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Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

I often read articles on the archaeology of other parts of the world to gain a better understanding of the context for Chaco. The areas I focus on for this are primarily those that had interesting things going on contemporaneous with the Chacoan era, but I also look to some extent on archaeological phenomena in other places that are comparable to the Chaco Phenomenon itself to see if there are any lessons for understanding Chaco to be drawn from them.

Recently I’ve been reading a bit about the archaeology of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, which falls into both categories. The period of Tiwanaku’s florescence overlaps with Chaco’s to some extent, although it falls most earlier, but more importantly the history of research there has some intriguing parallels to the history of Chacoan studies and may hold some useful lessons. My account of Tiwanaku here is drawn mainly from John Janusek’s 2004 review article, as well as some other papers by Janusek and others who seem to share his general perspective.

Tiwanaku itself is a major site located on the Bolivian altiplano near Lake Titicaca. It is in a very stark and desolate-seeming location, which makes its monumental architecture seem incongruous (sound familiar?). Early explorers noted that the site pre-dated the Inka empire, and some considered it the oldest site in the whole Andean region. Archaeological investigations in the early twentieth century showed that the latter characterization was definitely not accurate, but they also found little evidence of domestic occupation, and the idea arose that Tiwanaku was a vacant ceremonial center and pilgrimage destination, which some interpreted as the center for a religious movement that was spread by the expansionary state centered at the site of Wari further north in Peru.

Starting in the 1950s, however, a new archaeological program sponsored by the nationalist government of Bolivia and led by Carlos Ponce Sanginés conducted extensive excavations at the site and concluded instead that Tiwanaku was the urban capital of an expansionist state, which rivaled Wari and eventually even conquered it. By the 1980s researchers from the US were invited to work in the area as well, and their research has generally supported this reconstruction of Tiwanaku rather than the “vacant ceremonial center” hypothesis, although the idea that Tiwanaku actually conquered Wari didn’t hold up. Janusek is part of this research tradition, which is why the fact that my information on the site comes mainly from him is important. There are apparently still other archaeologists who still hold to the older interpretation, but there don’t seem to be many.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of research at Chaco should see the similarities here. One important difference, of course, is that the early research at Chaco assumed that it was a residential rather than a ceremonial center. It was not until the work of the Chaco Project in the 1970s that it began to seem like the great houses in the canyon were something other than “pueblos” in the traditional sense. While the idea of Chaco as a vacant ceremonial center was never universal, and it arose rather recently in the history of Chacoan research, it has been quite influential in recent years. Recent research, such as that of Chip Wills, Steve Plog, and Steve Lekson, has been moving away from this idea, however, and back to the idea of a substantial population in the canyon. In parallel with Tiwanaku, however, many of these recent interpretations have seen Chaco as more of a complex, hierarchical society than a set of autonomous, egalitarian villages. This makes the monumental architecture that is a hallmark of the Chaco Phenomenon seem like more of an expression of hierarchical than spiritual ideals.

One important lesson of Tiwanaku, however, is that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The monumental architecture and art at the main site and other sites considered to be regional centers of the same polity (“outliers” in Chacoan terminology?) is generally interpreted as reflecting a religious ideology that supported the hierarchical structure of the Tiwanaku state. This is hardly unusual in early states, of course, but the fact that Tiwanaku was not originally considered to be such a state makes it more relevant to the case of Chaco, which is in the same situation.

Another important similarity between the two systems is in the presence of astronomical alignments in the monumental buildings, and the resultant implication that astronomical observation and the maintenance of a calendar were important elements in the societal system. Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the region to show this astronomical focus, and Janusek, in a paper on Tiwanaku religion, links this explicitly to its success as a state. In that paper he argues that the changes in monumental construction at Tiwanaku proper were linked to changes in the religious ideology of the site, which over time came to incorporate diverse regional traditions as well as cosmic cycles into a complex, syncretic religion that supported and justified the spiritual and material power of the Tiwanaku elites. As Janusek concludes:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

