Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Chetro Ketl’ Category

Fajada Butte from Pueblo Alto

Happy solstice, everyone.  To mark the occasion I figured I’d say a bit about archaeoastronomy, which is an important topic at Chaco that I don’t discuss very often.  The various alignments identified at the great houses in the canyon have become quite famous through the work of the Solstice Project to document them, and while I don’t think all of their proposed alignments are necessarily real, there is enough evidence by now to suggest that at least some of them are.  Cardinal direction alignments are the most obvious, and the least likely to be coincidental (in my view), and these are found at a few of the sites at Chaco, particularly Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Alto, and Tsin Kletzin.  Interestingly, these three are all in the center of the canyon (“Downtown Chaco”), and the line running due north-south from Pueblo Alto to Tsin Kletzin runs between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl through the “Chaco Amphitheater.”  This all suggests some pretty extensive planning, but it’s interesting that the other parts of the canyon don’t seem to have been part of it.  I find the Solstice Project’s proposed alignments at many of the other sites in the canyon a lot more dubious, especially since so many of them are allegedly to the minor lunar standstill.  It seems more plausible that there would be solstice alignments in the canyon, and there do indeed seem to be some “viewing points” from which solstice sunrises are marked by prominent features on the horizon, but the only solstice-aligned building proposed by the Solstice Project is Aztec West, which isn’t even at Chaco, although it’s clearly Chacoan in style.

Steve Lekson has proposed that one possible reason for the variety of alignments in Chacoan great houses is conflict between factions within Chacoan society.  The way he sees it, solstice alignments were the regional tradition, and cardinal alignments were a new idea at Chaco, perhaps threatening to the old order in the way that many new developments at Chaco were.  Indeed, alignment to the southeast was a common architectural practice in pre-Chaco communities, and this may well have had something to do with the solstices, although as far as I know none of these buildings have been demonstrated to have precise solstitial alignments.  I’m not so sure that cardinal direction alignments were not present in the region before Chaco, however, and I’m also unsure of whether differences in building orientation really represent ideology the way Lekson proposes.  I’m more inclined to wonder if they may instead reflect different ethnic or regional origins for different groups.  In either case, though, the factionalism idea is interesting, and quite compatible with what we know of later Pueblo societies.  In Lekson’s version, the solstice alignment of Aztec reflects the founding of that center by the solstitial faction at Chaco, while the cardinal faction went elsewhere, maybe to Paquimé, which has a strong cardinal alignment.  I’m not sure how much of that I buy, but it’s worth thinking about.

Pueblo Alto and New Alto from Tsin Kletzin

Read Full Post »

Peñasco Blanco

Returning to my theory that the large square rooms with hearths and other residential features found at some great houses in Chaco and elsewhere were in some sense replacements for earlier kivas, I think the best evidence for this at Chaco itself (as opposed to at outlying great houses like Salmon) comes not from Pueblo Bonito, which is just too complicated a palimpsest to make something like this easy to see, but from the other early great houses: Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco.  These at least seem to have simpler layouts than Bonito, though the extent to which this is just an effect of their being (mostly) unexcavated is unclear.  Nevertheless, at least some parts of these two great houses do seem to show basically the pattern that I’m proposing for the development of residential room suites at great houses.

To recap the idea: The very earliest great houses, those built in the AD 800s, seem to show a pattern of suites similar to that seen at small houses or unit pueblos, with each suite consisting of one rectangular room backed by two smaller rooms.  In front of each roomblock there are subterranean kivas, usually with slightly fewer than would be expected if each suite had its own kiva.  This suggests to me that the suites housed individual nuclear families, but that they were grouped into larger units, perhaps extended families, which shared kivas.  Whatever rituals these residential units would have conducted would probably have been in the kivas, but for the most part these were still residential structures, similar to the pithouses occupied in earlier centuries but with some of their functions transferred to the rectangular front rooms of the roomblocks.  The smaller rooms in the back would have been used for storage.  A typical great house would contain a few of these suites, with a kiva for every two or three.  It’s unclear what the relationships among different kiva-units within a great house would have been, but they could have either been separate extended families within the same real or fictitious “clan” or “lineage,” or they could have been separate lineages that were politically or ceremonially allied.  Importantly, all of these buildings are still residential at this point, although the residents may well host rituals or feasts open to the whole community either to solidify their political authority or because generosity is expected of them in exchange for community acceptance of their greater wealth or political/religious authority.  The main difference between great houses and small houses is just that great houses are bigger, with multiple stories in some instances and generally bigger rooms, as well as more extensive use of masonry rather than adobe or jacal construction.

