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Fremont River, Utah

Fremont River, Utah

Today is Cannibal Christmas (for previous installments see here and here), and this time I’d like to discuss some instances of alleged cannibalism well beyond the boundaries of the Chaco system or even the Anasazi culture area. These assemblages are in sites belonging to the poorly defined Fremont Complex of Utah, which is roughly contemporary with Chaco and included people practicing a range of lifestyles including varying amounts of maize agriculture. Beyond those two features, however, the various groups included under the label “Fremont” display so much internal diversity that it has been very difficult for archaeologists to determine what, if anything, the “Fremont Complex” corresponds to in social reality. One widespread characteristic of Fremont groups, however, is evidence of contact with and influence from Anasazi groups to the south, most notably in the adoption of agriculture and pottery but to some extent in other phenomena as well.

It’s possible that whatever practices are behind the mysterious assemblages of extensively mutilated and burned human bones known from Anasazi sites such as Cowboy Wash in Colorado were among the Anasazi influences on the Fremont as well. A paper reporting on assemblages like this at Fremont sites in central Utah was published by Shannon Novak and Dana Kollmann in 2000, around the same time that the Cowboy Wash papers and Christy Turner’s Man Corn were also published and drew considerable attention to the issue of Anasazi cannibalism. That context is important for understanding Novak and Kollmann’s interpretation of the Fremont sites, which explicitly takes Turner’s interpretations as a starting point and presents the Fremont evidence as incompatible with them.

To recap, Turner argues that the cannibalism assemblages in the Anasazi are are associated specifically with the rise of Chaco as a regional system, and further that the driving force behind all of this was Toltecs from central Mexico coming up to Chaco and establishing a violent, hegemonic tributary system involving extensive warfare and cannibalism. (I should note that I have not read Man Corn myself, and this interpretation of Turner’s ideas is based primarily on summaries by other authors who are critical of them, so it’s possible that this is a misrepresentation of Turner; in any case, this is certainly what Novak and Kollmann take Turner to be saying.) This theory is problematic for a whole bunch of reasons, and Novak and Kollmann present some more.

According to Novak and Kollmann, there are three Fremont sites with evidence of cannibalism: Backhoe Village, Nawthis Village, and Snake Rock Village. They are all in close proximity to each other in central Utah (near modern Richfield), and were occupied around the cultural peak of the Fremont period, around AD 1000. This makes them roughly contemporary with the florescence of the Chaco Phenomenon to the south, although it’s important to note that Fremont chronology is mostly based on radiocarbon dates and is less precise than the tree-ring based Anasazi chronology so it’s hard to demonstrate very close correspondences between events in Fremont and Anasazi sites. This will be important in interpreting these cannibalism assemblages, as discussed below.

Although Novak and Kollmann mention three sites with evidence of cannibalism, their paper contains a detailed discussion of only one, Backhoe Village. This is the site with the largest number of cannibalized individuals, eight, compared to three from Nawthis and two from Snake Rock. Backhoe also has a fairly secure context and was carefully excavated, as opposed to Snake Rock, where looting had disturbed the remains and rendered their context unclear.

The assemblage at Backhoe was clustered in a single pithouse and was initially interpreted by the excavators as a secondary burial (otherwise unknown for the Fremont) burned at some point by the same fire that burned the roof timbers found above it. Novak and Kollmann question this interpretation and argue instead that this assemblage instead shows the same signs of cannibalism found at Anasazi sites to the south, including cutmarks and burning. Methodologically they focused on reconstructing the processing sequence applied to the remains, which is an interesting approach that I haven’t seen applied in other analyses of cannibalism assemblages (though it’s possible I just haven’t noticed it). The patterns they found, especially for skulls and long bones, were consistent with the people having been killed (in some cases with “a series of heavy blows to the face”), scalped, dismembered, and roasted. Four men, two women, and two children were represented in the assemblage. This evidence looks convincing to me, and I’m quite prepared to accept the interpretation that this is an instance of cannibalism much like those documented at Cowboy Wash and elsewhere.

Novak and Kollmann then go on to situate their results in the context of Turner’s Chaco-based theory of Anasazi cannibalism. They argue that these sites were well beyond the Anasazi culture area, which is true (there are Fremont sites in close proximity to the Anasazi frontier, but these sites are considerably further north), and that as small agricultural hamlets, they would have little to offer the Chacoan tribute system, which is more questionable. After all, many of the Anasazi communities within the Chacoan sphere of influence were also pretty small and wouldn’t necessarily have had much to offer in tribute. All these communities were growing at least some amount of corn, and at a minimum could have contributed that. The sheer distance from Chaco to central Utah is a better argument against simply extending Turner’s theory to include these assemblages, I think.

Fremont Shield-Bearing Warrior Petroglyph, Moab, Utah

Fremont Shield-Bearing Warrior Petroglyph, Moab, Utah

In contrast to Turner’s theory, Novak and Kollmann tentatively propose that this is perhaps an example of a behavior diffusing from the Anasazi to the Fremont and perhaps acquiring new meanings along the way. This would certainly not be a surprise, given all the other behaviors that appear to have undergone the same process. They note the prominence of warrior motifs in Fremont rock art as context for violence within Fremont society. Finally, they situate the evidence for violence among the Fremont within a pattern of rising violence in the Southwest in general:

Escalated violence within the American Southwest around AD 1000 is apparent, and this violence appears to have reached further north than previously identified. What we may be seeing in the Anasazi Culture Area is perhaps merely the culmination of widespread and endemic warfare. Fortification of Anasazi villages, evidence of numerous trauma deaths, and the butchering of men, women, and children imply more than simply accusations of witchcraft. Violence between neighbours can be vicious, and real and imagined atrocities often accompany this conflict.

Fair enough in terms of explaining these specific assemblages, but from a broader southwestern perspective this looks a little odd. Escalated violence around AD 1000? In most of the Southwest the period from about 1000 to 1150 is actually considered remarkably peaceful, and in the Chaco area this is sometimes explained as some sort of “Pax Chaco” in which the influence of Chaco led to a period of widespread peace. (It is hard to say which way the causation goes, however; maybe the peace was instead a necessary condition for the rise of Chaco in the first place.) Obviously this is in contrast to Turner’s interpretation of the rise of Chaco as involving widespread war and cannibalism in a Mesoamerican fashion, but that interpretation has basically no support in the archaeological record. Almost all of the well-dated and firmly established cannibalism assemblages date to AD 1150 or later, and the earlier ones are generally earlier than AD 900 and date to an earlier period of extensive evidence for warfare and violence.

