Archive for July, 2011

Excavating the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

Today marks an interesting experiment in online engagement with the public by archaeologists: the Day of Archaeology, sponsored by the Council for British Archaeology and other British organizations involved in archaeology and cultural heritage.  It’s basically a large, short-term communal blog, with archaeologists from around the world posting about what they are doing today.  The idea is to give the public a sense of what, exactly, an archaeologist does, as well as a sense of the diversity of what “doing archaeology” can be.  As you might expect given the origins of the project, there’s a definite tendency toward overrepresentation of British (or at least northern European) archaeologists, as is apparent from the map of posts, but there are some Americans involved as well, along with a handful of archaeologists from more far-flung areas.  One post I found particularly interesting was by Paul Hubbard, a Zimbabwean archaeologist, about the considerable challenges involved in doing archaeology in a place like Zimbabwe.  Since it’s not the kind of place where it’s easy to make a living from archaeology, Hubbard also works as a tour guide, which he says has been very useful to his archaeological thinking.  Given my own background as a tour guide, it was very interesting to read Hubbard’s impressions of it, although it sounds like the kind of guiding he does is much more intense than what I did.

There are a lot of other interesting posts as well, and I encourage you to take a look.  You won’t find much about the Southwest, however (although I did find a couple posts from Southwestern archaeologists).  This is in keeping with a tendency I’ve noticed before.  It has long appeared that European archaeologists are much more inclined to blog and otherwise use new media tools than their American counterparts, and that even among American archaeologists Southwesternists are particularly disinclined to get involved with the internet.  There have been a few blogs about Southwestern archaeology (besides mine) that have come and gone in the past few years, but there doesn’t really seem to be the same kind of enthusiasm about the internet that specialists in some other types of archaeology have developed.  I’m not sure if there is any fundamental underlying reason for this or if it’s just a fluke or the result of a particular set of contingent circumstances, but it’s definitely apparent.  This is not to say that this pattern will continue forever, of course, and as time goes on I suspect even Southwestern archaeologists will become more comfortable with blogs and other innovative ways of sharing information and experiences.  I certainly hope so, at least.

Shoveling at the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

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"Supernova" Pictograph

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.  The Fourth is actually a pretty important date for the study of Chaco, but in a roundabout (and somewhat controversial) way.  It all has to do with a very famous pictograph panel below Peñasco Blanco at the west end of the canyon.  While the interpretation of this panel is a matter of considerable debate, one way it’s been seen is as a record of an astronomical event that is known to have occurred during the height of Chaco’s power and influence: the supernova of 1054, which formed the Crab Nebula.

We know from several Chinese reports that the “guest star” resulting from the supernova first appeared on July 4, 1054 and continued to be visible day and night for almost two years.  There are a few Japanese records of the supernova as well, along with one report from the Arab world.  No clear-cut and unambiguous accounts are known from Europe or elsewhere in the world, although a few rock art panels in the Southwest have been proposed as representing the event.  The most famous of these is the one at Chaco, which is often referred to as the “Supernova Pictograph” (even by the park itself in a sign at the site).  It consists of three symbols painted onto the rock face in red: a hand, a crescent, and a starburst-like shape.  It’s the starburst that has been interpreted as representing the supernova itself, of course, and the crescent has been seen as representing the crescent moon.  On the morning of July 5, the moon, which was a crescent at the time, would have appeared in roughly the same relationship to the supernova, as seen from the pictograph site, as the relationship between the two symbols on the panel.  Furthermore, the handprint points in the direction one would have looked to see this at at the time.  The combination of the three symbols together, plus the fact that this would have happened at a time of considerable activity in the canyon, has led some to suggest that this pictograph panel was created to commemorate this historic event.  The specific location may have been an established sun-watching position, from which the new star was seen unexpectedly and recorded.

Sign at the "Supernova Pictograph"

It all sounds fairly plausible as it goes, but there are some problems with this theory.  Probably the biggest problem is that the specific set of symbols on the panel is known from ethnographic evidence to have been used by the Zunis to mark generic sunwatching sites, with the crescent representing the moon, the starburst representing the sun, and the hand marking the location as sacred.  Now, it’s certainly possible that these symbols came to be associated with this activity as a result of the observation of the supernova at this site, but as far as I know there’s no reference to the supernova in ethnographic descriptions of astronomical observation at Zuni or any of the other modern Pueblos, so this is a pretty tenuous claim.

Furthermore, while the 1054 supernova would certainly have been noticeable at Chaco, there was an earlier supernova in 1006 (also recorded by the Chinese, and possibly by the Hohokam in southern Arizona) that was much brighter, and it’s not clear why the Chacoans wouldn’t have recorded that one too.  It took place before the Chaco system really got going on a regional scale, but there was plenty of activity in the canyon during the 900s, so people there would presumably have seen it.  It’s possible that it was recorded too, at some other site that hasn’t been found or that has disappeared in the thousand years that have elapsed since the event (note that the existing Supernova Pictograph has only survived because it was under a protective overhang), but again, there’s not any evidence for this.  The Chacoans are definitely known to have kept careful track of regular patterns in the skies, such as the solstices and the lunar standstills, so they surely would have seen unusual events such as supernovae, but it’s not clear how they would have reacted to them or how inclined they would have been to record them.

