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Hachured Potsherds at Casamero Pueblo

Hachured Potsherds at Casamero Pueblo

When I was working at Chaco, people would ask me a lot of questions. I usually knew the answers, but when I didn’t I was quite upfront about saying so. I would often try to find out the answers to questions that had stumped me, but I didn’t always succeed, and many of those questions are the ones that I remember best, even now.

One of those questions had to do with the black-on-white pottery that is a hallmark of Chaco. A guy once asked me what they had used as a fixative to get the paint to adhere to the pottery, and I didn’t know. I didn’t really make much of an effort to find out then, as I didn’t really have any idea where to look. Recently, though, I’ve read two papers that shed interesting light on this question. Understanding them, though, requires some background on Pueblo pottery in general.

Hachured Potsherd at Pueblo Alto

Hachured Potsherd at Pueblo Alto

Basically, there are three main types of paint that were used in the prehistoric Pueblo Southwest. Two of these were in use during the period when Chaco was occupied: mineral and carbon. (The third, lead glaze, wasn’t used until later.) Both were used to produce a black color. Other colors were occasionally produced by a variety of means, but for this period black was the overwhelmingly dominant color of painted ceramics. It’s generally possible for experienced archaeologists to tell mineral and carbon paint apart by sight. Although they both tend to look black on a well-fired pot, there are various subtle differences between the two.

Carbon paint is basically just plant material, usually Rocky Mountain beeweed or tansy mustard, boiled down into an extract and applied to the pot. Mineral paint is made of ground iron-rich minerals, usually hematite, mixed with either water or an organic extract similar to those used alone as carbon paint, and sometimes with clay as well. Both types have been used both in prehistory and among the modern Pueblos. However, there were some marked patterns to usage of the different types of paint both geographically and temporally. Overall, the trend was of increasing use of carbon rather than mineral paint over time, spreading from west to east. Chaco ceramics at the height of the Chaco phenomenon in the eleventh century AD were overwhelmingly mineral-painted, while Chuska and Mesa Verde ceramics, while very similar in decoration and imported to Chaco in large numbers, were generally carbon-painted. Around AD 1100 there was a marked shift, and even Chaco pottery began to be primarily carbon-painted. By the 1200s use of mineral paint only continued in areas on the eastern and southern fringes of the Pueblo world. Distinguishing between carbon and mineral paint is thus quite useful for making inferences about culture history during this period. (In subsequent periods things became much more complicated with extensive long-distance migration and the introduction of glaze paints.)

Sherd with Checkered Pattern, Kin Klizhin

Sherd with Checkered Pattern, Kin Klizhin

Both of the papers I mentioned above are about using more formal means than visual criteria to tell mineral and carbon paint apart. One, by Joe Stewart and Karen Adams, used a scanning electron microscope-energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer (SEM-EDS) system to differentiate the two based on the amount of iron detected in the pigment. The other, by Robert Speakman and Hector Neff, used laser ablaction-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), a simpler and potentially less expensive method to distinguish between the two types of paint based on the concentrations of various elements. Both found that the methods they used came up with similar results to traditional visual methods, and were superior for certain sherds with unusual mixes of characteristics that made them visually ambiguous. Speakman and Neff also found a surprising amount of variety in elemental composition even within the “carbon” and “mineral” groups, suggesting that there were multiple “recipes” used to mix paint in prehistory, not just the two broad categories. This isn’t all that surprising given that this is clearly the case in modern times based on ethnographic data, but it’s still interesting.

That’s all well and good, but one thing that occurred to me in reading these papers was that it’s not at all clear why there would be multiple paint recipes, since they all ended up with pretty much the same result and some were definitely more complicated than others. This is particularly the case when considering mineral paint, since in many cases it appears that it was actually mixed with the plant concoctions that were in other places used independently as carbon paint. If boiling down beeweed produced a perfectly suitable black paint, why bother adding hematite? This might well explain why the trend over time was from mineral to carbon paint, but it’s still unclear why mineral paint originated in the first place. It does not appear to have predated carbon paint overall, at least at Chaco, where both carbon and mineral types are present as early as Basketmaker III.

Hachured Potsherds at Kin Ya'a

Hachured Potsherds at Kin Ya’a

The lack of obvious functional reasons for preferring mineral to carbon paint suggests that the choice may have been more a matter of cultural tradition, which is interesting and implies that some sort of cultural differentiation may have been present quite early in the prehistory of the northern Southwest. This isn’t really surprising, as there is plenty of other evidence for this, but teasing out the implications of all these different lines of evidence pointing to differentiation in material culture is a task that archaeologists have only recently begun to take on. It should be interesting to see what more we have to learn from these differences.
ResearchBlogging.org
Speakman, RJ, & Neff, H (2002). Evaluation of Painted Pottery from the Mesa Verde Region Using Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) American Antiquity, 67, 137-144 DOI: 10.2307/2694882

Stewart, JD, & Adams, KR (1999). Evaluating Visual Criteria for Identifying Carbon- and Iron-Based Pottery Paints from the Four Corners Region Using SEM-EDS American Antiquity, 64, 675-696 DOI: 10.2307/2694212

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Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Today is a momentous day, of course. As the winter solstice, it marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. It also might be an important date in the Maya Long Count (although opinions differ). It’s not the end of the world, which should be apparent by now. In recognition of the Maya date and my general practice of blogging about archaeoastronomy on significant celestial events, I thought I’d write about a couple of papers focusing on a Mesoamerican symbol with apparent astronomic significance and a thought-provoking connection to the Southwest.

