Okay, I said I would say more about George Pepper’s description of the effigy vessels from Chaco, so here goes. One interesting thing that he notes is that these are the northernmost examples of human effigy vessels found in the Southwest. I believe this is still the case over a hundred years later; in general, effigy vessels are very rare among the Anasazi, and human effigy vessels are vanishingly rare. It’s important to distinguish here between effigy vessels, which is to say pots in the form of humans or animals, and figurines, a very different type of artifact. At least in the Southwest, figurines are generally small and they portray humans or animals in a somewhat abstracted manner. They are usually made of clay, but often unfired, and they generally bear little resemblance to “ordinary” pottery. The Fremont culture in Utah and environs is particularly known for its elaborate anthropomorphic figurines which often resemble rock art figures, but the figurine tradition is very widespread throughout the Southwest, and is known in Mesoamerica as well. The functions of figurines are very poorly understood, but it seems pretty clear that they had quite different functions from standard pottery regardless of its form.
Effigy vessels such as the ones at Chaco, however, were made the same way regular pots were, were always fired, and generally differ from other pots only in form. They are much more common in the southern Southwest than in the north, although they are not very common anywhere in the Southwest compared to West Mexico, the core area for human effigy vessels in particular, where they were very widespread and had a wide range of local variants. Unfortunately, very little specific provenience information on West Mexican effigy vessels is available, although there are many in museum collections, because almost all of the known examples were looted. From the few known examples from controlled excavations, however, it seems that they were often used as burial goods. In West Mexico there are both solid and hollow types of effigy vessels; I believe all the Southwestern examples are hollow. The terms “figurine” and “effigy vessel” seem to sometimes be used interchangeably in Mesoamerican archaeology, which makes understanding the exact nature of the artifacts a bit challenging at times. The effigy vessel tradition does seem to have been present in at least some other parts of Mesoamerica, such as Central Mexico and the northeast, but in general the center of it seems to have been along the west coast. This makes the appearance of similar vessels in the Southwest unsurprising, given that West Mexico is the part of Mesoamerica generally thought to have had the closest ties to the Southwest.
The main part of the Southwest known for human effigy vessels is the Casas Grandes region in northwestern Chihuahua and the surrounding area. The Casas Grandes culture, centered on the great center at Paquimé, flourished from about AD 1200 to AD 1450, and it is noteworthy for its very obvious Mesoamerican traits, including ballcourts and macaws in addition to the effigy vessels. The cultural background for Casas Grandes has been disputed. Charles Di Peso, who excavated about half of Paquimé for the Amerind Foundation, thought it was a Mesoamerican outpost founded by pochteca traders to acquire turquoise and other Southwestern trade goods for the Mesoamerican market. He also interpreted the chronology of the site differently from more recent researchers, and thought that it was at least partially contemporary with Chaco and the Classic Mimbres and a possible source of the Mesoamerican influences found in those areas. The fact that it actually postdates those cultural florescences has led some others more recently to argue that Casas Grandes is more of an effect of them than a cause, and Stephen Lekson has argued that it was actually the third great center founded by the people who had earlier built Chaco and Aztec. Few others have followed Lekson’s lead on that, and the main dispute today seems to be whether Casas Grandes was a totally indigenous development or tied to the disruptions of the 1100s elsewhere in the Southwest.
