Archive for the ‘Cultural Resource Management’ Category

Looking South from Kin Ya'a

One of the most notable examples of an assemblage of highly mutilated human remains from the Southwest being attributed to witchcraft execution rather than cannibalism, in accordance with J. Andrew Darling’s theory discussed in the previous post, is Ram Mesa, southwest of Chaco Canyon near Gallup, NM.  This site was excavated by the University of New Mexico as a salvage project, and the relevant assemblage was reported by Marsha Ogilvie and Charles Hilton in 2000.

The Ram Mesa assemblage, consisting of 13 individuals, is pretty similar to many other assemblages in the Southwest attributed to cannibalism, but Ogilvie and Hilton make a plausible case that while the remains are clearly highly “processed” there isn’t a whole lot tying this dismemberment and mutilation to actual consumption of the remains.  Few of the bones showed any evidence of burning, a condition which applies to several other cases of alleged cannibalism as well.  The few cut marks, which were mostly found on children’s skulls and lower jaws, weren’t particularly indicative of the removal of large muscles that might be expected if consumption were the object.  On the other hand, however, relatively few of the bone fragments were sufficiently large to be identified to body part, and any diagnostic evidence from these tiny fragments was clearly destroyed by the thoroughness of the processing.  It’s not clear, therefore, how representative the larger fragments with surviving evidence of burning and cutting are of the entire assemblage.  The most I would say about this site is that the evidence is not sufficient to make a positive diagnosis of cannibalism, and other explanations are therefore plausible.

However, as I noted before in discussing Darling’s arguments, witchcraft execution and cannibalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the execution of suspected witches may well have involved some level of cannibalism among some Southwestern groups in prehistoric times, thought there is certainly no evidence that it did in historic times as documented by ethnographers.  There are some other oddities about the Ram Mesa site that suggest that it might not be expected to pattern with the majority of the suspected cannibalism assemblages, so it is certainly possible that it represents a variation on the same behavior that may not have included cannibalism.

For one thing, this is an odd place for one of these assemblages.  Although some early excavations at Chaco Canyon and in northern Arizona have been proposed as showing evidence of cannibalism, the vast majority of the well-documented cases are in southwestern Colorado, especially around the modern town of Cortez.  This includes the Cowboy Wash site, the site with the best evidence for cannibalism of any of them.  Given the known cultural differences between prehistoric populations at the northern and southern edges of the San Juan Basin (the San Juan and Cibola Anasazi, respectively), it’s quite possible that the cultural activities resulting in similar assemblages in these two areas may have been somewhat different, with the San Juan groups practicing cannibalism and the Cibola groups not.

Furthermore, there may be differences in the dating of the sites.  Most of the well-documented Cortez-area sites date to right around AD 1150, and they may all represent part of a single event at that time, which was in the midst of a severe drought when social structures were likely under extreme stress.  The Ram Mesa site is dated by six radiocarbon dates to a period that Ogilvie and Hilton describe as “AD 978 to 1161.”  They do clarify that these are calibrated dates, which is helpful, but it would have been better if they had shown the ranges for the individual dates, as well as the materials that were dated, which would give a better idea of the most likely dating for the human remains.  On the assumption that the remains date to the latest period of occupation, which seems plausible based on comparison to similar assemblages elsewhere, this puts the latest date at 1161, which is interestingly close to the dates for the similar Cortez sites.  Due to the lack of information of the dates, however, it’s not clear is this is an intercept (i.e., most likely) date or the late end of a range; if the latter, it’s possible that the assemblage dates to somewhat earlier than the Cortez sites.  In that case it would not be part of the same phenomenon, whatever that was, and the postulated lack of cannibalism may be related to that.

In any case, this site definitely seems to have been within the Chacoan sphere of influence, which makes the interpretation of the remains there important for understanding the relationship of alleged cannibalistic events to the rise and fall of Chaco.  Christy Turner has famously argued that they represent the expansion of the Chacoan system and the use of brutal force by the rulers of Chaco (hypothesized on very dubious evidence to be Toltec immigrants from central Mexico) to ensure that outlying communities were incorporated into the system and supplied tribute to the canyon.  This idea is pretty implausible based on the evidence from the Cortez area, where most of the assemblages date to the period of Chaco’s decline rather than its rise.  If Ram Mesa dates to the same period it would support that evidence, whereas if it dates to earlier it could conceivably either support Turner’s ideas or point to a different interpretation, perhaps having something to do with the well-known fact that the outlying Chacoan communities to the south of Chaco seem to have been abandoned beginning much earlier than those in other directions.  There are a lot of outlying Chacoan great houses in this area, including Casamero and Kin Ya’a, but they seem to have rather different histories than those to the north, such as Aztec Ruins and Yellow Jacket.

