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Archive for the ‘Casa Rinconada’ Category

"Supernova" Pictograph

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

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

Sign at the "Supernova Pictograph"

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

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

View Looking East from "Supernova Petroglyph"

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

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

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

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

Some believe that this particular cosmic event, which left behind the Crab Nebula, was commemorated in architecture and iconography at the time or in subsequent years. The most compelling evidence for this comes not from the Cahokia region but from the American Southwest, where a tree-cutting date places the construction of the largest and most isolated ceremonial building in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada (noted for its many astronomical alignments) to AD
1054.

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

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

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

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

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Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Although the idea that the small round rooms that area so common at Chacoan sites are ceremonial “kivas” has been increasingly challenged recently, it is still widely accepted that the large, formal, round structures known as “great kivas” were in fact community-wide ceremonial or integrative facilities.  Even Steve Lekson agrees, and he continues to use the term “kiva” in referring to these structures even as he calls the small “kivas” “round rooms” instead.  (He also uses the term “kiva” in referring to “tower kivas,” yet another form of round structure with proposed ceremonial associations.)  Ruth Van Dyke‘s chapter in The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico is a good summary of current knowledge about Chacoan great kivas.  The great kiva is an architectural form that predates Chaco, and it may or may not have outlasted it.  The Chacoan form is distinctive, however, and found even in areas without a long history of pre-Chacoan great kivas.  It is highly standardized in both size and features, and is one of the surest indications of Chacoan influence wherever it is found.

Floor Features of Kiva Q, Pueblo Bonito

The following features are always found at Chacoan great kivas, although their specific realization can vary a bit:

  1. Four post holes, arranged in a square, to support the beams or columns that hold up the roof.  The holes may be either round or square.  Generally the columns themselves would be huge wooden beams, stubs of which have sometimes been found in the post holes during excavation.  Sometimes, such as in the great kiva at Aztec Ruins, square masonry columns, possibly with small poles in them, would be used instead.  It’s apparently not totally clear if the use of square rather than round post holes necessarily indicates the use of pillars rather than beams, since the beams would typically be held in place by shale and this could be done in either a square or a circular space.  When beams were used, they were supported at the bottom by several stacked stone disks, presumably to distribute the weight.  Offerings of turquoise and other valuables were often found in the beam holes, apparently placed during construction.
  2. Around the circumference of the kiva is a bench, sometimes doubled.  These benches were often refaced with new masonry, sometimes in connection with more general renovation of the kiva features and sometimes not.
  3. There is typically a series of wall niches around the circumference of the chamber, above the bench.  These vary in dimensions and number, but there are usually about 30 of them, especially in later great kivas.  Sometimes there is more than one series of niches at different levels, as at Casa Rinconada.  The purpose of the niches is unclear; some of them had offerings sealed into them, but these may have been construction offerings rather than indicating anything about post-construction use.
  4. Entrance is from a staircase leading down from an antechamber.  There would probably have been a smokehole in the roof as well, but it is unclear whether there would have been a ladder providing entrance through the roof as was the case in smaller round rooms.  An intact great kiva roof has never been found, which is unsurprising since the roofs would have been enormously heavy and very likely to cave in once the structure was no longer maintained.  The antechamber is on the north side in most cases.  Kiva Q at Pueblo Bonito has an apparent staircase and antechamber on the south side instead, but Van Dyke suggests that this may have been an error of reconstruction.  She doesn’t go into any more detail about this, however, and it’s unclear what the implications are if the room on the south side of Kiva Q is not an antechamber.  Casa Rinconada has antechambers with staircases on both the north and south sides.
  5. Along the central north-south axis, slightly offset to the south from the center point, is a firebox.  This is usually a masonry cube with a circular or oval firepit in it.
  6. Just south of the firepit there is a deflector.  This is a common feature in small kivas, which usually have a ventilation shaft on the south side, but since great kivas don’t have ventilation shafts and usually have their entrances on the north side it is unclear how useful this deflector would have been in practice.  Assuming there was a smokehole, a great kiva was big enough that it’s unlikely ventilation would have been a major concern.
  7. Attached to the two southern postholes on the north side, and sometimes running all the way to the northern postholes, there are two rectangular masonry “vaults.”  They are usually but not always subterranean.  The function of these is unclear.  Some have claimed that they are “foot-drums,” which would have had boards on top of them and people dancing on them, but not everyone accepts this interpretation and I don’t find it very convincing.  Small kivas sometimes have a single subfloor vault on one side of the firepit, but it is unclear if there is any connection between that type of feature and the much more formal vaults of great kivas.