The first paper, published in 1978 in Science, was written by Anthony Aveni and two co-authors (one of whom appears to have been one of his students). Aveni is a prominent figure in archaeoastronomy, especially of Mesoamerica, and was one of the first researchers to do careful measurements of astronomical alignments at ancient sites. In this paper he and his co-authors discuss a symbol found at several Mesoamerican sites consisting of a cross concentric with one or more circles, with the arms of the cross usually extending beyond the circle(s). These symbols were usually made by pecking a series of dots into either a rock face or the floor of a room, and their alignments appear to have often been significant. They are most common at Teotihuacan, where they were generally oriented with the arms of the cross aligned with the city’s street grid. This orientation had led some earlier authors to interpret them as surveying marks used in laying out the streets. The authors of this paper consider that interpretation a possibility, but not necessarily the only one. There are other examples of these symbols in sites near Teotihuacan that have other orientations, some of which seem to align with prominent landmarks on the horizon that may have been used in astronomical observations.

Aveni et al. also make a big deal out of the number of dots from which these figures are made, which is quite consistent in many cases with the total often tantalizingly close to 260, the number of days in the pan-Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There may be something to this, but as is often the case with these numerological theories there’s a question of how close is close enough. (This also applies to alleged astronomical alignments.) They kind of throw a whole slew of interpretations at the numbers of dots in various parts of various examples; some of these may be meaningful, but it seems doubtful that all of them are at the same time.

A more interesting pattern is the geographical distribution of these apparently rare symbols. While they are most numerous in and around Teotihuacan, they are also present surprisingly far afield: as far south as the Maya cities of Uaxactun and as far north as the area of Alta Vista near the Tropic of Cancer. While widespread, these are all areas known to have been influenced by Teotihuacan during its period of greatest power, and the authors make the reasonable suggestion that the pecked cross symbol was associated with this influence. In trying to interpret its meaning, they note similarities to diagrams of Mesoamerican calendars (which are indeed intriguing), as well as the previously mentioned idea that they were orientational devices for surveying, and even the resemblance to descriptions of the holes pecked into house floors as boards for the game patolli in Conquest-era sources. It’s quite possible that they were all of these, of course, or that different examples had different functions. The main conclusion the authors come to is that they are associated strongly with Teotihuacan in some fashion.

An article in American Antiquity two years later made an effort to flesh out what that connection might have been. Written by the Mayanist Clemency Coggins, this article interprets the cross-in-circle motif in Mesoamerica as an example of a larger class of “four-part  figures” that are associated primarily with the sun, especially with its daily cycle through the sky as well as its yearly cycle. Coggins notes various examples of Maya hieroglyphs and other symbols that have the form of quartered circles or crosses and pushes back against earlier interpretations of them as referring to the cardinal directions. Indeed, she argues that the Maya didn’t even really have a concept of “cardinal directions” comparable to the European one: instead, they had two directions that mattered, east and west, where the sun rises and sets, with accompanying symbolism. The areas in between sometimes had symbolism associated with them, but they usually functioned as stand-ins for “up” (north) and “down” (south), which were much more symbolically charged. Coggins sees the quartered circle as representing the daily movement of the sun and as properly interpreted vertically rather than horizontally. Thus, the four points stand for sunrise, zenith, sunset, and nadir, not east, north, west, and south. The position of the sun at zenith (directly overhead) was an important phenomenon for the Maya and probably other Mesoamericans; it only happens in the Tropics and is a foreign concept to societies in temperate zones.

Coggins interprets an early structure at Uaxactun, a pyramidal platform with four stairways, as a symbol of this four-part idea. She argues that its function was likely as a solar observatory, as the three small temples to the east line up with the positions of the sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes viewed from it. This same group of buildings is also noteworthy in that three stelae erected there commemorate the endings of twenty-year periods known as k’atuns, and two of them are the earliest known examples of stelae marking this sort of calendrical event. (Or at least they were at the time Coggins was writing; I don’t know if this is still the case, but if earlier k’atun-marking stelae have been found since then that would undermine her argument somewhat, as explained below.) The event we are (maybe) observing today is the ending of a much longer cycle known as a bak’tun, but is conceptually similar. Coggins distinguishes these “calendric” celebrations and monuments from “historic” ones tied to important events in the lives of kings. She argues that the latter were the focus of all previous monuments and indicate a focus on royal dynasties and the private rituals of the nobility in Maya political life, whereas the celebration of the end of a k’atun and the erection of a monument commemorating it is a more public, popular, universal sort of ritual less focused on the glory of particular lineages and kings.

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

But what does all this have to do with quartered circles? Well, Coggins notes that shortly after these two stelae were erected in Uaxactun (in AD 357), another stela at Uaxactun shows an individual with non-Maya costume and weapons more associated with central Mexico, which at this time would have been dominated by Teotihuacan. This stela also refers to the nearby city of Tikal, which is well known to have seen extensive central Mexican influence at this time, including a king named Curl Snout who was apparently at least partly Mexican himself. This is also the period when the pecked cross at Uaxactun discussed by Aveni et al. was likely made, and here we see some supporting evidence for their theory that the pecked crosses are associated with the expansion of Teotihuacano influence. The first k’atun ending stela at Tikal was erected by Curl Snout and marks the first k’atun ending of his reign (in AD 396). Coggins concludes from this association between Mexican influence and the celebration of k’atun endings that the latter practice was introduce as part of the former phenomenon.

