Chaco Canyon is focus of UNM professor’s work

Patricia L. Crown was only 3 years old when she first visited New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, but she has some indelible memories of the occasion.

“We were camping – my mom, dad and two (older) sisters,” Crown said. “We went after my birthday, so it was in late October or early November, and my parents were not prepared for how cold it would be. I remember that my mom made us hot chocolate to help warm us up.”

Patricia L. Crown, anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico

So there you have it. Right from the start, Crown’s experience with Chaco Canyon, an array of ancient ruins in northwestern New Mexico, has been flavored with chocolate.

Crown, 67, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, will give a free lecture titled “Chocolate in Chaco and Beyond” at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, on the UNM campus. The presentation, which will be followed by a fundraising reception at UNM’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, delves into Crown’s discovery more than 10 years ago of residues of Mexican cacao in 1,000-year-old pottery at Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses at Chaco Canyon.

When Crown was 3, chocolate at Chaco was a means to keep warm. But chocolate at Chaco a thousand years ago means more.

“Surprisingly, chocolate tells us about exchange, tells us about rituals, etiquette in drinking, even hierarchy,” Crown said.

Burning jars

Cacao came from a region 1,200 miles south of Chaco, so its presence at Chaco a millennium ago, as well as the discovery there of thousand-year-old parrot feathers and skeletons, indicates that the early Pueblo people who lived at Chaco were exchanging goods with their southern neighbors before the Spanish arrived around 1500.

“We don’t know if people went north or people went south or if (trade goods) were passed from village to village,” Crown said. “Chocolate is easy to carry. But birds are extremely difficult to transport. Birds suggest they were brought north by people who knew how to take care of them.”

Patricia L. Crown, University of New Mexico anthropology professor, is pictured at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon in 2013. Crown gives a lecture titled “Chocolate in Chaco and Beyond” Friday, Sept. 27, at UNM. (Courtesy of W.H. Wills)

Crown discovered the chocolate-tinted pottery fragments during excavations from 2004 to 2008 at Chaco. She published her findings in 2009.

She said that because chocolate came from far away, Chaco’s prehistoric residents would have valued it highly.

“It was not an everyday drink,” Crown said. “Some of it was consumed for special occasions or for rituals.”

Crown talked to the Journal during a phone interview from Santa Fe, where she has a residential fellowship at the School for Advanced Research. She is using the fellowship to write a book about the cylindrical jars used at Chaco to consume cacao-based drinks.

“One hundred twelve of (the jars) were found in a single room in Pueblo Bonito,” Crown said. “The vessels were put on a shelf that ran across the room and the room set on fire (about 1100 AD).”

The dramatic nature in which the people at Chaco attempted to destroy the jars demonstrates that they regarded the vessels as objects of great power and significance.

“Archaeological evidence suggests the cylinder jars were owned not by individuals, but by a group that might have been a clan or a religious group of some kind,” Crown said. “The fact that (the group) had the jars and the chocolate and would serve them to other people suggests a hierarchy that had access to chocolate and knowledge about how to prepare and serve it.”

Chaco dreaming

Crown was born in Los Angeles, lived in Manhattan Beach, California, until she was 11 and then moved to Bethesda, Maryland.

Her father was a University of Southern California art professor and a landscape painter. Her mother was a public school teacher and an artist, and her two sisters were also artistically gifted.

Having no such talent herself, Crown took to other things such as searching for artifacts during family vacations in the Southwest. She was drawn to ruins.

Another camping trip to Chaco when she was 15 proved to be pivotal.

“A woman ranger led the tour of Pueblo Bonito,” Crown said. “I don’t know if she was an archaeologist. She might have been a college student, a seasonal employee. But it seemed like the best job in the universe to be in Chaco Canyon and getting paid for it. She gave a great tour. She was a woman working and living in Chaco Canyon, and it seemed like a dream to me.”

Crown earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974 and master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1976 and 1981, respectively. She has been a UNM professor since 1993 and is married to W. H. Wills, an archaeologist who is also a UNM faculty member.

She and her husband have worked extensively at Chaco Canyon through the years. She is living her dream.

“In those years between 2004 and 2008, we would spend eight weeks there during the summer and sometimes six weeks during the fall,” she said. “During the summers, our kids (a daughter and a son) lived there, too, so they got to ride their bikes around the canyon and experience what a wonderful place it is.

“It is stunningly beautiful and just so compelling and interesting. And there are still so many questions about what the lives of the people were like.”

But thanks to Crown, we know they had a thing for chocolate.

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