Like most research related to Chaco, this paper ultimately raises more questions than it answers.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, especially when it comes to a topic as controversial and poorly understood as these assemblages suggesting cannibalism.
Ogilvie, M., & Hilton, C. (2000). Ritualized violence in the prehistoric American Southwest International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10 (1), 27-48 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1212(200001/02)10:13.0.CO;2-M

Read Full Post »

Chaco Preservation Crew Repairing Masonry at the Fort Site

Today’s Albuquerque Journal has an article, originally published in the Gallup Independent, about the Chaco preservation crew and their work maintaining the various sites in the park.  The article focuses specifically on recent work they’ve done at Pueblo Pintado.  I don’t have a whole lot to add, but it’s an interesting account that addresses some of the complications of doing this sort of work for traditional Navajos, who have a strong taboo against even visiting Anasazi sites.  The article says that the crew deals with this in part by conducting prophylactic ceremonies before starting work on the sites, which I hadn’t known.  These ceremonies are apparently led by Harold Suina, a member of the crew who is from Cochiti Pueblo and is not Navajo (although I believe his wife is, and they live near Chaco in an area inhabited almost entirely by Navajos).  The article doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Harold’s role is particularly important since Pueblos like Cochiti have different attitudes toward the sites at Chaco than Navajos do, so he may not feel as uncomfortable dealing with them as the other members of the crew, all of whom are Navajo, do.  Not all of the Navajo members of the crew are traditional, however; some are Christian, as are many Navajos in the Chaco area, and they may not have the same qualms about their work that their more traditional colleagues have.

Anyway, it’s an interesting article, and it’s nice to see the preservation crew getting some media attention.  They do crucial work for the park, but it rarely gets noticed by either visitors or the many people who have written books and articles about Chaco over the years.  When I was doing tours I would usually do a fairly detailed description of the preservation work early on in the tour, both because people often want to know how much of what they see at the sites is reconstructed (at Chaco, very little, unlike at many other parks) and because I wanted them to appreciate how much work it is to maintain the sites and why it is therefore important for them as visitors to treat them respectfully and minimize the amount of damage they cause.  Hopefully this article will serve a similar function for a wider audience.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground

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

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

Read Full Post »

Excavating the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

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

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

Shoveling at the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building with Pro-Book Sign, Carrizozo, New Mexico

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

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

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

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

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Read Full Post »

Train Station, Dolores, Colorado

Southwestern archaeology, especially in the Chaco area, is structured chronologically primarily by the Pecos Classification.  This system was initially worked out at the first Pecos Conference in 1927, and it was originally interpreted as a series of stages in cultural development, with the assumption that sites with similar characteristics and material culture were roughly contemporaneous.  Once tree-ring dating became available, however, it became clear that this wasn’t quite true, and furthermore that different sub-regions of the Southwest went through the stages at different times.  There have been a variety of approaches developed in the decades since to either redefine the Pecos system or abandon it.  In the Four Corners, the main approach has been to just recast the Pecos stages as chronological markers without any inherent cultural content.  The exact dates used for each stage vary by specific area and specific researcher, but here’s a rough outline of how they are often defined:

  • Basketmaker II: 500 BC to AD 500
  • Basketmaker III: AD 500 to 750
  • Pueblo I: AD 750 to 950
  • Pueblo II: AD 950 to 1150
  • Pueblo III: AD 1150 to 1300
  • Pueblo IV: AD 1300 to 1540

There’s no Basketmaker I.  The Pecos Conference attendees were unsure what, if anything, came before Basketmaker II, and they provisionally included an earlier stage in case there did turn out to be earlier sites.  As it turned out, there were, but they were sufficiently different from Basketmaker sites that they ended up being considered part of the Archaic period of hunter-gatherer societies predating the introduction of agriculture.  (Recent discoveries have begun to muddle this picture, at least for certain areas, but while not everyone still uses the term “Archaic” for the period just before Basketmaker II no one has yet begun to call it “Basketmaker I.”)