She supports this idea in part with the clear evidence that the god Tlaloc was of considerable importance to these Mexicans in the Maya country, which is unsurprising since he was probably the most important god at Teotihuacan itself. Tlaloc is a god of rain, which was very important to agricultural people in the Valley of Mexico, which is high and relatively dry (at least compared to the lush Maya Lowlands). He was associated as well with the celebration of the solar year, the cycles of which are closely connected to seasonal changes in rainfall patterns among many agricultural societies. This may account for the prevalence of the pecked cross/quartered circle motif at Teotihuacan, if as Coggins implies it symbolized not just the solar day but the solar year as well. Apparently some of the Tlaloc images in Curl Snout’s tomb at Tikal had similar symbols on their headdresses, so the association between the god and the symbol seems well-supported regardless of its origin. Coggins interprets Curl Snout as having introduced a Tlaloc cult to Tikal, presumably from Tenochtitlan, which involved the celebration of the solar year and the sidelining of the old rituals of the established noble lineages that had previously been the focus of Maya official religion. This cult apparently also included the celebration of the twenty-year k’atuns, though Coggins never gives a good explanation for why this would have been the case.

Over time the Mexican kings apparently became assimilated to Maya culture, and Tlaloc was similarly conflated with the Maya rain god Chac, but the celebration of k’atuns continued and by Late Classic times it involved special complexes of paired pyramids with four stairways each, much like the early structure at Uaxactun but on a much grander scale. These were paired on the east and west sides of a plaza and apparently used primarily for the celebration of k’atun endings. The north and south sides often had smaller structures with celestial and underworld symbolism respectively, consistent with the idea that they represented zenith and nadir. All of this is best known from Tikal, but Coggins notes that there are some indications from other sites such as Uaxactun and Yaxha that similar processes of Mexican influence and a shift to k’atun celebration occurred similarly.

That’s the story Coggins tells, anyway. It’s an interesting one, and somewhat convincing at least in some of its broad strokes, but I can’t help thinking that Maya archaeology has come a long way since 1980, especially with a better ability to understand the writing system, and I wonder if Coggins’s historical interpretations, based on essentially art-historical methods, still hold up. In any case, the association between Teotihuacan, Tlaloc, and the quartered circle is the key thing I take away from this paper, and that probably holds up better than the political history. The association is important because there’s another place that is known for its quartered circles, one which is not mentioned at all in either of these papers. That’s probably because it’s very far away from both Teotihuacan and Tikal.

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers in southern New Mexico is one of the most spectacular petroglyph sites in the whole Southwest. It’s one of the most important locations for rock art of the Jornada Style, associated with the Jornada Mogollon culture that existed in south-central New Mexico and adjacent West Texas from about AD 1050 to 1400. Unlike the rock art of the Anasazi area further north, including Chaco, which was highly stylized and repetitive, Jornada Style rock art is astonishingly naturalistic and elaborate. It is full of lifelike human faces and masks, animals with fully realized eyes and teeth, and imagery that is often remarkably Mesoamerican. The examples of parallels to Mexican art are numerous and fairly obvious, and not very surprising given the Jornada’s southerly location and proximity to the very Mesoamerican-seeming center of Casas Grandes, which flourished during this same period. What’s more surprising is the similarity between the Jornada Style and the later Rio Grande Style further north, which contains many of the same symbols and stylistic conventions. This implies that the Jornada served as a conduit for Mesoamerican ideas to the later Pueblos. Polly and Curtis Schaafsma have argued, convincingly in my view, that the kachina cult that is so important among the modern Pueblos originated among the Jornada, citing the masks and other symbols in Jornada rock art as their main line of evidence.

Kachinas are rain spirits, and as Polly Schaafsma notes in her book on Southwestern rock art, the kachina cult bears many notable similarities to the Tlaloc cult in Mexico. And, indeed, one of the most common motifs in Jornada rock art is the goggle eyes that are among Tlaloc’s standard attributes further south. Other Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl appear to be present in the Jornada petroglyphs as well, and Tlaloc is surely not the only deity who was transmitted in altered form to the Pueblos, but given the importance of rain in the arid Southwest the appeal of a rain cult is obvious.

What about the quartered circle? As we saw from the first two papers, this symbol was certainly associated strongly with Teotihuacan, where Tlaloc was the most important god, and it was probably associated to at least some degree with Tlaloc himself, whose popularity in Mexico lasted much longer than Teotihuacan’s political power and cultural influence. And yet, the quartered circle is virtually absent from the Southwest. Simple crosses, often outlined, are common, but they are generally interpreted as stars and typically associated with the Feathered Serpent, which is probably a version of Quetzalcoatl. The cross and circle, however, is almost never seen in the Southwest, except in one place: Three Rivers.

