The Chaco Research Archive is a collaborative effort to create an online archive and analytical database that integrates much of the widely dispersed archaeological data collected from Chaco Canyon from the late 1890s through the first half of the 20th century.
Today the ruins of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park hold great meaning and importance to many Native American groups of the Southwest as ancestral sites. Though it has long been recognized as a sacred place by indigenous peoples, its importance was later discovered by Anglo explorers. Having stood the test of time, the ruins of Chaco Canyon entered the broader public consciousness in the late nineteenth century as a vivid symbol of the cultural resources of the United States.
History of Exploration and Research
Since the founding of the Chaco Canyon National Monument in 1907, Chaco has been at the forefront of the historic preservation movement. Due to the early research efforts of Richard Wetherill, George Pepper, and Edgar Hewett, the monument was created in conjunction with the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906 (the first piece of legislation designed to protect cultural resources). In 1987, Chaco Canyon was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site signaling its importance as a valued part of international cultural patrimony. Today, Chaco era ruins continue to be a focus of preservation efforts both domestically and abroad.
Early excavations of the 1890s and 1920s in Chaco Canyon centered on discovering the genesis and evolution of the prehistoric “Anasazi” inhabitants. These early research efforts, conducted by the American Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society, and the Smithsonian, placed Chaco at the center of the evolving discipline of archaeological science. Today, the Chacoan Phenomenon (Irwin-Williams 1978) continues to be a touchstone in debates about prehistoric culture change within the discipline of archaeology.
In June of 2002, a group of southwestern archaeologists met to examine the potential for creating an on-line Chaco research archive to significantly enhance our ability to answer key research questions by improving access to the full record of surveys and excavations. Such an archive was envisioned as a “virtual” collection of the scattered Chaco information to be integrated in a manner such that scholars could more easily assemble the types of data most relevant to a variety of important research issues. Thus, the Chaco Digital Initiative took shape.
Through generous funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the mission of chacoarchive.org is to ensure that the early archaeological research records are preserved for and accessible to future generations. Over the last 7 years, the Chaco Digital Initiative team tackled this monumental task in phases. First, we designed an inventory database to track where relevant information sources were located (institutions, collections, boxes, folders, etc.). Next we visited each institution and combed through all the major collections identifying, entering, and acquiring those information sources. Once those materials were digitized, we indexed them for data processing to track which accessions pertained to which rooms at which sites. With the information sources in hand, we needed to design an analytical database that would allow us to enter and extract relevant pieces of data (features, burials, levels, tree-ring dates, etc.). After another year of additional design work, the CDI/IATH team had a database flexible enough to capture information from the diverse excavations that generated those data. With the database created, so began the arduous task of processing the data room by room. To date, the Chaco Research Archive team has processed over 15,000 images, created an architectural stabilization database of another 10,000 images, entered over 40,000 specimens, and processed nearly 500 rooms from three different sites.
We hope by making these legacy data available to a wider body of scholars that this resource will facilitate our ability to answer new questions as research evolves and promote understanding of the full complexity of Chacoan society.