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Archive for the ‘Aztec’ Category

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

In the spring of 1892, an expedition headed by Warren K. Moorehead traveled through northwestern New Mexico to collect archaeological specimens for the Chicago World’s Fair to be held the next year.  Moorehead was a young man from Ohio who had already conducted considerable excavations there that had drawn the attention of Frederic Ward Putnam of the Harvard Peabody Museum.  Putnam hired Moorehead to collect artifacts in Ohio and elsewhere for the World’s Fair.  Moorehead’s Ohio work was important to the definition of the Hopewell Culture and the acquisition of the Fort Ancient site by the Ohio Historical Society, and by the time of his death in 1939 Moorehead was considered one of the preeminent American archaeologists.  He wrote up some of his observations from the 1892 New Mexico expedition in an article published in 1908 which contains some important early information about the archaeological remains along the Animas and La Plata Rivers before those areas were extensively developed.

Moorehead’s party surveyed the major ruins at Aztec, but John Koontz, who owned the site at the time, would not let them excavate there.  (This is an issue that would recur in Moorehead’s Southwestern adventures.)  The 1908 article contains a decent description and plan of the West Ruin at Aztec, including the observation of an obvious road leading to a nearby quarry site that was the apparent source of building stone.  The more important part of the article, however, deals with the La Plata, where the group spent more time and were apparently given permission to excavate several sites.  Moorehead noted very extensive irrigation systems along the valley bottom, which he suggested accounted for the numerous prehistoric sites and the apparently very large population they indicated.  Since the La Plata Valley has been extensively developed for modern agriculture since Moorehead’s time, these observations are very useful for understanding the perennially understudied archaeology of that area.  It’s not totally clear how many sites the group excavated, but Moorehead describes one burial with numerous associated pots and mentions a large, three-story site surrounded by many smaller sites.  This is probably the community now known as the “Holmes Group,” after William Henry Holmes, another early archaeologist who studied them.  Moorehead estimated about two hundred rooms in the community, half of them in the great house.

The Moorehead party excavated many graves and collected the pottery left with them, but Moorehead says that the bones themselves “were in such a state of decay that it was not possible to preserve them.”  The group also found an interesting vertical masonry shaft, fourteen inches square and eight feet, five inches deep.  The bottom of the shaft was paved with slabs and connected to a horizontal passage leading north, which Moorehead’s group excavated for about four feet before they “were compelled, unfortunately, to abandon the work; and thus were prevented from gaining sufficient evidence to determine the purpose of the structure.”  Moorehead doesn’t explain what compelled this stop to the digging.  He does speculate about the possible purpose of this shaft:

It could not have been a chimney, for neither the stones nor the logs showed signs of smoke or heat, although fragments of charcoal were found occasionally during the excavation; nor is it likely that the shaft was used as an air flue for the purpose of ventilation, both on account of the narrowness of the perpendicular portion (fourteen inches), and the apparent disregard manifested by the ancient Southwestern villagers of everything that might tend to promote hygienic conditions.

Zing!  In fact, this shaft almost certainly was a ventilation shaft associated with a kiva, similar to those documented by Jesse Walter Fewkes at Mesa Verde.  The fact that it led north is a clear indication, and Moorehead’s objection on the basis of size doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  His snide comment about hygiene is odd, though perhaps indicative of the gentlemanly racism common among early anthropologists, and it would perhaps be unfair to tar Moorehead too much with it, as he actually was quite concerned with the fair treatment of Indians and worked hard throughout his life to advocate for their interests in a rather paternalistic way, which was not a common thing for archaeologists to do.  Still, he was a man of his times, and he was apparently unimpressed with the sanitary conditions of the modern Pueblos.

Opening of Vent Shaft to Kiva L, Pueblo Bonito

Moorehead’s attitudes may have been slightly more progressive than those of his archaeological contemporaries, but his methods weren’t.  His style of archaeology was very heavily based on recovering artifacts for his various patrons, first Putnam and later Robert Peabody, who made him head of the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Anthropology at Phillips Andover.  As shown by his 1908 article, he did do some documentation of the sites he investigated, but the focus was always on the artifacts rather than the sites.  The Ohio History Society’s short biography of him notes, rather defensively, that this was not uncommon at the time:

Moorehead sometimes is remembered unkindly for his supposedly crude excavation methods and for his involvement in the buying and selling of artifacts. Both criticisms are unfair. In the light of today’s standards his field methods certainly would be considered deficient, but for their time they were not all that unusual. The practice of buying and selling artifacts, particularly specimens considered to be duplicates, also was not unprecedented at the time.