Camping at McPhee Campground for 2009 Pecos Conference

Although the stages are generally interpreted as chronological rather than developmental these days, there is still a general sense of what sorts of sites are “typical” or expected for each stage, and this has driven a lot of the variation in specific date ranges.  Basketmaker II sites are generally associated with corn and squash agriculture, a scattered settlement pattern, lots of basketry but no pottery, and the use of the atlatl.  In Basketmaker III this pattern was adjusted by the introduction of the bow and arrow, pottery, and beans, and people began to cluster in some cases into pithouse villages, although there were still many isolated hamlets in some areas.  Pueblo I was something of a transition between Basketmaker III and Pueblo II, with the first construction of significant above-ground architecture in addition to pithouses.  Pueblo II was associated with masonry roomblocks and kivas, generally organized as “unit pueblos” of a few rooms with a kiva and trash mound in front and loosely grouped into “communities.”  The height of Chaco dates to this period, and within the area of Chacoan influence these communities typically had great houses in addition to the unit pueblos but separate from them.  In Pueblo III people began to aggregate into larger, denser communities more like the “pueblos” of historic times.  The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and elsewhere date to this period and are the best known of these aggregated sites, but there were many others in a variety of locations.  At the end of the Pueblo III period almost all of the Four Corners area was abandoned and people aggregated further into even larger pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley and the Zuni and Hopi areas to the west, in addition to a few other areas.  The Pueblo IV period is marked by the increasing concentration of population into ever-larger sites and the clustering of these sites in particular areas separated from other clusters by uninhabited “buffer zones.”  This period also saw the apparent introduction of the kachina cult and various other novel social phenomena, and it continued until the Spanish showed up and smashed everything.

That’s the picture in a nutshell, but some periods are better-known than others.  Pueblo II and III have been particularly well-researched in the Chaco and Mesa Verde areas, although there is still plenty that remains unknown about them.  In contrast, Pueblo I was very poorly understood until the Dolores Project in the 1980s totally revolutionized our knowledge of it.  This project was a massive cultural resource management (CRM) salvage project in advance of the damming of the Dolores River and the creation of McPhee Reservoir.  At the time it was the largest CRM project ever, and it might still have that distinction.  Numerous sites in the Dolores River Valley were excavated carefully and thoroughly documented.

McPhee Reservoir from McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

It’s impossible to overstate how much our current knowledge of the Pueblo I period is based on the discoveries made at Dolores.  What the project found was that the Dolores Valley, although sparsely occupied both before and after Pueblo I, during Pueblo I contained numerous large, dense villages, most of which only existed for a very short period of time during the AD 800s.  As research continued throughout southwestern Colorado, it became more apparent that these villages were just part of the story of the incredibly dynamic Pueblo I period.  People were moving all over the place, very rapidly, and forming and dissolving villages within the space of one or two generations.  Abundant evidence for drought and conflict at certain key points during the period provided some explanation for why, but the really important thing that came out of the Dolores Project specifically was the detailed study of some of the specific villages that allowed reconstruction of their short histories with remarkable precision.

On a larger scale, it appears that the Pueblo I period involved the movement of people into higher elevations than they had occupied during Basketmaker III, followed by movement back down after 900 and into Pueblo II.  While areas with Pueblo I villages typically didn’t have substantial earlier or later occupations, many other areas (including Chaco) had major Basketmaker III and Pueblo II occupations but little evidence of use during Pueblo I.  This probably had to do with climatic changes, but there were clearly also a lot of social processes going on as well.  Since the rise of Chaco as a regional center began right after all of this, Chacoan specialists have been realizing recently that the evidence from Dolores is very important as background for understanding Chaco.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

Particularly influential in shaping understandings of Chaco has been one of the Dolores villages in particular, known as McPhee Village.  Like the other Dolores villages, McPhee was founded around 840 as people began to move out of earlier villages further south around Mesa Verde and Durango.  Not everyone from these earlier villages went to Dolores (an important point), but many did, and the Dolores villages grew rapidly, only to decline just as rapidly as people moved out starting in the 870s and continuing until around 900, at which point there was only a very small remnant population in some of the villages.

The remarkable thing about McPhee Village was the presence of some roomblocks there that bore an uncanny resemblance to the early “great houses” that would arise in the San Juan Basin to the south, including at Chaco, shortly afterward.  Not all of the roomblocks were like this; most were small, linear unit pueblos typical of those in most other villages.  Two roomblocks in particular, however, known as McPhee Pueblo and Pueblo de las Golondrinas, looked astonishingly like the early form of Pueblo Bonito.  They were arc-shaped rather than linear, with two arcs making up McPhee Pueblo and Pueblo de las Golondrinas consisting of one larger arc.  (Note that “McPhee Pueblo” refers to a specific roomblock within “McPhee Village.”  The terminology is confusing.)  Furthermore, these roomblocks were made up of room suites consisting of three rooms, with one large room facing the “plaza” within the arc backed by two smaller “storage” rooms.  The “plaza” area within each arc contained pit structures presumably associated with these suites.  Again, this is much like the layout of Pueblo Bonito and other early Chaco great houses.  These roomblocks were also made largely of masonry rather than adobe, in contrast to most earlier sites as well as many other Dolores villages, which again linked them to the later Chaco sites.