So what’s going on here? One possibility is that we’re seeing the consequences of the mismatch in chronological precision I mentioned above. “Around AD 1000″ may mean very different things at Fremont and Anasazi sites. At the Fremont sites, dated primarily by radiocarbon, this could refer to a period of a couple hundred years, in which case it might extend as late as the post-Chaco period of cannibalism and violence (0r as early as the pre-Chaco one). At Anasazi sites, on the other hand, with their very precise tree-ring dates, “around AD 1000″ would generally mean very close to the actual calendar date of AD 1000, maybe within twenty or twenty-five years. This is a considerable difference in precision! It’s also noteworthy that “around AD 1000″ is also more or less the conventional date for the “peak” of Fremont settlement and cultural development from roughly 1000 to 1300, so its being applied here could just mean that these sites date to that period, within which the level of violence rose throughout the Southwest (which is certainly true).

Linear Roomblock at Coombs Village (Anasazi State Park), Boulder, Utah

Linear Roomblock at Coombs Village (Anasazi State Park), Boulder, Utah

That said, however, there does actually appear to be a fair amount of evidence that there was in fact a considerably higher level of violence in the Fremont region than elsewhere in the Southwest even in the “Pax Chaco” era. A general summary of Fremont archaeology by David Madsen and Steven Simms discusses some of this evidence. Madsen and Simms describe the period of 1000 to 1300 as one of “demographic fluidity” involving the apparent abandonment of certain parts of the Fremont region and intensified settlement with defensive features in others. This appears to have begun at least in some areas as early as AD 900 and is most noteworthy in the eastern Fremont area on the northern Colorado Plateau, where there also seems to have been a breakdown in the traditional boundary between Fremont and Anasazi along the Colorado River and the expansion of sites with Anasazi features north of the river. It is not clear to what extent this reflects a migration of Anasazi people as opposed to increased Anasazi influence on local Fremont people, but it’s clear that something was going on along the Anasazi-Fremont boundary during the height of the Chacoan era. It’s noteworthy that one site Madsen and Simms mention as having granaries built in a characteristically Anasazi form is Snake Rock, one of the same sites that has a cannibalism assemblage. The puzzling Coombs Village site (now Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah), which is clearly Kayenta Anasazi in culture but located very far north in traditionally Fremont country, also dates to around this time. In fact, as Joel Janetski notes in a paper on Fremont long-distance trade, there is some evidence of pottery exchange between Coombs and Snake Rock, about 50 miles to the north.

The upshot of all this is that there was clearly extensive contact between the Anasazi and the Fremont during the Chacoan era, and there is some evidence that it was not nearly as peaceful in this area as it was in the Anasazi heartland at the same time. The much “blurrier” chronology of the Fremont sites makes it frustratingly difficult to pin down exactly what was going on in Utah at the same time as the various important events in the history of Chaco, but these indications that Utah was “out-of-phase” with areas to the south in some ways is, I think, potentially significant for understanding the history of both.

It’s also worth noting that while the actual Anasazi interacting with the Fremont were from the Kayenta and Mesa Verde cultural “branches” rather than the Chacoan, there is reason to think that at least some people at Chaco would have had a keen interest in events in Utah. For one thing, the Janetski paper on Fremont trade notes that while long-distance trade goods like turquoise and shell are much rarer in Fremont than in Anasazi sites, they are present among the Fremont to some extent, and there is some evidence that the turquoise found at some Fremont sites came from the same sources as that at some Anasazi sites, including Chaco. Janetski interpreted this as indicating that the Fremont turquoise came from the Anasazi, which is certain one reasonable interpretation, but he also mentions evidence that some of the Fremont turquoise came from sources in Nevada, which more recent sourcing has confirmed for some of the Chacoan turquoise as well. Maybe, instead of getting turquoise from the Anasazi, the Fremont were giving it to them as part of a wide-ranging trade network. This might even explain why so little turquoise is found at Fremont sites, if they didn’t actually have much interest in it but used it to trade for Anasazi goods that they did want. Interestingly, Janetski also notes that most of the turquoise in Fremont sites appears to date to after the period of its most common appearance in Anasazi sites from 900 to 1100 (which is driven mostly by the vast amounts found at Chaco), which could be explained if the Fremont, having relatively easy access to turquoise from trading partners in the Great Basin, began holding on to it once Anasazi demand weakened with the decline of Chaco.

Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

Edge of the Cedars Great House, Blanding, Utah

Much of that is speculative, but if the Great Basin was in fact one of Chaco’s main sources for turquoise, and if some of the trade routes for that turquoise went through the Fremont, Chaco would have a clear interest in the Fremont area. It would certainly have had contact with some Anasazi groups near the Fremont frontier, as there are communities showing Chacoan influence in Utah north of the San Juan River (though not as far north as the Colorado, as far as we know), with Edge of the Cedars in modern Blanding being a clear example. This area would presumably have been the source of whatever migration or influence extended north of the Colorado in this area after AD 1000, so a Chacoan connection is not as implausible as it might seem at first glance. Further west Chacoan influence is harder to see among the Kayenta Anasazi, but some level of contact is at least possible.