This is true, but it’s not so much a defensive of Moorehead as an indictment of archaeology as a discipline at the time.  The contrast with Richard Wetherill and George Pepper’s excavations at Chaco in the 1890s is instructive.  Their methods are often defended along the same lines, but in fact compared to the likes of Moorehead they did a very good job of documenting their work.  Pepper’s site report on Pueblo Bonito, though based on his sometimes sketchy field notes and quite inadequate by modern standards, is a wonder of careful documentation of artifact contexts and room features compared to Moorehead’s typical work.  Furthermore, Wetherill was a skilled amateur photographer at a time when that was rare, and there are numerous photographs of the excavations at Bonito.  I don’t know of any other excavation projects in the 1890s that were photographed as systematically as those at Bonito.  Moorehead never took any pictures of his work as far as I know.

South Wall of Room 53, Pueblo Bonito

Indeed, we can compare Wetherill and Pepper’s methods directly with Moorehead’s, because Moorehead excavated at Pueblo Bonito too.  In 1897, Moorehead made another collecting expedition to the Southwest, this time on behalf of Peabody, and one of the stops he made was at Chaco Canyon.  Wetherill and Pepper had begun excavations at Pueblo Bonito in 1896, sponsored by none other than Frederic Ward Putnam, who was at this point affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, and word of their spectacular finds such as the burials in Room 33 had probably gotten out.  In any case, Moorehead showed up at Chaco in the winter, the offseason for the AMNH party, and proceeded to tear the hell out of two rooms just north of Room 33.  These rooms, which Pepper would later designate Rooms 53 and 56, were apparently part of the same burial complex as Room 33, and they contained numerous burials and grave goods.  The grave assemblages were apparently not as elaborate as those in Room 33, however, and Moorehead was not particularly impressed with what he found (which is perhaps why he didn’t continue to excavate).  He did find one complete skeleton, wrapped in a feather robe, which he thought was of a young woman.  Nancy Akins, who reexamined the remains from Pueblo Bonito for the Chaco Project, concluded that this burial was actually of a man aged 40 to 44.  She also noted four skulls, now in the Field Museum, which were also probably from these rooms.  The Moorehead group didn’t fully excavate the rooms, and when Wetherill and Pepper returned in the summer they excavated what was left and sorted through the mess left by Moorehead, who had apparently thrown the fill from the rooms around haphazardly.  They found a few more artifacts and burials, but couldn’t say much about the original state of the rooms beyond noting two subfloor graves in Room 56 that Moorehead had opened.

Here’s what Akins had to say about Moorehead’s work in Rooms 53 and 56:

It is unfortunate that Moorehead plundered these two rooms. There are indications that a fair number of persons were buried in them. It is unlikely that they contained the amount of ornamentation found in Room 33, as none is mentioned by Moorehead in his report, little is listed in the Phillips-Andover catalog, and Moorehead stated that no remarkable
discoveries were made.

Moorehead did write an account of this expedition, which was published by Phillips Andover and is not easy to find.  I haven’t been able to read it, but judging from his 1908 article on the other expedition and Akins’s comments I don’t expect that it contained much detailed information on his work at Pueblo Bonito.

South Wall of Room 53 from Room 56, Pueblo Bonito

Also on this trip, Moorehead stopped by Salmon Ruin, where the landowner, George Salmon, only allowed him to dig for three days.  This frustrated Moorehead, and it indicates that Salmon, like John Koontz, was concerned with preserving his ruin and not letting archaeologists like Moorehead tear it apart wholesale looking for artifacts.  Obviously Salmon was a bit more accommodating than Koontz, who apparently didn’t let Moorehead dig at all at Aztec.

In the context of Chaco, and especially in comparison to Wetherill and Pepper, Moorehead looks pretty bad, but it’s worth emphasizing that he really wasn’t that unusual at the time.  The line between pothunter and archaeologist was really quite thin, and many archaeologists of Moorehead’s generation started out digging haphazardly for artifacts and later transitioned to more carefully documented digging for information.  Earl Morris is a good example of a pothunter who successfully turned himself into a serious archaeologist, and Richard Wetherill is an example of a sort of semi-pothunter who tried to make that transition but failed.  Moorehead’s background was similar, and he was more successful in ingratiating himself with the emerging academic archaeological establishment than Wetherill but probably less successful than Morris.  Part of the issue was just the change in archaeological practice over time; Wetherill died in 1910 (101 years ago today), whereas Moorehead lived until 1939 and Morris, who was of a younger generation, lived until 1956.

