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Archive for the ‘Lowry’ Category

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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Lowry Great House

Lowry Great House

The Chaco system is distinctive in a number of ways, some of which distinguish it from other contemporaneous societies elsewhere in the southwest and others of which distinguish it from later societies in the same area.  Among the most striking examples of the latter is the low-density settlement pattern typical of Chacoan sites, though by no means limited to them.  In contrast to the highly aggregated cliff-dwellings and massive pueblos of later periods, Chacoan communities were composed of loosely clustered small-house sites, generally in open locations.  These communities are generally marked as “Chacoan” by the presence of one or more great houses and other examples of Chacoan-influenced “public” architecture, such as roads, encircling berms, and Chaco-style great kivas.  This settlement pattern has been proposed as a marker of the extent of the Chacoan system, and it is perhaps the way of defining the system that gives it the largest geographical extent.

It is important to note, however, that while the low-density settlement pattern certainly distinguishes Chacoan communities from the high-density aggregated pueblos that succeeded them within that same geographical area, during Chacoan times that same community pattern minus the great houses and other specifically “Chacoan” features was quite widespread throughout the Pueblo world, including in areas that show no sign of direct Chacoan influence.  That is, the “Chacoan settlement pattern” is a temporal rather than a spatial marker of Chaco-ness.

Multiple Layers of Kivas at a Small House near Casa Rinconada

Multiple Layers of Kivas at a Small House near Casa Rinconada

The shift in Pueblo community layout from the widespread pattern of low-density clusters of small houses during the Pueblo II period to the equally widespread pattern of high-density aggregated roomblocks during the Pueblo III period has long been a matter of considerable interest in southwestern archaeology.  Many theories have explained this using vague references to increased pooling of labor resulting in increased economic efficiency or some such.  Another idea, which I find more persuasive, is that increasing climatic volatility led to resource shortages, which led to competition and warfare, which led to aggregation for defensive purposes.

This theory has been expressed in the most detail by Steven LeBlanc, who makes the point that, far from being a generally optimal strategy for maximizing economic efficiency, aggregation is actually a very problematic strategy that leads to over-exploitation of nearby resources and under-exploitation of resources further away, with the resulting depletion of accessible resources leading to a lower standard of living.  In addition, aggregated living is pretty unsanitary, and the combination of a lack of sanitation with a less diverse diet, on top of the general tendency toward malnutrition typical of small-scale agriculturalists, led to shockingly high levels of disease.  And, indeed, studies of human remains from aggregated pueblos have shown a population that is much less healthy than that of the dispersed communities of Chacoan times.  The obvious implication of this is that people lived spread out across the landscape, a settlement pattern which LeBlanc characterizes as maximally efficient for resource exploitation, whenever regional political conditions were peaceful enough to make that a viable strategy, and they only aggregated (or went with other more defensive but less efficient strategies) when forced to by increasing warfare.

T-Shaped Door at Lowry Great House

T-Shaped Door at Lowry Great House

Even if a dispersed pattern of settlement is more efficient than an aggregated one, though, it’s by no means inevitable that such a pattern will arise.  A variety of social factors come into play that end up having at least as much effect on settlement patterns as the location of resources and the most efficient ways of exploiting them.  The lack of warfare is one obvious prerequisite for a dispersed pattern, which necessarily involves a certain amount of vulnerability to attack and therefore is only likely to arise when the threat of attack is minimal.  Since the Chaco era is a famously peaceful time in the southwest, for reasons that remain somewhat obscure, it’s hardly surprising that this condition was met.

There’s more to it than that, though.  Not all peaceful societies involve people spreading themselves evenly across the landscape.  Historical contingency and traditional patterns of land ownership and usage rights play a role as well.  In the prehistoric southwest this issue has been most intensively studied in southern Colorado, particularly by scholars associated with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.  They have found that, while this area remained quite productive agriculturally throughout the prehistoric period, environmental variability could have devastating effects on particular communities given the restrictions on land use resulting from traditional rights to particular pieces of land.  In other words, the maximally efficient usage of land could not be realized because of cultural and historical factors that kept people from having complete freedom of movement in the event of environmental perturbations impacting their ability to cultivate their own lands productively.  This eventually resulted in regional abandonment around AD 1300.

Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

Even this, though, may not go far enough.  The idea of traditional land-use rights and restrictions is plausible enough, but what, exactly, were they?  What sort of units held the rights to cultivate (or otherwise exploit) particular pieces of land, and why?

One possible answer is suggested in a study by James Kendrick and Jim Judge published in an edited volume on Chacoan outlier communities.  This study looked at long-term changes in land-use and settlement patterns at the community surrounding Lowry Pueblo north of Cortez, Colorado.  Lowry is one of the best-known Chacoan outliers in southern Colorado, and one of the northernmost outliers in the Chacoan system.  While this study does talk a bit about the great house, however, particularly noting that there is little evidence that it ever served anything other than a residential purpose (not an uncommon conclusion for the studies in this volume), the main focus is on the small-house sites surrounding the great house where most of the population lived.

Abutted Walls at Lowry Great House

Abutted Walls at Lowry Great House

The conclusion Kendrick and Judge come to after looking at where these small houses are located in each period of occupation is that during the Pueblo II period individual households were largely autonomous economically, and the basic unit of economic production and land-use rights was the individual family group occupying a single small house.  These small  houses were, therefore, distributed fairly uniformly across the landscape throughout the community.  Later, in the Pueblo III period, the community began to aggregate, and Kendrick and Judge argue that part of this process involved the transfer of land-use rights to the community as a whole.  They posit this as an explanation for why, when the Mesa Verde region as a whole was abandoned around 1300, entire communities seem to have moved as units, making the abandonment throughout the region remarkably complete.

Closeup of Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

Closeup of Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

This all seems reasonable enough, and it would explain a number of puzzling elements of the late prehistory of southern Colorado, although some other research suggests that land-use rights were still held at the household level after the migration of at least some of the population further south into the Pajarito Plateau area.  When it comes to taking this idea out of isolation and wondering about its implications for the present (which is what I’m all about), however, there’s something troubling about it.

Masonry at Lowry Great House

Masonry at Lowry Great House

The recent trend in policy discussions about community planning is to extoll the virtues of density and bemoan the evils of sprawl, which is held to be horribly inefficient as well as aesthetically appalling.  In the current context, of course, this makes perfect sense, and the data backing it up is compelling.  When it comes to looking at the lessons of the past, however, a problem arises: in prehistoric communities like Lowry, sprawl (in the form of low-density patterns of settlement) is presented as maximally efficient, and aggregation (i.e., increased density) is presented as uncomfortable, unsanitary, and a last resort of a desperate people under siege from both a declining environment and hostile neighbors.  This seems totally plausible as well, in its context.  So how can these both be true.

The answer, I think, lies in the way that prehistoric societies, and preindustrial societies more generally, were really quite different in their economies from our own (post-)industrial society.  Basically, a dispersed settlement pattern is maximally efficient in a society based on subsistence farming.  If everyone or almost everyone is farming for their own sustenance, and possibly for export if they happen to produce a surplus, it makes sense to put as much land under cultivation as possible, and the most efficient way to do that is to spread the population out so as to have fields everywhere and people living as close as possible to them.

The Abundant Life Natural Food Store, Cortez, Colorado

The Abundant Life Natural Food Store, Cortez, Colorado

In an industrial society, however, most people don’t farm.  Those who do have to do so on a vast scale to feed the huge numbers of unproductive non-farmers.  As a result, supply chains are necessary to bring food from the farms to the towns and other locations where most of the population lives.  The more spread-out the people in those towns are, the longer and more elaborate (and more fragile) those lines have to become.  If people are packed in densely, it takes less effort to supply them with both food and other necessary resources, which in an industrial society generally come from far away and need to be brought in just as food does.

So while for a place like Lowry low density farming was efficient, for us it makes a lot more sense to live more densely.  Modern medicine and other technological advances have made it a lot more comfortable to live this way than it was for the people at Lowry, so we can count ourselves lucky in that respect.  This is a good example of how important it is to look carefully at the lessons of the past and not just blindly apply prehistoric solutions to modern problems.

Pueblo Mural at Cortez Cultural Center, Cortez, Colorado

Pueblo Mural at Cortez Cultural Center, Cortez, Colorado

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