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The mystery to me is, “Why here?” Casa Rinconado is the largest and most elaborate great kiva built by the Chacoan Culture. The other great kivas comparable to Casa Rinconada are in Great House plazas, but not this one. This Great Kiva was constructed across Chaco Wash; across the canyon valley from the major great houses amongst smaller, poorly constructed villages probably occupied by plebeian workers and farmers. And yet its size, beauty and accommodations were fit for royalty.
It was constructed atop a natural hillside and the imposing architecture of this great kiva dominated the view from the smaller villages and the valley. A segment of Chacoan road connected Casa Rinconada to Pueblo Bonito. So, was it built for the poor villagers or did the ellite cross regally on the grand road across the creek to attend glorious ceremonies?
A line drawn down the north-south axis of Casa Rinconada connects to Pueblo alto on the canyon rim across the valley above Pueblo Bonito. The positioning and placement of buildings within the landscape seems to have been of paramount concern to the Chacoan people. Great house orientations were often aligned to cardinal directions. Researchers believe most aspects of the Chacoan world were part of a planned, designed, and constructed environment that reflected the Chacoan worldview.
This great kiva would have seated 100’s of people. And its circular design gave everyone an intimate view of the proceedings. The dancers and performers entered from the large antechambers attached to the north side of the kiva.
It is easy to imagine the colorfully dressed guests filing in and taking up seats on the benches surrounding the center of the huge room. They would be important representatives of outlier communities who have come to Chaco Canyon to trade their goods and make arrangements to store their surpluses. Chaco Canyon provided a type of cooperative where surpluses could be stored and then retrieved to cover bad times.
The sacred fire would have been flaming and crackling in the square, raised firebox near the entrance. A large, stone shield once stood between the fire and the entrance to shield the incoming crowd.
Four circular pits encased massive timber posts that supported the flat, circular roof. Two to four carefully shaped round stones weighing ½ ton each rested underneath the timbers to keep the roof from settling.
The raised floor vaults, oriented north-south are a typical feature found in the great kivas. They were most likely covered with wooden planks, poles, and willow matting. Beautifully costumed dancers danced on these “foot drums” causing them to echo loudly in the chamber.
Casa Rinconada looking north
Note the lower trench coming out from beneath the northern entryway. The covered passageway enabled dancers and performers to sneak into the room unseen and then pop up in the spiral opening for a dramatic effect. Other dancers and performers entered from the “T-shaped” opening above the passageway from the large antechamber connected to the north side of the kiva.
It was undoubtedly quite a spectacle.
There are a total of thirty four wall niches encircling the great kiva. Twenty-eight of them are uniform in size and evenly divided by the north-south axis of the kiva. Valuable turquoise objects have been found in niches like these and oddly, they were hidden beneath a plaster coating.
The lower six niches (two on the east and four on the west) do not reflect an obvious pattern. However, one of the lower niches appears to be a solstice marker. At sunrise on the summer solstice, sunlight passes through an opening in the eastern portion of the wall and shines on the interior western wall. A small rectangle of sunlight slowly moves downward along the wall until it lights the lower niche and finally reaches the kiva floor.
Although it is not certain that this alignment is a true solstice marker, other astronomical alignments in Chaco have been verified. Knowledge of astronomy was an integral part of the Chacoan world, and is also important in modern Pueblo cultures.
Great kivas are a key element of Chacoan public architecture and are found in nearly every Chacoan community built between A.D. 900 and 1200.
Note: Park Trail Guides were the source for some of the information in this article