It’s not clear what implications this possibility of Chacoan involvement in Utah would have for the cannibalism assemblages Novak and Kollmann discuss, however. For one thing, I think Turner is just wrong that cannibalism in the Southwest is associated with the rise of Chaco; it seems to correlate more closely with its fall. Also, the specific sites in question seem to be beyond the reach of any plausible Chacoan direct influence, although at least one clearly had some contact with the Kayenta Anasazi at Coombs. They could also have been involved in the turquoise trade, of course, and according to Janetski small amounts of turquoise were found at Snake Rock and Backhoe. The lack of any known cannibalism sites between these and the better-known Anasazi examples also limits the extent to which we can figure out what was going on. Interestingly, Novak and Kollmann note that one other site, Turner-Look, which is near the Colorado-Utah border and hence much further east than the other sites and much closer to the Anasazi cannibalism assemblages, has been suspected in the past of having evidence for cannibalism, but they say a recent reanalysis has found no such evidence, although there is some evidence for violence. If more Fremont sites with assemblages like this begin to emerge, especially further east, it might be possible to get a better sense of how this all fits together.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janetski, J. (2002). Trade in Fremont society: contexts and contrasts Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 21 (3), 344-370 DOI: 10.1016/S0278-4165(02)00003-X

Novak, S. A., & Kollmann, D. D. (2000). Perimortem Processing Of Human Remains Among The Great Basin
Fremont International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10, 65-75

 

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Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

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

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

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

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Alaska Energy Authority Building, Anchorage, Alaska

Obviously it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. I’ve been very busy over the past few weeks, and I haven’t had much time to write anything here. Nor have I had much to say, since I haven’t had time to read or think much about the topics I usually cover here. I just finished my internship with the Park Service Alaska Regional Office, and on Monday I will start a new job with the Alaska Energy Authority. This is a great opportunity and I’m very excited about it, but it means I’m likely to continue to be pretty busy with the transition and unlikely to have much time to spend here in the immediate future. So, expect it to be pretty quiet around here for a while.

It may continue to be pretty quiet at this particular blog even longer. I’ve decided that I’d like to refocus this blog specifically on Southwestern prehistory and related subjects, construed pretty broadly but not broadly enough to encompass absolutely everything I might want to talk about. For the other topics I’ve been thinking and reading about recently, especially those having to do with Alaska, I’ll be setting up a new site (or maybe more than one). I’ve read a lot of interesting stuff over the past few months, and once I get through the period of transition to my new job I’ll hopefully have time to write about some of it. Most of this stuff isn’t particularly connected to Chaco or the Southwest, though, so I think a different venue than this blog would be the best place for it. I will of course link to any new site(s) from here when I decide exactly how I’m going to do this.

Before I do this reorganization,  however, I would like to do a series of posts based on some books about Alaska that I read as part of my Park Service gig. Those will most likely go here, probably pretty soon, as I’m unlikely to have a new site set up soon enough for when I want to do them. After that series, however, this blog will transition to a focus on Chaco and related Southwestern topics, and Alaska stuff will go somewhere else.

I’d like to thank whatever readers I have left for bearing with me through all this. This has been a tumultuous period in my life, and I haven’t had as much time to devote to the blog as I would have liked. Things will hopefully settle down soon, though, and at that point I should have more for all this.

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Sign with Summer Solstice Sunrise and Sunset Times, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).

Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.

Whalebone Arch with Umiak Frames, Barrow, Alaska

The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.

One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.

Umiak on Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.

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USGS Sign, Anchorage, Alaska

One hundred years ago today, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history took place in southwestern Alaska. The volcano, known as Novarupta, is located in what is now Katmai National Park, which was established in 1918 as a direct result of the eruption and its effects on the landscape. As a result, this anniversary is a big deal for the National Park Service in Alaska, which has a special issue of its journal Alaska Park Science devoted to the eruption as well as a special webpage of information on volcanoes in the region. The main institution involved in Alaska volcanology, however, is the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint program of the US Geological Survey, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. They are spearheading much of the commemoration of Novarupta and have their own website listing events and other information on it.

The eruption of Novarupta began on June 6, 1912 and continued for three days. There are various contemporary reports of the eruption from people who were in the area at the time, including one by I. M. Dailey of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, who was stationed 150 miles away in Seldovia at the time, which was soon published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society and is now available free through JSTOR. Other reports come from the larger town of Kodiak, even closer to the eruption, where a foot of ash fell in the course of sixty hours of darkness. A fuller picture of what had happened at the site of the eruption itself didn’t emerge until a series of expeditions over the next few years sponsored by the National Geographic Society traveled to the vent site and undertook a variety of studies that had an enormous impact on the emerging field of volcanology. In an article in the aforementioned special issue of Alaska Park Science Judy Fierstein, a USGS volcanologist who has done extensive research at Novarupta and other volcanoes at Katmai, summarizes both the early reports and studies and more recent work that has clarified the reconstruction of exactly what happened over those three days in 1912.

Many of the early National Geographic expeditions were led by the botanist Robert Griggs, who would be quite influential in shaping interpretations of Novarupta. He discovered and named Novarupta itself, although Fierstein notes that he actually concluded erroneously that the main vent for the eruption was not there but at Mt. Katmai six miles away, which collapsed dramatically into a huge caldera during the event. Subsequent research has revealed, however, that while most of the magma that erupted was indeed stored in a chamber under Mt. Katmai, it actually erupted through Novarupta. Understanding exactly how this complicated internal “plumbing” system of the two volcanoes worked is one of the continuing challenges in ongoing research on the eruption.

Griggs also discovered and named the famous “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” where flows of ash from the eruption filled a large valley downslope from Novarupta. At the time Griggs visited just a few years after the eruption, this valley was filled with steaming fumaroles where the still-hot ash met various water sources, and the astonishing sight prompted the poetic name. Within a few more years, however, most of the fumaroles had stopped steaming, and they’re pretty much all dead now. Still, the name remains, as does the strikingly barren landscape with little vegetation having recovered even a hundred years later. The area is so otherworldly that it was actually used as a training ground in the 1960s for astronauts preparing to go to the moon.

Remarkably, despite the scale of Novarupta, which ejected more than three cubic miles of magma in the form of a cloud of ash thousand miles wide and 100,000 feet high that wind currents eventually carried as far as Algeria, there were no deaths from the eruption. The inhabitants of the three Native villages near the volcano had fled after a series of earthquakes in the days leading up to the eruption indicated that a major catastrophe was likely, and the few other communities in this sparsely populated area were far enough away that the levels of ash fall they received were substantial but not deadly. Even Kodiak, which was the hardest hit community due to both proximity and wind direction, managed to get through the initial period of fear and panic during which the whole population took refuge on a Coast Guard cutter docked in the harbor, and it soon recovered its earlier prosperity. The residents of the three closest villages were unable to return to their homes, of course, and were resettled in other communities elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, where their descendants reside to this day. All this is in striking contrast to the death toll of over 36,000 people from the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which was of a similar magnitude but occurred in a much more densely populated area.

