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Archive for January, 2009

Keyhole-Shaped Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Keyhole-Shaped Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

In my previous posts on books, I’ve generally discussed entire books, even if they consist of chapters on multiple subjects by multiple people, as whole entities.  I will continue to do that for some books, but starting with this post I’m going to be trying something different, discussing a book chapter-by-chapter in a series of posts as I read it.

The book in question is The Prehistoric Pueblo World, edited by Michael Adler.  It’s the result of a conference sponsored by Crow Canyon on the Pueblo III period, which is to say the period immediately after the decline of Chaco Canyon and the Chaco System.  This time period is, I think, pretty important to understanding Chaco and what it meant, both as a contrast to the Chacoan era and as a time when Chacoan ideas seem to have continued to wield some influence at least in some areas.

As Adler explains in his introductory chapter, the book is organized mostly by region, with some more general analytical chapters toward the end.  The main focus is on settlement patterns throughout the Pueblo world in this period, which is marked in most places by a preponderance of very large, aggregated sites.  The period is also notable for the abandonment of huge swathes of territory previously occupied by Pueblo peoples, and Adler notes that there is likely some connection between this abandonment and the contemporaneous tendency toward settlement aggregation.

Adler suggests one possible connection between aggregation and abandonment, namely that aggregation may have led to “increasing volatility” throughout regional social systems, which in turn led to abandonment.  This is a bit vague, but it’s pretty clear what he’s getting at here in general terms: the process of aggregation is a marked shift from earlier settlement patterns, and it surely would have had some effect on the social relationships connected to those earlier patterns.  This shift could have changed the previously dominant social relationships enough to cause groups to abandon large areas.

There’s a certain amount of plausibility to this argument, but I think it’s just as plausible that Adler has it backward.  Perhaps aggregation didn’t lead to “increasing volatility” but rather instability, perhaps spurred on by climatic change (for which there is some evidence in this period), upset previous social relations and forced people to move into aggregated settlements.  The mechanism by which this would most likely have occurred, of course, is warfare, which Adler doesn’t mention at all except in a brief quote by Alfred Kidder noting the defensive nature of the aggregated communities.  This is perhaps a typical example of the reluctance of southwestern archaeologists to seriously address warfare as an important aspect of southwestern prehistory, as argued by Steven LeBlanc, who has a detailed and quite different interpretation of settlement aggregation in his book on prehistoric southwestern warfare.

Be that as it may, Adler rightly notes that both regional and community-level scales are important domains of archaeological research which are addressed throughout the book, in addition to the more traditional focus on the individual site.  In particular, he mentions the importance of regional variation in settlement patterns, with the example of community integrative architecture being particularly important for interpretations of social systems.

Finally, and most importantly, Adler emphasizes the importance of collecting sufficient data to address questions of interest, and the most important contribution of this volume is likely its attempt to collect as much data as possible on site locations and patterning for this period and make it available in published form.  While, as Adler rightly notes, this data was in some ways obsolete by the time the book was published, since new data is being collected all the time, and it is considerably more out-of-date now, more than ten years later, the value of just having this amount of data in one place is still considerable.  Despite whatever quibbles I may have with Adler or the other contributors in their emphasis or interpretations, I am still thankful to them for putting this information together and making it accessible.

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Missing the Forest

Trees on the South Mesa Trail

Trees on the South Mesa Trail

Another book I’ve read recently that isn’t directly related to Chaco is A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya by Linda Schele and David Freidel.  This is something of a classic by now; it was among the first popular works on the Maya to incorporate the results of the recent and considerable changes in Maya studies made possible by the decipherment of the Maya writing system.  It’s a lively, readable book with a very clear agenda: telling the “untold story” of Maya history, as related in the Maya’s own recently deciphered words, to a modern audience for the first time.  As a result, the tone is very pro-Maya, with frequent pauses to reflect at length on the brilliance and creativity of Classic Maya civilization.  This is understandable, of course, given that Schele and Freidel are both archaeologists who played key roles in the revolution in scholarly understanding of the Maya.  They do have a tendency, however, to slow down the pace of the storytelling with these passages, and it might have been preferable to spend more time just telling it and letting the achievements of the Maya speak for themselves.

Another potentially more serious issue with the book is that it is told as history when it’s really archaeology.  That is, although the inscriptions can be read, there is still a considerable amount of uncertainty about both what they say and what they mean.  Schele and Freidel present their interpretations as established facts, but in the copious endnotes they make it clear that there is still a lot of disagreement within the field about a lot of things.  Much of this may have been resolved by now, of course, since the book was published in 1990 and some parts are surely a bit dated, but it may not all  have been resolved in favor of the interpretations Schele and Freidel put forth.

Despite these potential problems, this is still a good book.  The stories it tells are complicated and not always easy to follow, but such is the nature of the events described.  Schele and Freidel definitely succeeded in their aim of presenting the story of the Maya to a broad audience, and the gist of it shines through even if the details are a bit murky or controversial.  Certainly for a nonspecialist like me it was an excellent introduction to a topic I know little about.

It also provided me with some quite useful parallels to Chaco.  This is a lot closer in both time and space to Chaco than the other books I’ve read recently on different subjects, and I think the Maya are a particularly useful place to look for analogies, if we are indeed going to do that, to help explain Chaco.  The main reason is that here we have the only example of an indigenous American civilization which left a written record we can now read.  We can see the Maya world the way the Maya saw it, or at least the way the literate elite among the Maya saw it, and we therefore have a much better understanding of the structure of Maya civilization than we have for almost any other precolumbian culture.

The evolution of scholarly interpretations of the Maya is also eerily relevant to Chacoan studies, since there was a marked shift during the twentieth century from a consensus view of the Maya as peaceful astronomer-priests to a new consensus view, once the inscriptions were deciphered, that sees them as warmongering shaman-kings.  The implications for understandings of Chaco, which over the same period have oscillated and splintered in various ways between the poles of peaceful egalitarianism and violent imperialism.  While it’s extremely unlikely that there will be any breakthrough in Chaco research comparable to the decipherment of the Maya glyphs, the possibility of major shifts in understanding should be borne in mind, and the direction of the shift in this particular case is also noteworthy.

More specifically, there are two parts of A Forest of Kings that I found particularly relevant to Chaco.  The first is an early chapter, about the beginnings of Maya kingship, which focuses on a place called Cerros, in Belize, where a Maya community apparently began to develop into a city-state led by a king and marked by a central complex of integrative ceremonial architecture, including pyramids, but then for some reason abandoned that type of organization and went back to their previous way of life, which was apparently a fairly egalitarian system based on subsistence-level farming and fishing supplemented by considerable trade.  This happened quite early in Maya history, before the widespread adoption of writing and public inscriptions, so the interpretations here are all based on architecture and other traditional archaeological realms of inquiry.  Even more intriguing, this rise and fall of local kingship seems to have happened quite rapidly, perhaps within a hundred years.