Interpretive Plaque at Wetherill Cemetery

Wetherill often gets cast as a villain in the story of Southwestern archaeology.  This is largely the doing of Edgar Hewett, who was an inveterate opponent of what Wetherill and Pepper were doing at Pueblo Bonito, which he characterized as large-scale looting.  Hewett’s line was eagerly adopted by the Santa Fe press, and it has become entrenched in popular understanding and even implicitly adopted by many archaeologists today.  It’s important to note, however, what Hewett was actually objecting to.  The biggest problem as he saw it was not that artifacts were being taken out of Pueblo Bonito but that they were being taken to New York, to sit in the AMNH (where most of them remain to this day).  Hewett wanted artifacts from Chaco not to stay at Chaco, but instead to be brought to Santa Fe and kept at his own institution, the Museum of New Mexico.  His characterizations of Wetherill and Pepper’s activities tended to carefully omit the involvement of the AMNH, which helped to drum up support for his cause among locals outraged by outsiders coming in and taking away artifacts.  Hewett eventually got his wish, and in the 1930s and 1940s he dominated archaeology at Chaco and throughout New Mexico.

Hewett’s success in tarring Wetherill as a pothunter shouldn’t blind us to the realities of the context Wetherill and Pepper were working in.  Their methods were crude compared to today’s, but within the range of variation in methods at the time they really were quite good, and much better than Moorehead’s crude methods.  Indeed, in some respects they were significantly better than the methods employed in Hewett’s own excavations at Chaco thirty years later.  The dispute between Hewett and Wetherill wasn’t about methods, and it wasn’t about “professional archaeologists” versus “amateur pothunters.”  Rather, it was a dispute between two groups of professional archaeologists and their institutional sponsors over who should be excavating at one of the most important archaeological sites in the region and which museum should get the artifacts they found.

Moorehead’s bit part in this drama really just serves as context, I think.  Despite the title of this post, I don’t think it’s really reasonable to cast him rather than Wetherill as the villain of the story.  Instead, Moorehead just illustrates that there was more to archaeology in the 1890s than Wetherill and Hewett, and that it is best to interpret the history of research at Chaco within that broader context.
ResearchBlogging.org
Moorehead, W. (1908). Ruins at Aztec and on the Rio La Plata, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 10 (2), 255-263 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.2.02a00080

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Fajada Butte from Pueblo Alto

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

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

Pueblo Alto and New Alto from Tsin Kletzin

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Kiva E, Aztec West

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

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

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

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

South Wing of Aztec West, Looking East

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

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

South Wing of Aztec West, Looking West

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

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

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Peñasco Blanco

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

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

Room 330, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

Kivas in the Southeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

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

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

Kiva E, Kin Kletso

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

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

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

Fajada Butte from Una Vida

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Totah Theater, Farmington, New Mexico

In comments to my post on Salmon Ruins, John Barton asks for more discussion of this area, which is surprisingly poorly understood given its obvious importance to Southwestern prehistory as a whole and the Chaco system in particular.  Wolky Toll has a chapter in the Salmon synthetic volume discussing the Totah region (named from the Navajo name for the Farmington area), and particularly the La Plata subregion, which is becoming somewhat better understood due to a major salvage archaeology project along New Mexico Highway 170, which parallels the La Plata River from the Colorado border south to its confluence with the San Juan just west of Farmington.  Toll has played a major role in this project, and his chapter has interesting things to say about the Totah in general and the La Plata valley in particular.  I don’t really buy all of his interpretations of Chaco; he’s one of the major proponents of a view of Chaco as a regional ceremonial center drawing pilgrims from throughout the San Juan Basin, including the Totah, but with a minimal population permanently resident in the canyon.  He’s particularly associated with the view that even the small-house residents at Chaco only lived there for part of the year, having other residences in other communities, especially along the Chuska Slope to the west.  I’m more inclined to see Chaco as some sort of hierarchical system with at least a relatively large permanent population, mostly in the small houses, though I’m not sure which version of this idea (and there are many out there) I find the most convincing.

Still, Toll knows a lot about the Totah.  He even introduced the term to archaeological use in an important chapter in a previous edited volume that he coauthored with Peter McKenna.  One of the important points he makes in the newer chapter is that while this region has historically been treated as part of either the Mesa Verde region to the north or the Chaco region to the south, it really has an independent identity and cultural trajectory that has been obscured by seeing it entirely in terms of migration or influence from north or south.  This is not to say that the Totah was isolated from developments to the north and south; far from it.  It’s really more accurate to see the whole San Juan basin as a single cultural region, with remarkable uniformity in many cultural expressions and changes over time.  The specific manifestations of those cultural processes were not necessarily identical, of course, but there’s more similarity than archaeologists are often inclined to say.