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Schaafsma says in her book that what she calls the “circle-dot motif” is actually the most common element at the site, citing an obscure unpublished manuscript. It’s not clear how she defines this motif, as there are many petroglyphs at Three Rivers that consist of circles surrounded by dots, with the inside of the circle sometimes blank, sometimes filled with a larger dot, sometimes filled with a series of concentric circles, but often filled with a cross. (The illustration in Schaafsma’s book for this motif shows one of the crosses.) These quartered circles, usually but not always surrounded by dots, are very prominent at the site. What’s striking about this is how unique they are to this one site, especially given the importance of similar symbols in Mesoamerica as documented by Aveni et al. and Coggins. Aveni et al. actually mention some similar symbols in the rock art of California and Nevada, but they seem to have been unaware of the Three Rivers examples. The dots are especially interesting, given that the Teotihuacan examples are made of dots. That isn’t the case here, but the dots are clearly important. They give a solar feel to many of the symbols, especially those with concentric circles, which ties in to Coggins’s interpretation of the symbol as reflecting the passage of the sun. And remember those Tlalocs with their goggle eyes, present at Three Rivers as well as at virtually every other Jornada Style site. They clearly show not only that Mesoamerican religious symbols could and did travel this far north, but that the specific god associated with the quartered circle elsewhere was among the most prominent examples.

So what’s the explanation here? I confess that I don’t have one except to suppose that this symbol was of particular importance to the people who made the petroglyphs at Three Rivers, probably primarily people who lived at the contemporaneous village site nearby. I think it’s quite likely that this was a symbol particularly associated with that community, or perhaps with a specific social group within it, and that it is ultimately connected in some way to the symbols further south. Note that some of the pecked crosses described by Aveni et al. were quite far north in Mexico, some near the Tropic of Cancer and one described in a nineteenth-century source as being near the US border (though its exact location is unknown). The latter in particular would probably more or less close the geographic gap between the others and Three Rivers, while the examples near the Tropic of Cancer may have been associated with the nearby site of Alta Vista, which was occupied at a time that would fill much of the temporal gap between Teotihuacan and Three Rivers as well. It’s certainly hard to come to firm conclusions about things like this, of course, and the fact that the quartered circle doesn’t appear to have spread from Three Rivers to any other Jornada Mogollon groups or to the later Pueblos is problematic. Still, it’s a fascinating little glimpse into the complexity of the past and the possibilities that emerge from careful study and an open mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgAveni, A., Hartung, H., & Buckingham, B. (1978). The Pecked Cross Symbol in Ancient Mesoamerica Science, 202 (4365), 267-286 DOI: 10.1126/science.202.4365.267

Coggins, C. (1980). The Shape of Time: Some Political Implications of a Four-Part Figure American Antiquity, 45 (4) DOI: 10.2307/280144

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What Are Museums For?

Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska

In the same post about photography I discussed earlier, Matthew Yglesias also has some thoughts about museums:

It’s extremely difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that these super-gigantic collections represent an inefficient allocation of global resources. If 15 percent of the stuff on display at the Louvre vanished at random, the impact on the experience of visiting the museum in particular or Paris in general would be minimal. But in the majority of the cities of the world, that 15 percent would be the basis for an excellent new museum.

This touches on a longstanding debate about the purpose of museums in general.  One school of thought holds that amassing “super-gigantic collections” is precisely the point of having “universal museums” like the Louvre, the British Museum, the Smithsonian, etc.  The idea is that these institutions are the ones that have the resources to care for their collections properly, which can be quite a challenge with certain types of specimens, and that their locations in major cities and general cultural clout make the portions of their collections they display (necessarily a tiny fraction of the total) more accessible to more people than would be the case if they were scattered among numerous smaller museums.  The result of this approach is that while most people go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, whoever also wants to see the antiquities collections and so forth can do so all in one trip to Paris rather than having to go all over the world.  This view was also traditionally associated with the less savory imperialist attitudes of the elites who founded these museums in the nineteenth century, of course, which is one of the major reasons that it’s not the only view out there these days.

Entrance to Carnegie Museums, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The main opposing viewpoint is basically the one Yglesias takes: cultural treasures should be distributed more equitably, rather than amassed in a handful of huge museums.  A more specific variant holds that these treasures should really be kept and displayed as close as possible to their places of origin, which is a viewpoint particularly held by the governments of countries like Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Peru, i.e., the places of origin of all that stuff being collected by the museums during their more overtly imperialistic eras.  There have been some recent high-profile cases of these governments demanding (and in some cases getting) their stuff back from major museums.  You also see this sort of thing within the US, especially with regard to archaeological collections.  One of the main points of criticism of the Hyde Expedition at Chaco, for example, was that the artifacts were being shipped off to New York, to be kept by the American Museum of Natural History, rather than staying in New Mexico where they belonged.   Tellingly, however, many of the most strident (and effective) critics of the Hyde excavations were closely associated with the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, preeminently the founder of the museum, Edgar Lee Hewett.  Although the dispute was often portrayed as between “looters” shipping the stuff off with no regard for its scholarly value and professional archaeologists who wanted to preserve it, it was in reality primarily a dispute between two sets of professional archaeologists with different institutional sponsors.  Both groups wanted the sites to be excavated, and neither had excavation techniques that were up to modern standards.  Both also wanted the artifacts to leave Chaco, too.  It was really a matter of whether they went to New York or Santa Fe.  Nobody wanted to leave the stuff at Chaco (except the Indians, of course, but in those days nobody with any power cared what they wanted).  Hewett and the Santa Fe side ended up winning, and a few years after the AMNH gave up on Chaco for good Hewett began his own excavations there, only to be immediately pushed aside by Neil Judd and his institutional sponsor, the Smithsonian.  Hewett did get his chance once Judd was done, and the institutions with which he was affiliated, including the University of New Mexico and the School of American Research in addition to the MNM, have dominated research at Chaco ever since.

Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

This local approach generally sounds better when viewing these issues from a distance, I think, although it’s important to note that the upshot of the various institutions competing over Chaco was that the collections from excavations there are scattered all over the country with very few of them on public display.  From the perspective of the residents of a given place, whichever approach results in more of the stuff being near them sounds good, however, and the impetus for the founding of local museums in places like New Mexico has to be understood in the context of the general spirit of boosterism and economic development that pervaded small western cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as the universal museum concept resulted from the rapid growth of major industrial cities slightly earlier.  From the perspective of the visitor, concentration has the virtue of reducing the number of trips necessary but with the potential for increasing the distance traveled, while dispersion has the opposite effects (all depending, of course, on where a given visitor lives).  Basically, as with so many disputes, this one ultimately comes down to a clash of fundamental values.  Thus, there isn’t really a “solution” to it, just the necessity in each specific context of deciding which values to prioritize.

Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas

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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Matthew Yglesias, on vacation in Paris, says:

In the age of the Internet, I think it’s often hard to know what to take photos of. I got a lovely shot of the gardens at Versailles, to be sure, but Flickr and Wikipedia and all the rest are already loaded with pictures of everything obvious. Pictures taken by more skilled photographers. At the same time, I like taking pictures of things. It’s fun. So I often end up taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of things.

This is an issue I’ve encountered myself as well.  I’ve traveled a lot in the past few months, and taken a lot of pictures.  It does often seem silly, though, to take a picture of something I can find numerous pictures of with the click of a mouse.  I do still generally take those obvious pictures, mostly because I figure I might want to write blog posts about them at some point and my policy on this blog of only using my own pictures, while particularly silly in this sort of situation, does give me a pretext for taking pictures of many things.

The Hammer Museum, Haines, Alaska

There’s only so many pictures like that you can take, though, and once I’ve got one shot of each famous place I might want to write about I face the issue that I want to keep taking pictures, because it’s fun, but I no longer have any real idea what purpose those pictures might serve.  Now that huge memory cards are cheap, this doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but it’s still an issue.  One approach is to try to actually become a good photographer and take pictures that have intrinsic artistic merit.  I’ve considered this, and certainly tried to improve the quality of my pictures over the years, but really doing a good job of taking pictures would require a substantial investment of time that I’m not sure I want to make.

Passengers on Alaska State Ferry Taking Pictures of Mendenhall Glacier

Another option is to take pictures of unusual things.  Yglesias notes above that he likes to take pictures of other tourists taking pictures of famous things, and I’ve done the same thing at times.  What I’ve done more often, though, is focus more on documenting the mundane: city streets, houses, office buildings, and especially signs.  I take a lot of pictures of signs these days.  I like signs because people rarely take pictures of them, they’re often surprisingly photogenic (and make great generic illustrations for all sorts of topics I might want to discuss here), and they sometimes contain a remarkable amount of information beyond the literal message of the sign itself.  It’s also generally easier to take good pictures, with compelling composition of so forth, of simple things like signs than of more complicated scenes.

Sign for Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska

I’m not sure that there’s really a “right” answer to this question, or even that it’s an important enough problem to worry about, but I thought it was interesting to see Yglesias’s post about it because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.  The post also contains some interesting thinking about museums, but that’s a topic for another post.

"No Parking" Sign at Ferry Terminal, Juneau, Alaska

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United Country Mimbres Realty, Silver City, New Mexico

Inspired by my recent visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, I’ve been reading about the Mimbres Mogollon culture of southwestern New Mexico.  As I noted earlier, the cliff dwellings themselves aren’t actually Mimbres, instead belonging to the Tularosa Mogollon culture more common to the north, and they postdate the “Classic” Mimbres period (ca. AD 1000 to 1150, exactly contemporary with the florescence of Chaco further north) by over a century.  They do, however, fall well within the area occupied by the Classic Mimbres, and there is in fact a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, within the monument boundaries.  The upper Gila River valley was a major area of Mimbres settlement during the Classic period, and it had some of the largest Classic villages, although it is not nearly as well understood as the Rio Mimbres valley which is often considered the Mimbres “heartland” and which gave the culture its name.  A review article by Michelle Hegmon from 2002 provides a good and relatively recent overview of the major issues in Mimbres archaeology.

The Mimbres are best known for their pottery, some of which features elaborately painted naturalistic designs unlike anything else known from the prehistoric Southwest.  This pottery was painted with black paint on a white slip, as was Anasazi pottery from Chaco and other areas at the time, and many of the abstract geometrical designs that form the bulk of the decorated pottery are reminiscent of Anasazi styles.  There’s no equivalent among the Anasazi to the naturalistic designs, however, which show elaborately detailed people, animals, possible mythical scenes, and much else.  No two designs are exactly alike.  Most of the figurative designs were on bowls which were placed with burials, usually with a “kill-hole” through the center of the vessel, which was then placed over the face of the buried individual.  Iconographic study of Mimbres pottery dates back nearly a century, starting with the work of Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian in the 1910s, but in the past 20 years it has been supplemented by studies taking a more technological approach.  Particularly important has been a series of studies using instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) to determine the sources of the clay used in the pots and untangle patterns of production and exchange.  The results of these studies have generally been consistent with widely distributed production of pottery throughout the region, which is in contrast to other documented cases of community-level specialization in pottery production known from other parts of the Southwest at various times.  Design analysis has led some to suggest that the finest of the black-on-white bowls were made by a very small number of potters, however, which implies that perhaps a few specialists in villages scattered across the region made almost all of the well-known naturalistic vessels.