Room 330, Pueblo Bonito

Then, at some point in the 900s, a change takes place in some (all?) great houses.  Use of the kivas is discontinued, and instead the activities that had been conducted in them are transferred to square surface rooms added onto the existing roomblocks.  This definitely seems to be what happens at Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco, although the extent to which there were earlier kivas is unclear given the lack of excavation.  In great houses newly begun during this time (it’s unclear how many of these there were in Chaco itself, but Kin Nahasbas may be an example), room suites were built without any kivas but with large, square rooms in front and smaller rectangular rooms varying in number behind them for storage.  This pattern continues well into the 1000s, at least at some great houses, and it’s associated with the very formal, symmetrical, rectilinear layout seen at sites such as Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Alto.  Some outlying great houses, such as Kin Bineola and (especially) Salmon, show this pattern as well.  Salmon seems to show that new great houses with (almost?) exclusively square rather than round living rooms were still being built as late as 1090, and if the early construction at Aztec is in the same pattern, which seems to be a matter of some dispute, it would still be going on well into the early 1100s.  This is probably also what we see at Pueblo Bonito too, with the possible addition of square rooms like 329 and 330 to the older suites at the west end of Old Bonito and the later addition of linear suites to the south of these rooms at the southwest corner of the site.

At some point in the late 1000s, however, a different type of room suite begins to arise at some Chaco great houses.  This is still a linear suite, sort of, but it consists of a round kiva built aboveground into a first-story square room, with one or two rows of two- or three-story rectangular rooms extending back from it.  These are the “blocked-in” kivas that are probably the most famous innovation of Chacoan architecture.  I see them as still residential spaces, in combination with the rooms behind them.  Their appearance at most outlying great houses indicates residential use of those sites, perhaps by local elites.  It’s not clear what the relationship is between these plaza-facing blocked-in kiva suites and the “elevated” kivas surrounded by rectangular rooms that start to appear at the centers of the rectilinear great houses with the square living rooms around this same time.  If those rooms are still residential, they’re pretty damn fancy residences.  They’re also quite unlike the other residential rooms at these sites, which are still square.  The “Tower Kiva” at Salmon is one example, as are the corresponding kiva at Hungo Pavi and the numerous examples at Chetro Ketl.  The central placement and unusual elaboration of these structures has led many to assume that they were ceremonial rather than residential in function, but I’m not so sure.  These sites do generally have great kivas, which pretty much everyone agrees were community-scale ceremonial/integrative structures, and they look quite different from elevated kivas (although it’s not clear to what extent the unique features of great kivas are due to structural requirements following from their size).

Kivas in the Southeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

In any case, the best examples of the plaza-facing blocked-in kiva suites are at Pueblo Bonito in the southeast and southwest wings.  These appear to have been built over earlier construction, so it’s not totally clear what was going on with these multiple, quite rapid changes in site layout during this period.  Again, though, they’re also obvious at Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco, where some (but not all!) of the earlier square living rooms are replaced by blocked-in kivas.  This also appears to have happened in the west wing of Chetro Ketl, but it’s unexcavated so it’s hard to say for sure.  There definitely are two blocked-in kivas there, though, and they appear to have rooms behind them like at Pueblo Bonito.

Then, at some point toward the very end of the eleventh century or very early in the twelfth, a totally new type of room suite begins to appear at Chaco great houses.  This is the famous “McElmo unit,” with a central blocked-in kiva surrounded on three or four sides by rectangular rooms, most of them significantly higher (three or four stories), creating a sort of “patio” over the kiva.  These rarely have ground-floor exterior walls, and they are remarkably uniform and modular in form.  The most famous of these structures are the freestanding ones, including New Alto, Casa Chiquita, and Kin Kletso (which comprises two adjacent units), but clearly analogous forms can be seen within certain great houses, including the north and south wings of Pueblo del Arroyo and the Kiva B complex at Pueblo Bonito.  Similar units that are just outside of existing great houses can be seen at Chetro Ketl and Peñasco Blanco.  The masonry of most of these is very different from that used at earlier great houses, being composed of blocky yellow sandstone rather than fine, hard, dark sandstone, and this has been used to argue that they represent influence from the north.  The masonry may indeed reflect northern influence (though in a different way from what the original proposers of this idea thought), but the form predates the shift in masonry and probably developed locally in Chaco.