Mesa Verde Museum

Part of the problem here is just the way archaeology developed in the Southwest.  As Toll notes, the activities of the Wetherill family had a huge influence on which areas came to be considered most important to the interpretation of regional prehistory.  They were not the only influential figures, of course, but they definitely did a lot to put Mesa Verde and Chaco specifically on the radar of the archaeological profession as well as the general public.  In any case, the way things developed was that Mesa Verde and Chaco became well-studied, with major excavation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries producing huge numbers of artifacts and a general understanding of the chronological sequence of pottery types and other artifacts.  Once tree-ring dating provided an absolute chronology for the whole region, the general outline became clear: Chaco flourished in the eleventh century then declined in the twelfth, while Mesa Verde hit its peak later, in the thirteenth century, shortly before the whole region was abandoned around 1300.

This was a bit of a shift from the more evolutionary approach to culture history encapsulated in the original Pecos Classification, developed at the first Pecos Conference in 1927 and described by Alfred Vincent Kidder in a short article in Science at that time.  This system saw both Chaco and Mesa Verde, with their big, impressive masonry “pueblos,” as belonging to the Pueblo III or “Great Pueblo” period.  The tree-ring dates, however, showed that Chaco’s peak actually occurred earlier, coincident with the widespread small sites that marked the Pueblo II period.

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Turning back to the Totah, the main excavation project there in the early twentieth century was conducted by Earl Morris at Aztec Ruins.  This was the largest site complex in the area, and it clearly indicated some level of social and cultural importance.  What Morris found there, however, instead of a unique and clearly indigenous material culture, was a mix of what seemed to be Chaco and Mesa Verde material culture.  The early deposits showed clear similarities to Chaco, as did the architecture of the site, which Morris interpreted as evidence for a close cultural connection to Chaco.  After this period, however, Morris saw evidence for an extended hiatus with little evidence of any sort of occupation or use.  After that there was another, quite different suite of material culture that looked much more like Mesa Verde.  Morris interpreted this sequence as an initial Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by abandonment and reoccupation by immigrants from the Mesa Verde region to the north.  In an important chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Gary Brown, Peter McKenna, and Tom Windes argue persuasively that Morris was actually wrong about this, and that while the construction and early occupation of Aztec does indeed show substantial connections to Chaco, there was probably not any abandonment or hiatus, just a period of somewhat reduced construction activity at a time of widespread drought and environmental hardship in the mid-twelfth century.  This lull was followed by extensive occupation and construction in the thirteenth century, especially at the east ruin (which Morris didn’t excavate).  The occupants at this time did have pottery similar to that used at Mesa Verde, but that doesn’t mean they were immigrants from there, and it’s much more likely that they were primarily local people who had been living at Aztec all along.  Everyone in the region at this point was making the type of pottery now known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” and there’s no particular reason to think that any groups in the Totah had links to Mesa Verde, which itself seems to have been remarkably isolated during this period, with few trade goods found at the many excavated sites in the region despite its large population.  A similar story seems to obtain for Salmon, with an early Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by a period of continued occupation but little major activity, then an increase in population and activity before the final depopulation of the entire region.

So why did Morris get this wrong?  One reason, which Toll emphasizes, is that the mere fact that Chaco and Mesa Verde have been much more extensively studied than the Totah means that ceramic types (and other types of material culture, but pottery is the most important for cultural classification) have become associated with one or another of these areas, so that when they are found elsewhere in the region they are taken to indicate influence or migration from Chaco or Mesa Verde rather than a regionwide stylistic trend uniting all of these areas.  The latter is more likely, however, especially for the Totah, which was a major population and cultural center throughout the Pueblo II and III periods.  In her chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Lori Stephens Reed describes the discovery that the ceramic types found at Salmon and Aztec that have traditionally been classified as “Cibola” (Chaco) or “Northern San Juan” (Mesa Verde) types based on temper and design were mostly made within the Totah, judging from the type of clay used for the paste and slip of the vessels.  Rather than define new types, she just adds the qualifier “Animas Variety” to the existing type designations to indicate this local origin.  This makes sense from an Ockham’s Razor perspective, but as Toll notes in his chapter it’s really the type names themselves that have led to the downplaying of the local factor in the prehistory of the Totah.

Mesa Verde Escarpment from 2009 Pecos Conference at McPhee Campground

The best example of this is the very widespread thirteenth-century pottery type known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” which is found all over the place but has tended to be interpreted as indicating some sort of influence or migration from Mesa Verde.  This is highly improbable, however, since Mesa Verde was gaining rather than losing people for most of this period (until the very end), and the people there don’t seem to have been very actively engaged in regional trade.  This strongly suggests that Mesa Verde Black-on-white is probably of local origin wherever it is found, despite the name.  Toll even muses more than once about how interpretations of Southwestern prehistory might be different if it were called “Aztec Black-on-white” instead.  It’s quite clear that Aztec was a very important site during this period, perhaps not as important as Chaco had been earlier but certainly more important than any single site in the Mesa Verde area.  And yet, because Mesa Verde has been more intensively studied, until quite recently it has been accorded an enormously important role in regional dynamics during this period that closer examination is revealing to be mostly undeserved.  Chaco has received a similarly privileged position for its period of florescence for similar reasons, but it seems to have actually been roughly as influential as this assumption implied.  (Something of an archaeological Gettier case.)