Dolores Medical Center, Dolores, Colorado

A variety of studies have been done of these sites, particularly focused on what differentiated them from other roomblocks at McPhee Village.  James Potter did a study of animal remains at McPhee Pueblo and Pueblo de las Golondrinas, looking for evidence that the residents of these sites might have hosted community-wide feasts and/or conducted special rituals, either of which could have been ways for them to gain social power within the community.  Both sites contain, in addition to the standard residential pitstructures common at all sites in the village, special “oversized” pitstructures with more formal, elaborate features that could have served as special locations for feasts or rituals.  He found that McPhee Pueblo did indeed have a much higher number of different types of animal remains present, including many “non-economic” species such as carnivores and certain birds that may have had important ritual uses.  Furthermore, it had a higher proportion of rabbits than most other roomblocks, which is significant because among the modern Pueblos rabbits are often hunted communally and eaten in ritual feasts.  Interestingly, Pueblo de las Golondrinas, despite its size and the presence of an oversized pitstructure, did not have these characteristics, suggesting that its inhabitants may not have been as successful as those at McPhee Pueblo at hosting communal rituals and increasing their power.

Another take on this question comes from an analysis of ritual architecture by Gregson Schachner.  Starting from the assumption that times of significant environmental and social change, such as those that surely accompanied the rapid founding and dissolution of the Dolores villages, offer opportunities for ambitious individuals or groups to gain power and influence by taking control of ritual practices or introducing new ones, he noted that unlike some other Dolores villages McPhee Village doesn’t have a great kiva, the standard community ritual structure both before and after the Pueblo I period.  Instead, roomblocks like McPhee Pueblo and Pueblo de las Golondrinas have the oversized pitstructures that might have been used for special ritual practices that the inhabitants of those sites may have tried to introduce to their communities. Schachner assumes that these pitstructures were primarily ritual rather than residential, which I think is dubious, but otherwise his arguments make sense.  He basically sees the process as having involved certain individuals or groups having tried to introduce new rituals that gave them increased status and power in the context of the convulsions of the Pueblo I period.  Those rituals might have been adopted because they offered a new way forward during the drought that coincided with the founding of the Dolores villages in the 840s, but they might have lost their appeal as a new drought in the 880s led people in the village to reject the innovations of these would-be leaders.  As the village dissolved, construction seems to have begun on a new great kiva over the oversized pitstructure at Pueblo de las Golondrinas.  This great kiva was not completed, however, and the whole village was soon abandoned.  Great kivas continued to be a key part of the new villages further to the south that appear to have absorbed many of the people leaving Dolores after 880, but the oversized pitstructure does not seem to have continued as a recognizable architectural form.

Mac's Plumbing, Dolores, Colorado

The great house form, however, which began to proliferate in the San Juan basin starting in the tenth century, seems to have some connection to the arc-shaped roomblocks at Dolores.  Recently, a model for the rise of Chaco incorporating the insights of the Dolores Project has begun to gain increasing acceptance.  Under this model, the frustrated would-be elites from the Dolores villages moved south into Chaco and other communities and began to build similar structures to those they had lived in at Dolores.  This time, however, circumstances were better, and they were able to gain more control over their communities.  These communities were spread throughout the basin, but those in Chaco Canyon specifically eventually gained ascendancy over the others, and the Chaco Phenomenon was born.

There is a certain logic to this, and parts of it are likely true, but it’s important to note that the timing isn’t quite right for frustrated elites from Dolores to have founded the first great houses at Chaco.  The earliest parts of Pueblo Bonito are now thought to have been built by 860 and perhaps considerably earlier, while the Dolores villages didn’t start to dissolve until the 870s.  It’s quite possible that later additions to the site in the 890s and early 900s involved immigration from Dolores, and indeed it is these room suites that are particularly similar to those at McPhee Pueblo.  It’s worth considering, however, the possibility that the early history of Chaco involved people moving in from the south as well as the north, and we don’t know nearly as much about the Pueblo I period in that area.  Were there large, unstable villages with ambitious families or individuals there too, or was something totally different going on that led people to head north at the same time people were heading south from Dolores?  We can only guess at this point, but it’s important not to let our greater knowledge of developments at Dolores lead us to focus too much on it to the exclusion of other important areas.  Dolores was very important, no question, but it wasn’t the only important place at the time.
Potter, J. (1997). Communal Ritual and Faunal Remains: An Example from the Dolores Anasazi Journal of Field Archaeology, 24 (3) DOI: 10.2307/530690