Kiva E, Kin Kletso

There has been a lot of debate over the function of McElmo units.  Some see them as warehouses, while others see them as ritual (or possibly astronomical) special-use sites.  I’m increasingly thinking that all this speculation is based on an overemphasis on their differences from earlier great houses, and that they were probably residential and represent the final version of the Chacoan room suite.  More on this later.

McElmo units may represent the final development of Chacoan architecture in terms of form, but the great houses continued to be occupied for quite some time after the construction of these roomblocks in the early 1100s.  What we see at this point is an increased emphasis on the blocked-in kiva concept, with new kivas, often of “non-Chacoan” form, being built into earlier square or rectangular rooms.  Some call these “intra-mural” rather than “blocked-in” kivas, to emphasize that they were built into earlier rooms rather than having square rooms built around them, and I think this is a helpful distinction.  These really proliferate at Pueblo Bonito late in the occupation period, and this also happens at Aztec and Salmon during their “post-Chacoan” (also called “secondary” or “Mesa Verdean”) occupations.  At the same time, many great houses also see the construction of new subterranean kivas in the plazas, often with accompanying small blocks of square rooms.  These aren’t usually datable directly, but they appear to be very late.   Pueblo Bonito has particularly many of these, and there are a few in the southeast corner of Chetro Ketl too.  These appear to represent the construction of typical small-house or unit-pueblo style residential units within earlier great houses, and they may or may not represent an occupational discontinuity of some sort.

So basically, what we see is a sequence of underground kiva to above-ground square room to above-ground kiva.  There are plenty of variations and complications, but that’s the general sequence.  The later use of intra-mural kivas, especially at Pueblo Bonito, has tended to obscure the middle stage here, but it really seems to represent something meaningful at least as a chronological marker in Chacoan architecture.  Does it mean anything else culturally?  That part I’m still looking into, but it may.

Fajada Butte from Una Vida

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Unit Pueblo with Single Kiva at Mesa Verde

My kiva posts so far have mostly focused on form rather than function, but function is really at the core of most arguments over kivas these days.  As I said earlier, I basically buy Steve Lekson‘s arguments that small (as opposed to great) kivas in the San Juan region before AD 1300 were basically residential in function and formed integral parts of household residential units consisting of a kiva and a few rectangular rooms.

Identifying these units at small houses, which constitute the vast majority of sites in the eleventh century and earlier, is very straightforward.  Many of these sites include just one kiva and a few rectangular rooms.  These are the famous “Prudden units” first identified in the Mesa Verde region by T. Mitchell Prudden a century ago.  Each seems to be pretty clearly a residential structure housing a single household.  Other small sites include two or more Prudden units, but most have no more than a few and seem to indicate the presence of multiple households, probably extended families.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

At the large aggregated sites that began to develop in the twelfth century and reached their greatest size in the late thirteenth century, just before the abandonment of the whole region during the “Great Drought” of 1276 to 1299, the most famous of which are the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, it is generally possible to identify individual suites of rooms with associated kivas equivalent to Prudden units.  This suggests that these sites formed by the aggregation of existing social units without major changes in social organization.  After the major societal dislocations and migrations in the period between 1275 and 1325, this is no longer the case, and the much larger aggregated pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley, as well as those in the Hopi and Zuni areas to the west, no longer have well-defined units with associated kivas.  Instead they have many fewer kivas, indicating a new function for these spaces more like their current function at modern pueblos as community-wide ritual and integrative spaces.  This function is probably more like the function of great kivas in earlier periods, although it is important to note that post-1300 community-scale kivas do not continue the formal attributes of previous great kivas, Chacoan or otherwise, and instead more closely resemble the smaller kivas that Lekson considers residential rather than ceremonial in function.  They are, however, generally quite a bit larger than typical pre-1300 small kivas.  It is also in this era that we begin to see the distinction in kiva form between eastern and western pueblos that is continued to the present day, with eastern pueblos adopting round kivas and western pueblos adopting square ones.