But why didn’t the Totah get the early attention that would have gained it the pride of place in Southwestern archaeology occupied by Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Ironically, a big part of the answer seems to be tied precisely to the geographic factors that made it such an important area in the first place.  One of the main reasons Mesa Verde and Chaco attracted early attention from archaeologists and pothunters was that their isolated locations left them unbelievably well-preserved.  The sites were very obvious on the landscape, many had stood relatively well due to either their massive construction (at Chaco) or their sheltered locations (at Mesa Verde), and they were sufficiently hard to get to that subsequent inhabitants and explorers hadn’t done them much harm.

Animas River, Farmington, New Mexico

The Totah, however, is an enormously attractive and productive agricultural area.  This is presumably what attracted people to Salmon, Aztec, and other communities in prehistory, and it definitely attracted huge numbers of Anglo settlers in the late nineteenth century who proceeded to plow over, loot, and otherwise damage the numerous archaeological sites they found before archaeologists had even heard of them.  The really big sites, like Salmon and Aztec themselves, managed to remain in relatively good condition until they could be professionally excavated, but innumerable smaller sites have likely been completely destroyed.

The local environment has also led to decreased visibility for these sites directly, by covering them with alluvial silt that makes them difficult or impossible to see from the surface.  As a result, we have little sense of how many sites are out there today, let alone how many were there initially before the farmers and the pothunters got to them.  Again, this is in contrast to the harsh environments of Chaco especially, and Mesa Verde to a lesser extent, where there are no permanent rivers to bury sites so deeply.  Furthermore, modern development in the Totah has been extensive, and there’s very little information about what lies underneath the rapidly growing modern towns of Farmington, Aztec, and Bloomfield.  For all of these reasons, the Totah remains surprisingly understudied, despite its obvious importance for understanding Southwestern prehistory.  Luckily this is starting to change a bit, at least on the conceptual level, with publications like Toll’s and Reed’s that point out the distinctiveness of this area and its independent identity.  The Totah has stood in the shadow of Chaco and Mesa Verde for a very long time, but it now seems to be finally coming into the light.

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

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Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Although the idea that the small round rooms that area so common at Chacoan sites are ceremonial “kivas” has been increasingly challenged recently, it is still widely accepted that the large, formal, round structures known as “great kivas” were in fact community-wide ceremonial or integrative facilities.  Even Steve Lekson agrees, and he continues to use the term “kiva” in referring to these structures even as he calls the small “kivas” “round rooms” instead.  (He also uses the term “kiva” in referring to “tower kivas,” yet another form of round structure with proposed ceremonial associations.)  Ruth Van Dyke‘s chapter in The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico is a good summary of current knowledge about Chacoan great kivas.  The great kiva is an architectural form that predates Chaco, and it may or may not have outlasted it.  The Chacoan form is distinctive, however, and found even in areas without a long history of pre-Chacoan great kivas.  It is highly standardized in both size and features, and is one of the surest indications of Chacoan influence wherever it is found.

Floor Features of Kiva Q, Pueblo Bonito

The following features are always found at Chacoan great kivas, although their specific realization can vary a bit:

  1. Four post holes, arranged in a square, to support the beams or columns that hold up the roof.  The holes may be either round or square.  Generally the columns themselves would be huge wooden beams, stubs of which have sometimes been found in the post holes during excavation.  Sometimes, such as in the great kiva at Aztec Ruins, square masonry columns, possibly with small poles in them, would be used instead.  It’s apparently not totally clear if the use of square rather than round post holes necessarily indicates the use of pillars rather than beams, since the beams would typically be held in place by shale and this could be done in either a square or a circular space.  When beams were used, they were supported at the bottom by several stacked stone disks, presumably to distribute the weight.  Offerings of turquoise and other valuables were often found in the beam holes, apparently placed during construction.
  2. Around the circumference of the kiva is a bench, sometimes doubled.  These benches were often refaced with new masonry, sometimes in connection with more general renovation of the kiva features and sometimes not.
  3. There is typically a series of wall niches around the circumference of the chamber, above the bench.  These vary in dimensions and number, but there are usually about 30 of them, especially in later great kivas.  Sometimes there is more than one series of niches at different levels, as at Casa Rinconada.  The purpose of the niches is unclear; some of them had offerings sealed into them, but these may have been construction offerings rather than indicating anything about post-construction use.
  4. Entrance is from a staircase leading down from an antechamber.  There would probably have been a smokehole in the roof as well, but it is unclear whether there would have been a ladder providing entrance through the roof as was the case in smaller round rooms.  An intact great kiva roof has never been found, which is unsurprising since the roofs would have been enormously heavy and very likely to cave in once the structure was no longer maintained.  The antechamber is on the north side in most cases.  Kiva Q at Pueblo Bonito has an apparent staircase and antechamber on the south side instead, but Van Dyke suggests that this may have been an error of reconstruction.  She doesn’t go into any more detail about this, however, and it’s unclear what the implications are if the room on the south side of Kiva Q is not an antechamber.  Casa Rinconada has antechambers with staircases on both the north and south sides.
  5. Along the central north-south axis, slightly offset to the south from the center point, is a firebox.  This is usually a masonry cube with a circular or oval firepit in it.
  6. Just south of the firepit there is a deflector.  This is a common feature in small kivas, which usually have a ventilation shaft on the south side, but since great kivas don’t have ventilation shafts and usually have their entrances on the north side it is unclear how useful this deflector would have been in practice.  Assuming there was a smokehole, a great kiva was big enough that it’s unlikely ventilation would have been a major concern.
  7. Attached to the two southern postholes on the north side, and sometimes running all the way to the northern postholes, there are two rectangular masonry “vaults.”  They are usually but not always subterranean.  The function of these is unclear.  Some have claimed that they are “foot-drums,” which would have had boards on top of them and people dancing on them, but not everyone accepts this interpretation and I don’t find it very convincing.  Small kivas sometimes have a single subfloor vault on one side of the firepit, but it is unclear if there is any connection between that type of feature and the much more formal vaults of great kivas.

These are the basic features that are repeated again and again at Chacoan great kivas.  Relatively few have been excavated, but all of those that have show these same features with minor variations.  Van Dyke provides a comprehensive list of the known great kivas at Chaco.  There are 21 of them, of which 11 have been excavated.  Ten of these are associated with the great houses Pueblo Bonito (4 great kivas), Chetro Ketl (3), and Kin Nahasbas (3).  (Note that Van Dyke is counting remodeled versions of earlier great kivas separately here.)  The only “isolated” great kiva to be excavated is Casa Rinconada.  It is also the largest excavated great kiva in the canyon at 19.5 meters in diameter, although it is not the largest excavated great kiva (the one at Village of the Great Kivas, a Chacoan outlier on the Zuni Reservation, is 23.7 meters in diameter), nor is it the largest great kiva in the canyon (the unexcavated northwest great kiva at Peñasco Blanco is 23 meters in diameter).

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

Van Dyke explicitly cautions her readers to be careful about the possibility of overemphasizing the importance of Rinconada just because it is so well known, and this is an important warning.  It does appear that Rinconada is unusual among all known great kivas in several ways, including the two antechambers and the “secret tunnel” leading from a back room of the north antechamber to a subsurface round enclosure around the northwest posthole.  It is also positioned in a very significant location, across from Pueblo Bonito, and there may be astronomical alignments encoded into it.  However, it is important to note that like the other great kivas at Chaco that are visible today, Rinconada has been substantially reconstructed.  In general Chaco has had a much lighter touch with reconstruction than many other parks, but great kivas, which are typically found in a substantially reduced state with large v-shaped breaches in the upper walls, are an exception.  Kivas A and Q at Pueblo Bonito as well as Casa Rinconada have all been built up to what their excavators considered a reasonable approximation of their original condition.  The great kiva at Aztec, of course, has been completely reconstructed to give an impression of what it might have looked like, and while there was apparently once talk of doing something similar at Casa Rinconada nothing ultimately came of it.

In addition to the excavated great kivas, there are ten unexcavated ones at Chaco.  It is hard to tell much about these, since they are basically just big recessed circles in the ground, but they are generally at least in the same size range as the excavated examples and can probably be assumed to be similar.  There may well be additional unknown ones, either associated with great houses or isolated.  It is particularly likely that early great kivas would not be apparent on the ground, since they are generally smaller than later ones and the excavated examples (or possible examples) all come from within early great houses where they are often overlain by later construction.