Schachner, G (2001). Ritual Control and Transformation in Middle-Range Societies:
An Example from the American Southwest Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 20, 168-194 DOI: 10.1006/jaar.2001.0379

Read Full Post »

Kiva E, Aztec West

In July 1914 Earl Morris, the pioneering Southwestern archaeologist who would later become famous for his excavations at Aztec and other sites in the region, happened to visit one Eudoro Córdoba, who owned a farm on the Animas River a short distance upstream of the major ruins at Aztec.  On his mantelpiece were various artifacts which immediately attracted Morris’s attention, and when Morris asked about them Córdoba told him that he had collected them in the course of plowing over a series of small ruins that were obstructing the cultivation of his fields.  He was at the time working on the last of these sites, and gave Morris permission to excavate the remaining portion of it in a more rigorous manner.  There wasn’t a whole lot left, but Morris did manage to excavate six rooms and a small area to the east of the roomblock which contained several burials.  He published a short article describing the excavation and artifacts the next year.  This was one of the earliest examples of what would later become known as “salvage archaeology.”

There are several interesting statements in Morris’s article on the site.  For one thing, while this was the last of the “seven or eight small ruins which had obstructed [Córdoba's] fields,” Morris noted that there had been many more sites in the area:

Roughly three quarters of a mile east of the great pueblos the river swings obliquely across its narrow valley from northeast to southwest. The broad bench thus left north and west of the river was till recently dotted upon all sides of the large ruins with the remains of many cobblestone and adobe structures. Within the last few years a number of these lesser sites have been destroyed in order that the owners of the land might increase the tillable area of their fields.

Córdoba was one of these landowners, of course.  It appears from Morris’s statement that a large number of what we would now call “small houses” existed in close proximity to the great houses at Aztec, much like at Chaco.  This is particularly relevant to the question of the extent to which the Totah was densely inhabited before the Chacoan immigration that many have posited as being behind the founding of Aztec and Salmon.  People have generally agreed that Salmon, which is on the San Juan rather than the Animas, was founded in a previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited area, and some people claim the same for Aztec.  Since we don’t know when the sites Morris mentions near Aztec were inhabited, his statement doesn’t provide direct evidence either way, but it does point out the dangers of making judgments about prehistoric habitation based on currently visible site distributions.  The San Juan valley has been just as heavily developed in modern times as the Animas valley, and the larger size of the San Juan also implies that more sites are likely to be buried under sediment there.  I remain skeptical about claims that the Salmon area was uninhabited before 1090.

South Wing of Aztec West, Looking East

The site Morris excavated, however, seems to have clearly been contemporaneous with the Aztec complex rather than predating it.  There was no way for Morris to know this in 1915, of course, which was before he even started excavating at Aztec West, but it’s clear from the artifacts he shows in his article that the site was inhabited in the 1200s, and perhaps a bit earlier.  Most of the illustrated ceramics seem to be Mesa Verde Black-on-white, which is typical of this period.  The site itself was made of adobe with occasional cobbles, which is standard local architecture, and it was apparently two stories high in places.  This is unusual among small houses (though standard for great houses), and it suggests that this site may be a residence of local inhabitants of some distinction or, perhaps, a somewhat larger aggregated site comparable to those known from the Mesa Verde region to the north during this period.  The site was mostly gone before Morris got to it, so he couldn’t tell how large it had been originally.  We know so little about sites in this region other than Salmon and Aztec that it’s hard to say what this site may have originally been like, but the sites excavated on the Bolack Ranch on the south side of the San Juan by the Totah Archaeological Project may provide a useful point of comparison.

As was apparently the case for some of the Bolack Ranch sites, the Córdoba site contained many burials.  In addition to five adults and two infants buried a short distance to the east of the roomblock, nineteen people were buried in three of the six rooms Morris excavated.  Morris suggested that “calamitous circumstances such as siege, pestilence, or famine overtook the inhabitants and caused great mortality among them,” leading to the unusually high number of burials in so few rooms and the oddities of the way some of them were buried.  The site appeared to Morris to have been burned, which might indicate warfare in the region during the late 1200s.  This would not be surprising, as there is abundant evidence for warfare in many other nearby regions at this time.

