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Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash Near Their Confluence

I’ve never read any of Jared Diamond‘s books, so I’ve been reluctant to say much about him and his ideas.  Chaco is one of his main case studies in Collapse, however, so I really should read it at some point and try to figure out what I think of it.  I’ve heard conflicting things about how accurately it presents and interprets the evidence he gathers from archaeologists.  A lot of people seem to really like it, but most archaeologists seem to hate it and think that it’s riddled with errors.  I browsed through it a little once in the Chaco bookstore (which, yes, carries it, or at least did at the time), and I didn’t see any obvious errors of fact in the parts of the Chaco chapter I looked at, but the caption for one of the pictures, an overview of the canyon as it appears now, seemed to imply that the current desolate look of the area was the result of the overexploitation of the local environment by the Chacoans, which presumably led to their collapse.  My understanding of Diamond’s message, based mainly on the subtitle of the book (“How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”), is that the main driver of collapse he sees is environmental degradation, and the book’s popularity in environmentalist circles certainly makes sense in this light.

In any case, I’m skeptical about the whole idea that Chaco “collapsed” in the way that Diamond seems to think.  I’ve put forth my case in detail elsewhere and won’t repeat it now, but the basic idea is that what happened at Chaco is more complicated than a simple catchword like “collapse” (however it’s defined) implies.  On the narrow point of whether whatever happened at Chaco was the result of “choices” the Chacoans made about whether to “succeed or fail,” I guess it depends on what choices you mean by that.  David Stuart argues that the rigid, hierarchical social structure that allowed Chaco to become so impressive in the first place made the system too brittle to withstand severe climatic fluctuations, with the result that it was replaced by the more egalitarian and resilient social structures of the modern Pueblos.  He sees some clear lessons for our own society from this, primarily about the problems with economic inequality (a timely topic these days).  That’s one way of looking at “collapse.”

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

I’m not sure if it’s what Diamond is talking about, though.  I’ve seen him described as an “environmentalist” in the old sense, i.e., an environmental determinist who sees major aspects of human societies as inevitable results of their environmental situations, with the twist that he obviously doesn’t have a completely deterministic view of human reactions to the environment but rather, more in line with the modern meaning of “environmentalism,” he recognizes that the interaction between humans and their environments goes both ways.  Under this view, presumably the most enlightening examples of past “collapses” to look at for insights into how we should address our own environmental problems are those where collapse was the result of ecological “overshoot,” or human use of natural resources outstripping the ability of the environment to provide them.  Joseph Tainter, who knows a lot about “collapse” from an archaeological perspective, has vigorously criticized Diamond’s (and others’) use of this approach, and I think choosing Chaco as an example of this type of collapse is particularly questionable.

It’s not that the Chacoans didn’t have major effects on their local environment.  The permanent resident population of the canyon may not have been very large, but it’s not an area that’s exactly abounding in resources, and the fact that the Chacoans imported all kinds of stuff from outside the canyon strongly implies that there wasn’t enough of all sorts of things locally to support the community.  I believe Diamond makes a big deal specifically out of the evidence for importing wood from the distant mountains, which I presume he sees as evidence that the Chacoans had deforested their local area more or less completely, with the attendant implications for overshoot and collapse.  Hence the caption on the picture I noticed when leafing through the book: the implied sequence of events is rise of Chaco leading to deforestation leading to collapse leading to a treeless desert wasteland even 1000 years later.

Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

But of course the evidence for importing timber from 50 miles away also implies that the Chacoans had the ability to organize some seriously impressive procurement for those resources they were lacking locally (whether because they had outstripped them or because they were never there to start with).  It’s not that they didn’t deforest their local area; they totally did, and fast!  But if that had been enough to make the system collapse, it never could have gotten going in the first place.  The abiding mystery of Chaco, after all, is not that a major center of its scale arose in the Southwest but that it arose where it did, in one of the least inviting environments in the whole region.  Somehow, the people at Chaco were able to marshal the resources of a much bigger area with many more resources, until suddenly they couldn’t.  The thing that needs to be explained by any “collapse” narrative is why that social power stopped so abruptly, which presumably also requires an answer to the question of how it developed in the first place.  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, which is why Chaco remains such a fascinating and mysterious place even after over a century of intensive study.

“Overshoot” is not a very helpful explanation in this context.  Stripping the canyon of all its productive potential clearly didn’t lead to the collapse of Chaco, as the Chacoans were able to draw on the much greater potential of the whole region, at least for a while.  Overshoot doesn’t really explain why that control ended, either, since the overall resources of the region that the Chacoans apparently had access to were much too abundant for them to deplete.  They easily deforested the mesas above the canyon, but they never came close to deforesting the Chuskas or Mt. Taylor.  Those are big mountains, covered in trees!  And the same goes for all the other imported goods.  You could perhaps make a case for overshoot in some particular area perhaps contributing to the collapse of Chacoan power in some roundabout way, but it would definitely not be as simple as a straightforward story of overshoot leading to collapse implies.  That picture doesn’t show the enduring effects of Chacoan deforestation on the canyon; it shows what the canyon probably looked like when the Chacoans first encountered it.  Indeed, the canyon ecosystem we see today is the result of over fifty years of protection from grazing, and over a hundred years of protection from most other impacts.

Juniper Trees on the South Mesa Trail

So those are my thoughts on Diamond, and I really should read the book at some point to get a better sense of what he actually argues and whether this is a fair interpretation.  What I find interesting, though, is that noted archaeological iconoclast Steve Lekson has recently written an impassioned post in support of Diamond.  He points out that most archaeologists seem to hate Diamond’s books and spend a lot of time pointing out the flaws in them, but he argues that doing this is missing the more important point:

I’m sure there are errors – real errors.  Any work of this scope will have errors.  But much of the carping seems to concern not facts, but interpretations.  Diamond necessarily works from other archaeologists’ interpretations and I suspect the authors upon whom he relies would have something to say about all this.  The interpretations he accepts are not necessarily wrong; they are simply inconsistent with those of his critics.