The idea, then, assuming Lekson is right, is that in the course of the massive changes around 1300 people adopted new social organizational principles, one of which was the abandonment of the kiva as a residential space and the development of a new ceremonial and social space, shaped like an earlier residential kiva but larger, that may have eased people’s integration into the new communities that were much larger and denser than what they had known before.  Increased density would have led to increased social tensions, and new social institutions, probably including the kachina cult, would have been necessary to deal with these tensions.  Because of all these changes, the modern pueblos are probably not good analogues for understanding pueblo life before 1300, even though they are clearly and unambiguously descended from the people who occupied pueblo sites in such areas as Chaco and Mesa Verde at that time.

Chetro Ketl from Above

So that’s all well and good, but notice what’s missing from this story: the great houses associated with the system centered on Chaco between 1030 and 1130.  Most discussion of Chacoan architecture has focused on these very impressive buildings, particularly on the largest ones, Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, even though the vast majority of sites even at Chaco Canyon itself were small houses, and Lekson’s edited volume on Chaco architecture is no exception.  Recently one of the major debates in Chacoan archaeology has focused on the function of these structures, with some arguing that they were primarily ceremonial or administrative in function with minimal residential use, while others see them more as residences of an elite class in a hierarchical society (Lekson has referred to them as “palaces”) and a few still arguing that they were residential communities analogous to the later aggregated pueblos.  Sorting this out has been tricky, especially since some of the most important sites in Chaco were excavated long ago when archaeological techniques were not what they are now and figuring out the implications of data collected at that time is very difficult.  There is clearly evidence for at least some residential use at most great houses that have been excavated, but it remains unclear how much of this evidence dates to the period of Chacoan florescence rather than earlier or later, and a number of more recent lines of evidence, such as the extensive road system throughout the San Juan Basin associated with the great houses and the elaborate landscape architecture and astronomical alignments found in the vicinity of many great houses, has led others to argue that the primary function of these structures was more esoteric and ceremonial, even if a few people did live in them.

One challenge has been determining the residential population of these sites.  Indeed, if it were easy to determine population many of the disputes over function would probably go away.  Early estimates based on raw room counts and comparisons with modern pueblos led to estimates as high as 1200 people for Pueblo Bonito alone, but more recent estimates based on the actual presence of residential features in (rectangular) rooms have gone as low as 70 for Pueblo Bonito.   That’s quite a range!

Pueblo Bonito from Above

So what does this have to do with kivas?  Well, if kivas were residential, then obviously they would have relevance to debates over residential use and population estimates.  If, as seems to have been the case at small sites, each kiva corresponds to one household unit, a rough count of population could come from just counting up the number of kivas in use at a given point in time and applying some conversion factor based on the assumed size of a household.  As far as I know no one has actually done this, although Lekson or someone else may have done it somewhere I haven’t seen.

So, assuming kivas were residential, and noting the numbers of kivas at great houses, we can perhaps get a rough sense of the number of people who lived in these buildings.  But who were these people?  And why did they live in great houses while most other people in their communities, both inside and outside Chaco Canyon, lived in the much humbler small houses?  The obvious answer is that they were the elites in a hierarchical system, but that poses as many questions as it answers.  What was the nature of this system?  Where did the elites get their authority, and how did they maintain it?

Kiva F at Pueblo Bonito

Setting aside these more fundamental questions about Chaco, however, there are also many questions raised by the idea of kivas being residential that focus more on the kivas themselves.  As I mentioned before, the classic “Chacoan” kivas found at the great houses have a very standardized set of features that distinguishes them from kivas elsewhere in the region.  Were these characteristics of elite residences?  If so, understanding their purpose would potentially be very useful in understanding the dynamics of the Chaco system more generally.  Unfortunately, we don’t really have any idea what these specialized features may have meant socially or economically.  They don’t seem particularly resource-intensive compared to other kiva styles, which suggests that conspicuous consumption may not have been the motivation.  This makes sense, since if kivas were private, residential spaces few people would presumably have had access to them.

It’s also possible that the specialized features of Chacoan kivas were markers of ethnicity or heritage.  In general they seem to differ most noticeably from those found in areas to the north, and they may resemble southern forms more closely.  There are other suggestions of southern origins for at least some early great house architecture which may be instructive, and great kivas, which became integrated with great houses about the time the Chaco system really got going, are also generally more of a southern phenomenon.  This idea of regionalism is important, I think, but I don’t have enough information to discuss it more fully just yet.

