Commitments carry certain burdens.
Lee Silliman’s dedication to large-format black-and-white photography has left him bearing a 40-pound pack in the New Mexico sun, with the help of some similarly load-bearing friends and relatives.
The result of the Missoula resident’s two extended excursions into Chaco Culture National Historical Park are on the walls of the Dark Room’s gallery, 135 N. Higgins Ave., through April 2.
His photographic essay, “Chaco: Where the Wind Now Whirls,” depicts the vast Native American ruins in high-contrast prints of the kind favored by one of his idols, Ansel Adams.
“I call it the Machu Picchu of North America. A lot of people haven’t heard of Chaco, and to me this is our equivalent,” Silliman said while explaining the history of the site with the calm demeanor of a retired teacher. (Physics, chemistry and mathematics for 43 years, mostly in Deer Lodge.)
The Pueblo peoples founded Chaco around 800 A.D. and flourished progressively until they abandoned it between 1100 and 1200 A.D., for reasons still unknown.
Besides being an irresistible site for a photographer, it’s a compliment to the engineering skills of the Chacoans, he said.
“These ruins are quite extensive with hundreds of rooms, that’s why they call them ‘Great Houses,’ anywhere from two, three or four stories high,” Silliman said.
To undertake the construction, they must have had the social organization and irrigation agriculture to feed the workers building the multistory structures from cut rock, mud and plaster, he said.
The multiple stories required beams, but sturdy trees weren’t readily available in their arid environment. Without the benefit of wheeled vehicles or horses, they transported more than 200,000 logs from the nearest forest, 50 miles away.
One of Silliman’s favorite photos is “Thunder Gods Over Chetro Ketl,” in which a giant storm in crisp white looks as if its barreling toward a ruin. He was determined to get the shot as the clouds were moving in, but couldn’t rush his composition. Triggering the shutter costs $5 in materials, so he tried to stay meticulous in his framing.
Another photograph depicts a series of stairs cut into the side of a steep gulch. The steps were part of a roadway, another aspect of the ruins that confounds researchers.
“The Chacoan Indians built roadways and they were up to 30 feet wide. They had no real vehicles,” Silliman said. “By rights you’d think a footpath would do them. So a great mystery to the archaeologists is why they built roads so wide, and quite often they went straight for many miles over hills and down gulches without deviating as you would a modern road to take advantage of topography.”
One of the defining features of the Chaco ruins are the kivas, wide circular rooms cut into the ground that served as a community center for religious, ceremonial or social purposes.
Pueblo Bonita, meanwhile, had 700 rooms, small by today’s standards.
“There was very little evidence that people actually lived in it. They think it was a ceremonial construction, like a temple. There’s little ash, leftover food or implements of everyday living,” he said.
“It’s a place full of enigma,” he said. “How and why did they do this?”