I haven’t seen this same argument applied explicitly to Chaco, but I think it may apply there as well. The part about incorporating diverse cultural traditions seems to match pretty closely with the well-known diversity of material culture at Chaco, with different sites within the canyon, and even different parts of some of the larger sites, showing ties to different parts of the region. I don’t know of any pre-Chacoan sites in the Southwest that show obvious astronomical alignments the way Chaco does, so it seems probable that the Chacoans were the first to figure out these alignments, and they may have also been the first to develop the rigorous calendrical knowledge that such mastery of astronomy implies. I hadn’t really thought about that as a source of Chacoan power before reading about Tiwanaku, but it certainly makes sense. This is a good example of the way reading about these far-flung places has practical advantages for understanding Chaco.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janusek, John W. (2004). Tiwanaku and Its Precursors: Recent Research and Emerging Perspectives Journal of Archaeological Research, 12 (2), 121-183 DOI: 10.1023/B:JARE.0000023711.96664.1b

Janusek, John W. (2006). The Changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku Religion and the Rise of an Andean State World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

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

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

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

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

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

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The Twin Mounds from Monks Mound, Cahokia

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

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

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

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

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

Sign Describing the Twin Mounds at Cahokia

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

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

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

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

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Welcome Plaque, Spiro Mounds

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

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

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

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

Plaque at Brown Mound Showing Figurine, Spiro Mounds

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

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

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

Craig Mound, Spiro Mounds

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

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

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

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

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

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Trash Mound from Pueblo Alto

Many recent interpretations of Chaco Canyon see it as a site of pilgrimage, and this is often specifically seen as taking the form of regular region-wide ritual events involving communal feasting, construction work on the massive buildings in the canyon, trade involving various mundane and exotic items, and ritual breakage of pottery and deposition of it in the mounds accompanying most great houses.  This idea, which has been incorporated into a wide range of models of Chacoan society both hierarchical and egalitarian (although it is especially important to egalitarian models), is heavily dependent on data gathered in the excavation of Pueblo Alto by the Chaco Project in the 1970s.  In addition to excavating about 10% of the great house itself, Project personnel excavated a trench and several stratigraphic columns in the large trash mound to the southeast.  What they found was a series of well-defined layers.  Some of these, toward the bottom, seemed to consist mostly of construction debris, and others, toward the top, consisted mostly of windblown sand and redeposited artifacts, but the ones in between seemed to show a pattern of large, well-defined deposits.  This was interpreted as being quite different from the expected pattern from the regular deposition of domestic trash from a residential site, and the theory developed, particularly by Wolky Toll, explained it as the result of occasional massive depositional events in which large amounts of pottery and other artifacts were deposited all at once.  Toll estimated that the number of layers approximately matched the number of years during which Pueblo Alto was occupied, and that they therefore accumulated as the result of annual events in which numerous people came from throughout the region to attend events at Pueblo Alto (and presumably at other great houses too).  As part of these events, pilgrims would probably have brought offerings of items from their home areas, thus explaining the huge amount of imported goods at Chaco as well as the lack of apparent exports.  These items would have included mundane items like wood, corn, and pottery, as well as more exotic things like turquoise and Narbona Pass chert.  People may have also worked on constructing the great houses as part of some sort of ritual offering of labor, which would explain the massive scale of these buildings despite the small permanent population of the canyon itself.  While there is a certain amount of evidence for residential use at Pueblo Alto and other great houses, it indicates a pretty small population relative to the size of the buildings, and Toll’s model interprets this as a small “caretaker” population of what were primarily non-residential, public structures with large plazas that could serve as the sites of ritual feasting and other activities during these festivals.