Indeed, the lack of major cultural or long-term environmental effects from Novarupta (outside of the immediate area, of course) initially led one prominent archaeologist, Don Dumond of the University of Oregon, to initially discount the role of volcanic eruptions in general as a force shaping the culture history of the Alaska Peninsula. Dumond conducted long-term excavations primarily in the Brooks River area of Katmai National Park from the 1950s to the 1980s, and his interpretations based on that work have been enormously influential in shaping interpretations of the region’s prehistory. Initially he saw no particular correlation between the numerous volcanic ash layers in his Brooks River sites, which he assumed came from eruptions of the numerous local volcanoes, and the cultural changes visible in the archaeological record. More detailed geophysical work on the ash itself, however, led one volcanologist to suggest that some of the larger ash layers at Brooks had come from various known eruptions at Aniakchak, a very large volcano about 150 miles further south on the Peninsula. If eruptions had deposited ash that far away, they must have been much larger than Novarupta, which would therefore not necessarily be a good guide to their ecological or cultural effects. Dumond therefore decided to look over the record of ash deposits and culture history in other parts of the peninsula to determine if these ash layers really were as widespread as they should be if they came from Aniakchak or another very large volcano.

He published his findings in a 2004 paper, and the results were intriguing but inconclusive. Many other sites on the Peninsula did have ash layers that could potentially be from the same eruptions as the major Brooks River ones, but difficulties in precisely dating these layers and relating them to the dating of the known eruptions at Aniakchak left the issue largely open. While this particular study was largely inconclusive, I find the general idea of trying to determine the relationships between volcanoes and human history very interesting (as longtime readers will recall), so hopefully more research along these lines in this exceptionally volcanically active area will shed more light on the question, which is potentially of great importance in explaining certain cultural and linguistic phenomena.

Regardless of whether volcanic eruptions were major factors in the prehistory of Alaska, it’s clear that they are a major risk factor for us today because of a new development since 1912: the rise of air travel. We need only recall the havoc wreaked by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 (a vastly smaller eruption than Novarupta) to realize how big an effect a major eruption can have on aircraft, and southwestern Alaska is one of the most heavily traveled air routes in the world for both passengers and freight. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Alaska Volcano Observatory was established was to monitor Alaska’s volcanoes for their risk to air traffic. One study using simulations based on the scale of the Novarupta event found that a similar event today could potentially shut down essentially all air traffic throughout the northern hemisphere (and, in the unlikely event that ash moved into the southern hemisphere as well, even the whole world). And note that this is by no means an extremely unlikely occurrence; eruptions of this scale happen regularly, and while there hasn’t been one since Novarupta, there’s every reason to think another one will happen at some point. The only thing to do is to keep watching the volcanoes and studying their past eruptions to try to glean insights for the future. This hundredth anniversary of one of the most important such eruptions is an excellent opportunity to remember that.
ResearchBlogging.org
Dailey, I. (1912). Report of the Eruption of Katmai Volcano Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 44 (9) DOI: 10.2307/200811

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Welcome Sign, Barrow, Alaska

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Barrow, Alaska, which is a really fascinating place in a whole bunch of ways. It’s certainly unlike any other place I’ve ever seen, either in Alaska or outside it. The coexistence of a vigorous tradition of subsistence whaling with a huge influx of money from the North Slope oil fields, combined with the presence of numerous scientists and other researchers stationed at the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) gives the place a mixture of cultures and perspectives that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The unpaved streets and rough wooden facades of the buildings in Barrow belie the extremely sophisticated infrastructure supporting them.

The modern community of Barrow descends from the ancient Inupiat village known as Utqiagvik (also known as Ukpiagvik), and a portion of the old village is still visible as ruins within the modern city. There’s not much to see except a series of low mounds representing old houses, but some of the mounds still have bits of  the whale bone supports of the houses protruding, which is interesting. Much of Utqiagvik has been excavated, and an interesting article by Georgeanne Lewis Reynolds published in 1995 explains some of the lessons learned for archaeology more generally from the excavations at this site. Reynold’s approach falls within the “behavioral archaeology” school established by Michael Schiffer at the University of Arizona, which emphasizes the “formation processes” that lead to the archaeological record as it uncovered in excavations. The basic idea behind this is that what we see in a site when it is excavated is usually not a “snapshot” of daily life at a given moment in the past, a la Pompeii; instead, it is usually a sort of palimpsest of a variety of activities in a given location over time, further complicated by natural processes that occurred after the final human use of the site that serve to further obscure human activities. This general area of study is known within archaeology by the term “taphonomy” (itself taken from paleontology), although Reynolds does not use this term in her article.

Welcome Sign at Utqiagvik Site, Barrow, Alaska

As Reynolds points out, these natural processes are particularly important in the Arctic, where freeze-thaw cycles lead to major movements of soil layers and associated artifacts, coastal erosion destroys significant parts of sites like Utqiagvik located on coastal bluffs, and the sudden movement of large blocks of ice onto the bluff top, known in Inupiaq as ivu, can catastrophically destroy anything in the ice’s path. One famous ivu at Utqiagvik appears to have killed the well-known “frozen family” at Mound 44, preserving in place a Pompeii-like scene of domestic life that has provided details of ancient domestic life not generally available, but at the cost of also destroying much other evidence about the house on account of its destructive nature.

As for cultural formation processes, Reynolds identifies abandonment and reuse of structures as the main processes that can be detected at Utqiagvik. Many house mounds were abandoned, with most of the usable artifacts and bulding materials in them either taken away by the inhabitants who left or scavenged later by others, with the result that few conclusions about specific uses of space within the structures can be made. Some of these were later reused, which adds additional complications to interpretation.

Whale Bone House Support Protruding from Mound at Utqiagvik

Ultimately, Reynolds concludes that formation processes are more easily determined at sites like this at the level of architectural units (i.e., houses), rather than at the level of individual artifacts. All the formation processes she describes have a tendency to move artifacts away from their original locations where they were used, meaning that few conclusions about artifact use or social practices can be made from the locations where artifacts were excavated. The overall assemblage of artifacts from a given structure is a more reliable guide to the use of that structure in general, although even here processes such as abandonment and reuse complicates the picture for any given time period.