These are the basic features that are repeated again and again at Chacoan great kivas.  Relatively few have been excavated, but all of those that have show these same features with minor variations.  Van Dyke provides a comprehensive list of the known great kivas at Chaco.  There are 21 of them, of which 11 have been excavated.  Ten of these are associated with the great houses Pueblo Bonito (4 great kivas), Chetro Ketl (3), and Kin Nahasbas (3).  (Note that Van Dyke is counting remodeled versions of earlier great kivas separately here.)  The only “isolated” great kiva to be excavated is Casa Rinconada.  It is also the largest excavated great kiva in the canyon at 19.5 meters in diameter, although it is not the largest excavated great kiva (the one at Village of the Great Kivas, a Chacoan outlier on the Zuni Reservation, is 23.7 meters in diameter), nor is it the largest great kiva in the canyon (the unexcavated northwest great kiva at Peñasco Blanco is 23 meters in diameter).

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

Van Dyke explicitly cautions her readers to be careful about the possibility of overemphasizing the importance of Rinconada just because it is so well known, and this is an important warning.  It does appear that Rinconada is unusual among all known great kivas in several ways, including the two antechambers and the “secret tunnel” leading from a back room of the north antechamber to a subsurface round enclosure around the northwest posthole.  It is also positioned in a very significant location, across from Pueblo Bonito, and there may be astronomical alignments encoded into it.  However, it is important to note that like the other great kivas at Chaco that are visible today, Rinconada has been substantially reconstructed.  In general Chaco has had a much lighter touch with reconstruction than many other parks, but great kivas, which are typically found in a substantially reduced state with large v-shaped breaches in the upper walls, are an exception.  Kivas A and Q at Pueblo Bonito as well as Casa Rinconada have all been built up to what their excavators considered a reasonable approximation of their original condition.  The great kiva at Aztec, of course, has been completely reconstructed to give an impression of what it might have looked like, and while there was apparently once talk of doing something similar at Casa Rinconada nothing ultimately came of it.

In addition to the excavated great kivas, there are ten unexcavated ones at Chaco.  It is hard to tell much about these, since they are basically just big recessed circles in the ground, but they are generally at least in the same size range as the excavated examples and can probably be assumed to be similar.  There may well be additional unknown ones, either associated with great houses or isolated.  It is particularly likely that early great kivas would not be apparent on the ground, since they are generally smaller than later ones and the excavated examples (or possible examples) all come from within early great houses where they are often overlain by later construction.

Northwest Great Kiva at Peñasco Blanco

The known unexcavated great kivas associated with great houses include two at Una Vida, one at Hungo Pavi, and four at Peñasco Blanco.  There are also three “isolated” great kivas, all of them at the east end of the canyon: one in Fajada gap, one on the south side of the canyon across from Wijiji, and one in a side canyon at the foot of Chacra Mesa below the Basketmaker III village known as Shabik’eshchee.  As noted above, the northwest one at Peñasco Blanco is huge, probably the largest at Chaco.  The one in Fajada gap appears to be about 20 meters in diameter, which puts it in the same size range as Casa Rinconada, although the difficulty of measuring diameter precisely with unexcavated great kivas makes it impossible to say if it is actually bigger than Rinconada or not.  One interesting thing about these isolated great kivas is that they are all on the south side of the canyon, as is Casa Rinconada.  This contrasts with the tendency of great houses to be on the north side and provides some support for the idea that the great kiva is conceptually separate from the great house and has its own history as a form.  It’s hard to say how to interpret this in the context of the postulated attempt by great-house elites to incorporate great kivas into their great houses as a way to legitimize their authority, which Van Dyke proposes as an explanation for why most great kiva construction at great houses didn’t take place until the mid-1000s.