The parallels to Chaco here are remarkable.  The Chaco system was impressive, but quite short-lived, with its major period of florescence only being about a hundred years.  It has also been interpreted by many scholars, whom I have termed “Aberrationists” (though I’m now thinking that may not be the best way to categorize Chacoan research), as having a degree of social complexity well beyond that seen in the modern Pueblos.  Some archaeologists, most notably Steve Lekson, have even argued for centralized rule by powerful individuals who could be termed “kings.”  That’s a rather extreme position not accepted by many, but the short duration of the Chaco Phenomenon and the ambiguous evidence for social hierarchy suggests that something like what happened at Cerros could be one way to see Chaco: a tentative move toward centralized, hierarchical leadership, but ultimately unsuccessful.  The reasons for the failure of this experiment, of course, would still be murky, but that would be the case anyway.

The next few chapters after the one on Cerros are the heart of the book, and they go through a series of Classic Maya city-states describing particular episodes in their history, as recorded in their inscriptions.  This is all quite interesting in and of itself, but not particularly relevant to Chaco, which definitely never reached anything like the level of hierarchy and centralization evident at places like Tikal and Palenque.

The last of these chapters, however, talks about the Postclassic era, after the collapse of most of the major city-states in the southern lowlands and the rise of the polities in the Yucatan.  Some of these, such as Uxmal, were fairly orthodox Maya kingdoms, but they ultimately succumbed to the power of a very different type of polity: Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza has long been understood as being quite different from other Maya kingdoms.  It arose later, shows a considerable amount of influence from other parts of Mesoamerica, and has many fewer public inscriptions and much more monumental art.  This was long interpreted as indicating a conquest of an originally Maya kingdom by invaders from central Mexico, considered “Toltecs” since the time period was that generally associated with a “Toltec” hegemony (though this interpretation of central Mexican events has since been questioned, on which much more later).  Schele and Freidel argue persuasively, however, that the Itza rulers of Chichen Itza were quite Maya in most respects, but innovative and cosmopolitan in others.  They consider the adoption of Mexican motifs part of this overall openness to outside ideas, and interpret the lack of inscriptions during the height of the city’s greatness as a deliberate strategy by its Maya leaders rather than the result of a conquest by illiterate Toltecs.  This interpretation is supported by clear archaeological evidence that the “Maya” and “Toltec” portions of the city were largely contemporary.

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

The innovations of the Itza went beyond architecture and art, however, and included, at least in Schele and Freidel’s telling, a shift away from the “divine king” model of governance, in which authority is vested in the individual monarch as intermediary between the city and the gods, toward some sort of rule by a council or committee of lords, the exact nature of which is hard to determine given the dearth of inscriptions.  In this corporate type of leadership, the divine aspects of kingship are more abstract and transcend the individual nature of any particular person.  This apparently allowed the Itza to conquer their rivals in other parts of the peninsula and incorporate them into a stable empire, something the squabbling kingdoms to the south had never been able to do.  Schele and Freidel attribute the long-lasting stability of the Itza hegemony in the Yucatan in contrast to the remarkable collapse of the southern kingdoms to this creativity and innovation, although the details remain a bit murky.

The relevance of this to Chaco lies not only in the lack of inscriptions, which is however interesting, but in the corporate leadership.  This is similar to some of the models proposed by the “Continuationist” side to account for the apparently greater complexity of Chacoan society compared to the modern Pueblos.  (Again, I’m not as enthusiastic about the labels as I was before.)  Rather than kings, which Lekson sees in Chaco, these scholars see corporate groups, perhaps clans or religious societies, holding the strings of power.  The leaders of these groups would be “faceless,” not drawing attention to themselves in the manner of a traditional king or chief, though they may still have had considerable wealth and prestige, as represented in things like grave goods.  The corporate leadership of Chichen Itza, a capital far larger and more elaborate than Chaco ever was, suggests that this sort of organization may be quite plausible for a complex society.  Interestingly, Chichen Itza also seems to be roughly contemporary with Chaco.

These parallels are quite interesting, and I think illuminating, in showing the possibilities for social organization in precolumbian America.  Direct connections between the Maya and Chaco can, however, be safely ruled out, I think.  In addition to the distance, which is a big enough problem on its own, a mere glance at the physical manifestations of the two cultures is enough to make direct influence pretty dubious.  I look at Maya iconography and architecture and it looks very alien.  Both aesthetically, with its exuberant elaboration, and technologically, with its use of huge stone blocks and plaster molding, Maya architecture is worlds away from the spare geometric forms of Pueblo buildings, and the same goes for other aspects of material culture such as pottery.  The parallels are more abstract, and while they may reflect common Mesoamerican themes transmitted to the southwest from the other end of the Mesoamerican culture area, it is more as analogies and examples of possibilites that they are useful for understanding Chaco.

One of the major issues in Chacoan studies for which I think a Maya perspective is enlightening is the recent contentious issue of whether such power and hierarchy as existed in Chaco was “ritual” or “political” in nature.  The “ritual” side tends to be associated with the school of thought I have termed “Continuationist,” which sees Chaco as more of an egalitarian society united by a common religious or ideological system, while the “political” side is associated with the “Aberrationist” school, which sees Chaco as more of an integrated, hierarchical polity.  Lynne Sebastian, in a book chapter I seem to keep coming back to, criticizes this dichotomy specifically and suggests that looking at a wide variety comparable societies around the world may shed more light on these back-and-forth disputes.  Here I follow her advice by seeing what light the Maya example sheds.

Quite a bit, it turns out.  The way Schele and Freidel present it, Maya kingship was hierarchical, political, and ritual all at once, and voluntarily accepted by the populace to boot.  The king was unquestionably the supreme political (and military) leader of his city, but the source of his power was his ability to perform rituals in which he summoned the spirits of divine ancestors to harness the power of the Otherworld for his people’s benefit.  Thus, one of the main activities of Maya kings was organizing the construction of monumental structures in which these activities were carried out, including pyramids, ballcourts, and vast plazas for the people to gather in to watch the king’s actions on their behalf.  For the Maya, it seems, there was no meaningful distinction between “ritual” and “political” power.  It was all the same, and it was manifested in the person of the king, who was obligated to wield his awesome power for the benefit of his people or risk the collapse of his kingdom.  The eventual collapse of all the Classic Maya kingdoms indicates that this was a very real possibility if a king was unable to deliver what his people needed.

The implication of this for Chaco should be clear.  Disputes over “ritual” versus “political” power seem a bit silly in this light.  This starts to seem like a false dichotomy and an artifact of our own culture’s tendency to divide aspects of society into separate compartments and deal with them individually, which is not at all a universal characteristic of human societies.  In many, perhaps most, traditional societies (including, crucially, the modern Pueblos), the ritual is the political, and political power often flows directly from ritual authority.  This still doesn’t really address the question of hierarchy, of course, but it does suggest that a strong role for ritual in the Chacoan system is quite compatible with a hierarchical political system, though there are of course many counterexamples showing that this association is by no means necessary.

Thus, comparison to the Maya case reveals that at least one argument about Chaco is not likely to produce much insight.  This has a broader implication as well: in at least some cases, though surely not all, the fact that even after all this research on Chaco we have so few answers suggests that maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.

Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl in the Snow

Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl in the Snow

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Famous Petroglyph Panel High on Cliff Wall

Famous Petroglyph Panel High on Cliff Wall

There are a lot of mysteries about Chaco Canyon and the system of which it seems to have been the center. Even some of the most fundamental questions about the canyon, like how many people lived there, what they were doing there, and why, remain remarkably contentious even after over a century of research. One of the major reasons for this is that, while there are a lot of obvious continuities between Chaco and the other manifestations of Puebloan society both earlier and later, including the modern Pueblos, there are also a lot of differences which make it impossible to interpret Chaco purely from other evidence internal to the culture history of the southwest. Thus, for many questions to be answered comparisons have to be made to other societies in other places and at other times.

Which societies to use as analogues for comparative purposes is a difficult issue, however.  Is it better to use the closest societies either temporally or spatially that show similarities to puzzling Chacoan phenomena, even when the similarities are pretty general and ambiguous?  Or is it better to look far afield, around the world and throughout time, to find situations that seem to most closely match the Chacoan one?  Opinions differ, and so do the resulting comparative studies.

At this point I don’t really have an opinion on the general question of how far afield it is necessary or preferable to go in search of analogues to Chaco.  I suspect that the most illuminating comparisons will ultimately turn out to be those close to Chaco along some dimension, and I think searching the whole list of human societies is bound to result in a lot of false matches that can easily be misleading, but I think with suitable caution certain aspects of better-documented faraway societies can shed some light on particular questions about Chaco.

This post is an attempt to look at Chaco through the lens of two books on very different subjects that I happen to have recently read.  Although not everything that I read is directly relevant to Chaco, I spend so much of my time thinking about Chacoan issues that I have had a tendency to look at everything with those issues somewhere in the back of my mind.  The nature of the unanswered questions about Chaco is such that it’s very easy to find connections to them in all sorts of things, and these may well (but, of course, won’t necessarily) shed some interesting light on them.

The books in question are The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ecology in Ancient Civilizations by Donald Hughes.  (Hey, I said this was going far afield.)  Obviously, the amount of direct relevance to Chaco in either of these books is minimal.  Hughes briefly mentions the modern Pueblos at one point, and McCulloch makes some references to Spain in the New World, but that’s about as close as either gets.  The more general topics they discuss, however, have a great deal of relevance to how we look at Chaco and its world.

Of the two, MacCulloch is the most tangential for my purposes.  His book is a pretty broad overview of the history of the Reformation, without much detail on most specific events within that complicated history.  It’s interesting reading, and remarkably balanced and sympathetic in its portrayal of both the Protestant and Catholic perspectives.  MacCulloch is quite clear that he is consciously choosing to present the Reformation primarily through the lens of intellectual history, which I take to be a reaction to some recent work that has emphasized the political and economic aspects of the rise of Protestantism, especially among social elites in northern Europe.  This emphasis on ideas is very explicit throughout the work, and I think it largely succeeds in showing that, whatever else was going on in these societies at the time, the ideas that formed the heart of Reformation (and Counter-Reformation) thinking were very powerful and mattered a great deal to people.

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

And this is where the relevance to Chaco comes in.  Recently, there has been a notable turn in Chacoan studies from an emphasis on material, economic aspects of the Chaco system, an approach particularly identified with the (now not so) “New Archaeology” exemplified by the Chaco Project in the 1970s and 1980s, to an emphasis on more abstract, ideological aspects, which are generally taken to be “ritual” or “religious” in nature.  Many younger scholars emphasize these aspects of the Chacoan system in their recent work, with some even arguing that the system was primarily ritual or ideological rather than political or economic in nature.  It’s definitely possible to get a bit carried away with this sort of thinking, especially since the actual content of the rituals and ideology in question is largely inaccessible to us today, and Lynne Sebastian has sharply criticized a tendency to simply substitute ritual for political control in models of Chaco, but I think it’s pretty clear that ideology was important in some way to the Chaco system and MacCulloch’s demonstration of the powerful effects of ideas in a complicated social, political and economic transition.  The Reformation is probably not particularly similar to anything about Chaco, of course (though it’s unwise to peremptorily rule out any comparisons), but it has the advantage of being much better documented, at least.  While some recent models of Chacoan society may go too far in the direction of privileging the spiritual over the material, I think they are nonetheless a necessary reaction to previous models that went too far in the other direction.

Tributary Drainage in Chaco Canyon

Tributary Drainage in Chaco Canyon

Speaking of material factors, however, they are still very important, as Hughes points out in his book.  This is one of the earliest works in the field of environmental history, so I’m sure a lot of it has been superseded by more recent work, but it’s still a very useful general overview of how various ancient civilizations interacted with their natural environments.  Hughes goes through a variety of civilizations, mostly in the Near East and Mediterranean Basin, and examines both their attitudes toward nature, when these can be determined, and the effect of their activities on the environment.  While he discusses Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and some other early societies, his focus is primarily on Greece and Rome, and his approach is primarily textual: his data for both the attitudes and the actions comes mainly from the writings of the ancients themselves, and he uses archaeological information sparingly and mostly in regard to societies without writing.

One of the most important conclusions that leaps out of this book is that most of the societies examined had attitudes toward nature that were fairly compatible with a responsible, sustainable relationship with the environment, but that nearly all of them ended up destroying their environment anyway, either because they lacked the scientific and technological knowledge to know how to act best or because they let their values change as they became wealthier and more powerful through exploitation of natural resources.  Overall, the Egyptians comes across best in terms of preserving their environment, though that may have more to do with the inherent richness of that environment than with anything they did with it, and the Romans come across worst, though the Greeks and Mesopotamians don’t look a whole lot better.  The various types of ecological destruction tallied in each chapter make for depressing but important reading, particularly given the clear parallels between the most destructive societies and our own.

Entrenched Arroyo

Entrenched Arroyo

It should be clear, I hope, that this book has a lot of general relevance, but it also has a great deal of specific relevance to thinking about Chaco, and largely for the same reasons.  All those things about Mesopotamian and Roman attitudes of ownership of and dominance over nature are not only eerily similar to our own ideas, but very compatible with the sorts of things we can see the Chacoans doing with and to their environment.  While the Chacoans had no writing and we cannot therefore know exactly what their attitudes were, the things they built were on an immense scale and used up enormous amounts of resources.  Their buildings, roads, and other constructions were also generally designed with a great deal of abstract formality, much of it probably astronomical in nature, rather than with much concern for accommodating their ideas to their surroundings.  (This is, by the way, a considerable contrast with both the ideology and the practices of the modern Pueblos.)  It’s hard to say how much the Chacoans’ activities contributed to the deterioration of their environment, but there’s clear evidence that it did deteriorate and that that deterioration had at least some role in the downfall of the Chaco System.

The study of the past is interesting for its own sake (or so I think, at least), but it is also relevant to the present, though the exact nature of its relevance is not always obvious.  These two books are useful in trying to understand Chaco.  Trying to understand Chaco is one of the main purposes of this blog, but as the subtitle suggests, it’s not the only purpose and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  I firmly believe that Chaco is very relevant to a lot of issues we are facing today in America and throughout the world, but I also think the lessons we need to take are not necessarily obvious and that the first step in trying to find them is to do the best job possible of figuring out what happened at Chaco and why.  Casting a wide net for possible comparisons is one way to both find new ideas and check the plausibility of existing ones, and that’s ultimately the most important reason for posts like this one, of which there will hopefully be many more.