I’m not saying that Diamond gets it “right.”  It’s hard to get things completely “right,” especially in science when many very reasonable hypotheses are probably wrong.  But the vehemence of academic reaction to Diamond is, I think, far disproportionate to his sins – sins of omission, commission or (worst of all) failure to cite the critic.  It is my opinion that much of the heat comes from Diamond’s success as a popular writer.  It’s not jealousy — well, maybe a little: after all, the guy won the Pulitzer with our data.  We don’t want anyone else to tell our story, even though we almost never tell it ourselves – accessibly.  And, it must be said, there is antipathy, even hostility from academics towards popular writers, even when that popular writer is an academic.     We all should re-read Article 4 of the SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, especially the bit about “Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.”

Fair enough.  I do obviously agree with the value of outreach and it’s true that Diamond has been a wildly successful popularizer of archaeology.  Lekson goes on to give a very interesting account of what he sees as the important “collapses” in Southwestern prehistory.  I note that Chaco, specifically, doesn’t appear on the list, although the depopulation of the Four Corners around AD 1300 does.  I have my doubts about that one too, but it really depends a lot on how you define “collapse.”  It’s not clear if Lekson has actually read Diamond’s book(s) (although obviously I’m hardly one to judge on that score), and he doesn’t directly address any of Diamond’s claims or interpretations about Chaco specifically, even though he is of course much more of an expert on Chaco than either Diamond or me.  Still, his general points about the reaction to Diamond are fair.  It would probably be more helpful for archaeologists who object to interpretations of their data put forth in popular accounts like Diamond’s to explain their objections in similarly popular fora, rather than just whining amongst themselves.  Diamond’s work may have a lot of problems, but at least he’s trying to draw conclusions from archaeological data and apply them to modern issues in accessible way, which is much more than you can say for most archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions like Stuart and, to a lesser extent, Lekson himself.  In any case, I think it’s clear that this conversation is really just getting started, so anyone who is really upset by the direction it’s taken so far has plenty of opportunity to jump in and contribute a different perspective.

View from Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

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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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Salmon Ruins Sign

One of the largest and most important of the “outliers” associated with the system centered on Chaco Canyon in the late eleventh century AD is Salmon Ruin on the San Juan River near Bloomfield, New Mexico.  Salmon is about 45 miles due north of Chaco, and its location in a fertile river valley makes it a much less surprising (though still impressive) site than Chaco, with its stark, desolate setting.  Salmon was partly excavated in the 1970s by Cynthia Irwin-Williams of Eastern New Mexico University, and the Center for Desert Archaeology has recently been working on an extended project to collect, reevaluate, and publish data from those excavations as well as new analyses taking into account more recent discoveries and interpretations relating to the Chaco system in general.  One result of this was the publication of a comprehensive three-volume site report in 2006, and another was the publication of a shorter, more synthetic volume in 2008.  I read the report a while ago and am currently about halfway through the newer book.  It’s definitely more accessible than the report, but it doesn’t really stand alone.  A lot of basic information about the site and the excavations seems to be assumed, presumably because it’s discussed in the site report.  The report doesn’t stand alone either, and in general there’s a surprising lack of overlap between the two publications.  You might think that the synthetic volume would be a more accessible book aimed at a general audience, since it’s published by a university press rather than by CDA and the Salmon Ruins Museum, but while the new book goes well beyond Salmon itself in discussing the archaeology of the “Middle San Juan” or “Totah” region in general it really seems to be aimed at specialists with substantial background who have either already read the site report or are willing and able to find and read it if they want to follow up on the numerous references to chapters in it.  Both books are very expensive, which is another factor standing in the way of a general audience for them.

This is all rather unfortunate, because there’s a lot of important and fascinating information in these two publications.  In the context of my recent discussion of kivas at Chaco and the debate over their function, one of the chapters in the synthetic volume is particularly relevant.  Here Paul Reed, the head of the CDA project at Salmon, makes a strong case for a largely residential function for Salmon during the Chacoan period.  This is interesting in itself due to the longstanding debate over the function of great houses like Salmon in general, with some arguing that they served as primarily non-residential ceremonial structures while others see them more as elite residences.  Reed doesn’t discount the importance of ritual functions at Salmon, nor does he try to argue that all great houses were primarily residential, but he shows from the evidence collected by the excavations in the 1970s that there is abundant evidence for residential use of many of the rooms at Salmon during its brief Chacoan occupation as well as during its longer subsequent occupation, which he sees as being by local people after the Chacoan residents left and went to Aztec.

Excavated Rooms at Salmon Ruin

One of the most important pieces of evidence Reed points to to support a residential function at Salmon is the very obvious presence of room suites throughout the site.  Salmon has a very formal, “planned” layout typical of later great houses, which makes sense since it seems to have been founded around 1090, toward the end of the Chacoan era (which lasted from about 1030 to 1130).  Indeed, it looks virtually identical in layout to Hungo Pavi, an unexcavated great house in Chaco Canyon about which little is known.  Salmon, like Hungo Pavi, is an “E-shaped” great house, with a central room block on the north side and wings extending to the south at the east and west ends.  The whole thing seems to have been constructed as a single unit within a few years around 1090, which makes it by far the largest single building episode known in the Chaco system and has interesting implications for understanding why it might have been built.  There has long been a dispute over whether the outliers in the Chaco “system” represent direct colonization by people from Chaco, local emulation of Chacoan forms by emerging elites, or something else.  Reed supports a colonization model, but he sees the Chacoans who came up to Salmon and built the great house as having also brought local residents in to live there with them, and perhaps to work on building the thing too.  The local area seems to have lacked a substantial pre-Chacoan population, so it’s not entirely clear where these locals would have actually come from, but it does make sense that colonists from Chaco would have selected a relatively uninhabited location for their new settlement.