One of the most striking differences between Chacoan kivas and those found elsewhere in the region is the tendency for Chacoan ones to be elevated and contained within square rooms, whereas most others were subterranean.  Is this an “elite” feature?  It certainly would make these residences more prominent and given their inhabitants a better view of whatever was happening in the plazas of the great houses.  It would also have increased the visibility of these residences from the clifftops above the great houses in Chaco, which is discussed in the chapter on Chetro Ketl in Lekson’s architecture volume.  Also discussed in that chapter is the Court Kiva at Chetro Ketl, one of the small number of exceptionally large “Chacoan” kivas built into plazas rather than elevated in roomblocks.  The Court Kiva was sited well into the plaza, where it was separated from the nearest rectangular rooms by a greater distance than was typical but was also particularly visible from the cliff above the site.  It was later converted into a (presumably non-residential) great kiva, which is interesting and unknown anywhere else at Chaco.

Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl

This same chapter does contain some discussion of the topic of kiva function at great houses which is worth quoting.  The differing interpretations of Lekson and Windes are here made explicit; it is not uncommon for coauthors of scholarly publications to disagree about some aspects of how to interpret their research, but it is only in publications on Chacoan archaeology (and this is not the only one I’ve seen do this) that they actively seek to dissociate themselves from each other’s interpretations.  Here’s Lekson’s take:

Lekson believes “kivas” at small sites were residences and, at great houses, elite residences—conspicuous and expensive housing.  Building big, flashy houses would have posed a problem for emerging elites at Chaco: If homes are traditionally below grade, how do you make one conspicuous?  Elevate it, get it out of the ground and up where it can be seen.  The Kiva G complex, ending with a third-story “kiva,” is a remarkable example.  But even elevated, enclosed kivas are not obvious from ground level; the viewer sees the rectangular exterior walls, not the house form itself.

And here, in the very next paragraph, is Windes:

Windes does not discount the possibility that “kivas” were used in part as habitations, but he does not believe that they were “living rooms” in the traditional sense.  Rectangular, surface living rooms are in fact found in great houses, but given the differences in location, shape, floor features, and artifacts, we must ask what roles these two very different types of structures took.  In addition, Windes believes that the small kivas represent part of the triad of structures associated with basic domestic units, as found in small sites and tucked away in the corners of great houses during the last occupations, but that the very large “court” kivas, later shifted in location from the plazas to the roomblocks, are specific to Chaco great houses and represent some activity beyond mere domestic use; in fact, their very size, sometimes with the feature attributes of great kivas, would place them as great kivas anywhere else outside the confines of the great house.

Both of these interpretations are plausible, but I still find Lekson more convincing.  What is the “activity beyond mere domestic use” that Windes sees these kivas serving?  He doesn’t specify.  He does, however, point out another important aspect of kivas that I alluded to in the previous post: the proliferation of them late in the occupation periods of many great houses, often associated with rectangular (or irregularly shaped) surface rooms and looking very similar to Prudden units or equivalent single-household residential roomblocks.  The masonry on these tends to look very late, and they are most often found sunk into late plaza surfaces, so while they can rarely be dated directly it seems likely that they represent a subsequent reuse of the sites as locations for residential settlement, probably after they were no longer in use for their original purposes, whatever those might have been.  Many of the original square rooms in some great houses seem to have been used for trash deposition at this time, implying that they were no longer needed for their original functions but that there were plenty of nearby residents producing trash.  Some great kivas, however, especially Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito, also seem to have continued in use at this point, implying that the sites may still have had some ritual or integrative functions, even if they were newly being used for a new type of residential use.

Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito

What Windes doesn’t mention here, however, is that many of the late “non-Chacoan” kivas found at great houses were built into existing square roomblocks, the same way earlier Chacoan kivas had been built into newly constructed square rooms.  This implies more continuity in both architecture and population than his phrasing would suggest between the large “court kivas” and the later ones.  Recall that Lekson has also argued that these non-Chacoan kivas are more likely a late development of Chacoan architectural traditions than a sign of an influx of “foreigners.”