This may all seem fairly obvious, but it actually constitutes a fairly strong critique of the influential approach to archaeological inference promoted most famously by Lewis Binford, whose “processual” approach (part of the “New Archaeology” he and others spearheaded in the 1960s) depends crucially on the ability of archaeologists to draw wide-ranging conclusions about prehistoric societies based in part on the distribution of artifacts in excavated sites. Schiffer’s focus on the ways the archaeological record was actually formed is an important reality check on this approach, emphasizing that these sorts of conclusions can really only be made when certain specific conditions obtain. Reynolds’s paper serves largely to apply this general approach to the exceptionally complicated situation in the Arctic, where things are not necessarily as they seem.

Mounds at Utqiagvik, Looking toward Downtown Barrow, Alaska

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Earthquake Park, Anchorage, Alaska

On this date in 1964, which happened to be Good Friday, the largest earthquake in US history struck Southcentral Alaska. With its epicenter in Prince William Sound and its magnitude measured as 8.6 or even higher on the Richter Scale, the Good Friday earthquake caused massive destruction throughout the region. The nearby town of Valdez was completely destroyed and later rebuilt on a different, less seismically vulnerable site. Other towns such as Seward and Whittier didn’t suffer that fate, but 13 of the 70 residents of Whittier died in the quake and the following tsunami, and port facilities both there and in Seward suffered so much damage that they have never fully recovered their economic importance.

Anchorage, which was a bit further away, suffered somewhat less, although it was still hit hard. Indeed, its port managed to stay open in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, which was one of the factors making Anchorage become the main economic center for the region and the whole state in the following years. This is not to say that the earthquake wasn’t a major disaster for Anchorage as well, however. The city was built on sediments that turned out to be pretty vulnerable to shifting when hit with an impact of that scale, and parts of the downtown were literally torn apart. An upscale residential area known as Turnagain Heights suffered a landslide so devastating that the city, rather than attempt to rebuild, designated it as a park. It is now aptly named Earthquake Park, and while there isn’t much obvious evidence of the effects of the earthquake anymore, there are interpretive signs that tell the story quite effectively.

Sign Describing Turnagain Heights Landslide, Earthquake Park

Earthquakes are a fact of life in Alaska, which just north of the area where the Pacific Plate slides under the North American Plate (known as the Aleutian Trench). This movement is continual, but it only occasionally occurs in the form of massive slips of the sort that cause earthquakes on the scale of the one in 1964. The more usual effect is to warp and compress the land of Southcentral Alaska. This warping, along with other factors such as glaciation, leads to complicated changes in sea level over time, changes which can vary substantially in areas only a few miles apart.

And that, in turn, greatly complicates study of the archaeological record of Alaska. Rising sea level typically destroys archaeological sites (although in certain very specific circumstances it may instead preserve them in excellent condition), and changes in sea level over time may make sites from a given time period difficult to locate even if they haven’t been submerged. Furthermore, cultures of coastal Alaska have generally been oriented toward the sea, with settlements typically located fairly close to wherever the coastline was at the time. This means that sea-level fluctuations have even more profound impacts on understanding the archaeological record here than they might in some other areas.

Interpretive Signs at Earthquake Park

These factors are illustrated dramatically in a 1996 article by Aron Crowell and Daniel Mann reporting on research in Kenai Fjords and Katmai National Parks attempting to carefully document sea-level changes and their effects on the archaeological record. These two parks are not very far from each other, being about 200 miles apart and both located on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, but their geological and cultural histories differ dramatically. Kenai Fjords, as its name implies, is dominated by coastal fjords created when rising sea level inundated glacial valleys. Its archaeological record is sparse and limited to the past few centuries.

Katmai, on the other hand, has a relatively stable coastline and an enormously rich and well-documented archaeological record dating back several thousand years. Much of what is known about the archaeology of southwestern Alaska is based on long-term research in various parts of Katmai by Don Dumond of the University of Oregon from the 1950s through the 1980s, and there has been considerable additional research since then. The cultural sequence in this area closely parallels that of the nearby Kodiak Archipelago, which was one of the most densely populated parts of Alaska when the Russians arrived in the eighteenth century. The Kenai Fjords area, on the other hand, had a much lower density at this time, as did Prince William Sound further east, with which it has many similarities. This lower density has been plausibly attributed to lower resource productivity in these areas, but Crowell and Mann point out that the extremely low density of prehistoric archaeological sites in Kenai Fjords is perhaps also due to geological processes and seal level change.

Welcome Sign, Earthquake Park

To investigate the differences between the two parks, Crowell and Mann intensively investigated certain parts of each, with intriguing results. One of the areas investigated in Kenai Fjords was a narrow sand spit with a series of beach ridges containing a total of four archaeological sites (most dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the earliest about 500 years old) and a small tidal pond surrounded by trees killed when the 1964 earthquake caused the land to drop about one meter, exposing their roots to the seawater that permeates the sandy soil. This same seawater also fills the pond, so the sediments in and around it could be interpreted as a record of changes in relative sea level over time. Digging down in search of radiocarbon-datable material, the archaeologists found a series of buried tree stumps 1.8 meters below the present surface that seemed to have been killed in a sudden cataclysm surprisingly similar to what happened in 1964. Six radiocarbon samples taken from the bark of these stumps gave dates that were statistically identical and averaged out to about AD 1170.

This strongly suggests that there was a major earthquake at least as strong as the Good Friday one in or around 1170. This is consistent with evidence from several other parts of the region, where other studies have found less precise evidence for major geological changes around this time. The implication for the issue of archaeological site preservation is that any coastal sites in this area predating 1170 would have been destroyed by the earthquake. Since the geomorphology of Kenai Fjords means that the only usable settlement locations here are on low coastal sand spits like this one, this earthquake probably completely destroyed the previous archaeological record. This would explain why there are so few sites in the park, and why they basically all date to the late prehistoric period or later. The relatively low productivity and other drawbacks of the area may well have limited population earlier as well, but with the earthquake having destroyed any evidence of what was going on previously there’s no way to know for sure.