Modern Erosion-Control Measures in Chaco Wash at Pueblo del Arroyo

Modern Erosion-Control Measures in Chaco Wash at Pueblo del Arroyo

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The Big Question

Chaco Wash Flowing

Chaco Wash Flowing

Research on Chaco Canyon has covered an astonishing variety of topics and involved a remarkable number of academic disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology (both physical and sociocultural), dendrochronology, geology, botany, ecology, zoology, chemistry, forestry, geodesy, climatology, geography, architecture, and engineering.  The result of all this research has been an extensive scholarly literature addressing Chaco from a variety of perspectives.  Despite this diversity in backgrounds and approaches of researchers, however, there remains a surprising amount of disagreement about many quite basic aspects of Chaco and the system of which it seems to have been the center.  The factual and interpretive disagreements involve a range of empirical and theoretical questions as diverse as the people arguing over them, but a considerable number of them ultimately reduce to a single question, one that has haunted Chacoan studies for decades, ever since archaeologists first began to realize that certain aspects of Chaco set it apart from other parts of Pueblo cultural history.  The terms in which this question is expressed have varied over the years, as have the names for the positions taken by the disputants, but the fundamental issue has remained the same.  Here I call it the “Big Question.”

The Big Question, as phrased by Lynne Sebastian in her concluding chapter of the Chaco Project synthesis volume is this: “Was Chacoan society marked by institutionalized differences in social, economic and political power?”  Sebastian adds a followup question as well: “If so, what were the basis and structure of those inequalities?”  I will term this “Sebastian’s Question” and add another followup question (“My Question”) to cover the other possible answer: “If not, what societal characteristics account for the remarkable differences between the visible remains of Chacoan society and those of other manifestations of the same cultural tradition?”

As Sebastian points out, this basic dispute has been expressed over the decades through a series of dichotomies: complex/not complex, hierarchical/nonhierarchical, competitive/communal, inegalitarian/egalitarian, political/ritual.  These largely reflect shifts in theoretical emphasis within archaeology as a discipline.  The basic question remains the same, as does the lineup of people arguing each side of it.

The reason for this, as Sebastian also notes, has a lot to do with the related question of where to look to explain Chaco.  The most obvious way to build models of poorly understood ancient societies is to look at better-understood societies, either ancient or modern, and find characteristics that can be analogized to the archaeological record of the society in question.  This is called “ethnographic analogy” in archaeology, and it is one of the main tools used by scholars to come up with theories to explain Chaco.  The most obvious place to look, and the place where the earliest researchers focused almost exclusively, is in modern Pueblo societies, which are populated by the descendants of the Chacoans.  Modern Pueblos are famous in ethnography for their egalitarian nature, and while there have recently been some arguments by anthropologists that there is a considerable amount of hierarchy lurking beneath the egalitarian surface, the fact that so much effort clearly goes into maintaining the appearance of equality shows where the values and priorities of the Pueblos lie.

Pictograph of a Kachina Painted by one of Neil Judd's Zuni Workers

Pictograph of a Kachina Painted by One of Neil Judd's Zuni Workers

Thus, the obvious conclusion to draw from looking at modern Pueblos is that ancient Pueblo societies such as Chaco were egalitarian as well, and this was indeed the conclusion drawn (or, more frequently, assumed) by the early researchers.  In other words, this perspective concludes that the answer to the Big Question is “no”: Chaco may have differed from modern Pueblos in some respects, but its basic organization was fundamentally similar to that of the modern Pueblos in being egalitarian.  This means that the modern Pueblos are, in some sense, continuations of Chaco, and I will therefore call scholars holding this position “Continuationists.”

Over time and with increasing amounts of research it has become apparent that, despite the surprisingly meager amount of clear empirical data available, there are indeed some quite striking differences between what we can see of Chaco and what we see today among the modern Pueblos.  The lavish burials found in Pueblo Bonito, compared to the more modest ones in the small houses across the canyon, are the most obvious example, but there are other indications as well that there was something odd going on in the Chacoan World during the Chacoan Era that distinguishes it from other manifestations of Pueblo society.

The Continuationists are therefore faced with My Question: if Chaco was fundamentally egalitarian in nature, what’s going on with all these apparent inequalities?  Answers vary, and frequently involve the use of analogies to other known societies, but they tend to be based primarily on comparisons to various aspects of the modern Pueblos.  The historical and ethnographic record of the modern Pueblos is very rich and modern Pueblo societies are very diverse, so there’s a lot of material to work with here.  Continuationist theories of Chaco, therefore, can differ from each other quite a bit, though there are generally a lot of broad similarities, and the answers to My Question resulting from these theories vary as well.

West Wing of Pueblo Bonito

West Wing of Pueblo Bonito

Another conclusion to draw from the differences between Chaco and the modern Pueblos is that the answer to the Big Question is “yes”: Chacoan society, unlike modern Pueblo societies, was inegalitarian in some sense.  This makes it something of an aberration from more typical Pueblo societies throughout their long temporal and extensive spatial extent, and I therefore call scholars holding this position “Aberrationists.”

On the face of it, the Aberrationists have a pretty strong case.  There does seem to have been something different going on in Chaco.  Explaining what, exactly, was going on there, however, quickly becomes problematic.  The key issue becomes Sebastian’s Question: if Chaco was inegalitarian, and therefore different from the egalitarian modern Pueblos, what was the basis of that inequality and how did it work?  The empirical evidence is insufficient to answer this question on its own, so Aberrationists are forced to come up with theories and models to explain their postulated inegalitarian Chaco.  One of the main methods available to them in this is ethnographic analogy.

Use of ethnographic analogy to build theories, however, requires deciding which societies to look at in search of parallels, and this is where the Aberrationists run into trouble.  As I mentioned above, the most obvious place to look for analogies to Chaco is in the modern Pueblos, the descendent societies (at least in some sense) of Chaco and other ancient Pueblo societies, and this is the main ethnographic analogy used by Continuationists in building their models.  But wait!  That’s not going to work for the Aberrationists!  Their whole point, remember, is that Chaco is different from the modern Pueblos.  So, while some comparisons to the modern Pueblos are necessary to flesh out certain aspects of Chacoan society, explaining the inegalitarian aspects of Chaco, which the Aberrationists hold to be among the most important, requires looking elsewhere for analogies.

T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

The place to look for analogies to explain an inegalitarian society is naturally in other inegalitarian societies.  But wait!  There are a lot of inegalitarian societies!  And they differ a lot from each other!  Which ones are the best sources of analogies to use in constructing models of Chaco?  The empirical evidence from Chaco offers few useful answers, so Aberrationists are forced to make some choices and decide on which criteria to use to make them.  They end up making different choices, so Aberrationist models of Chaco differ enormously, as do the resulting answers to Sebastian’s Question.

Thus, the Big Question, and the two followup questions resulting from it, results in an enormous variety of theories and models to explain Chaco.  As I sometimes put it to visitors when the topic comes up on tours, models of Chacoan society range from egalitarian to totalitarian.  This is about as wide a spectrum of models as it is possible to get for a single society, and the resulting lack of consensus among Chaco specialists is the main source of the heated debates that, as Sebastian points out, have characterized the field for decades.