Windes is certainly right that there are square rooms with residential features in Chacoan great houses, and that this suggests that not everyonewas necessarily living in kivas, but the features of many of those square rooms are actually pretty similar in many cases to kiva features.  This implies that the distinction between those who lived in kivas and those who lived in aboveground square rooms that look suspiciously like kivas may be more complicated than Windes (or Lekson) lets on.  Perhaps there is some social distinction here, implicit in the architecture, that has received little to no attention in the literature but that may well be quite important.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Room 330, Pueblo Bonito

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Chuska Mountains from New Mexico Highway 371

In the year AD 1098 a spruce tree was chopped down in the Chuska Mountains, which run roughly along what is now the border between Arizona and New Mexico.  We don’t know who cut it down, exactly, since the people living in the area at the time had no system of writing and have therefore not left us any explanation of their actions.  We do know why it was cut down, however, and what became of it, and that gives us some clue to who might have wielded the axe.  It was likely either the local inhabitants of the Chuskas or the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, 45 miles to the east, who had close connections to the Chuskas and may have traveled there regularly to do things like cut down trees.

After the bark and branches of the tree were carefully stripped from the trunk, and its ends laboriously ground flat, it was probably left to dry out for a couple of years.  At the end of that period, a group of men carried it carefully, by hand, the 45 miles to Chaco, where it was used in the construction of Kiva G at Chetro Ketl, the prominent elevated round room that can still be seen prominently at the site today.  This room was built over the remains of earlier round rooms, and the architectural history of this part of Chetro Ketl is very complicated and hard to unravel.  This particular beam, now known as CK-168, was used as a “tie beam” in the northeast corner of the square room into which Kiva G was built.  I take this to mean that it was used to span the interstitial space roughly tangent to the outside of the circle of Kiva G as part of the elaborate support structure of beams that was necessary to support the “blocked-in” kivas like this one that are so typical of Chacoan great house architecture.  The stage of construction involving Kiva G, and therefore beam CK-168, was one of the latest at Chetro Ketl, and Kiva G is noteworthy for displaying the “McElmo” style of masonry, which is a relatively late style at Chaco that echoes the style of masonry found to the north at sites such as Aztec Ruins.

Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl from the North

We know when and where beam CK-168 was cut down because of two types of analysis that have been done on this and many other pieces of wood from Chaco and other prehistoric archaeological sites in the American Southwest.  The first is tree-ring dating, which allows the determination of the date a given tree was cut down with amazing precision, potentially to the calendar year.  Not every beam that is analyzed produces what is called a “cutting date,” indicating the exact year in which it was cut, but CK-168 did, and this is how we know it was cut down in 1098.  The other technique, which was developed much more recently, is strontium isotope ratio analysis, which at its current level of development allows the determination of the general area in which a tree (or a person) lived.  Many fewer pieces of wood have undergone this type of analysis than have been tree-ring dated, but CK-168 is one that has, and it is from this testing that we know it came from the Chuskas.  We don’t know exactly where in the Chuskas it came from, but we can be reasonably sure it was somewhere in the range.  These techniques are more or less the state of the art in wringing information from the archaeological remains of the prehistoric Southwest, and the amount of information available from them in this arid region with good preservation of materials like wood is quite remarkable by the standards of prehistoric archaeology in general.

At the same time the tree that became beam CK-168 was being cut down and left to dry out, on the other side of the world a group of heavily armed men was rampaging through a country that was not yet under their control but soon would be.  These were the Crusaders, a group of pious Christian knights and others, mostly from the various lands that are now part of France, who had heeded Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 to aid the Byzantine emperor in fending of the Turks who were threatening his lands and who at some point added the goal of conquering the holy city of Jerusalem from the Turks as well.  This expedition is now known as the First Crusade, and by 1098 it had reached the Holy Land and begun to conquer parts of it.  In June of that year they captured the important coastal city of Antioch (now in Turkey) after an eight-month siege and began to move on toward Jerusalem.  One group, under the command of Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles, arrived at the nearby city of Ma’arra (now in Syria) on November 28 and began to lay siege to it.  This siege, in striking contrast to the long, miserable one at Antioch, lasted only two weeks, and on December 12 the Crusaders entered the city after having destroyed its defenses.  They then remained at Ma’arra for another month as Raymond and the other commanders who had assisted him in the siege argued over how to divide up the spoils of their conquests.  On January 13, 1099 the ordinary soldiers, who were impatient to get to Jerusalem, finally prevailed on Raymond to move on and the army left Ma’arra.  They reached Jerusalem in early June and, assisted by a group of Genoese sailors who landed at Jaffa on June 17 and disassembled their ships to make siege engines, seized the city on July 15.  They then massacred the majority of the inhabitants.