Northwest Great Kiva at Peñasco Blanco

The known unexcavated great kivas associated with great houses include two at Una Vida, one at Hungo Pavi, and four at Peñasco Blanco.  There are also three “isolated” great kivas, all of them at the east end of the canyon: one in Fajada gap, one on the south side of the canyon across from Wijiji, and one in a side canyon at the foot of Chacra Mesa below the Basketmaker III village known as Shabik’eshchee.  As noted above, the northwest one at Peñasco Blanco is huge, probably the largest at Chaco.  The one in Fajada gap appears to be about 20 meters in diameter, which puts it in the same size range as Casa Rinconada, although the difficulty of measuring diameter precisely with unexcavated great kivas makes it impossible to say if it is actually bigger than Rinconada or not.  One interesting thing about these isolated great kivas is that they are all on the south side of the canyon, as is Casa Rinconada.  This contrasts with the tendency of great houses to be on the north side and provides some support for the idea that the great kiva is conceptually separate from the great house and has its own history as a form.  It’s hard to say how to interpret this in the context of the postulated attempt by great-house elites to incorporate great kivas into their great houses as a way to legitimize their authority, which Van Dyke proposes as an explanation for why most great kiva construction at great houses didn’t take place until the mid-1000s.

And, indeed, early great house construction does seem to be notably bereft of great kivas.  Or does it?  Tenth-century “great kivas” are in fact postulated at Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Kin Nahasbas, and Van Dyke includes them on her list, but it is unclear whether they really “count” as great kivas.  They are smaller than the later versions, which may just be because they are older.  They are also poorly documented, however; the ones at Pueblo Bonito and Kin Nahasbas have been excavated, but records about them are scarce and scanty.  The one at Pueblo Bonito is about 10 meters in diameter, which Van Dyke considers “within the range known for domestic pitstructures,” and furthermore it lacks postholes for roof support beams but does appear to have pilasters on its bench, which implies a roofing system like that of small kivas.  Since the roofing system is one of the most consistent features of classic Chacoan great kivas, this is a major strike against great kiva status for this one.  However, it’s possible that the specialized roofing system for later great kivas was an innovation to handle the large size of the ones built from the mid-1000s on, and that earlier structures with “regular” kiva roofs may have had “great kiva” functions in the 900s.  (This reminds me that I should do a post on small-kiva roofing, which is an interesting and surprisingly contentious issue.)

Kin Nahasbas from Una Vida

Evidence that the specialized roofing system for great kivas was already in place in the 900s comes from the early “great kiva” at Kin Nahasbas, which was more thoroughly excavated than the one at Pueblo Bonito.  It underlies the two later great kivas, which had classic great kiva features.  Its own features were largely obscured by the later construction, but it does appear to have postholes.  It couldn’t be dated directly, but the excavators concluded that it was probably associated with the tenth-century greathouse behind it.  This implies that there was at least one great kiva this early, but that the one at Pueblo Bonito was not one.  Interestingly, the diameter of this great kiva was only 7 meters, making it smaller than the Pueblo Bonito example and suggesting that size isn’t everything when it comes to great kivas.

The early great kiva at Una Vida is very poorly known and may not exist at all.  There is certainly another, later great kiva at the site.  Van Dyke refers to William Gillespie’s account of Una Vida’s architecture in Steve Lekson’s Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico as the source for the idea that there is a great kiva associated with the early-tenth-century construction there, but Gillespie is very vague about the basis for his speculation that such a great kiva existed, and says only that “surface evidence is inconclusive.”  Van Dyke lists the diameter of this postulated great kiva as 17 meters, which is remarkably large for such an early structure and only slightly smaller than the later great kiva, which is much more obvious and has a diameter of about 18 meters.  Una Vida is a very confusing and poorly understood site, so the lack of clarity regarding its great kiva(s) is not really surprising.

The only other early great house, in addition to these three, at Chaco is Peñasco Blanco.  It apparently has four great kivas, none of which has been dated.  It’s quite possible that one or both of the two great kivas in the plaza dates to the 900s, but neither has been excavated.  It is also possible that there are additional early great kivas either underlying the later ones or elsewhere in the site.  The number of apparent great kivas is one of the many reasons I think this site is likely much more important to Chaco than is usually appreciated.  It is both one of the earliest sites at Chaco and one of the largest, and it may have served as an important connection to the communities downstream on the Chaco River, where many of the early great houses were, as well as with the Chuska Mountains beyond.  Van Dyke has little to say about it in this chapter, which is understandable since the great kivas are unexcavated (as is the rest of the site).