Tune Town Music Exchange, Silver City, New Mexico

Speaking of villages, one of the most interesting things about the Mimbres is that theirs were quite different from communities found throughout the rest of the Southwest during the Classic period.  While most areas, including the Chaco region, had communities of loosely clustered small house sites, the Mimbres were aggregated into large, dense villages made up of roomblocks very similar to those that would become increasingly common in Pueblo sites to the north starting in the thirteenth century and continuing into the historic period.  Indeed, some have argued that the Classic Mimbres invented the “Pueblo” as a type of community, and even that many of the social institutions of the modern Pueblos, such as the kachina cult, derive ultimately from Mimbres precursors.  There is definitely a clear continuum in artistic style from Mimbres pottery through Jornada Style rock art to the Rio Grande style of rock art and mural painting that appears among the northern Pueblos beginning around AD 1300.

After the decline of Chaco around AD 1130, the northern Southwest witnessed a pattern of ever-increasing aggregation eventually resulting in the modern Pueblos with their very Mimbres-like plans and institutions.  There have been various explanations offered for why this occurred, and I think those that attribute it largely to increased warfare are among the most persuasive.  There is definitely much more direct evidence for violence after about AD 1150 than before then.  Whatever was causing trouble in Pueblo societies at this time, it seems very likely that solutions drawn from the Mimbres experience became increasingly attractive further north.

But what was that experience?  Why did the Mimbres aggregate into large Pueblos at a time when everyone else lived in scattered small houses?  The Classic Mimbres period coincides with a time of remarkable peace throughout most of the Southwest, so defense seems less likely as an explanation here than it does later on.  Some of the Mimbres pots do show scenes of violence, including a well-known beheading, but it’s not at all clear that these show actual events rather than myths.  In general, there doesn’t seem to be any more evidence for warfare among the Classic Mimbres than anywhere else at the same time, which makes their much denser settlement pattern particularly mysterious.  It may have had something to do with irrigation agriculture, which the Mimbres had probably adopted somewhat earlier under the influence of the Hohokam in southern Arizona, who were by far the most accomplished irrigators of the prehistoric Southwest.  Among the Mimbres, as among other Mogollon groups, there was extensive Hohokam influence early on, which seems to have largely ceased by AD 1000, possibly replaced by increased influence from the Anasazi to the north (although this is controversial).  Steve Lekson, who has done a lot of work in the Mimbres area in addition to his work at Chaco, has argued that the Classic Mimbres consists of “an Anasazi lifestyle supported by Hohokam infrastructure,” and I think there may be something to that.  The labor demands of irrigation may have led to residential aggregation, although it’s important to note that the Hohokam themselves never aggregated to anything like the same degree despite their much more elaborate irrigation systems.

Welcome Sign, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

What’s even more puzzling about the Mimbres, however, is what they did after the end of the Classic period.  The large villages and figurative pottery seem to come to a rather sudden end around 1150, about the same time that Chaco declined and the northern Southwest entered a long, difficult period of warfare, aggregation, and regional abandonment.  It used to be thought that the Mimbres just “collapsed” at this time, with their ultimate fate unknown, but more recent research, especially in the eastern Mimbres area along the Rio Grande near the modern town of Truth or Consequences, has shown that the real story is more complicated.  Margaret Nelson has been researching settlement patterns in the eastern Mimbres area, and she has found that one notable shift after the end of the Classic period involved the dissolution of the aggregated Classic villages and the dispersal of people into small hamlets, often built on the sites of Classic fieldhouses.  She also sees continued production of Mimbres pottery, although apparently without the distinctive naturalistic designs, for a long time after the end of the Classic.  Hegmon, who has collaborated with Nelson on much of this work, has proposed calling these occupations “Postclassic Mimbres.”  They show much more extensive trade of pottery with surrounding areas than during the Classic period, as well as more variable architecture, implying that whatever social controls had held the large Classic villages together had broken down and been replaced by a more flexible social system.

What’s remarkable about this is that it’s basically the opposite of what was happening everywhere else in the Southwest, where the dominant trend during this period was aggregation.  The Mimbres, at least in the east, were instead dispersing.  The picture is less clear in the Mimbres and Gila valleys further west, but at least some of the Classic villages seem to have continued to be occupied at lower population levels (similar to what was going on at Chaco), while a new type of occupation seen at some sites in the area, known as the Black Mountain Phase, may or may not represent a change in Mimbres culture.  There is debate over whether the Black Mountain Phase actually shows continuity with Classic Mimbres or not.  It’s also possible that some people headed south, to the rising center at Casas Grandes, in which case they would be participating in the trend toward aggregation.

It’s becoming increasingly clear, then, that the Mimbres didn’t really collapse or totally abandon their region in 1150.  Instead, they seem to have sort of splintered, with some scattering to hamlets on the sites of former field houses, others possibly reorganizing their communities into Black Mountain Phase sites, and still others migrating away from their region either south to Casas Grandes or east to the Jornada area, where the very Mimbres-like Jornada petroglyph style seems to appear around this time.  This process of dispersal when everyone else was aggregating, combined with their earlier aggregation when everyone else was sprawling across the landscape, gives a distinct “out of phase” feel to Mimbres cultural dynamics.