Upper-Story Walls at Pueblo Pintado

Upper-Story Walls at Pueblo Pintado

The rather paltry nature of the Chacoan empirical record, despite decades of intensive research, makes ethnographic analogy virtually a necessity for both Continuationist and Aberrationist models of Chaco.  The differences among the models stem largely (though by no means entirely) from the different societies chosen for comparison.  While Continuationists tend to look to documented examples of communal, egalitarian societies that nonetheless manage to construct impressive monuments and engage in other sophisticated large-scale activity, Aberrationists look instead to societies with varying levels of hierarchy along various dimensions and try to determine what aspects of their organizational systems are most directly responsible for whatever impressive achievements they have.  Neolithic Europe, with its huge arrangements of megalithic monuments despite a clear lack of economic (and presumably political) inequality, is a common choice for the Continuationists, while various “chiefdoms” and (to a lesser extent) “states” around the world are more are more popular among Aberrationists; Sebastian, for example, in the book chapter in which she poses the Big Question, goes on to discuss possible analogies to Chaco in sub-Saharan Africa.

New Alto from a Distance

New Alto from a Distance

Given these varied and diverse proposals for analogies to Chaco among better-known societies, one way to rephrase the Big Question in a more concrete and less jargony fashion is: Was Chaco the American Stonehenge?  Or the American Rome?

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

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Back Wall of Chetro Ketl

Back Wall of Chetro Ketl

Chaco Canyon and the Chaco Phenomenon have been studied very intensively for over a hundred years, and the result of much of that research has been to answer a few questions and open up many more.  Interpretations have changed quite radically several times over the years, and at many times, including now, there has been an extraordinary diversity of theories proposed to explain Chaco.

Tri-Wall Structure at Pueblo del Arroyo

Tri-Wall Structure at Pueblo del Arroyo

Wading through all this research is a tall order, especially since much of it is contained in obscure technical reports that are as hard to read as they are to find.  It is possible, however, to classify most of it into a few broad schools of thought correlating roughly to different periods of investigation, sites investigated, and people and institutions doing the investigating.  This post is an attempt to set up a basic classification of research projects and interpretive theories, mostly as a reference point for future posts to link back to, but also as an introduction for the general reader to the many ways people have approached Chaco over the years.  These categories are by no means rigid, and many people appear in more than one, generally at different points in their careers.  Many of them also contain a variety of interpretive perspectives, since not everyone working in the same tradition of research necessarily agrees on everything, and there are many scholars who don’t fit well into any particular category and are therefore not included here.  Despite these caveats, I hope that this can serve as a useful starting point for understanding who the various researchers are and what background they bring to their publications.

With all that said, here’s the list:

Hyde Exploring Expedition

People: George Pepper, Richard Wetherill

Institutional Support: American Museum of Natural History

Dates of Major Research: 1896–1899

Sites Studied: Pueblo Bonito, some undocumented work at other sites

Theories: Not very theoretically oriented; generally saw sites as precursors of modern pueblos and interpreted findings in that light.

National Geographic Expedition

People: Neil Judd, Frank H. H. Roberts Jr., Anna Shepard

Institutional Support: Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic Society

Dates of Major Research: 1921–1927

Sites Studied: Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo del Arroyo, Shabik’eshchee, a few poorly documented small sites

Theories: Saw two distinct populations at Pueblo Bonito: “Old Bonitians” responsible for Type I masonry and “Late Bonitians” responsible for subsequent masonry types.

Field Schools

People: Edgar Hewett, Clyde Kluckhohn, Paul Reiter, R. Gordon Vivian, Florence Hawley Ellis

Institutional Support: University of New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico, School of American Research

Dates of Major Research: 1920, 1929–1947

Sites Studied: Chetro Ketl, Casa Rinconada, Bc sites, Kin Nahasbas, various other poorly documented sites

Theories: Hewett proposed that the great houses were voluntary communal efforts; Kluckhohn proposed that great houses and small houses were built by different cultural groups at the same time.

Gila Branch

People: Harold Gladwin, Deric O’Bryan

Institutional Support: Gila Pueblo

Dates of Major Research: 1934–1949

Sites Studied: Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo del Arroyo, Peñasco Blanco, Hungo Pavi, Shabik’eshchee, Half House, Pueblo Pintado

Theories: Argued that small house sites (“Hosta Butte Phase”) were precursors of great houses (“Bonito Phase”) and that Ellis and Kluckhohn were wrong to conclude that they were contemporaneous.

Park Service Ruins Stabilization Unit

People: R. Gordon Vivian, Paul Reiter, Tom Mathews, R. Gwinn Vivian

Institutional Support: National Park Service

Dates of Major Research: 1937–1965

Sites Studied: Kin Kletso, Pueblo del Arroyo Tri-Wall Structure, Lizard House, Three-C Site, small stabilization projects at several other sites

Theories: Elaborated on Kluckhohn’s theory that separate ethnic groups simultaneously occupied the great houses (“towns”) and small houses (“villages”) in the canyon; introduced roads and water-control systems into interpretations of Chaco.

Mexicanist School

People: Charles DiPeso, Edwin Ferdon, J. Charles Kelley, Jonathan Reyman, Phil Weigand

Institutional Support: Amerind Foundation

Dates of Major Research: 1955–1993

Sites Studied: Little to no fieldwork in Chaco (considerable fieldwork in Mexico)

Theories: Saw the rise of Chaco as the result of direct action by Mesoamerican actors, perhaps to secure a steady supply of turquoise.

Chaco Project

People: Alden Hayes, Bob Lister, Tom Lyons, W. James Judge, Tom Windes, H. Wolcott Toll, F. Joan Mathien, Peter McKenna, Steve Lekson, Bob Powers, Nancy Akins, David Brugge, Marcia Truell, John Schelberg, Chip Wills

Institutional Support: National Park Service, University of New Mexico

Dates of Major Research: 1969–1982

Sites Studied: Pueblo Alto, many small sites

Theories: Considerable variety of interpretations among project participants; ideas include Chaco as center of regional system of outliers, location for occasional feasting events, headquarters of political hegemon.

Solstice Project

People: Anna Sofaer, Rolf Sinclair, Philip Tuwaletstiwa, Volker Zinser, L. E. Doggett

Institutional Support: National Geodetic Survey

Dates of Major Research: 1977–Present

Sites Studied: Fajada Butte Sun Dagger Petroglyph, Pueblo Bonito, other great houses and petroglyphs

Theories: Focuses on alignments of great houses and petroglyph sites to astronomical phenomena; little emphasis on cultural context, although there have been occasional signs of support for Mexicanist diffusionism.

Chaco Protection Sites Program

People: John Stein, Taft Blackhorse Jr., Rich Friedman

Institutional Support: Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department

Dates of Major Research: 1997–Present

Sites Studied: Pueblo Bonito, various outlying sites (especially on Navajo Reservation)

Theories: Extensive use of GIS and other digital techniques to create models of Chacoan sites and investigate spatial relationships around and among them; ethnoarchaeological approach incorporating Navajo traditions with implications for cultural continuity that are rather controversial.