Villages in Syria from the Golan Heights

In the grand scheme of the Crusade, and compared to the brutality that marked the Crusaders’ actions at Antioch and Jerusalem, the siege of Ma’arra may seem like a minor chapter.  There was something distinctive about Ma’arra, however, and it remained a painful memory for both sides quite out of proportion to the short duration of the siege.  The Arab historians recorded that the massacre of the people of Ma’arra after the siege was even worse in total number killed than that at Jerusalem, and some reported that the Crusaders had promised the people of the city safety before treacherously killing them.  According to the chroniclers who accompanied the Crusaders, however, what happened at Ma’arra was even worse than that.  With clear discomfort but remarkable consistency, almost all of the chroniclers recorded that some of the Crusaders had engaged in an activity much less respectable in European eyes than killing Muslims: eating them.

The cannibalism at Ma’arra has long been a difficult issue for historians of the Crusades to understand.  Beginning with the contemporary chroniclers, some of whom were at Ma’arra and apparently witnessed the events personally, they have offered various explanations for the behavior.  In a recent article Jay Rubenstein took a close look at the accounts the chroniclers offered of Ma’arra, and found some interesting patterns.  For one thing, although almost all of the contemporary chroniclers mention the cannibalism, the specifics of their accounts vary considerably.  Some placed it during the siege, while others put it afterward, during the month when the Crusaders were hanging around the city as their leaders argued.  Some attributed it to famine and starvation among the soldiers, who were said to have eaten flesh from dead bodies furtively.  One eyewitness account says that when the leaders of the Crusade found out about this they piled the bodies in a mound and set fire to them to put an end to it.  Others, however, said that the Crusaders ate the flesh of the dead Muslim enemies avidly and publicly, and one even said that some of the Crusaders were so disgusted by the sight that they deserted, blaming the leaders of the Crusade for not providing sufficient supplies and letting things deteriorate to this point.  Some of the chroniclers blamed the cannibalism on an apparently fictitious group of poor Crusaders called “Tafurs.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Rubenstein makes some interesting connections between all this and various other medieval references to cannibalism, including various episodes of starvation cannibalism during famines in Europe and references to “theatrical” mock-cannibalism involving the ostentatious preparation of dead enemies as if to eat them in view of living enemies, including one instance allegedly during the siege of Antioch and one earlier, in Spain.  He also mentions Biblical references to cannibalism as a punishment for disobeying God, with the context often being siege warfare quite similar to that conducted by the Crusaders, as well as some suggestive references to the possibility that some Crusaders might have resorted to eating each other (or at least come close) during the long, hard months at Antioch.  This is all rather speculative, however, and most of it has one crucial difference with the reports of what happened at Ma’arra, which Rubenstein does acknowledge: in these cases people were generally eating members of their own group, while at Ma’arra all the chronicles are quite clear in saying that the Crusaders only ate the flesh of the Muslim enemy.  This alone suggests that more than simple survival cannibalism is involved here, since there would surely have been plenty of dead Crusaders around to eat and the contempt the Crusaders had for “infidels” makes it odd that they would choose to defile themselves by eating them.  Rubenstein notes this and comes up with an admittedly speculative reconstruction of what happened at Ma’arra in which he proposes that there had been scattered instances of survival cannibalism at Antioch and perhaps earlier but that at Ma’arra, during the siege, some of the starving Crusaders decided to make a virtue of a necessity by ostentatiously eating dead Muslims in full view of the defenders of the city as a form of psychological warfare.  This would presumably have struck fear in the hearts of the Muslims and perhaps led to an easier conquest of the city than had been the case at Antioch.  Upon learning about this, however, the chroniclers, highly uncomfortable with this celebratory cannibalism, finessed their accounts to put the cannibalism after the siege, attribute it to starvation, and make it furtive and discouraged rather than open and aggressive.  Rubenstein puts the celebratory cannibalism in the context of “holy war” and the idea that the Crusaders thought of themselves as tools of God sent to punish the Muslims, which justified anything they did in the course of achieving that aim, regardless of how perverse and taboo it might be under normal circumstances.