And, indeed, early great house construction does seem to be notably bereft of great kivas.  Or does it?  Tenth-century “great kivas” are in fact postulated at Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Kin Nahasbas, and Van Dyke includes them on her list, but it is unclear whether they really “count” as great kivas.  They are smaller than the later versions, which may just be because they are older.  They are also poorly documented, however; the ones at Pueblo Bonito and Kin Nahasbas have been excavated, but records about them are scarce and scanty.  The one at Pueblo Bonito is about 10 meters in diameter, which Van Dyke considers “within the range known for domestic pitstructures,” and furthermore it lacks postholes for roof support beams but does appear to have pilasters on its bench, which implies a roofing system like that of small kivas.  Since the roofing system is one of the most consistent features of classic Chacoan great kivas, this is a major strike against great kiva status for this one.  However, it’s possible that the specialized roofing system for later great kivas was an innovation to handle the large size of the ones built from the mid-1000s on, and that earlier structures with “regular” kiva roofs may have had “great kiva” functions in the 900s.  (This reminds me that I should do a post on small-kiva roofing, which is an interesting and surprisingly contentious issue.)

Kin Nahasbas from Una Vida

Evidence that the specialized roofing system for great kivas was already in place in the 900s comes from the early “great kiva” at Kin Nahasbas, which was more thoroughly excavated than the one at Pueblo Bonito.  It underlies the two later great kivas, which had classic great kiva features.  Its own features were largely obscured by the later construction, but it does appear to have postholes.  It couldn’t be dated directly, but the excavators concluded that it was probably associated with the tenth-century greathouse behind it.  This implies that there was at least one great kiva this early, but that the one at Pueblo Bonito was not one.  Interestingly, the diameter of this great kiva was only 7 meters, making it smaller than the Pueblo Bonito example and suggesting that size isn’t everything when it comes to great kivas.

The early great kiva at Una Vida is very poorly known and may not exist at all.  There is certainly another, later great kiva at the site.  Van Dyke refers to William Gillespie’s account of Una Vida’s architecture in Steve Lekson’s Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico as the source for the idea that there is a great kiva associated with the early-tenth-century construction there, but Gillespie is very vague about the basis for his speculation that such a great kiva existed, and says only that “surface evidence is inconclusive.”  Van Dyke lists the diameter of this postulated great kiva as 17 meters, which is remarkably large for such an early structure and only slightly smaller than the later great kiva, which is much more obvious and has a diameter of about 18 meters.  Una Vida is a very confusing and poorly understood site, so the lack of clarity regarding its great kiva(s) is not really surprising.

The only other early great house, in addition to these three, at Chaco is Peñasco Blanco.  It apparently has four great kivas, none of which has been dated.  It’s quite possible that one or both of the two great kivas in the plaza dates to the 900s, but neither has been excavated.  It is also possible that there are additional early great kivas either underlying the later ones or elsewhere in the site.  The number of apparent great kivas is one of the many reasons I think this site is likely much more important to Chaco than is usually appreciated.  It is both one of the earliest sites at Chaco and one of the largest, and it may have served as an important connection to the communities downstream on the Chaco River, where many of the early great houses were, as well as with the Chuska Mountains beyond.  Van Dyke has little to say about it in this chapter, which is understandable since the great kivas are unexcavated (as is the rest of the site).