South Wing of Aztec West, Looking West

Another interesting thing about this site was the burial of a badger just north of the human burials east of the roomblock.  According to Morris “the animal had been put away with all the care ordinarily bestowed upon a human being.”  Animal burials like this are pretty common at Pueblo sites.  They are most often of dogs or turkeys, but occasionally of other animals.  As far as I know no one has looked at the spatial and temporal patterns in which animals are buried where, but that might be one way of getting some evidence for possible migrations of specific groups that might have had particular attachments to different animals.

Overall, this is an interesting paper, with quite a bit of interesting information despite its short length and emphasis (typical for the time) on artifact description rather than discussion of larger issues.  It doesn’t seem to get cited very much, which is unfortunate because it provides a useful point of comparison for more recent excavations in the region.
Morris, E. (1915). The Excavation of a Ruin near Aztec, San Juan County, new Mexico American Anthropologist, 17 (4), 666-684 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1915.17.4.02a00040

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.
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 »

Greenlawn Cemetery, Farmington, New Mexico

I am not an archaeologist.  I read a lot of archaeological literature and am very interested in the topics it discusses, but I see myself as very much a consumer (and perhaps interpreter) of that literature rather than a producer of it.  There was a time when I was younger when I seriously considered becoming an archaeologist, but I didn’t pursue it and given the way my life has developed, I now have no interest in reconsidering that decision.  I have never attended a field school or even taken a class in archaeology.  My perspective on the field is therefore that of an outsider, which I think is valuable though of course limited in some ways.  It’s valuable in that it allows me to look at the practice of archaeology and the attitudes of archaeologists from a distance and both praise and criticize aspects of both as I see fit.  It’s limited, however, in that I can never have the same depth of understanding of the field that an insider has, and my ability to translate what the archaeologists say for a broader audience can only go so far.  An archaeologist who tries to speak for a popular audience has a leg up on me in terms of familiarity with the subject and comfort with its depths.  Most archaeologists don’t try to engage with popular audiences, however, which in some ways is beneficial to me because it leaves me a less competitive arena in which to say what I think.  I do think it would be helpful if more archaeologists would try to engage with the public, however, to give a more well-rounded perspective on what they do and what they know (and don’t know).  I’m not the only one who thinks more archaeologists should step up to the plate on this, but so far few have done so.

One archaeologist who has is Colleen Morgan, whose blog is very much worth reading.  One of her recent posts discusses one of the most important ways the practice of archaeology sets archaeologists apart from most other people:

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?

This is thought-provoking in a number of ways.  For one thing, it ties in to my longstanding interest in bringing archaeological perspectives into the discussion of contemporary issues.  Death isn’t something we in the US like to deal with or talk about, but it is nevertheless an inevitable and important part of life, and having archaeologists contribute their extensive knowledge of death and burial practices would be very useful in bringing that conversation out of the shadows in which the funeral industry operates.  My dad died a few years ago, and when my mom, my sister, and I went to the funeral home to make the arrangements for the funeral and burial it was very easy because my mom had made most of the decisions in advance.  My dad had been sick for years, and while he never wanted to think about the prospect of dying, my mom made sure to be prepared.  Sitting in the funeral director’s office, though, it was really striking to me how vulnerable people who had not made such advance preparations would be in that circumstance.  Funerals are very expensive, comparable to weddings, and the funeral-industrial complex has most of the same dysfunctions and exploitative aspects that are well-known problems with the wedding-industrial complex.  Indeed, the funeral industry is significantly worse in some ways because the time horizon for planning a funeral is so much shorter than that for a wedding (days rather than months) and because the heightened emotional state of people who have just lost a loved one, especially unexpectedly, makes them even more vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited.  And yet, because we are so squeamish about talking about death, this issue flies completely under the radar in public discourse.