Anyway, back to the room suites.  Most of the site seems to have originally been laid out as a series of suites, each of which involved a large square room facing the plaza connected to three smaller rooms behind it.  The large square rooms seem to have been single-story, but the smaller rooms mostly had two or three stories.  The large square rooms especially tended to have many residential features such as hearths, and the smaller rooms often had features such as milling bins that also suggest domestic use.  There were also a few rooms that had very large milling bins, larger than would have been necessary for individual households, which suggests that site residents might have been grinding corn on a large scale.  This, combined with Salmon’s location in a fertile valley, in turn suggests that the site may have been founded partly or even primarily as an agricultural colony that would have exported corn and/or cornmeal to Chaco and perhaps other areas with poorer agricultural potential.  There is evidence from studies of corn at Chaco that much of it was imported from the Totah, which meshes nicely with this idea.

Backfilled Rooms at Salmon Ruin

The key thing here, though, is that it’s the large square rooms that seem to have been the primary living rooms.  This is similar to the case at some early room suites at Chacoan great houses, such those in the western wing of Pueblo Bonito.  Later great houses at Chaco seem to have largely either lost the room suite pattern or modified it beyond recognition, but at Salmon it stands out clear as day.

There’s something missing here, though.  Salmon (in the Chacoan period) was composed almost entirely of room suites made up of large square and small rectangular rooms.  But what about kivas?  These round rooms are often considered one of the hallmarks of pueblo architecture, and while their function is disputed their presence is often thought of as near-universal.  Salmon complicates this picture considerably.

Great Kiva, Salmon Ruins

There were two round rooms in the Chacoan-period construction at Salmon (note these caveats; they’re important).  One was the great kiva in the plaza, a standard Chacoan form that presumably had ritual functions, and another was and elevated, blocked-in kiva at the center of the main roomblock that Salmon specialists refer to as the “Tower Kiva,” although it actually isn’t a tower kiva in the sense in which Chaco specialists use the term.  Both of these seem to have had important community-wide functions and they were probably not residential (though I’m less sure of this in the case of the Tower Kiva than in the case of the great kiva).  What Chacoan-period Salmon lacked, however, were the smaller kivas that are ubiquitous at Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and other great houses at Chaco.  These are the kivas that Steve Lekson thinks were residential rather than ceremonial, although others disagree.  In any case, they don’t seem to have been part of the original plan for Salmon.

So what gives?  Well, if we buy Lekson’s theory, which I basically do, what seems to be going on here is that the residential functions filled by kivas elsewhere were filled by the large square rooms at Salmon.  As I noted in the previous post, the fact that some great houses have room suites with big square rooms while others have different types of suites with associated kivas suggests that there were two different residential patterns in the Chacoan system that might correspond to some important dimension of social complexity.  Salmon seems to support this idea, in that it apparently was designed (and occupied?) by one of these groups rather than the other, whereas at Pueblo Bonito, at least, both seem to have been present.

Kiva 121A, Salmon Ruin

If you’ve been to Salmon, this may seem a bit confusing, because one of the most obvious things you can see there is that there are plenty of kivas!  They’re built into the square roomblocks, just like at Chaco!  And, indeed, they are.  Excavation showed, however, that these kivas are not original to the building.  Instead, they were built into the large Chacoan rooms in the post-Chacoan period.  The Chacoan period at Salmon seems to have ended around 1125 or 1130, coincident with the end of major construction at Chaco and extensive evidence of major changes in the Chaco system that may or may not have constituted the “collapse” of that system.  The original idea the excavators had was that this involved the total abandonment of Salmon for a few decades, after which it was reoccupied by a new group with ties to the Mesa Verde region to the north which remained there until the site was abandoned completely in the 1280s or 1290s along with the whole region.  It later became clear that there was at least a small “Intermediate” occupation between the “Primary” (Chacoan) and “Secondary” (Mesa Verdean) occupations, and the CDA project has redefined these occupations to emphasize continuity between the last two, seeing them as “early” and “late” periods of a continuous local “San Juan” occupation as opposed to a migration from the north.

In any case, it was the “Secondary,” “Mesa Verdean,” or “San Juan” occupants, not the Chacoans, who built kivas into the Chacoan rooms.  Note that architecturally, these are not Chacoan kivas, which have a very standardized set of features, but instead more closely resemble Mesa Verde kivas and may reflect local architectural traditions such as the use of river cobbles rather than sandstone blocks in some contexts.  They were mostly built into the large square living rooms, although some were in the smaller rooms, which were also often subdivided with adobe walls to create spaces more typical of small sites in the area than the large rooms typical of Chacoan great houses.

Kiva at Salmon Ruin Showing Use of Cobble Masonry

The fact that these kivas were mostly built into the Chacoan living rooms is another point in favor of Lekson’s arguments that kivas were residential, especially since there’s some evidence from the Salmon excavation data that there was more continuity between the “Chacoan” and “San Juan” occupations than the excavators thought.  One interpretation for the construction of the kivas is that whoever was living at Salmon in the 1200s knew how the room suites had been used in the Chacoan era and wanted to continue to use them the same way but in a way that was consistent with local traditions and practices.  These people may or may not have been descended from the original inhabitants of the site.

The upshot of this is that we have strong evidence here that there was a practice in at least one Chacoan great house in the late 1000s and early 1100s of residential use of room suites focused on large square rooms facing the plaza.  It’s hard to tell if this pattern holds for any of the sites at Chaco itself (Hungo Pavi?), since the most extensively excavated ones were excavated long before the techniques that allowed the Salmon excavators to carefully differentiate between occupations were developed.  There is some evidence from the less extensive excavations at Pueblo Alto, however, which were done by the Chaco Project around the same time Salmon was being dug, that there was a similar pattern there of kivas being added to an original plan lacking them.  The kivas in the southeast corner of the Chetro Ketl plaza also seem to be very late, and the other parts of that site have relatively few kivas, most of them in elevated contexts similar to the “Tower Kiva” at Salmon.  Something similar may be true for the blocked-in kivas in the central roomblock at Pueblo del Arroyo.