View Looking East from "Supernova Petroglyph"

So it’s not really clear how to interpret the Chaco pictograph.  I think the balance of evidence at this point leans slightly against it being a representation of the supernova, but I could be talked out of that position if some additional evidence for the supernova theory can be found.

Others, however, have proposed even more extreme theories based on the 1054 supernova.  Among the more noteworthy of these is a proposal by Timothy Pauketat and Thomas Emerson, in a 2008 article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, that the rather sudden florescence of the Cahokia site in Illinois around AD 1050 may have had something to do with the supernova.  The theory they present is interesting, but hard to effectively support.  For one thing, dating methods in the Midwest are much less precise than in the Southwest, so pinning down any event to the year is usually not possible.  There is certainly a suggestive correspondence between the sudden rise of Cahokia and the supernova, however, and this is supported by the apparent use of stellar imagery and symbolism at Cahokia and the importance of the stars to later cultures in the area, so there may well be something to this.

Opening at Casa Rinconada That Channels Sunbeam at Sunrise on Summer Solstice

I’m a bit troubled, however, by the reliance of Pauketat and Emerson on evidence from Chaco and the way they interpret it.  For one thing, they say that the Supernova Pictograph is “above” Peñasco Blanco, when it’s actually below it, and not visible from the great house itself.  More importantly, they say of the effect of the supernova:

Some believe that this particular cosmic event, which left behind the Crab Nebula, was commemorated in architecture and iconography at the time or in subsequent years. The most compelling evidence for this comes not from the Cahokia region but from the American Southwest, where a tree-cutting date places the construction of the largest and most isolated ceremonial building in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada (noted for its many astronomical alignments) to AD

Now, it’s true that there is a single tree-ring cutting date from Casa Rinconada that dates to 1054.  This is, however, the only tree-ring date for the site, so while it’s plausible that it dates the construction of the site this definitely cannot be stated as definitively as Pauketat and Emerson state it here.  There is no specific provenience information available for this beam, so there’s no way to tell how it was used and whether it can plausibly be said to date to the initial construction of the site.  The general architecture of Casa Rinconada is consistent with a construction date in the 1050s, but without more specific information tying it to a specific year on the basis of one unprovenienced beam is unwarranted.

Looking through Solstice-Aligned Opening at Casa Rinconada toward Aligned Niche

Furthermore, even if Rinconada was built in 1054, that doesn’t establish that it was built because of the supernova.  There was extensive construction in the canyon throughout the mid-1000s, associated with Chaco’s apparent rise to regional dominance, and this began well before 1054.  The major expansion of Pueblo Bonito began by the 1040s at the latest, and various other construction projects at other sites in the canyon dates to this general period.  Rinconada could easily have been part of this general process without any specific relationship to the supernova.  Indeed, there’s nothing about Rinconada that seems to refer to the supernova, despite the various astronomical alignments (some of them controversial as well, it should be noted) identified there.

None of this means that the supernova didn’t have an important role at Cahokia, of course, and it doesn’t even rule out an important role at Chaco itself.  It does mean, however, that developments at Chaco shouldn’t really be used as evidence for developments at Cahokia, even though the two sites are contemporaneous and Chaco can be dated much more precisely.  Cahokia may well have risen as a result of the 1054 supernova, but neither the Supernova Petroglyph at Chaco nor the one tree-ring date at Casa Rinconada provides evidence that it did.
Pauketat, T., & Emerson, T. (2008). Star Performances and Cosmic Clutter Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (1), 78-85 DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000085

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Sign at State of New Mexico Archives Building, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Several months ago Steve Lekson sent me a review copy of his latest book, A History of the Ancient Southwest.  I recently got around to reading it, and it’s very good.  The importance as well as the idiosyncratic nature of this book begins with its title.  While the title sounds generic, it’s actually carefully chosen and worded, and in a subtle way it expresses the unusual approach Lekson takes to Southwestern archaeology, not just in this book but in many of his other recent publications.

The crucial thing about the title, and about the book, is the word “history.”  This book is both an attempt to tell the story of what happened in the ancient Southwest, and thus a “history” of the Southwest in ancient times of the sort an historian might write, and a parallel attempt to tell the story of the development of Southwestern archaeology as a (sub)discipline, i.e., a history of “the ancient Southwest” as an idea and of the ways that idea has been studied and interpreted over time.  The title also refers, quite deliberately, to a book with the same title that Harold Gladwin published in 1957.  Gladwin’s a fascinating character, as is Lekson himself in his own way, but in this context the most important thing about him is his fondness for synthesizing archaeological data and presenting it as an accessible narrative.  Lekson is seeking to do the same thing in this book, and he mostly succeeds.  This is a more impressive accomplishment than it sounds, because summarizing the entire prehistory of the Southwest in narrative form is an astonishingly ambitious project, and there’s a reason no one else has tried to do it since Gladwin.  Furthermore, Lekson adds on top of this enormously difficult task the additional task of adding a parallel intellectual history of Southwestern archaeology.  And yet, like I say, he mostly succeeds in this near-impossible task.