St. Luke's Cemetery, Hanaadli, New Mexico

Archaeologists can contribute to this discussion in part by just explaining some things about death and burial.  Burial practices have varied enormously among human cultures, and archaeology offers an unparalleled view of that variety than can put current American practices in context.  It can also, as Colleen mentions in the section quoted above, explain the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the many local regulations on burial that people are usually unaware of until they have to deal with them.  For example, when my dad died we buried him in accordance with Jewish practice; my dad wasn’t Jewish, but my mom is and my sister and I were raised Jewish, so it was natural to make the decisions according to Jewish tradition.  The Jewish attitude toward burial is very “ashes to ashes,” with no embalming and a simple wooden casket that will decay quickly.  We buried him in Farmington, New Mexico, in Greenlawn Cemetery, which is where most of his family is also buried.  Farmington, like many towns, required a vault to be placed over the casket to protect the groundwater, so we had this nice biodegradable wooden casket and had to put this fiberglass cover over it that basically undercuts the whole point.  I have no idea what the net result of the Jewish practice in preparing for burial and the municipal laws regulating the burial itself will be, but this is the sort of thing an archaeologist might know.  How big is the risk of water contamination, and how effective are those vaults at preventing it?  I have no clue, and I suspect most Americans don’t either.  It’s certainly not something that people talk about, but it has important implications for how to make these decisions, which as I said above are often made quickly and under major emotional stress but can involve serious sums of money.  The funeral home industry has most of the knowledge on how this stuff works, but it also has a vested interest in it.  Adding the voices of archaeologists, who also know a lot about death, burial, and decomposition but have a very different set of interests, would really help to clarify what’s going on.

Part of the reason I didn’t become an archaeologist is that I’m not comfortable with dealing with human bodies, which as Colleen notes is something archaeologists often have to deal with whether they want to or not.  They can never know for sure if they’re going to find any bones at a given site until they dig it, and they have to be prepared to deal with human remains when they find them.  In the US NAGPRA has changed the approach of many archaeologists in preparing to deal with burials in excavation projects, and some try to avoid them entirely, which I certainly understand.  Like Colleen, however, I do wonder if it might not be societally useful for archaeologists to maintain this knowledge, despite the murky ethical issues surrounding it, as sort of a necessary evil with wider benefits.  This only applies, however, if the archaeologists who have this knowledge actually seek to communicate with the broader public to share the benefit of their greater familiar with death and dead bodies.  It really does have to be the archaeologists themselves who do it, too.  People like me are not going to be much help.

Old Ft. Sumner Cemetery, Ft. Sumner, New Mexico

Read Full Post »

Durango, Colorado

The best-known of the various instances of alleged cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest are a set of several that occurred around AD 1150 in the area around the modern town of Cortez, Colorado.  There are also scattered examples of similar assemblages dating to both before and after this and located both in southwestern Colorado and elsewhere, but most of them are not as well documented and they are therefore not easily comparable to the well-known assemblages.  One exception, so far the only known example of possible cannibalism dating to the period in the late thirteenth century when the Four Corners region was abandoned, is Castle Rock Pueblo at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez.  Earlier assemblages, in particular, are very rare, and the few known are generally not very well documented at all.  Cannibalism has thus generally been discussed in the literature as something that appears rather suddenly in the Southwestern archaeological record around 1150, perhaps indicating Mesoamerican influence that may or may not have had something to do with the rise and fall of the regional system centered on Chaco Canyon between about AD 1030 and 1130.  There have been some scattered references in the literature to earlier instances, but without good documentation they have not gotten much attention compared to the later ones.

That may now change, however.  An article published very recently reports on an astonishing assemblage recently documented in detail at Sacred Ridge, part of Ridges Basin south of Durango, Colorado (east of Cortez).  This site dates to around AD 700 to 800, during the Pueblo I period.  As part of salvage excavations in preparation for a reservoir project in the basin, archaeologists discovered one of the largest assemblages of intensively processed human remains known from the Southwest.  At least 35 people were represented in the assemblage, although the actual number present is exceptionally difficult to determine because the remains were fragmented to an enormous degree even compared to other heavily processed assemblages.   The ages of identifiable individuals ranged from infancy to adulthood.  The conditions of the deposition of the remains indicates that most were processed, possibly in connection with cannibalism, then dumped into one of the residential pithouses at the site.  Several artifacts found associated with the remains tested positive for human hemoglobin and/or myoglobin, indicating that they had come into contact with human blood and/or muscle tissue.

Francisco's Restaurante y Cantina, Durango, Colorado

This is a very large assemblage.  The well-documented assemblage at site 5MT10010 at Cowboy Wash, for example, consisted of only 7 individuals, and the other three sites in the Cowboy Wash community that have been excavated (all of which also showed evidence of cannibalism) ranged from 2 to 13 individuals.  Castle Rock had at least 41 individuals, but that was a large, aggregated community from a later period when the regional population was both larger and more concentrated in aggregated sites.  Finding 35 people killed at a Pueblo I village is extraordinary.