Chacoan Masonry at Salmon Ruin

That leaves Pueblo Bonito.  The enormous complexity and early excavation of this site make teasing apart the different stages of construction enormously difficult, but one possibility is that at least some of the kivas there have a similar history to the ones at Salmon.  This may be particularly the case in the southwest corner, which has several kivas that may have been added into older square rooms and is also the area with the well-defined early room suites with large square rooms taking the place of kivas.  It’s also likely that many of the plaza kivas were very late additions like the ones at Chetro Ketl.  The blocked-in kivas in the southeast corner are trickier to interpret, and I’m not sure at this point if they represent something like the Salmon pattern or a different phenomenon entirely.

The excavations at Salmon resulted in a vast amount of information that is only now beginning to be incorporated into the study of the Chacoan system overall.  This evidence for residential use is just one example, but an important one, of how this data can lead to important insights not just about Salmon itself but about other parts of the Chaco world as well.

Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

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Kiva R, Pueblo Bonito

I’ve been talking quite a bit lately about the idea that kivas in Chacoan great houses were residential spaces, but it’s important to note that there are in fact other rooms at these sites that show at least as much evidence for residential use as the kivas do.  These are typically large square or rectangular rooms facing plazas, often with T-shaped doors opening into the plazas, and they have firepits, storage pits, mealing bins, and other features typically interpreted as indicating residential use.  Arguments that Chacoan great houses were not used residentially at all tend to gloss over the presence of these rooms, and arguments that great houses may have had some residential functions but were primarily used for other purposes tend to focus on the small numbers of these rooms at excavated sites such as Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.

And, indeed, not very many rooms have these features.  Using the fantastic database that the Chaco Archive is putting together, I find only 134 “thermal features” at Pueblo Bonito out of about 400 excavated rooms.  Note that this figure includes all formal hearths as well as more ephemeral heating pits, and that it includes kivas as well as rectangular rooms.  I do think it’s reasonable to think that most kivas were residential, of course, so this isn’t as big an overestimate as it might seem at first glance, but it’s still an overestimate.  Storage features are even less prevalent, with only 107 documented at Pueblo Bonito.  Furthermore, chronological control during early excavations was not great, so it’s not totally clear when in the site’s long occupation history these rooms were used for residential purposes; it’s quite possible that they started out as residential rooms and later were converted to some other use when the use of the whole site changed.

Western Burial Rooms in Old Bonito

Still, those plaza-facing square rooms do pose a challenge for Steve Lekson‘s arguments that kivas were residential, because they seem to take the place of the kivas he posits within residential room suites.  Indeed, some even have kiva-like features like ventilation shafts, particularly in the western part of “Old Bonito” where many of the rooms were later used as burial chambers.  Tom Windes has pointed to this as a challenge to Lekson’s interpretation of kivas, and indeed it seems tricky to interpret.

Why are there two different types of rooms that both seem to indicate similar residential uses?  Were kivas and plaza-facing square rooms part of the same room suites?  Were the kivas sunk into the plaza in front of the room suites used for some sort of multi-household purpose, as Windes has proposed, rather than being individual household residential spaces?  If so, what?  It is noteworthy that, to the extent that we can tell based on the existing architecture, there generally seem to have been too few kivas in early great houses for each room suite to have had its own.  It’s also striking that while some room suites at early great houses are very obvious sets of interconnected rooms, others are much more difficult to interpret and may not have had quite the same functions.  And it’s here that I think a possible answer to this puzzle may emerge.

Kiva T, Pueblo Bonito

Looking at the distributions of kivas and square rooms with residential features, I think it’s possible that there were two separate traditions or styles of domestic architecture that we see in early great houses: one based on a “Prudden unit” with a kiva and a few surface rooms used for storage, and another based on a “room suite” with a large living room, containing a hearth, taking the place of the kiva and being directly connected to two or three smaller storage rooms behind it.  Where these styles may have come from and what, if anything, they represented socially is still an open question as far as I’m concerned, but it’s something I’ll be looking into.  Tentatively, I’m thinking regional variation in architecture is perhaps the most likely answer, especially given other lines of evidence suggesting that Chaco was a multiethnic community incorporating people from a variety of geographic and cultural backgrounds.  It’s also possible, however, that these differences reflect some other dimension of social diversity, or that they have no relation to any such type of diversity that we can see in the archaeological record today.

If the people who lived in kivas and the people who lived in square rooms were different people in some meaningful sense, that has potentially important implications for many aspects of the Chaco system.  I’ll try to tease out these implications in upcoming posts, and I’ll also look at some other lines of evidence supporting this idea.

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway between Room 28 and the Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

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Late Kivas in the Southeast Corner of the Chetro Ketl Plaza

Implicit in my previous discussion of “Chacoan” kivas was the idea that the term “Chacoan” in this context refers to a specific architectural form defined by a collection of features, rather than to a geographic location.  Thus, Chacoan kivas are common at Chaco Canyon, but they are also found at many sites outside the canyon, particularly at Chacoan “outliers” or sites with great houses similar to those at Chaco and other attributes that tie them to Chaco despite quite considerable distances.  The converse is also true, in that not all kivas at Chaco are Chacoan kivas.

Kivas in the Southeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

Since the Chacoan kiva form is so standardized and consistent, it is fairly easy to tell when a given kiva does not meet the criteria to be considered Chacoan, and many kivas at Chaco do not.  In his 2007 chapter on great house form, Steve Lekson identifies 22 excavated kivas at Chaco great houses that do not meet Chacoan criteria.  Since these are considerably smaller than the excavated Chacoan kivas, with an average diameter of 4.3 meters (as compared to an average diameter of 7.2 meters for Chacoan kivas), Lekson refers to them as “small round rooms.”  This category originated as something of a catch-all for kivas that did not meet all the criteria to be considered Chacoan kivas, great kivas, or tower kivas, but in addition to the small size there are some other commonalities among these rooms.  None has the full set of Chacoan kiva features, but many do have some of these features, including subfloor ventilators, southern bench recesses, and floor vaults.  However, only three have bench recesses, and of those only two also have subfloor ventilators.  These two may actually be Chacoan kivas, although they are missing the floor vaults and beam pilasters standard to the Chacoan type, and Lekson speculates that it may be their small size that leads them to lack these features.  They were both built into elevated square rooms, which is typical of Chacoan kivas.  Lekson defines his categories based on size rather than internal features because he wants to include unexcavated rooms, which is reasonable, but it does seem likely that these two kivas at least really are the smallest Chacoan kivas and fit the type criteria imperfectly because of their size.