This is an interesting interpretation, and it is similar in some ways to the model I have proposed for the outbreak of cannibalism in the Southwest around AD 1150 (about fifty years after the Ma’arra incident) in which I argued that the attackers, whoever they were, may have been motivated by both hunger and the desire to terrify their adversaries.  I ultimately don’t buy it, though.  A careful look at how Rubenstein supports his argument shows that the sources he relies on are not the most likely to be reliable.  The chronicles that put the cannibalism at Ma’arra during the siege rather than after it, as well as those that mention the possibility of earlier cannibalism and various other aspects of Rubenstein’s theory, were mostly written well after the events in question by people who did not witness them.  Most of them did apparently speak to eyewitnesses in preparing their accounts, and in some cases these eyewitnesses may have included some of the cannibals themselves, a fact that Rubenstein leans on heavily in arguing for their validity as sources, but this is a thin reed on which to hang such an elaborate argument.  Looking just at the chronicles written by writers who actually accompanied the Crusade, some of whom were at Ma’arra personally, they generally seem to agree that the cannibalism took place after the siege, when the Crusaders were hanging around Ma’arra and probably still hungry from the months of deprivation and disease at Antioch.  These chroniclers do disagree on some other aspects of the cannibalism, but in general their disagreements are more minor than those between them and some of the later accounts by writers who were not there and relied on secondhand testimony.  The fact that only Muslims were eaten does still require some explanation beyond simple starvation, but a desire to humiliate the enemy, perhaps combined with an aversion to eating people they had known personally in life, could explain it at least as well as an attempt at psychological warfare, which as Rubenstein notes really requires that the cannibalism took place during rather than after the siege.  It may be a better explanation, in fact, in light of the fact that the Arab historians do not mention the cannibalism although they do note the brutality of the siege and massacre.  This suggests either that the Crusaders were unsuccessful in trying to terrorize the Muslims through ostentatious cannibalism or that the cannibalism took place after there were no living Muslims left in Ma’arra to see it.  It could also suggest that the cannibalism was successful in intimidating the defenders, who were then massacred, leaving no one left to tell other Muslims about it, but the fact that the eyewitness chroniclers were in general agreement that the cannibalism took place after the siege makes me think that it’s more likely that there just weren’t any Muslims around.

Sunset at St. Peter's Church, Jaffa

Note the difference here between Rubenstein’s interpretation of the cannibalism at Ma’arra and mine.  This is a context where we have abundant written documentation of the events in question, and yet we have a variety of possible interpretations of what really happened and no way to tell for sure which is closer to the truth.  We must just rely on which fits the evidence best and is the most plausible, a somewhat subjective matter at all times.  This is in contrast to the more “objective” evidence we have of what happened in some contexts in the prehistoric Southwest, such as the time and place that beam CK-168 was cut down.  Note, however, that the information we have about CK-168 is extremely limited compared to what we know about Ma’arra, despite the many conflicting accounts in the chronicles.  These just aren’t comparable levels of knowledge, and this points out the difference between history and archaeology.  Both can tell us stories about the past, but the stories are very different.  Without the written documents about Ma’arra we would likely never know that cannibalism occurred there; unlike in the alleged instance of cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest, which are based largely (though not entirely) on extensive “processing” of human bones.  The type of cannibalism alleged at Ma’arra consisted largely of the cutting of strips of meat from the fleshy parts of the body, which would likely not have left any marks on the bones and thus no physical evidence visible in the archaeological record.  But because we do have written records we do know about it.  If we had written records of what happened at Cowboy Wash we would presumably understand it better than we do, but the example of Ma’arra shows that we would not necessarily understand exactly what had happened even then.

Archaeology has its advantages, however.  Judging from what people typically write down when they have access to writing, it’s very unlikely that anyone in the Chuskas or at Chaco would have bothered to write down exactly when and where beam CK-168 was cut down even if they could.  Hundreds of thousands of beams were imported to Chaco during its florescence, and it’s unlikely that the specific origin of each of them would have been important enough to anyone to record.  Nevertheless, the analytical techniques available to modern archaeology does allow us to know in some cases when and where individual beams were harvested.  The story of CK-168 and the story of Ma’arra may be very different types of story, known to us in very different ways, but they are both known to us, and knowing both of them enriches our understanding of the past despite the still unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions the stories raise.  And remember that these two stories happened at the same time; they were literally simultaneous.  Many things were going on in the world in the year 1098, and the stories of most of them are lost forever.  The stories of these two events, however, are not, and we can still tell them today.
ResearchBlogging.org
Rubenstein, J. (2008). Cannibals and Crusaders French Historical Studies, 31 (4), 525-552 DOI: 10.1215/00161071-2008-005

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 73 other followers