How does he do it?  Partly by limiting his narrative to the highlights of both stories, which admittedly makes it seem a bit thin at times.  This is largely countered by his the very extensive notes, where he relegates most of the in-depth argumentation over scholarly minutiae that would get in the way of the overall story.  And when I say “extensive,” I mean it; this is a book with 250 pages of text followed by 100 pages of notes.  I haven’t read through all the notes in detail, but they’re a mix of perfunctory citations for statements in the text and really long and detailed discussions of various archaeological points of contention and Lekson’s positions on them.

Part of the reason for this shoving of so much into the notes is to make the text more accessible.  The book is aimed both at professional Southwestern archaeologists and at popular audiences, and this dual purpose sometimes leads to some tension but mostly works.  Lekson is a very good and engaging writer.  He has a very idiosyncratic style, which some may not find appealing, but I like it, and it definitely contrasts with the turgid prose that is more typical of archaeological publications.  The story he tells here will probably appeal to the two audiences somewhat differently; other archaeologists are likely to look through the text and notes for questionable statements to contest (and there are plenty), while lay readers are probably more likely to just take in the story without thinking too much about it.  Neither of these approaches is ideal, perhaps, but the book does adequately provide for both in an innovative way.

The structure of the book involves parallel stories: each chapter includes both one period in the history of Southwestern archaeology and one period in the actual history of the ancient Southwest as determined (primarily) by that archaeology.  Lekson tries to unify the two parts of each chapter with a common theme, which works better for some than for others but often seems a bit forced.  In general, the intellectual history portions of the chapters are a bit weaker than the archaeological portions, which makes sense since Lekson is an archaeologist rather than an intellectual historian.  Still, he does make a serious effort to evaluate the research of his predecessors and colleagues in the context of their times and the prevailing intellectual currents both within the discipline and within society as a whole.  This is more than most archaeologists are willing to attempt, and it helps put the archaeological data he uses to reconstruct the “history” of the prehistoric societies he discusses into its own appropriate context.

Building with Pro-Book Sign, Carrizozo, New Mexico

That “history” really is history, too.  This is a story focused on events, rather than adaptations, and part of the importance of Lekson’s discussion of the history of archaeology is to situate himself within that history and, in general, to distinguish what he’s doing here from what archaeologists typically do.  Basically, he’s seeking to write history rather than science, whereas most archaeological research in the US since the 1970s or s0, as he demonstrates, has sought to be science.  (Longtime readers will know that I have my own opinions on this question, and that they’re mostly in line with Lekson’s approach here.)  His version of “history” will probably seem a little over-simplistic to many actual historians, just as his account of the history of archaeology will doubtless seem simplistic to actual intellectual historians and historians of science, but for the general reader and for most Southwestern archaeologists the general point should come across loud and clear.

In general, Lekson gives the general outlines for the story of the ancient Southwest as he sees it, but he downplays some of his own more controversial ideas.  The Chaco Meridian is confined to the notes and occasional brief allusions in the text.  There are plenty of quibbles I have with some of his specific interpretations, especially about Chaco, but the overall picture he presents is probably broadly acceptable to a relatively large number of other archaeologists.  He definitely comes down on the side of hierarchy and extensive Mesoamerican influence, but local origin, for Chaco, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s read any of his other recent Chaco stuff.  He also tries to tie everything together into a larger story, emphasizing the likely connections between developments at Chaco and among the Hohokam in Arizona, the Mimbres in southwestern New Mexico, and other Southwestern groups, as well as contemporaneous developments in Mexico and in the Mississippi Valley.  These broad-scale connections are controversial among archaeologists, but I think Lekson’s right on track in emphasizing them.

I’m not sure how well this book will work as an introduction to Southwestern archaeology for people who know literally nothing about it.  For those who know nothing about the ancient Southwest and have no intention of learning about it in great depth, this would be an entertaining and informative read.  Moving on from this to anything else written on the ancient Southwest (with the possible exception of some of Lekson’s other stuff) would be a pretty severe shock, however.  The difference in both tone and content is huge.  For people who are interested in the subject and have read one or two other books on it, however, this would be a very useful introduction to a very different way of thinking about these issues.  All professional Southwestern archaeologists should absolutely read it, not so much because they’ll learn much from it, although they might, but because it outlines a very different way of thinking and writing about the ancient Southwest that they should really be familiar with, even if they don’t want to do it themselves.

Personally, while I don’t agree with all of Lekson’s interpretations, I find this book inspiring.  Lekson is really pioneering a new way of writing the story of the ancient Southwest, and reading his version really makes me want to follow in his tracks and write my own version of the story, using his guidelines but reaching my own conclusions.  I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to follow through and write my own book, but it’s something I’ve been considering for a while now and reading Lekson’s attempt has made me more tempted than ever to actually do it.  After all, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands these days.

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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