Sign Describing the Good Friday Earthquake, Earthquake Park

Katmai was a different story, however. Crowell and Mann discovered 22 new sites there in the course of this project (as compared to 16 sites total in Kenai Fjords documented by this and other projects), suggesting that further survey along the coast will likely reveal even more as yet unknown sites in this very productive area. Interestingly, many of the sites they found were located away from the present coastline, often in uplifted areas that may have been coastal at times of higher sea level than at present. Radiocarbon dates from these sites and from peats in the intertidal zone allowed Crowell and Mann to reconstruct a tentative sea level curve for much of the past several thousand years, with the main conclusion being that sea level has been pretty consistent over the past 4000 years, with a slight rise sometime in the past couple hundred years, possibly as a result of subsidence of land in the 1964 earthquake. (Crowell and Mann don’t discuss the possibility that global sea level rise as a result of climate change may be another explanation for this, but it strikes me as plausible.) In any case, whatever the source of this slight recent rise in sea level, it had few apparent effects on archaeological site preservation beyond contributing to the exceptional preservation of one waterlogged site. The subsidence from the 1964 earthquake was very slight in this area, and this appears to have been true for the 1170 one as well. The rich archaeological record of the Katmai coast, then, appears to be in part a function of the relative stability of sea level in this area over thousands of years, in striking contrast to areas just a few hundred miles away.

The archaeological record is always incomplete, and any conclusions drawn from it have to be tempered by knowledge of that incompleteness. As this paper demonstrates very effectively, however, the factors determining just how much of the past is left for us to study vary a lot, especially in places like Alaska where the forces of the earth are exceptionally active. The modern population of Alaska learned just how active those forces can be in 1964, and it stands to reason that the ancient population learned the same lesson in 1170.

"Living with Earthquakes" Sign, Earthquake Park

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The Twin Mounds from Monks Mound, Cahokia

One of the major areas of interest for the “New Archaeologists” who came to dominate American archaeology in the late twentieth century was mortuary analysis. In keeping with the arguments of Lewis Binford and other leaders of the movement that archaeology as a discipline should be “problem-oriented” and focused on reconstruction prehistoric societies as fully as possible using archaeological evidence, the patterning evident in the way those societies disposed of their dead was held to reveal important information about social structure and the positions held by the deceased in life. Many important studied of mortuary behavior in various cultures were published in this period, including a 1984 article by George Milner on the burial patterns of Mississippian sites in the American Bottom of southwestern Illinois.

Milner’s article is a classic example of the New Archaeology as applied to mortuary patterns, hampered only slightly by the immense complexity of Mississippian mortuary behavior and the scanty evidence from the many burials excavated in the nineteenth century and poorly documented. Noting that most Mississippian burials in this area were placed in dedicated cemetery areas, he divides these cemeteries into three broad categories, reflecting two dimensions of variation in social structure. The categories are elite burials at major centers such as Cahokia, non-elite burials at those same centers, and non-elite burials at peripheral sites (which do not appear to contain elite burials).

By far the most and best information available to Milner was from the third category, and this is the one he focuses the most attention on. There is quite a bit of diversity even within this category of cemetery, but some general patterns do emerge. Cemetery sites are typically either on prominent bluffs above the Mississippi River floodplain or on low ridges within the floodplain, with a trend apparent over time of a shift from the former to the latter. The bluff-top cemeteries tend to be quite large, and they probably represent the dead of multiple rural communities in the general area. This inference is backed up by the diversity of mortuary treatments even within these cemeteries. Some burials are intact, articulated skeletons, often laid out in one or more rows, sometimes with the heads pointing toward a nearby mound center. Others are disarticulated jumbles or bones, often containing the remains of multiple individuals. There is considerable evidence of complicated mortuary treatment involving exposure of the bodies for some period after death, perhaps in the “charnel structures” that accompany some of the cemeteries, followed by secondary burial. Grave goods are rare and usually relatively mundane items such as pottery, although shell beads and certain exotic minerals are found in some cases.

Ironically, burials at the major mound sites are generally poorly documented compared to those in the rural hinterland. This is in part because the former were often excavated haphazardly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with little or no detailed documentation, while the latter have been largely excavated by systematic cultural resource management salvage projects more recently and extensively documented. Nevertheless, Milner combed through the available data on the mound center burials in the American Bottom, and he comes to a few tentative conclusions about them.

For one thing, there is definitely a big difference between the elite and non-elite burials. The non-elite burials are similar to the ones at outlying sites in many ways, including linear arrangements of graves and modest assemblages of grave goods, but there is also more substantial variation in mortuary treatment, which Milner plausibly attributes to greater diversity within the more populous mound communities, perhaps including more subtle gradations of status than are accounted for by his crude “elite”/”non-elite” dichotomy.

Sign Describing the Twin Mounds at Cahokia

The elite burials, however, are quite different. They are generally in mounds, specifically in conical mounds as opposed to the flat-topped ones that served as platforms for buildings. A common pattern seen at Cahokia and other sites, is for mounds to be paired, with a conical mound accompanying a platform mound. The Fox and Roundtop mounds (the so-called “Twin Mounds”), south of Monks Mound on the opposite side of the Grand Plaza, are the best-known of these paired mounds, but since they are largely unexcavated relatively little is known of their contents. Much of the Cahokia data Milner uses comes instead from Mound 72, which was excavated relatively recently and extensively documented. The very complicated mortuary deposits in this mound include two burials associated with numerous shell beads, as well as various other groups of both articulated and disarticulated remains. One group of articulated skeletons was missing skulls and hands, apparently indicating some sort of human sacrifice.

One of the most striking ways the elite burials differ from the non-elite ones is in the sorts of grave goods. Mundane items such as pottery are generally rare, while very elaborate, labor-intensive artifacts are numerous. The shell beads from Mound 72, also common in several of the other mounds Milner discusses, are one example. Mound 72 also contained various other items, including a cache of finely made chert projectile points, and other exotic materials including copper items were found in other mound burials.

Another interesting characteristic of the elite burials Milner describes is that they are quite communal in nature. Individual burials are not present, and even the most elaborate assemblages of grave goods seem to be associated with large groups of burials within the mounds. This may have important implications for the nature of political power in Mississippian society, although Milner doesn’t go into the implications in any detail in this paper.

