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

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

Kiva Z, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

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

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

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

Kiva Firepit at Lowry Pueblo in Colorado

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

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

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

Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl Showing Floor Vault

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

Chacoan Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

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

Kiva Pilasters at Pueblo Del Arroyo

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

Kiva I at Pueblo Bonito Showing Southern Recess

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

Southern Recess in Kiva at Pueblo del Arroyo

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

Corner of Room Containing Blocked-In Kiva at Tsin Kletzin

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

Kiva L, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

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

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Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Although Chaco Canyon is one of the most important places in the United States where the remains of the impressive achievements of the prehistoric Anasazi people are preserved and open to the public, it is by no means the best-known or most popular.  Indeed, outside of the southwest Chaco is actually quite obscure.  I found this surprising when I first began to work there; having grown up in the southwest, I had sort of always known about Chaco.  Not in much detail, but it was always part of my understanding of the world.  It turns out, however, that people in other parts of the country, unless they’re particularly interested for some reason in southwestern archaeology, generally just haven’t ever heard of Chaco.

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde

Not that they’re unaware of the Anasazi, of course.  But it’s not the Chaco Anasazi of the San Juan Basin that get the most public attention and tourist visitation.  Much better known are the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.  Indeed, for a lot of people “Anasazi” and “cliff dweller” seem to be basically synonymous.  We would get a lot of people at Chaco asking if there were any cliff dwellings there.  (The answer is no.)

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff dwellings are, indeed, quite spectacular, and it’s no surprise that they would attract much more attention than other settings.  They are not very practical places to live, however, and very few people even among the Anasazi ever lived in them.  The vast majority of cliff dwellings known in the southwest date to a very short period of time, roughly the last half of the thirteenth century AD, after which much of the Colorado Plateau, including Mesa Verde, seems to have been totally abandoned.  Throughout this period, even when the cliff dwellings were occupied, the vast majority of people in the region lived in other types of sites, generally large, aggregated villages.

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

So why do cliff dwellings get so much attention?  One reason is that they’re much better-preserved than open sites.  The shelter of the cliff alcoves in which they are located protects cliff dwellings remarkably well, so that when they are excavated they tend to yield an astonishing variety of well-preserved material, including perishable materials like wood, cloth, and feathers.  As a result, excavations of cliff dwellings have provided a huge amount of information about the daily life of their inhabitants.  Chacoan great houses, due to their large size and fine construction, tend to preserve material better than most open sites as well, but nowhere near as well as cliff dwellings do.

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

In addition, many of the cliff dwellings, especially at Mesa Verde, were very actively promoted as tourist destinations by local entrepreneurs and guides, especially the Wetherill family of Mancos, Colorado (which also played a key role in early excavations there and elsewhere, including at Chaco).  Their spectacular settings and amazing preservation make cliff dwellings interesting even to those who have little interest in archaeology in general, so it was easy to make Mesa Verde and other areas with cliff dwellings into major tourist attractions, especially if they were in relatively close proximity to towns.  Since Chaco had none of these advantages, it has languished in relative obscurity.

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

The fact that Mesa Verde gets so much attention now, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that, except perhaps for a brief period in the thirteenth century, it was never a very important place in the region.  During the heyday of Chaco in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries Mesa Verde, while occupied at a fairly high level of population, was decidedly marginal compared to Chaco.  After the fall of Chaco it appears to have gained in prestige, and it may have been something of a local center for a while, but even at that time it’s likely that Aztec and other sites in the Totah region between Chaco and Mesa Verde were more important overall.

Far View Communities Sign, Mesa Verde

Far View Communities Sign, Mesa Verde

Considering this context, one obvious question arises: What, exactly, was the nature of the relationship between Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Visitors at Chaco, especially those who have just visited Mesa Verde (which is a lot of them), often ask this and related questions.  It’s rather confusing, because the information presented at Mesa Verde is very centered on Mesa Verde itself and doesn’t discuss much about the regional context, so people often get the sense that Mesa Verde was a lot more important than it actually seems to have been.  When they come to Chaco and see all this talk about how important Chaco was, they start to wonder how to reconcile the rather different stories they are getting at the two places.