I certainly don’t have any solutions to propose to the mysteries of the Mimbres, and as far as I can tell no one else really does either.  They’re among the most fascinating of the many peoples who inhabited the prehistoric Southwest, and while they are by no means the most obscure, outside of specialist circles they are known almost exclusively for their pottery.  The pottery is amazing, of course, and quite deserving of attention, but there’s much more to the Mimbres than their pots.
ResearchBlogging.org
Fewkes, J. (1916). Animal Figures on Prehistoric Pottery from Mimbres Valley, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 18 (4), 535-545 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1916.18.4.02a00080

Gilman, P., Canouts, V., & Bishop, R. (1994). The Production and Distribution of Classic Mimbres Black-on-White Pottery American Antiquity, 59 (4) DOI: 10.2307/282343

Hegmon, M. (2002). Recent Issues in the Archaeology of the Mimbres Region of the North American Southwest Journal of Archaeological Research, 10 (4), 307-357 DOI: 10.1023/A:1020525926010

Hegmon, M., Nelson, M., & Ruth, S. (1998). Abandonment and Reorganization in the Mimbres Region of the American Southwest American Anthropologist, 100 (1), 148-162 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.1.148

Nelson, M., & Hegmon, M. (2001). Abandonment Is Not as It Seems: An Approach to the Relationship between Site and Regional Abandonment American Antiquity, 66 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2694606

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Core Samples Taken for Tree-Ring Dating, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Despite their impressive preservation, the Gila Cliff Dwellings have gotten surprisingly little attention in the archaeological literature.  This is apparently because they were so thoroughly ransacked by pothunters early on that there wasn’t much left intact for archaeologists to study, and possibly also because the early establishment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 has led most subsequent research to be done by the National Park Service, which has often had a tendency to keep findings in internal reports for management purposes rather than publishing them in peer-reviewed journals or books.  The surviving structural timbers have clearly been sampled for tree-ring dating, and the interpretive material put out by the monument discusses the results of this analysis.  The museum at the visitor center also displays some artifact that were apparently found in the cliff dwellings, although it’s not always clear if they were excavated by the NPS or recovered from private collections after having been looted and sold.  The NPS does have an online administrative history of the monument; I haven’t read it yet, but from a casual look through the section on archaeological research it seems to confirm that there has been some excavation by the Park Service, mostly in the 1960s, but that the data have not been thoroughly analyzed or reported.

The only substantial discussion of the cliff dwellings that I have found in the published literature is a short article published by Editha Watson in 1929.  She discusses several cave sites in the Upper Gila River area, but gives the most detailed description (which is still not very detailed) of the caves in the monument.  She discusses the highly looted state of the sites and some of the things found in them, although she does not make it very clear who found them or how:

Corncobs are plentiful in this ruin. They are very small, and the dry atmosphere has preserved them so beautifully that they may be indented with the fingernail. Black-and-white pottery and corrugated ware blackened on the inside are the only sorts noticed among the sherds. Turquoise beads have been found here. As this is a national monument, excavation is forbidden, but vandals have torn up the floor in search of treasure.

She also mentions a “desiccated body of an infant” found in one of the caves.  According to the administrative history four such mummies were allegedly found in the cliff dwellings at various points in the late nineteenth century and sent to the Smithsonian, which apparently never received any of them.  It’s not clear which of these Watson refers to, or where she got her information.

Pictographs on Cave Wall behind Room, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Watson also mentions the red pictographs found in the caves, which she says are “supposed to be the work of later tribes.”  As the administrative history notes, it’s not clear who is supposing this or why.  More recently, Polly Schaafsma has classified these pictographs as belonging to the Mogollon Red style, which is also found to the northwest in the area around Reserve, New Mexico.  She also thinks the pictographs in the caves were made by residents of the cliff dwellings standing on rooftops, which makes sense given their positions and firmly dates them to the late thirteenth century AD.  There are other pictograph locations in and around the monument, including one in Lower Scorpion Campground that is quite impressive in its number and variety of designs.

Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground

The Mogollon Red style is very different from most other Southwestern rock art styles, at least the ones I’ve seen examples of.  It includes a lot of abstract geometrical designs and stick-figure humans, and is always in the form of pictographs rather than petroglyphs.  It is particularly different from the Jornada style found to the east in the Mimbres and Jornada Mogollon regions, which consists mainly of petroglyphs and has a lot of naturalistic animals and human faces or masks.  Schaafsma has proposed that the Jornada style represents an ideological system that later developed into the kachina cult of the modern Pueblos.  The Mogollon Red style forms another link between the Gila Cliff Dwellings and areas to the north and west, reinforcing the impression from pottery styles that link them to the Tularosa area.  This is interesting given their geographical proximity to the Mimbres area, with its very different iconographic traditions, and strongly supports the idea that the builders of the cliff dwellings were immigrants from somewhere to the north.

That’s about all I’ve found in the published literature about the cliff dwellings.  Clearly they have a lot of potential to shed light on a number of issues important in the study of Southwestern prehistory, especially interregional relationships and migration, but so far they have not been widely incorporated into discussion of those issues.
ResearchBlogging.org
Watson, E. (1929). Caves of the Upper Gila River, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 31 (2), 299-306 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1929.31.2.02a00070

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Cliff Dwellings from Trail, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Over Labor Day Weekend my mom and I went down to southwestern New Mexico to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  We had been wanting to go there for a long time, but it’s pretty far from Albuquerque (about a six-hour drive) and not really on the way to anywhere else, so we hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  With me going away to Alaska soon, this was a good opportunity.  We camped at Lower Scorpion Campground, which turned out to be a fortuitously good location since there are some pictographs and a cliff dwelling right in the campground.  The main attraction, of course, was the cliff dwellings themselves, and they were quite spectacular.  They’re not particularly easy to get to.  They are accessible by paved road, unlike Chaco, but it’s a very long winding road through the mountains, so it takes quite a bit of effort.  The sites are definitely worth the effort, though.