Some of Milner’s conclusions in this paper have been superseded in part by newer discoveries and refinements to the chronology of the American Bottom since the time he wrote, but this is still an important paper, not least because of the way it draws on what information is available on the early excavations. The tentative nature of Milner’s conclusions is due in part to those data limitations, but also to the fact that what becomes glaringly obvious from this work is that Mississippian burial practices were extremely complicated and shaped by a wide variety of possible factors, not all of them easily discernible from this type of study.
ResearchBlogging.org
Milner, G. (1984). Social and Temporal Implications of Variation among American Bottom Mississippian Cemeteries American Antiquity, 49 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280355

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Reconstructed House, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma

Mississippian societies are best known for their mound centers, with Cahokia in Illinois being the largest and most impressive but by no means the only one. These sites have drawn the interest of archaeologists since the very beginning of American archaeology as a field of study, but the focus on mounds meant that other aspects of Mississippian culture got relatively little attention until much later.

One of these aspects was domestic architecture. While Mississippian mounds, unlike those of many earlier societies in the Eastern Woodlands, often served at least in part as platforms for elite residences, the fact that both these and more humble dwellings were made of perishable materials and did not survive in the damp conditions of the region led their subtle remains to be largely ignored until well into the twentieth century. At this time archaeology as a discipline was rapidly professionalizing, and archaeologists began to shift their focus from acquiring impressive specimens for museum display to investigating the remains of ancient societies in an attempt to understand them as totalities, including the more humble parts.

Partially Reconstructed House, Angel Mounds, Evansville, Indiana

When it came to Mississippian residential architecture, what these newer, more careful excavations revealed was that Mississippian houses were relatively flimsy, at least as compared to the impressive stone architecture of the Southwest and Mexico. Indeed, masonry architecture was apparently totally unknown in the East throughout the prehistoric period, even in areas near outcrops of useful stone. The conception thus entered the archaeological literature that the Mississippians, for all their effort at building mounds, didn’t do much to build substantial houses.

This is kind of a misleading way to think about it, however, as John Bennett of the University of Chicago pointed out in a 1944 article. As he put it:

There can be no doubt that a dwelling or ceremonial structure built of such perishable materials as wood, canes, and grass thatch is hardly as durable or lasting as a stone building. From the standpoint of preservation such construction is “flimsy.” This interpretation unfortunately implies, however, that this architecture was flimsy in terms of its own cultural setting. That is, it represented a poor attempt at sheltering and housing the people.

Bennett goes on to argue that this is a mistaken conclusion to draw, basing his remarks on his institution’s recent excavations at the Kincaid site in southern Illinois, which had exceptionally well-preserved remains of burned houses. Basically, he argues that while the individual materials may have been flimsy, they were put together in an ingenious way that gave the result structures plenty of strength and durability for their intended purposes:

Walls were constructed by placing poles or saplings in a trench and bending these over at the top to produce a peaked or domed roof. Horizontal poles were lashed to the sides, to produce a lattice. Reeds were then lashed to the lattice. The next step was to plaster a thick layer of clay on both sides of this lattice, over the reeds, then to cover this clay with a matted layer of grass fibers. The final step was to cover this grass with cane mats—large and thick for the outside, thinner for the inside. The wall thus formed was nearly one foot thick, and obviously very rigid—hardly a “flimsy” structure.

There was actually quite a bit of variation within the Mississippian tradition in house construction; some areas had straight-walled houses with gabled thatch roofs, while others had houses with more of a curved shape. This basic pattern of wall trenches filled with upright poles which were then covered with some sort of wattle-and-daub was widespread, however, and in some areas the appearance of wall trenches is considered a sign of the beginning of the Mississippian period. It’s true that these houses didn’t last very long and had to be replaced frequently (which has been used in some cases to estimate occupation spans and population totals at certain sites), but any type of construction short of stone masonry would have this drawback in the rainy East. Given that these houses would have provided quite useful shelter with relatively little effort, they seem quite well suited to their context.

Kincaid Mounds, Massac County, Illinois

Speaking of stone, though, why didn’t they use it? Some sites in alluvial plains wouldn’t necessarily have had nearby sources of stone, but this isn’t the case for Kincaid and many other sites. As it turns out, Bennett has an answer to this too:

The proximity of Kincaid to stone outcrops in the hills might make us wonder why the Indians never utilized stone for building materials. The answer is twofold: (1) The southeastern cultural tradition did not include such a trait, and (2) the climate and frequent floods in the bottoms required just such a structure as described. The architecture can be considered as a nearly perfect adaptation to the environment.

It’s interesting to see here, given the early date of Bennett’s article, that he hits on both of the major categories of explanation that have dominated archaeology in recent decades: environmental determinism and cultural specificity. Neither is necessarily all that convincing on its own, but between the two of them they probably cover whatever the true answer was. It’s noteworthy that when Europeans began to settle eastern North America they mostly didn’t build with stone either, instead preferring wood until well into the nineteenth century when cities grew to such a size that local wood resources became scarce and fire became a major concern. This even though they, unlike the indigenous tribes, did have a cultural tradition of building in stone which reached quite a high degree of elaboration in the castles and cathedrals of medieval Europe.

Closeup of Kincaid Mounds Mural, Paducah, Kentucky

One way to interpret this information is to posit that building with stone is sufficiently difficult that people are only going to do it when they have few other options, as in arid regions with little wood and when local wood resources have been largely exhausted. In the forests of the Eastern Woodlands this was never really a problem during the prehistoric period (and well into the historic), so people just built with wood and other easily available materials. Even for monumental purposes, such as mound-building, they used dirt rather than bothering with stone. Ironically, this meant that everything they built except the mounds eventually rotted away in the wet climate, so their ingenuity in this regard wasn’t discovered until rather recently.
ResearchBlogging.org
Bennett, J. (1944). A Note on Middle Mississippi Architecture American Antiquity, 9 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275792

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Welcome Plaque, Spiro Mounds

Among the rarest and most fascinating artifacts associated with Mississippian sites are figurines made of carved stone. These are most numerous in the Cahokia area, although they have also been found in various other parts of the Mississippian world, most notably at the Spiro site in Oklahoma. Regardless of where they are found, however, many of these figurines show striking similarities in raw material and iconography, and they have accordingly been the subject of considerable study.

Most of the known examples of these figurines were excavated a long time ago under conditions that are poorly documented. This is most notoriously the case at Spiro (on which more later), but it is also true of many of the Cahokia-area specimens. A reevaluation of all these early finds was spurred largely by the discovery of new examples through carefully controlled excavations as part of the FAI-270 highway salvage excavations in the 1970s by the University of Illinois. Probably the most famous of these new finds was the Birger Figurine, found at the BBB Motor site northeast of Cahokia in 1979. The context of this and other figurines discovered during this project indicated that they dated to the Stirling Phase (AD 1050 to 1150). During this period the BBB Motor site appears to have functioned as a rural ceremonial center devoted primarily to the processing of human remains for burial, so the presence of figurines there at this time may have some relevance for interpreting their function.