Snow at Kiva A, Pueblo Bonito

The upshot of all this is that there probably was at least one great kiva built at Chaco in the 900s, and there may have been more, but it does seem to be true that great kiva construction increased dramatically after around 1030.  This is the same time that a lot of other changes were happening in the canyon, including massive construction projects of various sorts at several great houses, and it is probably the time when Chaco first became the regional center for the San Juan Basin (though it had likely been an important center for a long time).   Van Dyke argues that part of this was the appropriation of the great kiva form, which in previous times had been particularly common in communities to the south, by emergent local elites attempting to legitimate their increasingly hierarchical authority and control over periodic regional gatherings in the canyon that were beginning to draw pilgrims from throughout the Basin (and perhaps beyond).  In another article she argues that this process was part of a “tipping point” or “qualitative social transformation” that changed a predominantly egalitarian society into a more hierarchical one.  In this context, the use of great kivas may have been an attempt to establish links with the past by incorporating an old, traditional architectural form into the new and potentially threatening form represented by the great house.  I’m not sure I buy this entire story, but I think at least parts of it are likely true and it’s certainly thought-provoking.

Great Kiva at Lowry Pueblo, Colorado

Wherever they came from and whenever they became part of the Chacoan architectural repertoire, by the height of the Chacoan era great kivas were among the most standardized parts of the highly standardized Chacoan “system,” whatever it was.  There are plenty of puzzles remaining about them, as is true with most everything associated with Chaco, but regardless of whether we are ever able to answer all the questions they pose they are still among the most impressive achievements of this very impressive society.
ResearchBlogging.org
Van Dyke, R. (2008). Temporal Scale and Qualitative Social Transformation at Chaco Canyon Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000073

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Northeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

I often end my tour of Pueblo Bonito by describing it as “a place of majesty and a place of mystery.”  I’ve recently been thinking about what exactly that means, and what makes Pueblo Bonito, and Chaco Canyon more generally, so mysterious.  It’s not really difficult to figure out, but I think the implications are more important than I had realized before.

In a nutshell, Chaco is interesting largely because it’s mysterious, and it’s mysterious because it’s in such a harsh environment.  It’s clearly a major center of some kind, although it remains unclear exactly what it was the center of, in a place where you would never expect to find anything on so grand a scale.  Indeed, the startling contrast between the grandeur of the sites in Chaco and the barrenness of their setting has led some archaeologists, and many visitors, to assume that the climate must have been different when the sites were built.  A considerable amount of research has therefore been put into reconstructing the paleoclimate of Chaco, with the surprising result that it hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years.  There have been small variations on the scale of decades in the amount of rainfall, and in such a marginal environment for agriculture even small variations like that could easily make or break a societal system, but they’re really just on the order of the changes seen in recorded history (i.e., over the past hundred years or so), and the place has definitely been more or less like it is today for a long time.

West Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

And yet, the great houses are there, as are all the other aspects of the Chaco system that inspire so much wonder and awe today, including the road system, the astronomical alignments, and everything else.  In some ways I think the current (somewhat artificial) isolation of the park maintained by the lack of a paved road to it is appropriate in giving a sense of just how much effort it would take to make this an accessible location, let alone a major cultural center.  There’s a tradeoff, of course, in that making it easier to get to would probably make it more obvious just how central it was once the required infrastructure was put in.  Still, though, there’s no denying that this is a hard place to live, and it’s by no means an obvious location for the scale of construction necessary to create such a center.  That’s one of the abiding mysteries of Chaco, perhaps the most fundamental one.  Visitors ask about it all the time; “why here?” is one of the most frequent questions we get.  I always just say that it remains a mystery.

It’s not the mere presence of a major cultural center in the prehistoric Southwest that comprises the mystery, however.  There have been others that have not elicited nearly the interest accorded to Chaco.  Aztec, for example, which seems likely to have succeeded Chaco as the center of a somewhat reduced regional system in the twelfth century, is a major center on the same scale, but there’s nothing all that mysterious about it.  It’s located right on a major river in a fertile valley well-suited for agriculture, which is exactly where you would expect to find a major population center capable of serving as the center of a widespread system.  Other Southwestern archaeological sites are even less mysterious.  Mesa Verde is a very good agricultural area by regional standards, as is Bandelier, and it is no surprise that they attracted large prehistoric populations.  Canyon de Chelly is a bit of an oasis in a generally harsh area.  The Hohokam sites in southern Arizona are along major rivers well-suited for irrigation agriculture.  There are also sites in marginal areas, of course, but they tend to be small and unimpressive, which is unsurprising given their surroundings.  All of these sorts of sites can be easily explained by reference to fairly simple ecological determinist models of human settlement patterns.

Collapsed Wall in Western Part of Old Bonito Framing Pueblo del Arroyo

Not so with Chaco, however.  While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.  This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency.  This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco.  The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think.  Meanwhile, the mystery remains.

I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved.  There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons.  That’s not necessarily a problem, though.  At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics.  Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco.  One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe.  The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent.  There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.

Kiva A and Southeast Corner, Pueblo Bonito

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