Snow at Kiva A, Pueblo Bonito

The upshot of all this is that there probably was at least one great kiva built at Chaco in the 900s, and there may have been more, but it does seem to be true that great kiva construction increased dramatically after around 1030.  This is the same time that a lot of other changes were happening in the canyon, including massive construction projects of various sorts at several great houses, and it is probably the time when Chaco first became the regional center for the San Juan Basin (though it had likely been an important center for a long time).   Van Dyke argues that part of this was the appropriation of the great kiva form, which in previous times had been particularly common in communities to the south, by emergent local elites attempting to legitimate their increasingly hierarchical authority and control over periodic regional gatherings in the canyon that were beginning to draw pilgrims from throughout the Basin (and perhaps beyond).  In another article she argues that this process was part of a “tipping point” or “qualitative social transformation” that changed a predominantly egalitarian society into a more hierarchical one.  In this context, the use of great kivas may have been an attempt to establish links with the past by incorporating an old, traditional architectural form into the new and potentially threatening form represented by the great house.  I’m not sure I buy this entire story, but I think at least parts of it are likely true and it’s certainly thought-provoking.

Great Kiva at Lowry Pueblo, Colorado

Wherever they came from and whenever they became part of the Chacoan architectural repertoire, by the height of the Chacoan era great kivas were among the most standardized parts of the highly standardized Chacoan “system,” whatever it was.  There are plenty of puzzles remaining about them, as is true with most everything associated with Chaco, but regardless of whether we are ever able to answer all the questions they pose they are still among the most impressive achievements of this very impressive society.
ResearchBlogging.org
Van Dyke, R. (2008). Temporal Scale and Qualitative Social Transformation at Chaco Canyon Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000073

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Jet Contrail from Pueblo Bonito

Regular readers will probably have guessed that the reason I haven’t been posting very often lately is that I’ve been very busy with school.  This week is my Spring Break, however, and I’m in New Mexico visiting my mom, so I have a little time.  This past weekend we went out to Chaco and camped, which was interesting to me since I haven’t camped at Chaco since the first time I went there with my parents several years ago.  It was a different way to experience a place I’ve seen a lot of, and it was fun to go to Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada with my mom and the friend of hers who accompanied us.  The friend’s 12-year-old daughter also came, and she found a beautiful turquoise bead in an anthill at Pueblo Bonito that was perhaps the highlight of the trip.  Finding it reminded me that I’ve been reconsidering some of my ideas about the relationship between Chaco and turquoise, and I should do a post about the topic when I get a chance.

Turquoise Bead from Anthill at Pueblo Bonito

My mom and I camped for two nights (the friend left earlier because her daughter got sick), and the second night it was very cold, as is typical for this time of year, so it wasn’t the most comfortable camping experience I’ve ever had but it was fun nonetheless.  The Chaco campground is one of the nicest I’ve ever seen, and it was quite a pleasant little trip all around.  I may not have time this break to do much more blogging, but I figured I should note this experience so people know what I’ve been up to.

Our Campsite at Chaco

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Chaco Amphitheater

There’s a spot near the west end of the Pueblo Bonito parking lot, close to the spot where guided tours begin, where you can yell something in the direction of the canyon wall and hear a very clear echo back.  Some of the tour guides at Chaco regularly demonstrate this impressive effect when beginning their tours, and it’s certainly an interesting way to capture people’s attention.  I never did it myself; I’m generally averse to this sort of thing because I’m never confident that I’ll get it quite right, and it would be very awkward if I tried it and it didn’t work.  (There’s a similar effect in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol which I never demonstrated when I gave tours there either.)  This is kind of silly, though, and says more about me than about the echo.  In general I think highlighting this kind of acoustic effect is a good way to show just how special Chaco is, and while this particular echo is in a very accessible location there are many other places in the canyon with similar characteristics.  There are several places in and around Pueblo Bonito where you can hear with crystal-clear precision everything people say up on the Threatening Rock overlook, and there are some spots where you can even hear things clear across the canyon.