Among the most prominent scholars working on Casas Grandes today are the husband and wife team of Todd and Christine VanPool at the University of Missouri. His specialty is stone tools, while hers is ceramics, and they have done some interesting work on trying to reconstruct the social structure of the society based on these remains. Christine VanPool published an interesting article in 2003 on shamanism at Casas Grandes in which she argued from the way male figures are presented in effigy vessels and painted on other pots that the leadership at Paquimé was likely led by shaman-priests who derived their political and economic power from their ability to interact with the supernatural world. Some of the male effigy vessels are shown smoking, which VanPool argues is a sign of the use of tobacco to induce a trance state (apparently tobacco can cause a hallucinatory and even a catatonic state if used in sufficiently massive amounts) in which the shaman would travel to the other world and interact with various deities there. Both VanPools published a later article on gender imagery as seen in the effigy vessels, which tend to have highly exaggerated primary and secondary sexual characteristics. They argue that the images associated with gender imply a “complementary” gender structure in the society, in which men and women have different roles that interact to support the society as a whole. Both articles lend support to the idea of a more Mesoamerican than Southwestern social structure at Paquimé, with a highly hierarchical society led by male shaman-priests and a set of complementary gender roles supporting that hierarchy. This is in contrast to the (allegedly) more egalitarian Pueblo societies, where rituals were conducted by corporate groups and gender roles were often organized in parallel hierarchies involving less interaction between male and female domains.
This is all very interesting, and it at least implies that something similar could have been going on at Chaco, but there’s not much more that can be said than that in terms of the implications of this research for other areas. One reason the VanPools can come to such strong conclusions about gender roles and other aspects of Casas Grandes society from the effigy vessels is that there are so many of them. Their second article lists 50 male and 40 female vessels. At Chaco, however, the two or three vessels described by Pepper are pretty much the whole corpus that is complete enough to draw any conclusions about, and that just isn’t enough data for any major conclusions at all. One thing that is noteworthy, however, is that while there are some obvious similarities in form between the Casas Grandes and Chaco vessels, there are also some noteworthy differences. For one thing, none of the Chaco vessels are smoking. This could just be due to sampling issues, but the absence of this important shamanic characteristic (in the VanPool interpretation, at least) does undermine any argument that leadership at Chaco may have been based on shamanic power, at least in the absence of other evidence. Also, the female vessel with the lovingly sculpted genitals, although incomplete, seems to be sitting with legs raised, like the complete male vessel, which at Casas Grandes is a very strongly male-identified posture. Females there almost all have their legs stretched out in front of them. The decorations on the Chaco vessels are also pretty different from the Casas Grandes ones, although this is probably just a reflection of the rather different decorative traditions for pottery from both places in general.
Overall, then, I think the VanPools’ research on Casas Grandes effigy vessels is of limited utility in understanding the Chaco ones. If, as Lekson thinks, Casas Grandes is the ultimate heir to the Chaco tradition, it seems there had been quite a bit of change in the intervening period. On the other hand, and perhaps more likely, it may be that both Chaco and Casas Grandes were influenced separately by the cultures of West Mexico, where the wide variety of effigy vessels used in different local areas may have resulted in somewhat different types being adopted in the two parts of the Southwest. It would be good to be able to look at all the different types of West Mexican human effigy vessels to see which ones correspond most closely to both the Chaco and Casas Grandes examples, but the literature on the vessels seems to be rather scattered, and the lack of provenience information for so many, combined with the somewhat insecure dating of the archaeological sequences in many parts of the region, makes this a difficult task. I’ll continue to wade through the literature I can find, however, and see if I can come up with anything more specific to say.
The general lack of Anasazi examples of vessels like these outside of Chaco is another line of evidence pointing toward a greater level of Mesoamerican influence at Chaco, also seen in the presence of macaws, copper bells, and chocolate, and the association of effigy vessels with West Mexico specifically is another sign that that is the place to look. The same applies almost verbatim to Casas Grandes with the exception of the chocolate, which has not been found there (yet?). The Casas Grandes effigy vessels have gotten a lot of attention, however, while the Chaco ones have mostly languished in obscurity, used mainly as illustrations in general-interest books and the like. They definitely deserve more attention, however, since despite (or because of) their rarity they are enormously important in understanding the nature and context of the Chaco system.
VanPool, C. (2003). The Shaman-Priests of the Casas Grandes Region, Chihuahua, Mexico American Antiquity, 68 (4), 696-717 DOI: 10.2307/3557068
VanPool, C., & VanPool, T. (2006). Gender in Middle Range Societies: A Case Study in Casas Grandes Iconography American Antiquity, 71 (1), 53-75 DOI: 10.2307/40035321