Competitive Decentralist School

People: John Kantner, Ruth Van Dyke, Winston Hurst, Dennis Gilpin, David Wilcox

Institutional Support: SAR, Northern Arizona University

Dates of Major Research: 1993–Present

Sites Studied: Focus on outlying sites

Theories: Sees Chaco Phenomenon as less a centralized system based in the canyon than a cultural tradition linking aspiring elites in various politically autonomous communities; details vary.

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Plaque at Pueblo Bonito Commemorating Neil Judd's Work

Plaque at Pueblo Bonito Commemorating Neil Judd's Work

Pueblo Bonito is the best-known of the sites in Chaco Canyon, and the only one the park currently gives regular tours of. It has the reputation of being the largest as well. These days we generally just describe it as the largest great house in the canyon, but in the past there were many more hyperbolic descriptions. Neil Judd, who excavated about half of it in the 1920s, was particularly known for presenting it as the largest pueblo ever and the biggest building in America until some skyscraper built in New York in the nineteenth century etc. etc.

There are several things wrong with Judd’s view of Pueblo Bonito, which I think has contributed significantly to an overly Bonito-centric view of Chaco as a whole. For one thing, as ably demonstrated by Steve Lekson, Pueblo Bonito is by no means the largest “pueblo” (a problematic term itself) ever built; indeed, many of the later aggregated single-roomblock pueblos are much larger than it, and villages composed of multiple buildings, which is to say most “pueblos” throughout prehistoric and historic times, can be much larger again. Indeed, it’s not clear that Pueblo Bonito is the biggest anything anywhere. At best, it’s the biggest great house in Chaco Canyon, but when we say that we generally have to qualify it by saying “by mass” or something similar, since Chetro Ketl is actually slightly larger in area.

Be that as it may, Pueblo Bonito is certainly big, and it certainly seems to have been important.  There has been much more research on it than on any other great house inside or outside Chaco Canyon, and as a result we know a lot more about it today than we know about most other sites, another reason it may have an outsized influence on interpretations of Chaco as a whole.  Research on Pueblo Bonito has been going on for over one hundred years, and a useful collection of recent thought about it, put together at a conference marking the centennial, is Pueblo Bonito: Center of the Chacoan World, a collection of papers edited by Jill Neitzel of the University of Delaware.  While it’s a little uneven, as collections of papers tend to be, it’s a good way for people who want to go beyond the basic introductory works to get a sense of where current thought on Pueblo Bonito is.

One of the key debates about Chaco these days concerns the amount and type of hierarchy present in Chacoan society, and much of the evidence on which the debate hinges comes from Pueblo Bonito, so it is only natural that a book like this should take on the hierarchy question as one of its main topics.  Neitzel falls very much on the “more hierarchy” side, and while not all of the other contributors quite agree, the structure of the book overall clearly reflects that.  This is not too surprising, since the importance of Pueblo Bonito to the hierarchy debate is primarily in its status as the source for much of the evidence interpreted as showing hierarchy, and people who specialize in studying Bonito tend to therefore be more receptive to hierarchy than those who specialize in other aspects of the Chacoan system.

In addition to hierarchy, the other two topics on which this book focuses are the function and population of Pueblo Bonito.  These are by no means independent of the hierarchy issue, but the evidence used for debates over them is typically different.  It may seem surprising that such basic questions as what Pueblo Bonito was for and how many people lived there would still remain open after over a hundred years of intensive research, but that is in fact the case, and interpretations vary considerably.  As this book demonstrates, different lines of evidence can lead to quite different conclusions about even such seemingly simple issues as these.

Neitzel’s introductory chapter sets out these three themes, along with some basic background about Pueblo Bonito and the history of research on it.  The next nine chapters then discuss various aspects of Pueblo Bonito, studied using various methods, and Neitzel returns in the final chapter to sum up and draw conclusions (shockingly enough, she decides that the evidence presented in the book supports a hierarchical interpretation of Chaco).

Rebar Used to Measure Threatening Rock's Movement Before the Fall

Rebar Used to Measure Threatening Rock's Movement Before the Fall

As I said above, the papers that form the middle chapters are a bit uneven.  Anne Lawrason Marshall’s Chapter 2 on the siting of Pueblo Bonito is interesting, but pretty short and not very detailed.  She notes that while there are some practical aspects of the siting of Bonito, particularly its location on the north side of the canyon where it gets considerable solar radiation, there are also some oddities about it that suggest that symbolic or ceremonial factors were important as well.  The most notable of these oddities is the fact that the great house was built right under a huge rock leaning out menacingly over the canyon, which the Park Service called “Threatening Rock” until it finally fell in 1941 and crushed about thirty rooms of Pueblo Bonito.  Marshall notes that unusual rock formations are considered sacred at some modern pueblos, which suggests that it may have been precisely because of this impressive, dangerous rock, rather than despite it, that Pueblo Bonito was placed where it was.  Seems plausible enough to me.

Roof Beams at Pueblo Bonito Showing Core Samples Taken for Dating

Roof Beams at Pueblo Bonito Showing Core Samples Taken for Dating

Chapter 3, by Tom Windes, is much more detailed.  It’s an account, based largely on very recent tree-ring dating, of the various construction stages of Pueblo Bonito, starting sometime in the mid-800s and continuing at least through 1150 or so.  The data presented here is very valuable just as a reference, though it’s clear even from the other chapters in this book that not all archaeologists agree with all of Windes’s interpretations of that evidence.  His emphasis is largely on the shifts in apparent use of the building through time, rather than on the possible continuities that have been emphasized by some others.  Windes has long been associated with the idea that Chacoan great houses had very few permanent residents, and here he stays true to form by suggesting that “the site’s resident population never exceeded 100 people.”  Overall, however, he is more concerned here with the details of Pueblo Bonito’s construction and occupation history, and he doesn’t make a whole lot of sweeping conclusions based on them.

Rather different from Windes’s approach, and an interesting juxtaposition to it, is Chapter 4, by John Stein, Dabney Ford, and Rich Friedman.  Ford is the head archaeologist at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, while Stein and Friedman have been closely associated for many years with the Navajo Nation’s Chaco Protection Sites project.  Here they are mostly concerned with describing and discussing the creation of an extremely detailed and accurate architectural model, both physical and virtual, of Pueblo Bonito.  They start with an overview of previous reconstructions, particularly artists’ renditions, and they point out the flaws they see in these interpretations when compared to the archaeological evidence and determine to avoid them in their own efforts.

Much of the rest of the article is a serious of images of the final computer models of the various building stages of Pueblo Bonito, with discussion of these stages in the accompanying text.  They are clear about where they have made assumptions and what effect those assumptions have on the resulting model, which is important because pictures can have a persuasive force out of proportion to the accuracy of the data underlying them.  While their reconstructions are mostly in accord with Windes’s interpretations of the various building stages, there are some differences, and these serve to emphasize the importance of the different assumptions used in making these models.