Keyhole-Shaped Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Other non-Chacoan kivas are more obviously different in form.  One of the most conspicuous non-Chacoan attributes of many kivas is that they have high masonry pilasters rather than low ones with radial beams; another is that they have a “keyhole” shape rather than being circular.  This shape results from a southern recess not just of the bench, as in Chacoan kivas, but of the walls as well, and it is quite common in the Mesa Verde region to the north, as is the use of high masonry pilasters to support a cribbed roof.  In that area the keyhole shape is often associated with a ventilation shaft that opens horizontally into the recess, as described by Jesse Walter Fewkes for kivas at Spruce Tree House, but almost all of the non-Chacoan kivas at Chaco have the “Chacoan” subfloor vent type instead.  There are only two excavated examples that do not have subfloor vents, both at Pueblo Alto; one of these has a Chacoan-style bench recess and the other has a floor vault.  In other words, no excavated kiva at a Chaco great house is completely lacking “Chacoan” features.  Lekson uses this fact to argue that even these non-Chacoan kivas are more likely “local” than “foreign” (as they have often been considered), and he concludes “many, perhaps most, of the smaller round rooms represent a late expression of the Chacoan buildings tradition.”

Kiva E at Pueblo Bonito, with High Masonry Pilasters

Foreign or not, they certainly do seem to be late.  Most were added into existing square rooms in a fashion similar to that seen with elevated, blocked-in Chacoan kivas, but it is important to note that Chacoan elevated kivas were usually added into rooms that were specially built for the purpose, while non-Chacoan ones were typically added into square rooms that had previously had other uses.  None of these kivas produced tree-ring dates, but Lekson considers them all to probably date to the early twelfth century or later.  Subterranean examples, generally built into plazas, also seem to be late.  The ones in the southeast corner of Chetro Ketl, which are still exposed today and can easily be seen, are associated with a late plaza surface.  Similar ones at Pueblo Bonito have mostly been backfilled completely and are no longer visible, but they probably date to the same period.

Keyhole-Shaped Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Given the increase in cultural influence from the north, especially from Aztec Ruins and the Totah area around modern-day Farmington, New Mexico, in the early 1100s, it makes sense that later Chacoan architecture would start to show northern influences during this period even if there were not a major influx of immigrants from the north (for which there isn’t really any evidence).  I therefore think Lekson’s arguments for a local origin for these features are reasonable.

Kiva W at Pueblo Bonito

Many of the currently visible kivas at Chaco, both elevated in roomblocks and subterranean in plazas, are of this type.  This has important implications for understanding what you are looking at when you visit Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  Not all of the kivas you see were occupied or used at the same time, and many of them were later additions that were probably not part of the original plan for the areas where they are located.  Furthermore, there are lots of other kivas that you can’t see, mostly under the plaza.  To the extent that what you see at these sites reflects a moment in time, that moment was probably very late, perhaps even after the decline of Chaco from its heyday around AD 1100.  Much of what you see exposed today may not have been visible then, however, and there was a lot more that you can’t see that probably was.  I’m not going to go into the question of the function of all these kivas and the implications of that for the function of the sites containing them right now, although it is an important question, but the idea of change over time is important and I just want to emphasize it in a general sense right now.
ResearchBlogging.org
Fewkes, J. (1908). Ventilators in Ceremonial Rooms of Pre Historic Cliff-Dwellings American Anthropologist, 10 (3), 387-398 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.3.02a00020

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Entrance to Kiva at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

Sticking with the topic of the small round rooms traditionally called “kivas,” which Steve Lekson would prefer to call simply “round rooms,” it’s important to note that there is a wide variety of formal types.  In addition to the modern distinction between square and round kivas, which is basically geographical with square ones in the western pueblos and round ones in the eastern pueblos, and setting aside the highly specialized “great kivas,” among the prehistoric kivas (I’m going to stick with the traditional term for now) of the San Juan Basin there are at least two types.  In his writings on Chacoan architecture, Lekson has distinguished between two main types of kivas found in great houses at Chaco: “Chacoan” and “Non-Chacoan.”

Kiva Z, Pueblo Bonito

The type of kiva that Lekson defines as “Chacoan” (originally defined by Neil Judd, who excavated Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo in the 1920s) has a variety of standard features, especially in the later examples from the period of approximately AD 1075 to 1130 when the Chaco system was at its height.  They are not quite as standardized as Chacoan great kivas, but the features associated with them are nevertheless found wherever there is evidence for Chacoan influence during this period, and it seems clear that this particular suite of features is a specifically Chacoan development.  (These kivas have often been called “clan kivas” in the past, but I don’t like that term because of the huge assumptions it makes about social organization and kiva function, so I’m just going to call them “Chacoan kivas.”)  The standard features defined by Judd are:

  1. A central firepit
  2. A subfloor ventilation system with an opening south of the firepit leading to a shaft opening south of the kiva
  3. A subfloor “vault” west of the firepit
  4. A bench around the circumference of the kiva
  5. 6 to 10 low “pilasters” roughly evenly spaced around the bench
  6. A shallow recess in the bench at the southern end

Lekson adds two more features, which are certainly present in many Chacoan kivas but less universal than Judd’s and more controversial:

  1. The elevation of the kiva into an aboveground square enclosure
  2. “Wainscoting” around the edge of the bench

This set of features is certainly consistent with the general “San Juan” type of kiva that developed out of the Basketmaker pithouse, but it differs from the kivas found most commonly in areas like Mesa Verde to the north in a few ways.  Before going into the differences, though, I want to just explain the importance of the lists of features given by Judd and Lekson.

Kiva Firepit at Lowry Pueblo in Colorado

Firepit: All kivas have firepits; it is one of the defining characteristics of the form.  In Chacoan kivas specifically, the firepit is offset slightly to the south of the center point of the kiva, which is always circular.  Firepits in Chacoan kivas are deep, circular or square in plan, and usually lined with masonry.