Secret Passage into Casa Rinconada

These effects have been known to the park’s interpretive staff for a long time, but until recently they’ve received very little attention from scholars.  In the past few years, however, the growing field of archaeoacoustics has begun to look rigorously at echoes and other acoustic phenomena in the canyon with an eye to understanding what role they may have played in Chaco’s past.  Rich Loose, a former archaeologist and old Chaco hand, has been at the forefront of this research, in collaboration with our old friends John Stein and Taft Blackhorse.  Rich recently sent me a couple of articles of his that have recently been published on this issue, along with a paper by John and Taft that I don’t think has been published anywhere.  The most important of these articles, I think, is one in which Rich describes in detail the research the team has done at the so-called “Chaco amphitheater” between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  Using sophisticated recording equipment and acoustic analysis software, they made a series of recordings of different sounds produced in various locations in and around the amphitheater and determined many of its important acoustic properties.  They also examined the cliff face in this area and concluded that there was considerable evidence that it had been deliberately sculpted, perhaps to improve its acoustic properties or for other purposes related to its use as a performance venue.  There is some evidence that there may have been a masonry wall along at least part of the sculpted area which could have created a “backstage” for performers, which Rich compares to the “secret passage” at Casa Rinconada.  There are also three large holes in the cliff face which appear to be natural but may have been enhanced as well.  One of these is large enough to fit a person and leads to a small cave that can apparently fit multiple people (though presumably in very close quarters).  Again, this has interesting implications for possible stagecraft.

Pueblo Alto and New Alto from Tsin Kletzin

One of the most interesting discoveries in Rich’s paper involves a small hill on the other side of the canyon, near Casa Rinconada, which he concludes was almost certainly deliberately constructed artificially for some purpose related to the amphitheater.  This hill, which is quite prominent and which I have often wondered about, apparently doesn’t show any sign of covering up a small-house site like the ones surrounding it, but neither does it appear to be natural.  It is, however, located almost exactly on the line along which sound from the amphitheater focuses, which also seems to coincide almost exactly with the north-south line between Tsin Kletzin and Pueblo Alto.  Sounds played from the hill could be clearly heard in the amphitheater, although their source could not easily be ascertained from there, and even speech from the hill could be heard in a somewhat garbled manner.

Canyon Wall from Pueblo del Arroyo

As with archaeoastronomy, archaeoacoustics suffers from the persistent problem that there’s no way to know for sure if the patterns it discovers are real or due simply to coincidence.  Rich is quite open in acknowledging this shortcoming in his articles.  In the absence of any means to verify results completely, a compelling combination of separate types of evidence is the best way to support an argument that the acoustic properties of a place are not accidental but reflect conscious decisions on the part of ancient people.  In the case of the Chaco amphitheater, I think Rich’s results clearly meet this standard.  Again as with archaeoastronomy, it’s hard to say what the specific implications of all this are for understanding prehistoric behavior, but in this case the acoustic evidence seems to shed at least some tentative light on several mysteries about Chaco.

Huerfano Mesa from New Alto

One of these is the nagging question of why Chaco was chosen in the first place as the location for such a grandiose center, given that it has no apparent natural resources and is in a particularly harsh and inhospitable location even by local standards.  The acoustic properties of the canyon walls, however, which as I noted above are not limited to the phenomena at the amphitheater specifically, provide one possible answer.  The main way in which Chaco does differ from the surrounding San Juan Basin is that it is, of course, a canyon, and has a long stretch of exposed sandstone cliffs with acoustic effects that can’t be found in many other places nearby.  This doesn’t necessarily explain its advantages in a larger geographic context, of course, and there are many other places just a bit further away with similar sorts of cliffs, but it does potentially shed some light on the question of what leverage the Chacoans would have had over other people in the area that they could use to gain their important position in the region.  People often gesture vaguely to “spiritual authority” or something similar in trying to explain this, but the acoustics provide an explanation for how a reputation for spiritual power could arise in the first place.  The position of the amphitheater at the center of the canyon, at the intersection of many alignments between buildings, certainly suggests that it was an important focal point for the area, and the acoustic characteristics are very suggestive.