After the discussion of the models comes the discussion of their implications, and it’s here that things start to get a little (but just a little) dubious.  The most dubious of the conclusions here, at least in my opinion, is the decision that Pueblo Bonito was likely designed all at once rather than in stages over the course of centuries.  In their own words, the authors “argue that Pueblo Bonito’s massive building episodes were not designed and implemented on an episode by episode basis by generations of individual architects following their interpretation of established rules.  Rather, [they] propose that Pueblo Bonito may have had a single architect and that succeeding generations needed only to follow the instructions encoded in the tangible foundation alignments, as well as those carried forward by a few individuals as intangible esoteric knowledge.  Perhaps Pueblo Bonito was the vision of one man, made tangible and set in motion in a single lifetime.”

I find this interpretation rather implausible.  As the quote indicates, it rests heavily on the idea that the foundations served at least partially as massive blueprints to guide construction.  I actually don’t have a problem with this idea, which makes sense to me.  Where Stein, Ford, and Friedman lose me, however, is in making the leap from this to the idea that, because the foundations were laid out in advance, they were probably all laid out at once, perhaps by a single man.  While there’s no way to definitively prove or disprove something like this, of course, a look at the actual layout of the building suggests to me at least that if one guy designed a building to look like this he must have been a pretty weird guy.  There are all sorts of oddities in the way rooms relate to each other, most obviously in the dovetailing of the earlier and later versions of the outer curved wall, and while it’s always hazardous to reject an idea about Chaco because it seems to imply a weird way to do things (we have more than enough evidence that the Chacoans did plenty of things we consider weird), in this particular case I think the burden of proof definitely needs to be on those proposing that this complicated building is the result of a single idea.  A look at some of the other great houses, particularly the later ones like Chetro Ketl that are much more regular and could well have been designed at one time, only confirms my impression that something else is going on at Bonito.

The other conclusions in this chapter are less problematic, although they may still be controversial.  The authors reject the idea of Pueblo Bonito as a massive apartment building comparable to modern pueblos such as Taos, and include with this rejection a critique of the concept of “pueblo” as applied to a building like this, and decide that it makes more sense to think of it as a “ceremonial center,” although they caution that that term has some problematic implications as well.  They finish by analogizing Pueblo Bonito first to a machine, then to the beating heart of the “organism” that was Chaco Canyon as a whole.  There’s a certain teleological flavor to these analogies that I find a little unpersuasive, especially in contrast to Windes’s careful documentation of complex and unpredictable change in form and function over time.

James Farmer’s Chapter 5 is a bit of a change of pace.  He discusses various aspects of astronomical alignments and their possible relationship to ritual, not just at Pueblo Bonito but in other parts of Chaco Canyon as well.  As usual in these sorts of discussions, there is a lot of focus on Fajada Butte and the famous “Sun Dagger” petroglyph atop it, as well as some attention to Casa Rinconada, the great kiva that is quickly becoming another focal point for archaeoastronomical research in the canyon.  Farmer approaches these as integrated parts of a single ritual system, and suggests specific ways that they could have been combined in elaborate scheduled rituals.  His discussion is interesting, but a bit speculative, and I can’t help but feel that this sort of research has an unfortunate tendency to overemphasize the importance of the things we know about (e.g., the Sun Dagger) without adequately considering the question of how much there could be that we don’t yet know about.  It also has a tendency to look at the overall layout of buildings and their relationships to each other synchronically without considering the complex construction histories of the buildings, although to his credit Farmer does take the changing orientation of Pueblo Bonito into account in his discussion.  Still, I get the feeling from this sort of thing that people really should wait until more data is available before constructing elaborate theories.  Archaeoastronomy at Chaco is in its infancy, and I’m quite sure there will be many changes in theories and interpretations in the future.

The next chapter, by Mary P. Metcalf, discusses the labor investment involved in constructing Pueblo Bonito.  This is a topic that I think gets a bit more attention than it deserves.  While the amount of labor involved in the Chaco system is certainly an important datum for understanding that system, it’s only useful if it can be properly measured, and I’m very skeptical about the measurements that have been used in research so far.  These tend to be based on measurements of effort expended by modern laborers doing work assumed to be similar to ancient construction, multiplied by measures of the amount of material used in construction of the great houses.  The resulting numbers are in the form of person-hours or equivalent.  Metcalf approaches this in the usual way, depending heavily on Steve Lekson’s early estimates of construction effort and volume of construction material.  She calculates person-hours for each of Lekson’s building stages for Pueblo Bonito, then compares the numbers she gets to similar calculations for other great houses, and also divides them into “civic” and “noncivic” categories, with the distinction basically being “civic” = kiva construction and “noncivic” = everything else.  She uses her results to conclude that Pueblo Bonito was an example of “monumental architecture.”

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

I have a lot of issues with this.  For one thing, the numbers Metcalf is using for just about everything are so simplified and generalized that it’s hard to take them seriously about anything.  She uses constant values for the volumes of all walls and roofs that don’t have specific published measurements, and while she does make a distinction between the amount of labor required for flat and cribbed roofs, her adjustment to the calculations seems more than a little arbitrary.  The result of all this is that while her final numbers are probably somewhere in the general area of the actual amount of effort, they’re so strongly affected by simplifying assumptions that it’s hard to tell which distinctions are meaningful.

Typical Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Typical Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

In addition, while the idea of separating “civic” from “noncivic” construction is interesting and possibly useful, it’s more than a little odd that Metcalf makes a straightforward identification of kivas with civic architecture, especially given how heavily she relies on Lekson, who has famously argued that kivas in this period were primarily residential and therefore not civic at all.  It’s hard to say what to make of the ratios of civic to total construction effort on which she bases many of her conclusions, given this.

Finally, even if these numbers can be considered rough estimates of total effort invested in construction, what does that really tell us?  Metcalf rightly notes that person-hours is the only reasonable measurement to use, since, as she puts it, “the amount of time required for construction is affected by many indeterminate factors such as workday length, workforce size, and the efficiency of the builders,” making any conversion to different time units meaningless.  In other words, person-hours can be interpreted either in terms of larger workforces working shorter hours or smaller workforces working longer hours, and in the absence of any additional information on workforce composition or the structuring of work time, there’s no way to tell where to set the balance.  Which is all true enough, of course, but to me at least it seems to substantially reduce the usefulness of the whole exercise.  If we don’t have outside information on either the amount of time spent or the amount of people working, this all seems like just playing with numbers.  The numbers mean something, of course, at least assuming they’re reasonably accurate, but they don’t mean any of the things we actually want to know.  This is no particular knock on Metcalf, who seems to have done a good enough job with the methods available.  It’s just a general complaint about the amount of time devoted to this sort of thing in Chacoan studies in general.

The next few chapters are, I think, some of the most interesting and useful in the book, and they more than make up for the weaknesses in some of the other chapters.  Chapter 7, by Wendy Bustard, is an analysis of access patterns within Pueblo Bonito using space syntax analysis, a set of techniques for studying spatial patterns that I find particularly fascinating and of which I was totally unaware before reading this chapter.  After a brief explanation of what space syntax is and what it can be used for, Bustard proceeds to demonstrate its usefulness by analyzing the access patterns of a variety of different parts of Pueblo Bonito built at different times in the building’s history.  Her results show that the oldest part of the building has access patterns typical of residential use, as does one of the later wings, but the other roomblocks she analyzes have very different patterns, some much more accessible than typical residential spaces, some much less.  The implications for the function of the building and possible changes in it over time are both quite clear and surprisingly ambiguous.