A few years after the discovery of the Birger Figurine Guy Prentice published an article analyzing its iconography in relation to the mythology of various Native groups of the Eastern Woodlands. The figurine depicts a woman using a hoe on the body of a snake that encircles her, the tail of which bifurcates into two vines bearing what appear to be gourds or squashes. As Prentice notes, this seems to pretty clearly symbolize agricultural fertility, and the woman may therefore represent some sort of “Earth-Mother” figure. Various Native groups in the East did in fact worship such a goddess, and the more specific attributes of these deities shed further light on the symbolism of the figurine. They typically had strong associations with serpents, hence the snake, as well as agriculture and fertility more generally. Additionally, and not at all obvious from the figurine itself, they tend to have associations with the moon and with death (with which snakes are also associated). There is typically a sort of “circle of life” motif tying together the Earth-Mother, fertility, agriculture, death, and rebirth. Prentice makes a convincing case that the Birger Figurine fits well into this motif.

One of the issues Prentice has to deal with in his article, however, is which groups are most relevant for interpreting these figurines. Recall that they are found both in the Cahokia area and at Spiro. It was long assumed that they were manufactured at or near Spiro, since they are made of a type of stone that resembles a bauxite known to occur in Arkansas. However, as Prentice points out, similar types of stone are found in various other areas, including the Ozark Highlands of southeast Missouri, near St. Louis (and therefore quite close to Cahokia). He deals with this issue by analyzing myths from throughout the Eastern Woodlands along with those of the Caddoan tribes of the Spiro area.

Plaque at Brown Mound Showing Figurine, Spiro Mounds

A research program led by Thomas Emerson of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey has sought to address this issue more directly, by chemically sourcing the figurines to determine where they were made. They began by analyzing figurines from the Cahokia area, including the Birger Figurine, and determined that they were in fact made of flint clay from the Ozarks and not from Arkansas bauxite. They followed this up by analyzing figurines from other areas to the south and southeast of Cahokia, including Spiro. This involved developing a new, non-destructive method for analyzing figurines, as these specimens were mostly museum pieces that were not available for any sort of destructive testing. The results of this study indicated that all of these examples also came from the Missouri Ozarks. Basically, all of the tested figurines appear to have come from the same source area (possibly even the same quarry), which was in the Cahokia area, and it is most plausible to think that most or all of them were also sculpted in or around Cahokia regardless of where they ended up.

There are several implications of this finding. For one, there is a striking difference in subject matter between the figurines found in the Cahokia area and those found in areas to the south, especially at Spiro. The former largely depict female figures and themes related to agriculture and fertility, while the latter more often depict male figures and themes related to warfare, violence, and the chunkey game. It was once thought that this might reflect a difference between Cahokian and Caddoan worldviews, but since all the figurines now seem to be Cahokian in origin it seems more likely that all of these themes were important in Cahokia but that only the more masculine, warlike figures ended up traveling to the southern centers, which may indicate something about the nature of Caddoan societies in the relevant period.

Another issue is just when that relevant period was. As noted above, the recent finds of figurines at the BBB Motor site and others in the Cahokia area indicate a time frame of AD 1050 to 1150 for most examples, and it is very unlikely that any were being made in the American Bottom after around 1200. This is around the time Cahokia starts to decline in influence, though it wasn’t totally abandoned until a while later, and it seems likely that some major changes made figurine-making a much less important activity than before. Outside of the Cahokia area, however, figurines don’t start to appear until even later, after around 1250, and mostly in burial contexts. This suggests to Emerson and his colleagues that it was only after the decline of Cahokian power that figurines began to be exported in significant numbers to the Caddoan and other southern centers, which were increasing in power and influence at that time.

Craig Mound, Spiro Mounds

When the Caddoans and other rising stars in the Southeast began to acquire Cahokian figurines, it appears that they strongly preferred the masculine warrior styles rather than the feminine Earth-Mother ones, although it is also quite possible that the Cahokians themselves refused to part with the latter, which tended to be ritually broken and buried at religious sites like BBB Motor. In any case, it was mostly the warrior figures that ended up moving south, and once they arrived (probably), many were drilled to be used as pipes rather than as static figures. The Cahokians seem to have made some figurine pipes, with the pipe mouthpiece and bowl incorporated into the design, but these Caddoan examples were clearly made secondarily out of non-pipe figurines, since the drill-holes interfere with the original design. This change is significant; as Emerson and colleagues put it in their 2003 paper:

This was a critical transition (i.e., from figurine to pipe) from an object of elite or religious sacra that was “observed” and to which obeisance was due to an instrument with which an individual “interacted.” There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one. For this transition to have occurred it seems reasonable to assume that either fundamental changes occurred in local religious or social practices or that the figurine had moved into a different cultural context where its original meaning was not comprehended or was irrelevant. We have no evidence for this type of transformation of a figurine into a pipe in the American Bottom. Conversely, at present, we have no large undrilled figurines in areas outside of Cahokia. The production of large flint clay icons or idols was a uniquely Cahokian phenomenon. The conversion of such figurines to pipes seems to have been a uniquely Caddoan practice.

The discovery that these figurines were apparently all manufactured in the Cahokia area in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is a very important piece of evidence for untangling the importance of Cahokia for the development of Mississippian iconography and other cultural features. Interpreting that evidence is of course difficult, but this research shows the importance of archaeometric techniques for providing a baseline from which rich cultural interpretations can proceed.
ResearchBlogging.org
Emerson, T., & Hughes, R. (2000). Figurines, Flint Clay Sourcing, the Ozark Highlands, and Cahokian Acquisition American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694809

Emerson, T., Hughes, R., Hynes, M., & Wisseman, S. (2003). The Sourcing and Interpretation of Cahokia-Style Figurines in the Trans-Mississippi South and Southeast American Antiquity, 68 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3557081

Prentice, G. (1986). An Analysis of the Symbolism Expressed by the Birger Figurine American Antiquity, 51 (2) DOI: 10.2307/279939

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