Subfloor Ventilation Shaft in Kiva at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

Ventilation System: One major characteristic of San Juan small kivas in general is that they have ventilation shafts, usually at the southern end.  Jesse Walter Fewkes wrote an article in 1908, which I mentioned in an earlier post, in which he set forth an argument that these shafts were indeed for ventilation rather than for any other purpose, and this argument is now more or less universally accepted.  There are different types of ventilation system, however, and this is one of the major features distinguishing Chacoan kivas from other types.  Chacoan kivas have ventilation shafts that run underneath the floor of the kiva and are accordingly called “subfloor” ventilation shafts.  One end of the shaft opens vertically into the floor just south of the firepit, and there may or may not be a slab or low wall in between used as a deflector to distribute the air and shelter the fire.  From this opening the shaft runs down a short distance then turns and runs horizontally to the south underneath the floor (or as a shallow trough that would have been covered by boards or poles) until it gets past the southern wall, at which point it turns again and runs vertically upward until it reaches the ground surface (at the level of the kiva roof, but just to the south of it) and opens up to provide the source for fresh air.

Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl Showing Floor Vault

Floor Vault: Most Chacoan kivas have a single rectangular “box” sunk into the floor just to the west of the firepit.  These are often filled and plastered-over, and sometimes have boards covering them, so Lekson notes that this feature may actually be more widespread than it appears from the literature (since excavators may have missed covered vaults in some cases).  Since about three-quarters of excavated Chacoan kivas had evidence of vaults, this suggestion implies that these may have been nearly or literally universal in actual fact.  These vaults are reminiscent of the similar “vaults” known from Chacoan great kivas, although its unclear why there would be different numbers of them.  In both great and small kivas the function of the vaults is obscure.  The fact that they sometimes have wooden boards on them has led some to argue that they were “foot drums” that people would have danced on to create a drumming sound, but Lekson points out that they are often filled with sand, which makes this explanation implausible.

Chacoan Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Bench: There is a low masonry bench around the circumference of the room.  This is another standard feature of San Juan kivas in general, although the bench is not always made of masonry in non-Chacoan versions.

Kiva Pilasters at Pueblo Del Arroyo

Pilasters: At roughly equal intervals around the bench there is a series of “pilasters.”  This term comes from Mesa Verde kivas where the pilasters are often tall and made of masonry, and it is not as applicable to Chacoan kivas where the defining feature of a “pilaster” is a short segment of a wooden log oriented radially with one end set in the wall just above the bench.  These beams are often set in small masonry cubes which do somewhat resemble Mesa Verdean pilasters and imply a similar function.  Mesa Verdean pilasters typically serve to support a cribbed roof, and Chacoan pilasters have often been interpreted similarly, although Lekson disagrees with this interpretation.  The issue of roofing is discussed more fully below under “wainscoting.”

Kiva I at Pueblo Bonito Showing Southern Recess

Recess: At the south end of the bench there is a shallow “recess” in which the bench narrows.  The location of the recess corresponds to the location of the subfloor vent shaft, but since the vent shaft is underground it does not actually have anything to do with the recess (this is another difference from Mesa Verdean kivas, which have above-floor vent shafts that open into the recess, which is often more prominent).  There is some evidence that at least in some cases there may have been a shelf over the recess, which would have continued the line of the bench and created a large niche under it.  The purpose of this recess is obscure.

Southern Recess in Kiva at Pueblo del Arroyo

Those are the criteria Judd gives, and they are pretty universally accepted and uncontroversial.  Lekson adds two more, which are a bit more controversial.

Corner of Room Containing Blocked-In Kiva at Tsin Kletzin

Elevation and Blocking-In: The early examples of Chacoan kivas at Chaco great houses, dating from around AD 900 to 1070, are generally subterranean and usually located in the plazas of great houses, backed by suites of rectangular rooms.  The “classic” examples of Chacoan kivas, dating from about 1075 to 1130, are generally built into square rooms within the great-house roomblocks, usually on the first floor but occasionally on the second.  Lekson considers this tendency to “block-in” kivas a key part of the Chacoan kiva tradition, and in his 2007 chapter on great house form he goes into some detail on the historical development of the Chacoan kiva, starting with the early tenth-century examples, which are poorly known, and continuing through what he refers to as “transitional” Chacoan kivas, built between 1030 and 1070, only a few of which have been excavated.  The best known of these is Kiva G-5 at Chetro Ketl, which was later covered over by later kiva construction culminating in an elevated “classic” Chacoan kiva (Kiva G) but is still kept open and visible underneath the later construction.  These transitional kivas had most of the characteristics of later elevated kivas, and by Judd’s standards they would all be considered just Chacoan kivas.  Lekson makes a big deal about the blocking-in, however, and it is true that this is something that markedly distinguishes Chacoan kivas from other types.  No one else did this, and it’s very odd in a structural sense since those huge masonry cylinders needed extensive support, which often meant the “interstitial” rooms in the corners of the square room were braced with timbers or filled in with earth.  One problem with using this as a defining characteristic of Chacoan kivas, though, is that there are a few late, very large Chacoan kivas that are subterranean and located in plazas rather than being blocked-in.  These approach great-kiva size, but they lack the features of great kivas.  The best known of these is the Court Kiva at Chetro Ketl, which was later remodeled into a great kiva.  Only two other examples have been excavated, Kiva R at Pueblo Bonito and Kiva J at the Talus Unit.  Kiva R has standard Chacoan kiva features, whereas Kiva J was only partially excavated and little is known about its features.  Five additional kivas like this are known at Pueblo Bonito, and Lekson describes them as unexcavated, although at least two or three of them clearly seem to have been excavated as far as I can tell and they seem to have typical Chacoan kiva features, so I’m not sure what Lekson’s talking about when he says they’re unexcavated.  Indeed, one of these, Kiva O, is still visible in the east plaza.  (Kiva R, which is in the west plaza, is also visible.)  The fact that some of the largest Chacoan kivas are subterranean and in the plazas of great houses rather than elevated and blocked in makes Lekson’s use of blocking-in as a standard attribute of Chacoan kivas problematic, even just looking at the “classic” Chacoan kivas built after 1075.