Upper-Story Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Upper-Story Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

So what was the relationship between the two?  The short answer is that no one knows.  This has been a very difficult topic to deal with in southwestern archaeology, especially since research on Chaco and research on Mesa Verde have generally been conducted by different people and institutions, with the resulting differences in focus and interpretation making it hard to combine the (voluminous) data on the two areas into a coherent whole.  Even recent attempts to synthesize data on the relationship have not been able to accomplish much.

Back Wall of Far View House, Mesa Verde

Back Wall of Far View House, Mesa Verde

One of the odder aspects of the situation is that there is remarkably little evidence of Chacoan influence at Mesa Verde itself.  While there are Chacoan outliers all over southwestern Colorado, and some of them show considerable evidence of quite direct and substantial influence from Chaco itself, the only site at Mesa Verde that has been suggested as a possible outlier, Far View House, shows only a rather vague resemblance to Chacoan architectural styles.  While its layout is rather similar to a McElmo-style Chacoan site, and its masonry is sort of McElmo-like as well, it’s much cruder than at many other likely outliers in Colorado that are even further from Chaco, such as Escalante and Lowry to the north.  It certainly looks like Far View House was inspired by Chacoan ideas in some fashion, but it really doesn’t look like Chaco itself had much to do with it.  It looks more like a local imitation of Chacoan style, made by people who were aware of Chaco and its style but didn’t know much about the details of it.

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

One of the really weird things about this is that, while Mesa Verde is rather distant from Chaco and correspondingly shows little Chacoan influence or evidence of having been incorporated into a Chacoan system of any kind, other sites further away, and in the same direction, show much more evidence of having been part of such a system.  While many of the furthest outliers, such as Edge of the Cedars, look like local imitations similar to Far View House, others, such as Lowry and Chimney Rock, are among the most clearly Chacoan-influenced outliers around, despite being among the most distant.

Masonry at Escalante Pueblo

Masonry at Escalante Pueblo

This suggests that if the Chacoan system was a reasonably well-integrated network with social or political aspects, its boundaries were quite complicated.  It apparently included the whole southern San Juan Basin as far north as the San Juan River, the whole middle and upper San Juan valley and the valleys of the major northern tributaries of the San Juan, and the Dolores River valley and Great Sage Plain further north, but not Mesa Verde, which lies right between the San Juan and the Great Sage Plain.

Masonry at Lowry Great House

Masonry at Lowry Great House

The implications of this are hard to understand, but one possibility is that the system was not, in fact, as well-integrated as it might seem at first glance, and that it may have been more a network of independent small polities loosely affiliated through adherence to a common social system or religious cult centered on Chaco.  This type of explanation has been pretty popular in Chacoan research over the past few years.  Another explanation, less popular these days, is that Chaco was a single integrated polity with far-flung and complicated boundaries, and that the people of Mesa Verde resisted its expansion and were never fully incorporated into it, so it expanded around them instead.  At this point it’s hard to say which of these is more plausible, and it’s quite possible that the real answer is something totally different from either.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

One interesting sidenote is the odd and somewhat ambiguous evidence for continued Chacoan influence in Colorado even after the fall of Chaco itself.  Great houses, or structures that sort of resemble great houses, at least, continued to be built well into the 1200s in the Mesa Verde area, and it’s possible (though highly speculative) that part of the rise of Mesa Verde in the thirteenth century, to the extent that it did rise to regional prominence, was tied to a revival of Chacoan ideology symbolized by the construction of D-shaped structures with apparent ritual purposes.

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

The best known of these structures is probably the Sun Temple at Mesa Verde itself, which seems to be associated with Cliff Palace and which also seems to have some astronomical alignments.  Interestingly, the masonry at the Sun Temple looks a lot more Chacoan than anything at Far View House, despite the fact that the Sun Temple was built long after Chaco had faded into obscurity and the fact that other sites built at Mesa Verde at the same time, such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, have much cruder masonry.

Masonry at the Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Masonry at the Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

There are a lot of questions remaining about this issue, and much more research remains to be done, but there are some tantalizing hints that untangling the connections between Chaco and Mesa Verde may shed light on a whole slew of continuing mysteries about the prehistory of the southwest.  There’s enough there to keep archaeologists busy for a long, long time.