Furthermore, the composition of the artifact assemblage found during the excavations of the Pueblo Alto mound seemed to offer an interesting possibility for another ritual activity.  Basically, there was a huge amount of pottery in it, especially gray utility ware, much of it imported from the Chuska Mountains to the west.  Based on the number of rim sherds in the excavated portion and an estimate of the size of the whole mound, Toll calculated that 150,000 vessels were used during the 60-year period (AD 1040 to 1100) during which Gallup Black-on-white was the predominant decorated type, a period that roughly corresponds to the height of the Chaco system.  This works out to 2500 vessels a year, or 125 for each of the 20 households estimated to have lived at Pueblo Alto at any one time.  This is a huge number compared to ethnographically documented rates of pottery usage and breakage or ratios seen at small sites, and to Toll it suggested that the pottery deposited in the mound was probably not broken in the course of everyday life at Pueblo Alto but was instead broken deliberately in rituals associated with the annual pilgrimage fairs.  Ritual breakage and deposition of pottery is a known Pueblo practice, but this would be on a scale not seen at any other known site.  Nevertheless, this is the model of the formation of the Pueblo Alto mound that has been widely accepted and incorporated into a wide variety of interpretations of the Chaco system that differ wildly in many respects but all have some sort of pilgrimage function for the canyon as part of its regional role.  It’s important to note that this is the only direct evidence for a pilgrimage function known from excavations at Chaco.

Niche at Pueblo Alto

I think it’s pretty plausible that pilgrimage and communal feasting took place at Chaco, but I’ve increasingly come to think that the evidence from the Pueblo Alto mound is extremely weak.  There are a few different reasons I don’t buy it, and a couple of the most important ones are well illustrated by two articles published in American Antiquity in 2001.

One of these, by Toll himself, is part of the same special issue on the organization of production at Chaco that included Colin Renfrew‘s model of Chaco as a “Location of High Devotional Expression” or pilgrimage center.  Toll likes this idea, obviously, and his article, in addition to summarizing the known data on the production and use of pottery at Chaco, attempts to take a closer look at the Alto data to evaluate Renfrew’s model.  This basically involves looking at each of the “event layers” (as distinguished from the construction and post-occupational layers) and calculating the proportions of local and non-local ceramics and lithics (as well as the different types of pottery forms and wares) in each.  These were then compared to the proportions in the mound as a whole, other Chaco Project excavations dating from the same period, and excavations dating earlier and later.  If Renfrew’s theory works, the event layers should show higher proportions of imported ceramics and lithics, as well as possibly higher proportions of ceramic types likely to have been used in feasting, compared to these other data sets.

Flake of Narbona Pass Chert with Ant at Pueblo Alto

Toll does his best to spin the results to be consistent with Renfrew’s model, but looking at the actual numbers in his tables, there’s just nothing there.  The event layers are virtually identical to the whole mound, which isn’t really surprising given that they comprise a large portion of it, and both are very similar to contemporary non-mound contexts in most ways.  Earlier and later contexts are different in interesting ways, but that’s neither here nor there in terms of evaluating Renfrew’s model.  Chuska ceramics are a case in point: they comprise 33.4% of the event layers, 30.8% of the whole mound, and 33.1% of the contemporary non-mound contexts.  That doesn’t look like a meaningful difference to me.  In the cases where the mound layers do differ from other contemporary contexts, they generally have fewer exotic materials.  For example ceramics from the Red Mesa Valley comprise 3.3% of the event layers, 3.8% of the whole mound, and 4.6% of the contemporary non-mound contexts.  The presence of Narbona Pass chert is something of an exception, with the proportions for the event layers, the whole mound, and other contemporary contexts being 26.1%, 26.4%, and 19.5% respectively, but stone from the Zuni Mountains has proportions of 2.2%, 2.4%, and 10.9% (!) respectively, which suggests that there’s just no pattern here in which the event layers or the mound as a whole contain higher proportions of imported material.  Basically, Chaco was awash in all sorts of imported stuff during this period, and it was not particularly concentrated in the mound more than anywhere else.  The mound has lots of imports because there were lots of imports all over the place, not because it was formed as the result of annual pilgrimage feasts.

The biggest difference between the mound and other contemporary contexts comes with the forms of pottery.  Generally, the forms of pottery found at sites in this area at this time are whiteware bowls, whiteware jars, grayware jars, and redware and brownware bowls.  Red and brown bowls were long-distance imports and are found in small numbers at most sites.  The other wares were local, at least in a general sense, and while there was surely some variation, the standard idea about functions is that gray jars were used for cooking food, white bowls were used for serving food, and white jars were used for storage.  Thus, for feasting contexts an unusually high number of white bowls, and possibly gray jars, would be expected.  Since red and brown bowls are likely to have had symbolic or ritual importance, given the distances from which they were imported, they may occur in higher frequencies in feasting or ritual contexts too.

