, have not been found outside Chaco Canyon. Smaller earth­en berms however, have frequently been found that partly enclose the great house. Berms were likely not defensive, but instead may have defined boundaries, such as “in” from “oust”, or “us” from “theme”. The Bluff berm was probably never very high and is now visible only as small hillocks that hardly could have created a physical barrier to entry. None of these berms outside Chaco Canyon are very tall. They could have created symbolic barriers to those who sought entry to the great house precinct.

The great kiva is small in diameter by most southwestern standards (around 14 m across) but was dug deep into the ter­race surface. It is surrounded — at least in the four cardinal directions by a series of rooms, or antechambers. The inner chamber of the great kiva has been partly exposed; the wall of the inner chamber was constructed of crudely worked sand­stone blocks, very unlike the orderly Chaco Canyon masonry. We also exposed a small section of the top of the bench, which consisted of an adobe surface with cobbles randomly inset. We did not reach the floor, but expect it to be about half a meter or so below the bench.

In 1997, CU graduate student Pete Jalbert conducted an ar­chaeological survey around Bluff and found a community of nine contemporary sites in the vicinity of the Great House. Few of these smaller sites have escaped the ravages of modern and historic land use or flooding of the river, thus making further investigation of the community difficult. In other areas across the Chacoan world, however, communities ranging from just a few to a dozen or more unit pueblos surround great houses. Clearly, great houses functioned as important community cen­ters.

As a community center, the Bluff Great House provided pub­lic, and probably ceremonial, space for the resident population around it. A plaza may have been located in front of the great house, within an area bounded by berm segments. At Bluff, a plaza surface has yet to be defined, and it may have been destroyed by the near constant winds that scour the sandy ground surface.

Several prehistoric roads can be seen at Bluff that pass through seemingly intentional gaps in the berm. One road points to the southeast, in the direction of Chaco Canyon. Another leads to the north, then northwest, across a mesa, where it continues toward Comb Ridge, an intimidating mon­ocline. Comb Ridge poses a problem in the present for wander­ers and hikers alike, and undoubtedly did in the past as well. The road, however, leads to a place where the crossing has been eased by steps, pecked into the soft, but steep sandstone.

Recently, University of Colorado graduate student Jonathan Till and archaeologist Winston Hurst investigated the inter­woven nature of these roads, not only in association with southeastern Utah great houses, but also in the role they played historically in the lives of residents of the region. Rock art and other cultural landscape features would have guided people walking on the roads as they approached natural topographic obstacles, such as Comb Ridge.

Recent Investigations of a Post-Chaco World

Many Chacoan community great houses continued in use after the remarkable center at Chaco Canyon fell around A.D. 1150. Some were remodeled, but some entirely new great houses were also constructed after the center at Chaco had fallen into disuse. Some scholars argue that there was a revitalization of the Chacoan idea, while others argue that there was an attempt by Chacoans to continue as leaders of the Chacoan World from a new “capital” at Aztec Ruins, located to the north of Chaco Canyon.

The Bluff Great House, it seems, was initially constructed and used in the Chaco era, but also was used and reconstruct­ed during the post-Chaco era. Parts of the great house were remodeled; segments of the berm may have been entirely built; and the north antechamber of the great kiva was partitioned. Future investigations will continue these explorations into the post-Chaco use and remodeling of the Bluff Great House. Further, the continued University of Colorado investigations at Bluff Great House, and our new research at Comb Wash Great House, will persist in exploring this post-Chacoan occupation in southeast Utah.

Located about 25 km northwest of Bluff, the Comb Wash Great House appears to have been built during the post-Chaco era, but within an existing community. Residential sites sur­rounding it were used during both the Chaco and post-Chaco eras. Prior to the building of the Comb Wash Great House, the community may have been associated with a Chaco-era great house nearby. The recent addition of Comb Wash to the research design allows us to look at the relationship between a great house and its community during the post-Chaco era. Com­paring Comb Wash with the Bluff Great House, we are able to examine how these relationships changed over time. There are several great kivas in the Comb Wash community area and a net­work of roads that run to the north and south along the base of Comb Ridge.

At Bluff, Comb Wash, and across the Chacoan world, great houses, great kivas, berms, roads, and other features formed an intricate           ritual landscape. Research at Bluff has shown that, as an “outlier” the Bluff Great House was probably not built by Chacoans trying to establish a frontier outpost, but more likely by local populations trying to emulate what they saw or heard about far away in Chaco Canyon. When that impressive center at Chaco collapsed, the memories and ritual landscape endured. New great houses, like that at Comb Wash, were built, and old  ones, like Bluff, were remodeled. Both continued to be used well after the Chaco era, and ongoing research at both these sites will continue to inquire into the rela­tionships that were initially devel­oped during the Chaco era but far outlived the actual use of Chaco Canyon as a center.

Christine G. Ward is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her dissertation pro­ject is art intensive study of chipped stone artifacts from Chacoan great house communities in the northern South­west, focusing in particular on the Bluff Great House, where she has worked since 1998. She is also interested in architectural analyses, landscape and the non-built environment, social memory, development of complex societies, and public education. Prior to returning to graduate school, she worked for the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas Depart­ment of Transportation, among other places in the public and pri­vate sectors.


The Bluff Great House Project was co-directed by Catherine M. Cameron and Stephen H. Lekson of the University of Colo­rado’s Department of Anthropology. It was cosponsored by the University of Colorado; Southwest Heritage Foundation, and Abajo Archaeology. Funding was provided by the South­west Heritage Foundation; National Geographic Society; National Park Service Center for Preservation, Technologic, and Training; University of Colorado; Utah Division of Parks and Recreation; and Edge of the Cedars Museum. This project is also being funded, in part, by a matching grant from the Division of State History/Utah State Historical Society. Thanks are also due to the Bureau of Land Management for funding and other assistance with the Comb Wash Project, and to Mark Bond for his financial contributions to the Bluff Great House Project. Larry Baker, of the New Mexico San Juan County Museum Association, has provided substantial advice on stabi­lization, year after year. Around 85 undergraduate and gradu­ate students have participated in the project between 1995-1998 and 2002-2003. Special thanks go to Bluff area archaeologists Mark Bond, Winston Hurst, and Jonathan Till, without whose assistance and knowledge this project could not have been accomplished.

Many, many thanks to Catherine Cameron for her help with everything. Arthur Joyce, Payson Sheets, Jonathan Till, Devin White, and Sarah Wilson contributed suggestions and com­ments that helped tremendously. Two anonymous reviewers and Dr. Beebe Bahrami made valuable suggestions. All errors, of course, are my own.

Cite This Article

Ward, Christine. "The Bluff Great House." Expedition Magazine 45, no. 3 (November, 2003): -. Accessed July 14, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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