Chapter 8, by Nancy Akins, is a short but very useful summary of information on the burials found in Pueblo Bonito.  Most of the information here comes from Akins’s earlier work on the human remains found throughout the canyon, but it’s collected here in a more accessible place than much of that earlier research.  The burials in Pueblo Bonito were pretty spectacular, especially in comparison to those found in the small sites across the canyon, and Akins’s conclusion that the differences indicate a social hierarchy of at least three levels, with the top two represented by the two burial clusters in Pueblo Bonito and membership in the higher social levels apparently ascribed rather than attained, fit well with the overal tone of this volume.

Metate at Pueblo Bonito

Metate at Pueblo Bonito

The next two chapters, the last two before Neitzel’s concluding chapter, discuss the artifacts found in Pueblo Bonito from different perspectives.  Neitzel’s Chapter 9 talks about the distribution of the artifacts, focusing on the differences between the distributions of “fancy” and “ordinary” artifacts.  One of the most remarkable things about the distribution of the fancy artifacts in particular (turquoise, shell, jet, etc.) is that they are without exception massively concentrated in a mere handful of rooms.  For most types of fancy artifacts one room contains so many more examples than any other that there is a huge gap in the numbers per room between it and the next-highest.  Even more fascinating, these are almost all different rooms; that is, for each type of fancy artifact there is a single room with vast quantities of that particular artifact and lesser (but often still quite high) quantities of other artifacts.  All of these rooms with huge numbers of fancy artifacts are in the northern part of Old Bonito, either in the burial block or the nearby group of rooms with the apparent ceremonial caches of which these artifacts are major elements.  The distribution of ordinary artifacts is generally more dispersed, although some types, such as projectile points, show skewed distributions similar to those of the fancy artifacts, which suggests that the rather arbitrary division between “fancy” and “ordinary” may not have classified all artifacts satisfactorily.  All of these patterns are illustrated with very useful and readable maps of the room distributions, one of the best features of the chapter.

Chapter 10, by Frances Joan Mathien, takes a look at the same artifacts from a rather different perspective, focusing on the “fancy” artifacts, particularly those imported from great distances, and discussing the functions they may have had within the Chacoan system and the changing interpretations and models that have been offered over the past hundred years or so to explain them.  She ultimately decides that the earliest interpretations, offered by George Pepper, the leader of the first controlled excavations in the 1890s, deserve a closer look than they have generally gotten.  Pepper mostly interpreted what he found in terms of similarities to modern Pueblo practices, and he compared much of the apparently esoteric paraphernalia in the northern rooms to the objects used by modern clans in the ceremonies they conduct.  Mathien finds this plausible even in light of more recent models of Chacoan organization, though she acknowledges that demonstrating this sort of thing is no easy task.

Overall, this is a very interesting volume that provides a fairly complete picture of the state of current research on Pueblo Bonito.  It is a little light on the relationship between Pueblo Bonito and the other canyon great houses to the overall Chaco system, whatever it was, but that is largely to be expected given its focus, and the structuring of the chapters around the three questions Neitzel presents in the introduction is a useful way of tying these otherwise quite different studies together.  This is certainly not a book for those who are just starting to learn about Chaco, but it could be quite useful for those who have already read about or visited Pueblo Bonito and want to get an expanded account of current thought on it, with useful references to further, more detailed publications.

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Where to Begin

Chaco Canyon can be an overwhelming place. There’s a lot here, and it’s difficult to take it all in and understand how different things relate to each other. When visiting the canyon in person, of course, the services of the park’s interpretive staff are available to help explain things and put them in perspective, but many visitors prefer to either prepare in advance or deepen their understanding later by reading additional material, and for those who don’t have the opportunity to visit in person reading is even more important to gaining an understanding of Chaco.

As a result, one of the most frequent questions we get at the visitor center is which books we recommend.  Answers vary based on the specific needs and background of the visitor in question, of course, but there’s generally a fairly limited range, so I at least have a few books that I tend to recommend in a particular order.

My Bookshelf -- Books I Own

My Bookshelf -- Books I Own

For a solid, readable one-volume introduction to Chaco and what it’s all about, which is what people most often want, my recommendation is Kendrick Frazier’s People of Chaco.  Unlike most people who write books about Chaco, Frazier is not an archaeologist but a journalist, and as a result he’s not only a better writer than most but also has less of a tendency to interpret things through the narrow lens of the archaeological profession.  He gives a balanced, evenhanded account of the history of research at Chaco and the evolution of interpretations, with particular emphasis on the National Park Service Chaco Project of the 1970s and ’80s.  The book was originally published in 1986, and the theories it presents are therefore mostly the ones that were current at that time, some of which have since fallen out of fashion.  The third edition, however, published in 2005, has been substantially updated, with three new chapters covering recent research and reinterpretations along with the series of conferences and publications put together as a capstone to the Chaco Project.  The theories presented in this part of the book sit a little awkwardly with the earlier theories discussed in preceding chapters, but I think that is actually a strength of the book, in that it shows the changing nature of interpretations and the lack of consensus even among Chaco specialists about a surprising number of things.  If people are looking for just one book about Chaco, this is the one I recommend.

If people are looking for two books about Chaco, things get a little more complicated.  In general, I think the best supplement to Frazier is The Chaco Handbook by Gwinn Vivian and Bruce Hilpert.  This is an alphabetical encyclopedia of basic information on a wide variety of Chaco-related topics, with a useful introduction laying out some general information about Chaco and its history.  The individual entries are short but readable and quite useful for introductory or reference purposes.  I don’t recommend this on its own, as the alphabetical organization can be confusing for a complete beginner and the overall informational content is considerably broader than it is deep, but in combination with Frazier or another more narrative account it can be helpful.

If people have more specific interests, Vivian and Hilpert might not be the best way to go.  Another possibility is David Grant Noble’s In Search of Chaco, a collection of short essays by archaeologists and other Chaco specialists on their areas of expertise.  It is lavishly illustrated with both black-and-white and color pictures, and the research presented is very recent and up-to-date.  It also includes chapters by Pueblo and Navajo scholars giving a sense of contemporary Native perspectives on Chaco, which most other books don’t have.  I hesitate to recommend it on its own, however, since the structure of it is a bit disjointed, what with the multiple authors and topics, and it’s not easy to see how they all relate to each other.  This was actually the first book I read about Chaco, and part of my hesitance about recommending it comes fro the fact that I can hardly remember any of the information in it.  Without having first read a more narrative account like Frazier, I was unable to contextualize anything in Noble, which reduced its usefulness considerably as an introduction to Chaco.  For someone who has read a bit beforehand, however, it could be a useful way to see some of the recent ideas floating around, presented in an engaging, readable, and not particularly technical way.

Books I've Checked Out from the Park Library

Books I've Checked Out from the Park Library

Beyond those three introductory volumes, things start to get very technical very fast.  For readers who have either a general archaeological background or a particularly strong interest in the details, this is not a problem, but I’d generally say for most readers it’s best to start with the more popular works mentioned above and decide if and how to continue after reading them.  The amount of scholarship on Chaco is voluminous, and getting an idea of who is writing about what and why is important to figuring out which books and articles are most important to read for which purposes.

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