Kiva L, Pueblo Bonito

Wainscoting: This is the most controversial of Lekson’s criteria for Chacoan kiva status.  Basically, many of the excavated Chacoan kivas have a series of thin wooden poles (or, less often, boards) rising from the back of the bench and leaning in toward the center of the ceiling.  Between them is a sort of wickerwork held together with clay or adobe (i.e., a sort of wattle-and-daub or jacal), plastered with mud on the interior side.  The space behind this wickerwork is either left open or filled in with trash or other vegetal material (Lekson’s account is unclear here).  Lekson claims that this “wainscoting,” supported by the poles, formed the ceiling of the kiva, sort of a false dome, with the exterior roof at the top being supported by horizontal beams much like those used in the roofing of standard square rooms.  This is in contrast to the standard way that Mesa Verde kivas were roofed, which was also a false dome but one made of cribbed logs beginning on the pilasters and alternating rows up to the roof.  (This is the way Navajo hogans are traditionally roofed as well.)  Some examples of intact roofs like this are reported in the Mesa Verde region, including one at Square Tower House that Fewkes used as the basis for interpreting and reconstructing the roofs of kivas at Spruce Tree House, which had not survived intact.  There is at least one kiva at Pueblo Bonito that also had a largely intact cribbed roof (Kiva L).  It has often been assumed that most Chacoan kivas, including the blocked-in ones, also had cribbed roofs resting on the pilasters, but it’s noteworthy that Kiva L is not blocked-in, although it does otherwise show classic Chacoan features, and that Kiva 67, another plaza kiva with classic Chacoan features, also showed evidence of having a cribbed roof through the impression of a log in clay spanning two pilasters, although the log itself did not survive.  It’s possible, then, that the development of “wainscoting” as a means to roof kivas was an innovation spurred by the building of kivas in square rooms, which could easily be given flat roofs like other square rooms, although it’s not really clear what the advantage of wainscoting over cribbing would have been.  It would probably have used less timber, but the Chacoans were hardly averse to importing huge quantities of timber and it’s hard to see them making decisions about architecture based on efficient use of resources.  Chacoan kiva roofing remains an open question.

Cribbed Kiva Roof at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

Kivas are particularly vulnerable to deterioration if they are left open to the elements, so all of the small kivas at Chaco that have been excavated have been subsequently backfilled to varying degrees.  Many have been filled entirely, so that no trace of them remains on the surface; this is the case with the Court Kiva at Chetro Ketl and many of the plaza kivas at Pueblo Bonito.  Others have only been refilled partly, in some cases to a low level so that the bench and pilasters are still visible and in other cases to a higher level so that only the upper parts of the wall can be seen.  Thus, there is nowhere at Chaco where the floor features of a Chacoan kiva can be seen.  This is in contrast to Mesa Verde, where especially at the cliff dwellings like Spruce Tree House many well-preserved kivas in sheltered locations have their floors open to be examined.   Those are generally Mesa Verde-style kivas, of course, rather than Chacoan ones.  The best example I know of a basically Chacoan small kiva where the floor features can be seen is the reconstructed blocked-in kiva at Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, Utah.  This is an outlying great house that is much more modest than what you see at Chaco, but one of its kivas has been given a restored cribbed roof and other reconstructed elements to give a sense of what it would have likely looked like in its prime, and as it happens this kiva shows most elements of the Chacoan style despite being far from Chaco itself and in the Mesa Verde region.  Also in the same region, one of the kivas at Lowry Pueblo has not been totally reconstructed to the same extent but it does have a protective roof over it and so also has its floor features open.  This is another blocked-in kiva at an outlier far to the north that is nonetheless a good example of classic Chacoan kiva design.
ResearchBlogging.org
Fewkes, J. (1908). Ventilators in Ceremonial Rooms of Pre Historic Cliff-Dwellings American Anthropologist, 10 (3), 387-398 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.3.02a00020

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Old Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo through the Rubble of Threatening Rock

As I’m sure regular readers have noticed, I haven’t been posting much here over the past few weeks.  As is usually the case, this is because school got in the way; this semester was particularly busy for me because it was my last one, and I had little time for blogging.  I graduated about a week ago, though, so I now have plenty of time to read and blog.  And with the job market the way it is, I’ll probably have quite a bit of time on my hands for at least the next few weeks.

To ease myself back into thinking about Chaco after this recent hiatus I’ve been reading The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, edited by Steve Lekson, which is part of the series of publications forming the capstone to the Chaco Project.  It’s a bit uneven, as edited volumes tend to be, but some of the chapters are very good summaries of the state of knowledge of certain aspects of Chacoan architecture as of 2007 (when the book was published).  It’s definitely not an entry-level sort of book, and I would only recommend it to people who have already read some of the introductory literature on Chaco, but if you have the requisite background it’s a very good way to get up to speed on architecture issues.

Old Bonito from West Plaza Showing Plaza Kivas in Foreground

Among the more interesting chapters are Lekson’s on great house form (an update of a chapter from his seminal book on the topic, which is still an essential reference for Chaco architecture), Tom Windes‘s on early great houses in the San Juan Basin, and Ruth Van Dyke‘s on great kivasJill Neitzel‘s chapter on the history of architectural research at Pueblo Bonito is a bit weaker; it’s fine as a summary, and makes some good points, but doesn’t really go into much depth on the more interesting questions.  The chapter on Chetro Ketl, by Lekson, Windes, and Patricia Fournier, is more interesting, not least because of the obvious tension between Lekson and Windes on certain points of interpretation and how that gets reflected in the text.  I’m still reading the book, so I can’t say much about the remaining chapters, but they seem to be more interpretive than descriptive.  The one I’m currently reading is by Wendy Ashmore and promises to be something of an outsider’s take on Pueblo Bonito, from a scholar who has specialized in Maya architecture and planning (and who has some ideas in that area that have been criticized by others, most notably Mike Smith).  The next chapter, by John Stein, Rich Friedman, Taft Blackhorse, and Rich Loose, is probably the most infamous and controversial in the book, from what I’ve heard, so it should be interesting to see what it says exactly.  The last chapter is a reprint of a paper by Anna Sofaer that was printed in an earlier edited volume, and I find it particularly interesting that Lekson (presumably) decided to give her the last word, given how controversial some of her theories are among Chaco archaeologists.