So who were these people?  The circumstances of the assemblage suggest that they were probably the inhabitants of the Sacred Ridge site, which contained several residential pithouses and constituted a relatively large portion of the overall Ridges Basin community.  Biometric analyses of the remains suggested that the individuals in the assemblage were both related to each other and distinct from the other people in the community.  This raises the possibility that they were recent immigrants who had attempted to move into the area, perhaps at a time when environmental conditions were difficult and some parts of the region had become less suitable for habitation, forcing their inhabitants to move into already-occupied areas where the local residents may not have been friendly.  This is similar to what some have proposed for Cowboy Wash, where ceramics indicate that the residents had strong ties to the Chuska Mountain region to the south and may have been recent immigrants into an area where they were not welcome.  The early AD 800s, when the Sacred Ridge massacre apparently occurred, does indeed seem to have been a time of difficult environmental conditions, as was the mid-1100s when the well-known cannibalism events such as the one at Cowboy Wash occurred.  The migration hypothesis thus seems fairly plausible to explain Sacred Ridge.

Railroad Station, Durango, Colorado

Not so fast, however.  In addition to doing the biometric analyses, the researchers in this case also did strontium analyses of the tooth enamel found in the assemblage.  Strontium isotope analyses can be used to determine where a person (or a tree) lived, which makes this type of analysis a useful way to directly test migration hypotheses.  Tooth enamel has a strontium ratio that reflects where a person lived as a child, since enamel is preserved throughout life after initially forming in childhood.  The strontium ratio of bone, on the other hand, reflects where a person lived shortly before death, since bone cells are continually being replaced throughout life.  In this case only tooth enamel was tested, but I’ve seen other studies comparing tooth and bone enamel to determine if a person lived in the same place at the beginning and end of life, which is just about the best way to test a migration hypothesis that I can imagine.  In the case of Sacred Ridge only tooth enamel was analyzed for some reason, but it still provides a way to determine if the individuals at Sacred Ridge had grown up in the Ridges Basin area or had moved at some point in their lives from somewhere else.

What the analysis showed was that all the analyzed individuals had likely grown up either in the immediate Ridges Basin area or nearby.  None could be conclusively identified as having grown up anywhere else.  This effectively falsifies the immigration hypothesis and requires a different explanation for the massacre.  It appears that the people who lived at Sacred Ridge were both local to Ridges Basin and distinct from the other inhabitants of the area, which the authors interpret as an “ethnic” difference.  They point to a variety of other indications in architecture and material culture suggesting that the area was quite diverse ethnically during this period, and they argue that the massacre represents ethnic violence within the community during a period of environmental deterioration likely leading to social stress.  The inhabitants of Sacred Ridge appear to have had greater access to large game animals than other members of the community, which may indicate that they were relatively well-off compared to others, who may have become resentful when times turned bad and taken out their frustrations through intensive violence, possibly involving cannibalism, which may have been so intense in part as an attempt to erase the identity of the victimized group.  The authors run through and discount a number of other explanations that have been offered for cannibalism assemblages, including warfare, social control, starvation, and witchcraft execution.  They reject these based on specific criteria they identify as the plausible archaeological correlates of each theory.  The specific correlates they offer strike me as dubious, and they do acknowledge that their “ethnic violence” theory is not necessarily incompatible with some of the others, but the approach is interesting.

Gaslight Theater, Durango, Colorado

There has been a recent trend in Southwestern archaeology toward trying to reconstruct ethnicity in the archaeological record, and there is an increasing sense that the Southwestern past may have been much more diverse ethnically than archaeologists have often assumed.  This paper takes that trend in an interesting direction by combining it with the contemporaneous trend toward greater interest in violence and warfare in the prehistoric Southwest.  The authors suggest that some of the later cannibalism assemblages might be profitably reexamined with the ethnic violence idea in mind, which is a good idea.  That said, “ethnicity” is a problematic concept when it comes to archaeological data, which is necessarily material in nature and not necessarily reflective of such an abstract concept.  It would be unreasonable to expect a short paper like this to address the issue at length, of course, and it appears that other publications from this project deal with it in more detail.  The innovative use of biodistance and strontium analyses to address these issues is a worthwhile development regardless of whether the trends identified correspond to ethnicity, however, and this paper makes for a very interesting contribution to the literature on violence and cannibalism in the Southwest that may require some adjustments to existing theories.
Potter, J., & Chuipka, J. (2010). Perimortem mutilation of human remains in an early village in the American Southwest: A case for ethnic violence Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (4), 507-523 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.08.001

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 74 other followers