Looking East from the Pueblo Alto Trail

Since this research involves John Stein and Taft Blackhorse, of course, Navajo oral traditions also enter into the story.  Specifically, the unpublished paper by John and Taft talks about a connection between the amphitheater and a ritual involving the use of the hallucinogenic datura plant, as well as a connection to the Great Gambler (specifically that the Gambler came to Chaco to take advantage of the powers associated with the amphitheater).  Indeed, they even say that the amphitheater is still used by “Navajo ceremonial practitioners,” which Rich incorporates into his articles as a key piece of evidence backing up his acoustic studies.  I’m a little dubious about a lot of this, and I intend to look into it further, but I do think oral traditions are an important place to look for an independent line of evidence to serve as a check on conclusions derived from archaeoacoustic (and archaeoastronomical) research.

Shell and Jet Display at Chaco Museum

Another issue this acoustic research sheds light on is the remarkable number of musical instruments, many quite elaborate, found in excavations at Chaco.  Almost all of these were found at Pueblo Bonito; the flutes in Room 33 are probably the best known, but I want to focus here on the conch shells apparently used as trumpets, which were also quite numerous and found in many rooms at Bonito.  Rich mentions these in his articles as well, although he doesn’t go into great detail about them.  He does, however, note that a conch shell trumpet was one of the sound sources he used in his archaeoacoustic research, and adds this interesting statement:

I found the shell trumpets to be one of the easiest ways to produce a loud stimulus for an echo. They are simple, easily portable, don’t require batteries, and are nearly foolproof once you master the technique of blowing one.

As luck would have it, Barbara Mills and T. J. Ferguson have recently published an important article on shell trumpets in the prehistoric Southwest in which they record all the places they have been found and try to see what conclusions about prehistoric ritual and ideology can be drawn from the distribution of trumpets through time and space.  They conclude that there are at least two separate ideological systems associated with shell trumpets: one having to do with the plumed serpent and associated with rain and agricultural fertility, and another having to do with warfare and healing (these might be two separate traditions, in which case there would be a total of three traditions).  Temporally, they find that the plumed serpent tradition, which is quite strong at Hopi and Zuni today, appears rather suddenly in the early fourteenth century, a time of considerable population movement and cultural change, and may have something to do with influence from the major center at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua as well as with migration of large numbers of people from the southern Southwest into the Pueblo region.  During this period conch shells are found primarily at Casas Grandes and in a large area of east-central Arizona along the Mogollon Rim, as well as in the Hohokam region of southern Arizona and as far east as Pecos.

Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito from Above

There is basically no evidence for plumed serpent iconography earlier than AD 1300, although there are conch shells.  Their distribution is much more limited, however, being confined essentially to the Hohokam region and Chaco, although there is one isolated example from the Mimbres area of southwestern New Mexico.  The geographic isolation of Chaco is striking on their map of sites where conchs have been found; there don’t seem to be any examples from any other sites on the Colorado Plateau during this period, despite the large population of this area and the presence of many strongly Chacoan-oriented or -influenced regional centers.  Apparently there were no shell trumpets even at Aztec, which is in general pretty similar to Chaco in the numbers and types of valuable artifacts found.  There were a bunch of them at Chaco, however, at least 17 overall, and all except two of them came from Pueblo Bonito specifically.  Within Bonito they were generally found in significant locations such as rooms containing other rare artifacts and a wall niche in Kiva R, rather than in trash deposits, which suggests that they were particularly important items.  One was found in Room 33, and four were found in Room 38, which also contained many rare items of apparent ritual significance as well as macaws.  Others were found in Kiva A (the great kiva in the east plaza) and Room 6 (one of the earliest rooms in Old Bonito).  Clearly, then, conch trumpets seem to have been associated very closely not just with the Chacoan system or Chaco Canyon in general but with Pueblo Bonito specifically.  And Pueblo Bonito, of course, is right next to the amphitheater.  The combination of the impressive acoustics of the amphitheater with the exotic sound of the conch shell would likely have been pretty powerful, perhaps in more ways than one.

Intact Roof Beams in Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

So what light does this combination shed on the Chacoan system overall?  Well,  it’s hard to say for sure.  Mills and Ferguson make a strong case that the Chaco and early Hohokam conchs are associated with the warfare/healing complex rather than the plumed serpent one.  Evidence for this complex comes mainly from Zuni, where there are many stories about the use of a “Big Shell” that was used to magically defeat the enemies of the Zunis.  There is also an association between this shell and witchcraft, both in fighting it and in possibly causing it.

Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum

The (non-witchcraft-related) healing part of the complex comes from one of the medicine societies, best known at Zuni but apparently also present at Hopi and Zia, and historically at Laguna.  This society is apparently named for a “spiral shell,” and its rituals include shells, but otherwise it’s not clear how much it has to do with conch shells or trumpets specifically as opposed to shells more generally.  The songs of the society at Zuni are said to be in the O’odham language of southern Arizona, and its origin story mentions a series of long migrations.  To me this combination suggests a Hohokam origin about as clearly as is conceivable, and it’s possible that at least some of the Hohokam conchs, particularly the small ones that may have been used as standards on staffs rather than as trumpets, may have been associated with a precursor of this society.  As I said, though, I’m not totally convinced that conchs specifically have anything to do with this society.  Shells of all kinds were a very big deal among the Hohokam.

Chaco Amphitheater in the Snow

So, given all that, it seems likely that if any conch-related ritual complex in the modern Pueblos is related to the conchs at Pueblo Bonito it’s the Zuni Big Shell, associated with warfare and witchcraft.  This is certainly intriguing, especially given the odd and ambiguous evidence about Chaco’s connections to warfare, although I think it’s ultimately inconclusive.  As Mills and Ferguson point out, it’s entirely possible that some of these prehistoric complexes have no modern equivalents at all.  Indeed, given the massive series of cultural changes and migrations separating Chaco from the modern Pueblos, it would hardly be surprising that the ritual traditions closely associated with Chaco specifically would have been lost or abandoned in favor of newer (or perhaps older) rituals considered more suited to the changing times.  It’s noteworthy that there don’t seem to be any modern (Pueblo) practices involving a combination of conch trumpets and cliff faces with special acoustic properties, given the strong circumstantial evidence that the two were connected at Chaco.  Whether or not any modern practices involving shell trumpets can be traced back to Chaco, however, the evidence for their importance at Chaco itself at its height is evocative and provides a hint of what Chaco may have been like for the Chacoans, even if what we hear today is only a faint echo of what they heard then.
ResearchBlogging.org
Mills, B., & Ferguson, T. (2008). Animate Objects: Shell Trumpets and Ritual Networks in the Greater Southwest Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 15 (4), 338-361 DOI: 10.1007/s10816-008-9057-5

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Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito

Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito

When I was working at Chaco one of the frequent questions we would get from visitors was about the extent of reconstruction of the sites there.  This would be phrased in various ways, with the background assumptions ranging from the idea that the sites were totally untouched to the idea that they were totally reconstructed.  The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, but much closer to the untouched end than many people seemed to think.

Walls at Pueblo Bonito Showing Capping

Walls at Pueblo Bonito Showing Capping

Compared to a lot of other parks, Chaco has taken a pretty hands-off approach to reconstruction.  Most of the modern construction you see today on the sites in the canyon is only what is necessary for stabilization, which in most cases means capping along the tops of all the walls, and in some cases rebuilding of things like doorways where they have begun to deteriorate.  There has also been substantial re-mortaring of the stonework, especially on the exposed exterior walls, but in those cases the original stones are generally left in place.  Other than those few things, pretty much everything you see is original, and the fact that it’s in such good shape is due to the quality of the original construction rather than to anything the Park Service has done.  The figure we would usually cite was 15% reconstruction, 85% original; I don’t know where those numbers come from, and I suspect they’re largely guesswork, but some visitors just really want numbers, so we gave them some.