Pipe Shrine House with Far View House in Background, Mesa Verde

Pipe Shrine House with Far View House in Background, Mesa Verde

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Abajo Mountains from Blanding, Utah

Abajo Mountains from Blanding, Utah

Via Derek Fincham, I see that the FBI has indicted 24 people, mostly residents of Blanding, Utah, for looting archaeological sites on public lands.  I’ll have much more to say about this and related issues later, but I just want to note it now and mention a couple of things.

Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Blanding, Utah

Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Blanding, Utah

First, this looks like some serious stuff.  Some of the people quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune article talk about how there are potsherds that come up all over Blanding whenever it rains and don’t the authorities have better things to do?  This is probably disingenuous in any case, but it’s also very misleading.  It’s quite true that places like Blanding are just covered in sites and artifacts, and the potsherds certainly do come up everywhere when it rains, but what that really means is that things like potsherds are so common as to be worthless monetarily.  Nobody’s fencing potsherds for thousands of dollars.  The real money is in the well-preserved and rare stuff found in places like cliff dwellings, almost all of which are on public land, which makes taking anything from them a felony.  Places like Grand Gulch have tons of perishable stuff like sandals and robes that fetch very high prices on the illegal antiquities market, which tempts people to take them, and that’s what these people are being accused of.

Sign at Edge of the Cedars Imploring Visitors to Not Steal

Sign at Edge of the Cedars Imploring Visitors to Not Steal

Second, this is very difficult to deal with from a policy perspective.  There’s a long tradition in the southwest of collecting antiquities, so for a lot of people in places like Blanding this is a way of life and it’s not at all surprising to see upstanding and prominent citizens in town affairs involved in looting like this.  Indeed, the history of southwestern archaeology is closely intertwined with this sort of shady business, and much as archaeologists now try to distance themselves from it that history has not quite gone away.  For a non-archaeologist’s perspective on this issue, see this Craig Childs essay (via Paul Barford), which I mostly agree with.  Childs has a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize, but he gets this one pretty much dead-on.  As he says, serious looters are almost always armed.  If we at the park suspect that there’s something like that going on, we’re told to refer it to law enforcement immediately and not get involved ourselves.  This stuff can get ugly fast.  The Tribune article mentions possible connections to meth dealing as well, which I hadn’t heard about before but which seems pretty plausible.

Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling near Blanding, Utah

Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling near Blanding, Utah

This is a really thorny issue, and as Childs notes archaeologists are not necessarily much better than pothunters about this stuff.  (Though I’m a little skeptical that any archaeologists ever actually threatened his life.)  The distinction between pothunting and “scientific” excavation is both relatively recent and pretty subtle, especially from the outside.  On balance, though, it’s the pothunters who are out there with the guns, so it’s good to hear about these arrests.  I’ll have much more on this later, including connections to Chaco and its role in the history of southwestern archaeology.

Blanding, Utah, from Edge of the Cedars

Blanding, Utah, from Edge of the Cedars

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Artifact Made of Scarlet Macaw Feathers at Edge of the Cedars Museum, Blanding, Utah

Artifact Made of Scarlet Macaw Feathers at Edge of the Cedars Museum, Blanding, Utah

One of the most exciting developments for archaeology in the past few years has been the increasing application of sophisticated techniques from the physical and life sciences to questions of archaeological interest.  Chemistry has been one of the major disciplines to contribute to this trend through techniques such as trace-element analysis to determine the sources of materials used in artifacts with a precision that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago, but biology has played a role as well.  One of the most interesting recent applications of molecular biology to southwestern archaeology involves the artifact in the picture above, which I was lucky enough to see in person on my recent road trip.

The artifact (as it is usually designated since its precise function is obscure) consists of a series of yucca-fiber cords covered in scarlet macaw feathers dangling from a piece of squirrel pelt to which is also attached a buckskin strap.  It was found in a cave in Utah in 1954 and is now housed at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, Utah, where it is on public display.