Shell Bead at Pueblo Alto

The pattern in the Pueblo Alto mound, while distinct from other contemporary sites, didn’t really match these expectations.  The most obvious difference was a much lower proportion of white bowls: 27.0% for the event layers versus 32.7% for the whole mound and 33.4% for other contexts.  This was balanced by a higher proportion of gray jars, which Toll interprets as still giving evidence for feasting, but this is mighty weak evidence for pilgrimage and feasting, even though the high proportion of grayware that came from the Chuskas during this period means that the high proportion of gray jars in the mound contributed to a higher level of Chuskan imports.  Red and brown bowls were also much rarer in the mound (both in the event layers and in the whole thing) than in other sites.

So, despite Toll’s efforts to show the data from the Pueblo Alto mound supporting his and Renfrew’s pilgrimage theories, I don’t buy it.  That’s not to say that there was no pilgrimage or feasting at Pueblo Alto, of course, just that this evidence doesn’t show that there was any.  And, remember, this is the only evidence out there for feasting and pilgrimage at Chaco.

Plaza at Pueblo Alto

But what about those unusually large, distinct layers in the mound?  Don’t those indicate unusual depositional events consistent with annual feasting and the deliberate breaking of huge numbers of pots?

Well, no.  To understand why not, we turn to the second paper published in 2001 on this topic, written by Chip Wills.  Wills is a Chaco Project alum who worked on the Pueblo Alto mound excavations, so he knows what he’s talking about here, and what he says is that the layers in the mound aren’t at all necessarily evidence for annual feasts.  Basically, what he says is that there’s nothing special about the layers in the mound.  They’re not really bigger or richer in artifacts than deposits found elsewhere.  He has a lot of specific criticisms of Toll’s interpretations and methodology, but that’s the gist of it.  He says that the unusually well-defined nature of the layers could well be the result of natural processes on layers deposited in various ways, so that it doesn’t necessarily indicate occasional large deposits rather than steady trash accumulation.  Most importantly, he finds that there isn’t actually a clear distinction between the “construction” and “event” layers, and that it’s quite plausible that the whole mound, or at least the vast majority of it, resulted from the deposition of construction debris from the various stages of construction and remodeling at Pueblo Alto.  There would have been other “depositional streams” as well, including the dismantling of earlier architecture below the present site (which is known to have been present from the excavations).  Wills doesn’t deny that ritual may have played a role in the creation of the mound, since the construction of the great house itself may well have been a ritual act, but he does deny that there is any sign that the actual contents of the mound indicate that it resulted from occasional ritual deposits rather than a combination of construction debris and regular trash dumping.

Rim Sherd at Pueblo Alto

Okay, but what about all those smashed vessels?  Basically, Wills doesn’t find Toll’s calculations convincing.  He says that Toll calculated the number of vessels based on the number of rim sherds found, then extrapolated that number to the whole mound based on the excavated portion.  The assumptions here are that each pot is represented in the mound by a single rim sherd, and that sherd density throughout the mound is constant.  Neither of these is really reasonable, although the “one rim sherd per vessel” one is particularly problematic.  It was apparently based on the fact that few rim sherds from the same vessel were found, but what are the odds that only one rim sherd from each pot made it into the mound?  Extrapolating the number of vessels is tricky, of course, and obviously the raw sherd counts can’t be a reliable way to do it (since vessels varied in size), but this rim sherd idea is questionable at best.  The idea of uniform density is really just an example of a reasonable assumption given an unknowable reality, but it’s still not necessarily right.  Wills mentions another estimate of 30,000 vessels for the whole mound, which he also attributes to Toll, and this produces much more reasonable per year and per household numbers suggesting that the observed sherd density could easily reflect regular domestic trash.  He also notes that it was the number of households, based on architectural data, that was held constant when this seemed to conflict with the number of vessels deposited, but he doesn’t elaborate on the implications of this beyond noting the privileged place architecture tends to hold in population estimates at Chacoan sites.