I’ll have some more thoughts on the specific chapters in the book in subsequent posts, but for now I just want to mention a few key issues that the chapters I’ve read so far have brought up.  One is the recurrent issue of exactly what the function of great houses and their constituent parts was.  Over the past few years there has been an ongoing debate over whether they were elite residences or ceremonial centers (the older assumption that they were aggregated communities analogous to modern pueblos only being held by a few diehards like Gwinn Vivian), but as Neitzel points out for Pueblo Bonito it’s become increasingly clear that they were both, and the real question, to the extent that there is a real question underlying this debate, is which function was dominant, where (both within a given great house and among different ones), and when.  One of the major points Neitzel makes is that this debate is both tedious and increasingly unmoored from reality, and that the whole typological approach is probably best avoided.  Questions of “is it or isn’t it?” are not very helpful at this point, whether applied to a single great house or to the Chacoan phenomenon as a whole, and the use of vague typological categories like “ceremonial center” only exacerbates the problem.

Rooms around Kiva K Partly Overlying Kiva L, Pueblo Bonito

One aspect of the functional question that does seem to finally be getting the attention it deserves is the temporal dimension.  It seems pretty clear that at least some great houses changed in function over time, though the extent to which this was the case in general is unclear (as, indeed, is the question of whether “great house” is actually a meaningful category of structure).  Windes makes clear in his chapter that as far as we can tell early great houses outside of Chaco were primarily residential in function, although few have been excavated so it’s hard to be certain about this.  The data for the earliest great houses inside the canyon is not much better, even for the ones that have been excavated, but it also seems that they were probably initially residences.  There is also substantial evidence that many great houses had residential functions at the end of their occupation, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  The big question is the extent to which great houses were residences during the “Chacoan era” of roughly AD 1030 to 1130, when the Chaco system reached its height and new great houses were being built all over the place.  These buildings probably had multiple functions, and it seems plausible that at least some had residential functions, but it’s frustratingly difficult to tease out the uses of specific rooms and spaces during this period, partly because neither built-in features (often dating earlier) nor artifacts (often dating later) are necessarily related to uses at this time.

A related issue is the function of kivas (or “round rooms”) specifically.  Lekson sees them as primarily residential, with the ceremonial functions traditionally attributed to them on the basis of (rather lazy) ethnographic analogy being a later development.  I find his arguments pretty convincing, and they seem to be increasingly accepted among other archaeologists, especially to the north in the Mesa Verde region, where the sheer numbers of kivas associated with all sorts of sites, and the careful recent excavation data from many sites, is making it increasingly clear that small kivas were indeed residential structures.  This attitude is also beginning to be adopted further south at Chaco itself, and many people on the interpretive staff at Chaco have been incorporating Lekson’s arguments into their tours, which is important because visitors very often ask about this.  I, of course, talked up Lekson’s interpretation a lot when I gave tours at Chaco.  There are some issues about the functions of great houses that arise from this interpretation, however, and the chapters I’ve read so far in this book really only allude to them.  I’ll talk more about this later.

Casa Rinconada, Looking West

Part of Lekson’s reinterpretation of kiva function is the idea that “great” kivas are fundamentally different from small round rooms, and really did have the ceremonial or community-wide integrative functions traditionally implied by the term “kiva” (there some issues with terminology surrounding these interpretations that I won’t go into now).  Certainly the uniformity of the Chacoan great kiva form, and the marked differences between great kivas and small kivas, is consistent with this argument, and Ruth Van Dyke’s chapter is a good collection of the information available about great kivas in the canyon.  Only a few of these are exacavated, and not all of them have been well-documented, which makes interpretation a bit hazardous.  The general uniformity of Chacoan great kivas both in and out of the canyon is striking, however, and it argues for a considerable amount of standardization and a key role in the Chacoan system.  The relationship between great houses and great kivas is another perennial topic of debate, partly due to the limited dataset available.  Van Dyke argues that the association between the two forms is relatively late, and that the building of great kivas at great houses such as Pueblo Bonito starting around 1040 was an attempt to justify new societal arrangements associated with the rise of the Chaco regional system by associating them with the much older great kiva form.  There may well be something to this, but there is also some evidence for great kivas associated with the early great houses at Chaco in the 900s, which complicates the argument.  I’ll do a post on this later.

Finally, one issue that arises particularly in Windes’s chapter on origins is regional variations in architecture and the possible implications of this for migration and connections to areas outside of the central San Juan Basin.   There has been an increasing consensus that there is some connection between the collapse of the Pueblo I villages in southwestern Colorado in the 800s and the huge increase in population in the San Juan Basin to the south around the same time, and similarities between sites like McPhee Pueblo in the Dolores area and early great houses like Pueblo Bonito seem to imply a cultural connection of some sort.  Connections to the south have been studied less, but Windes points out that many early great-house communities have sightlines to prominent southern landmarks such as Hosta Butte, rather than northern ones like the Huerfano.  As far as I know no one has done a really systematic study of which architectural forms correspond to which regions, and the ability to do such a study would be complicated by the numerous migrations over time that are becoming increasingly apparent in the early archaeological record of the region.  It would be a useful thing to try, however.  Again, I’ll do a more in-depth post on this later.

Clearly there’s a lot to say about Chaco architecture and community planning, and with my newly acquired graduate degree in planning I suppose I am well-situated to address these issues, which I intend to do in the coming days and weeks.  However, there are also other topics I want to cover in future posts, including coal, cotton, and chocolate.  Stay tuned.

Wijiji Trail, Heading Back toward Campground

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