It’s really an astonishing thing, mostly because of the near-perfect state of its preservation.  The colors of the feathers are still vibrant.  There were doubtless many items used in the prehistoric southwest that were equally impressive in their brilliant color and fine workmanship, and we occasionally get glimpses of them from fragmented remains, but the perishable materials of which they were made tend to, well, perish over time.  This item, however, happened to be left in a cave, where it lay untouched for 900 years.  Caves are known for their good preservation conditions, and one of the main reasons cliff dwellings have been so important in southwestern archaeology is not that they were ever a major type of settlement in the region (they weren’t) but that they preserve their contents much better than the much more common exposed sites.

This particular item was studied by Lyndon Hargrave, the ornithologist who went on to become a major figure in the development of southwestern archaeology through his work at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.  Hargrave’s archaeological work was wide-ranging and extensive, but he always retained an interest in birds and did considerable research on both remains of birds and artifacts made with bird parts.  In assessing the Utah item, Hargrave concluded that the feathers were from a scarlet macaw, the furry pelt above them from a tassel-eared squirrel, and that the strap was made of buckskin.

The natural range of the scarlet macaw is far to the south of Utah, so it was clear that the feathers indicated some sort of trade connection with cultures to the south.  Whether this connection involved the trade of feathers, live birds, or objects made from feathers was (and to a considerable extent remains) murkier.  Hargrave concluded on the basis of the way the feathers were attached to the cords of the Utah object that they had been attached in Mexico and traded up as manufactured goods.  To his knowledge, however, the tassel-eared squirrel was found only in the US southwest, so he decided that the imported feathered cords must have been attached to the pelt locally to create the full item.

However, since Hargrave’s time new subspecies of tassel-eared squirrel have been discovered in northern Mexico, raising the possibility that the entire item was created somewhere to the south then traded northward to eventually end up in Utah.  To evaluate this possibility, a team of scholars from the Mayo Clinic (Nancy Borson and Peter J. Wettstein), Northern Arizona University (Jack States), and California State University at San Bernardino (Frances Berdan and Edward Stark) teamed up a few years ago to try to apply recent advances in molecular biology to the problem.  Their study, published in American Antiquity in 1998, came to some interesting and fairly definitive conclusions.

Their basic approach was twofold: to reexamine the artifact and evaluate the method of manufacture to test Hargrave’s theory that the feathers were attached to the cords in Mexico and to sample the DNA of the squirrel pelt to see which of the modern subspecies it best matched.  The examination of the item revealed that the feathers were attached in a way that is rather different from that described in ethnohistorical accounts of Mesoamerican practices and more similar to the way feathers were attached to prayer sticks and other items as described in historical accounts of the modern Pueblos.  This clearly implies that the feathering was done in Utah, and that the cords were unlikely to have been important as finished goods.  It still leaves open the question of whether the feathers were imported themselves or plucked from imported birds.  Scarlet macaw remains have been found in various parts of the southwest, including Chaco Canyon, so I find the second option more plausible, but the authors of this study seem to lean more toward the first.

The examination of the object also revealed that the feathering didn’t go all the way up the cords.  The parts of the cords that are under the squirrel pelt are not feathered.  This reinforces the conclusion that the cords were not imported as finished goods, since they seem to have been custom-made for this particular item.

The DNA analysis concluded that the DNA did not precisely match that of any modern subspecies, but it was clearly closest to the northernmost subspecies, the range of which extends into a small part of Utah which happens to contain the cave where the item was found.  This is pretty conclusive evidence that the whole item was made in Utah, primarily of local materials.

So what does this say about Hargrave’s analysis?  Well, it does disprove his theory that the cords were imported already feathered, but it also confirms his theory that the squirrel pelt was local and that the final manufacturing stages were done in Utah.  This may not be the most exciting result, confirming the accuracy of a previous theory, but I think it’s important for the security of the data on which elaborate social theories are built to have these things checked out using whatever techniques are available.  The advent of methods much more accurate and precise than those Hargrave had at his disposal gives us a valuable opportunity to make sure we’re starting on a firm foundation before we venture out into questions that were unsolvable or even unimaginable to previous generations of scholars.  This research is an excellent example of how to do that well.

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