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

There are a few exceptions.  On some of the buildings there has been a bit more reconstruction than is typical throughout the park.  The most extensively rebuilt structure is Casa Rinconada, which was excavated in the 1930s when reconstruction was at its height of popularity.  The walls of Casa Rinconada were in a substantially reduced state when it was excavated, with big breaches in them at regular intervals, which is typical of great kivas when they are first found.  Gordon Vivian, who excavated the site as part of a UNM field school, also supervised the reconstruction.  He seems to have done a pretty good job, but as always it took some guesswork to restore the parts that hadn’t survived, and some of the stuff at the upper levels of the site was probably never there originally.  There’s also no real way to know how far up the walls went, so the height of the walls that you see today is basically a guess too.

Secret Passage into Casa Rinconada

Secret Passage into Casa Rinconada

Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl have also seen a bit more reconstruction than average, although nowhere near as much as Rinconada.  For one thing, their great kivas have also been restored in much the same manner as Rinconada, but less ambitiously, and the one at Chetro Ketl even shows some of the other floor and bench layers that were found when it was initially excavated.  Also, Neil Judd’s expedition in the 1920s repaired the many holes that had been punched in the back wall of Pueblo Bonito by pothunters in the late nineteenth century.  This work was done to erase that episode of Bonito’s history, so the masonry was intended to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding stonework, and it does.  It’s nearly impossible to tell where the original ends and where the reconstruction begins.  Judd’s group also did some restoring and stabilizing of the upper parts of the back wall.  Other than that, and the ubiquitous capping, Pueblo Bonito is basically unreconstructed.

Chetro Ketl from Above

Chetro Ketl from Above

Chetro Ketl was severely damaged by a flood in the late 1940s, and major parts of the north-central section along the back wall were basically totally rebuilt at that time.  Aside from that, however, there hasn’t been much reconstruction.  The other sites, whether excavated (e.g., Pueblo del Arroyo) or unexcavated (e.g., Hungo Pavi), have just been capped and shored up, without any additional rebuilding.

Plaza at Aztec West, Showing Reconstructed Great Kiva

Plaza at Aztec West, Showing Reconstructed Great Kiva

This is in contrast, of course, to many other parks in the southwest, where sites have been substantially rebuilt.  This work was done mostly in the 1930s, much of it by the CCC as part of the New Deal, and it therefore reflects understandings of the architecture as of that time.  The most spectacular example of rebuilding is probably the great kiva at Aztec, which was completely restored in the 1930s in accordance with somewhat speculative interpretations of its original condition made by Earl Morris when he excavated it a couple of decades earlier.  Like many other examples of rebuilding, however, the great kiva is now generally thought to be inaccurate in some respects, most notably the roof level, which is almost certainly much too high.

Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

This is the big problem with rebuilding: if you rebuild something according to even the best understanding of the archaeology at the time you do it, but understandings of the archaeology then change (which is not an uncommon occurrence at all), you’re kind of stuck.  What can you do?  Tear down the earlier reconstruction and start over?  But what if the new interpretations get superseded in their turn?  Just tear down the reconstruction and leave the ruins in place?  That seems like an awful lot of wasted effort.  The usual solution in these cases is to leave the reconstruction in place and put up a sign explaining to visitors how it is now thought to be inaccurate.  Hardly the most elegant way to deal with the issue, but at that point options are limited.

Inaccurately Reconstructed Room at Agate House, Petrified Forest National Park

Inaccurately Reconstructed Room at Agate House, Petrified Forest National Park

Another problem comes when sites that have been heavily reconstructed are used for certain types of research.  It’s very important to ensure that the research is looking at the original, rather than the rebuilt, parts of the site.  I mentioned this problem recently in connection with archaeoastronomical research at Wupatki, which has been very substantially reconstructed.

Partially Reconstructed Wall at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Partially Reconstructed Wall at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

As a result of these concerns, today substantial reconstruction is rare.  Excavated sites are generally preserved in place as they are, with interpretive signs and literature provided to explain how they may have looked like originally.  This is satisfactory for most visitors, but some want more obvious visual cues.  For them the parks that have lots of reconstruction, such as Aztec, Bandelier, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, and others, are preferable to parks like Chaco that have a lighter touch.  But so be it.  You can’t please everyone.

Casa Rinconada from Pueblo Bonito

Casa Rinconada from Pueblo Bonito

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