Labor Day is apparently the busiest time for visitation there, so it was quite crowded, and there were a lot of volunteers around answering questions and so forth.  Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the less-visited Park Service units, so it relies almost entirely on volunteers.  At the visitor center they told us that the monument only has two paid employees; I had heard once that they only had one (the superintendent), but I guess they’re up to two.  Part of the reason they can get by like this is that they’re surrounded by the Gila National Forest, so the Forest Service can pick up a lot of the slack and do the things that the monument doesn’t have the staffing for.  The monument itself is tiny, and basically consists only of the cliff dwellings themselves and a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, which is apparently not open to the public.  The visitor center and the campgrounds are on Forest Service land, and the visitor center is shared by both the Forest Service and the Park Service.

Gila Visitor Center, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

I hadn’t known very much about the Gila Cliff Dwellings before going there.  I knew that they were built by the Mogollon culture, and that they were the only Mogollon sites managed by the Park Service, but aside from that I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect.  Luckily, the visitor center has a nice museum and a very informative and up-to-date video explaining a lot of the background.  The cliff dwellings are really quite unusual for Mogollon sites, which were usually either pithouse villages or above-ground pueblos in open areas like the Mimbres villages.  Cliff dwellings are more typical of the Anasazi to the north at places like Mesa Verde, of course, and these were very reminiscent of sites like that architecturally.  They’re quite close to the Mimbres Valley, so I had thought there might be some connection between them and the Mimbres, probably the best-known division of the Mogollon, but apparently the current archaeological thinking is that the cliff dwellings were not built by the Mimbres but by the Tularosa Mogollon, who mostly lived a bit further north but apparently migrated to the south and built the cliff dwellings in the late thirteenth century AD.  This seems to be established by the pottery found at the cliff dwellings, as Tularosa pottery is very distinctive and different from other Mogollon pottery traditions.  I believe it’s more similar to some Anasazi styles, which would fit well with the Anasazi-like architecture.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907, the same year as Chaco, but apparently the sites had already been very significantly pothunted by then, and there was very little left for archaeologists to find once the sites were protected.  Interestingly, one of the volunteers answering questions at the sites when I was there mentioned that the pothunters mostly left behind things like corncobs, so we have a pretty good idea of the subsistence system of the people who occupied the sites even though we don’t know a whole lot about their tools or other aspects of material culture.  I guess there must have been a bit of Tularosa-style pottery left behind and/or in private collections originating from the early pothunting.  Anyway, the upshot of all this is that there has been essentially no professional excavation of the cliff dwellings, and they are rarely mentioned in the archaeological literature as a result, which is really unfortunate because they’re fascinating sites.

Corncobs at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Like most cliff dwellings, these ones preserved a lot of perishable materials that rarely survive in open sites.  I mentioned the corncobs before, and there are also a lot of wooden beams in situ.  These have been sampled for tree-ring dating, which found that all construction of the sites took place between AD 1270 and 1300, mostly in the 1280s.  The sites were probably only occupied for one generation at most.   This seems like a short period, but it’s actually pretty typical for cliff dwellings.  Many of the much larger sites at Mesa Verde were occupied for almost exactly the same interval.  The late thirteenth century seems to have been the main period for cliff-dwelling construction throughout most of the Southwest.

This is of course the period of the “Great Drought,” and the obviously highly defensible nature of cliff dwellings has led to much speculation that their florescence at this time was due to defensive considerations.  This has been a somewhat controversial proposal further north, and Park Service sites tend to downplay it, but at the Gila sites the interpretive material states outright that defense was probably a major factor in the occupation of the cliff dwellings.  I find this interesting.  It may have to do with the relative distance of the modern Pueblos from this area, and resultingly lower political controversy over discuss of prehistoric warfare, but it may also have to do with the nature of Mogollon archaeology, which developed somewhat differently from Anasazi archaeology.  Steven LeBlanc, who is probably the most prominent archaeologist to argue for a major role for warfare in the prehistoric Southwest, has his particular expertise in the Mimbres area.  This is all just speculation on my part, of course.

T-Shaped Doorway, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

One of the cliff dwellings has a t-shaped door.  This is a type of architectural feature that is common at Chaco (and Mesa Verde) as well as at Casas Grandes to the south.  Many people have argued that this represents some sort of Mesoamerican influence on those sites, and Steve Lekson has argued that it is one of the signs of continuity between Chaco and Casas Grandes.  Its presence here, between the two, and in association with a very Anasazi-like type of architecture deep in Mogollon territory, is certainly intriguing.  Macaw feathers were also found at the cliff dwellings.  The importance of the macaw at Chaco and Casas Grandes (where they were bred on a huge scale), as well as in the Mimbres area, is well known, and of course they would have to have come from further south initially.

Anyway, these are some really fascinating sites that raise the possibility of a lot of intriguing connections to other parts of the Southwest and beyond.  I highly recommend a visit to them for anyone.  Unlike a lot of the sites in the Southwest, these are very impressive even to people without much particular interest in archaeology, on account of their fantastic preservation and stunning location.

Labor Day Weekend Crowds at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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