In the 1970s, Southwestern archaeologists were amazed by the discovery of an elaborate 600-mile system of ramrod straight roads connecting various ancient Anasazi sites in and around New Mexico's Chaco Canyon.
But just why the Anasazis built the extensive road system remains a mystery: The Anasazis, an Indian race that built stone dwellings and deep round kivas in the Four Corners area, are believed to have had neither the wheel or beasts of burden.Now the mystery has become even more intriguing.
Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst has discovered indisputable evidence that Utah's Anasazi - a culture believed quite removed from the Chaco culture of New Mexico - also had roads connecting "great kiva" sites near Bluff.
It's a discovery fellow archaeologists say could be one of Utah's most important of the last decade - one that has the potential of shattering long-held beliefs about the Anasazi culture.
"It's exciting, but not unpredicted," said Hurst. He tends to downplay the importance of the discovery by noting, "Researchers in New Mexico fully expected to find roads in southern Utah. As more research is done, the roads at Chaco are extending outward. This just fits in nicely."
For years, archaeologists have been both fascinated and puzzled by the Chaco Canyon road system in New Mexico. Experts have theorized that Chaco Canyon was both a spiritual and sophisticated trade center, serving as a metropolitan center of sorts for New Mexico Anasazi.
Some evidence indicates that one Chaco road may have extended into the Mesa Verde area of Colorado.
Hurst's discovery now suggests that at the same time the Chaco Canyon culture began flourishing by 800 or 900 A.D., the Anasazi throughout the Four Corners area had already developed into a regional culture covering thousands of square miles in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, with Chaco Canyon as the nerve center.
The New Mexico road systems also link the Anasazi with cultures in Mexico, which when taken in context with the Utah road system could explain the presence in Utah ruins of copper bells forged in Chihuahua, Mexico.
"There is a growing perception of the formality of road networks that relate to tremendous, intense trade by the Anasazi," Hurst said. "In the last 10 years, our understanding of the complexity has grown tremendously through work by the Bureau of Land Management and the (U.S.) Park Service in New Mexico."
The growing evidence of a regional road system could set traditional Anasazi archaeology on its ear. (Hurst prefers to call the routes trails, although they are often broad and involved quite a bit of work: cutting, digging, filling and some stone construction.)
Traditional thought divides the Anasazi into four distinct cultures: the Chaco culture of northwestern New Mexico, the Mesa Verde culture in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, the Kayenta culture in northeastern Arizona and the Virgin culture in southwestern Utah.
"I've always felt this whole thing of Chaco Anasazi versus Mesa Verde Anasazi was a red herring," said Hurst. "The differences were time differences rather than cultural differences. There was no real boundary between the two, and the road system is just one evidence of that."
The main Anasazi population shifted over time from region to region. For example, Chaco Canyon seems to have been the center for the period before 1050 A.D., but 100 to 200 years later, Mesa Verde and especially the Montezuma Valley near present-day Cortez, Colo., experienced a population boom. Still, Chaco remained important to the later Anasazi.
Actually, Hurst didn't really discover the Utah Anasazi road system. He's just bringing it into the light of modern scientific scrutiny.
Decades ago, a Paiute Indian named Jim Mike and an early Mormon pioneer named Albert R. Lyman, one of the first to settle Blanding and the last survivor of the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, made note of the apparently ancient roads.
Lyman was not only an explorer but a keen observer. He accurately recorded the presence of sophisticated irrigation systems, dams and ditches, among other things, in the Bluff area. Much of what he saw has since been lost or forgotten.
Hurst, an archaeologist and curator at the state's Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, was recently reading two oral histories by Lyman on file at the museum. Lyman described how Jim Mike had shown him a "long ditch" that looked to Lyman like a road. Later, while herding cattle, Lyman discovered another section farther to the north.
Hurst wondered if the roads Lyman had observed still existed. "But with all the seismic exploration we've had in this area, I figured the roads would be lost in a maze of historic roads," said Hurst. "But I wanted to look anyway and report on it one way or another."
Hurst invited BLM archaeologist John Roney, an expert on Chaco roads, to explore Lyman's discoveries just outside Bluff. While Hurst could not pick out the prehistoric roads, Roney could.
Hurst then rented an airplane and began combing the Cottonwood Canyon area in the early morning light - the time of day researchers in Chaco Canyon had discovered was ideal for spotting ancient road systems.
"There they were larger than life," he said. "If you know what you're looking for you can't miss them. It was incredible. Some of them are larger than two-lane highways."
Surprisingly, the Anasazi did not build roads and foot paths that conformed to the geography. Instead, the Anasazi roads cut straight through gullies, washes and cliffs without thought for an easier route.
Instead of following the meanderings of a canyon or mesa, the roads will run straight for awhile, then adjust and run straight for another section and then adjust again.
"There are some meanderings, but they tend to run as straight as they can," Hurst said. "If you map them out, they definitely follow an alignment."
Hurst found not only the two sections of Anasazi roads mentioned in Lyman's journal, but a third section between the two, a fourth section near a kiva and "a high likelihood of a fifth." All five of the sections are on an alignment with each other.
The size of the Utah road system is intriguing, Hurst said. At Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi roads averaged nine meters (almost 30 feet) across. In Utah, one section is 15 meters across.
Utah's discovered sections cover about 6 miles spread over a 30-mile distance.
Even Lyman realized the road just outside of Bluff was connected to a great kiva near there, but Lyman never realized the two isolated road sections he found could be connected. Nor did he realize the road was on an alignment with two other great kivas further up the canyon, one of them previously unknown to archaeologists until Hurst spotted it during his aerial research.
At Chaco Canyon, scientists have discovered a remarkable connection between the road system and great kivas. Hurst believes Utah's great kiva sites, as well as the "great houses" in Chaco Canyon, massive stone villages mostly built on the canyon floor, are linked by as-yet undiscovered road systems.
"Without a doubt they will link up with roads in Chaco Canyon," Hurst said. "If we could ever sort it out, we would find the roads are ancient trails that became formalized over the years."
Hurst's research will now focus on other drainages in Utah, including Butler Wash and Montezuma Canyon.
Hurst will be looking for more than just roads. In New Mexico, the roads are also associated with rest stops or way stations typified by large circular masonry structures on geographic high points. Such way stations could exist in Utah as well.
He will be making a series of technical descriptions, mapping the sites and looking for other ruins associated with the ancient trails. "And we need to explore the great kiva sites more," Hurst said. "I know we're going to find more roads and associated sites related to them."