BLOOMFIELD— One of the great enigmas about Chaco culture is the Great North Road, according to Larry Baker, executive director of Salmon Ruins Museum and Heritage Park.

So in an effort to better understand the road, a team of students from Eastern New Mexico University in Roswell spent two weeks in June working with Salmon Ruins Museum.

The team made some significant discoveries about Arena Alta, one of the sites along the Great North Road.

"One of the rooms at Arena Alta, which is right at the top of the site, is probably a kiva," Baker said.

The university and Salmon Ruins will learn more about the kiva next year when the field school returns to Arena Alta for further studies. While the purpose of the kiva is still uncertain, the archaeologists hope it will shed light on the function and purpose of the Great North Road.

The Great North Road is a 45-mile road to Kutz Canyon, which is a tributary of the San Juan River and enters the river right across from Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield.

Kutz Canyon is extremely dry with few plants and lots of rock formations, but in the summer, it can fill with water. Baker said he has even seen "teeny, tiny little fish" in side the canyon.

Many roads radiate from Chaco Canyon. The roads helped connect Chacoan outlier civilizations, like the present-day Aztec Ruins and Canyon de Chelly, with the cultural center within Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

Salmon Ruins is a Chacoan outlier, meaning it is part of the same culture as Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

"The roads are just a cleared swale," Baker said. A swale is a low tract of land.

Students from Eastern New Mexico University excavate the Arena Alta site near Bloomfield during a field school session in June.
Students from Eastern New Mexico University excavate the Arena Alta site near Bloomfield during a field school session in June. (courtesy of Larry Baker)

While the roads aren't paved, they do go up and over topographic barriers and are mostly straight, Baker said.

Baker speculates that the Great North Road's original purpose and function changed within a generation of it being built about a thousand years ago. He thinks the road may have originally had a cosmographic purpose, meaning it had to do with how the Chacoan culture viewed earth in relation to the universe. However, over time, Baker says the road became an important connection between sites like the Salmon and Aztec ruins to the Chacoan cultural center. Baker said it may have even connected Chimney Rock to Chaco Canyon.

Arena Alta is near the end of the Great North Road, where the road drops into Kutz Canyon. The site is located on a big sand dune and has never been investigated before.

With permission from the landowner, Envirotech CEO Morris Young, Salmon Ruins and Eastern New Mexico University teamed up to begin preliminary research on Arena Alta, such as mapping, during a two-week field session in June.

Young first learned about the road from Bureau of Land Management archaeologists shortly after purchasing the property. The road runs nearly due north.

The road's stairs, which lead down into the Kutz Canyon, were still present when Young bought the property, but, he said, many of them have been removed by "pot hunters," people who collect ancient artifacts.

Young said it's impressive that people who lived about 1,000 years ago were able to build a road that straight.

"You've got to take your hat off and admire people who have got that technology," he said.

Young uses the land as part of his land farm, which takes contaminated soil and spreads it out to expose it to the sun and decontaminate it.

While working the land, Young said he has done everything he can to protect the Great North Road. He had his land surveyed and set aside about 50 acres to protect the road. He also built berms 200 feet from the road to ensure vehicles working on his land don't destroy the site. When the field school came from Eastern New Mexico University, Young even created a parking area for the students.

Young said he allowed the archaeologists to work on his land because it is important to learn about Chacoan culture and to preserve it.

"We're just doing what we think is right," he said.

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.