I originally read both of these articles a couple years ago when I was first starting to work at Chaco, and at the time I found Toll’s more convincing.  Rereading them now, though, I find Wills more convincing, and his arguments have never really been squarely addressed by Toll or anyone else associated with the pilgrimage/feasting theory (although they are occasionally mentioned in passing).  Chaco may well have been a pilgrimage site and the location of communal feasts, but it’s important to note that the Pueblo Alto trash mound doesn’t provide evidence for this idea, and neither does anything else.
ResearchBlogging.org
Toll, H. (2001). Making and Breaking Pots in the Chaco World American Antiquity, 66 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694318

Wills, W. (2001). Ritual and Mound Formation during the Bonito Phase in Chaco Canyon American Antiquity, 66 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694243

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the ongoing debates in Chacoan architectural studies concerns the function of the round rooms that are very noticeable and numerous at the excavated great houses in the canyon.  The standard interpretation for many years, which is still fairly common among archaeologists and nearly universal among the general public, is that these are “kivas,” a type of structure that is assumed to be primarily ritual or ceremonial in function and analogous to similar structures at modern pueblos.  Some archaeologists, however, led by Steve Lekson, have argued that the small round rooms found at virtually all archaeological sites in the northern Southwest up to about AD 1300 are not in fact cermonial “kivas” but rather residential spaces, integral parts of residential “suites” of rooms used for habitation purposes.  The idea here is that in function these round rooms are not the forerunners of kivas at modern pueblos but the descendants of pithouses from earlier periods.  Lekson has been making this case since the 1980s; it was put forth at some length in his Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico and reiterated in his recent reworking of one of the chapters in that book for the recently published edited volume The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.  As I will discuss more fully before, other archaeologists seem to increasingly be coming around to this position.

There are a number of other issues surrounding this debate that rarely enter into it, however.  Many of these stem from the rather tenuous and superficial grasp many archaeologists seem to have of the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record.  Basically, the way I see it much of the debate over whether these “round rooms” are “kivas” and whether they were “ceremonial” in function (which are actually separate questions, although they are usually conflated) is based on a whole host of problematic assumptions.

Typical Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Lekson has been in favor of getting rid of the term “kiva” entirely for small round rooms in the San Juan region before AD 1300 (the qualifications are important, but let’s set them aside for right now).  Instead he calls them simply “round rooms.”  This is somewhat ungainly, but it has the advantage of being unambiguous, accurate, and straightforward.  It also does not presuppose anything about the function of the rooms, which is helpful to tour guides and others who must explain what these structures are without necessarily taking sides on their functions or significance.  On the other hand, however, the term “kiva” is well-established in the literature, and it may be possible to reinterpret it as merely a formal description for a certain type of structure, which would preserve continuity with past scholarship and lead to less confusion for visitors.  Visitors to Chaco when I was working there would often see the round rooms at Pueblo Bonito as ask “Are those kivas?”  This was a tricky question to answer, because in one sense they certainly are what archaeologists have called “kivas,” and it would be confusing to answer “no,” but on the other hand visitors typically have a certain set idea of what a “kiva” is, and answering “yes” tends to reinforce that even if it isn’t necessarily an accurate or useful way to interpret the structures is also problematic.

Kiva at Puerco Pueblo, Petrified Forest National Park

But what is a “kiva,” anyway?  Where does the word come from, and what does it mean?

The short answer is that the term is Hopi, and that its meaning is obscure.  Ki is the Hopi word for “house,” but va cannot be easily interpreted within Hopi (although there have been various attempts to make sense of it), and the word kiva may be a loanword.  Regardless of its ultimate origin, however, in modern Hopi the word kiva refers to a specific type of structure that is subterranean, square (!), and largely, though not exclusively, ceremonial in function.  All the modern pueblos have structures of equivalent function, but they differ in form.  The biggest difference is that the western pueblos (Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna) have square or rectangular “kivas,” while the eastern pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley have round ones.  Different pueblos have different terms for these chambers, which is unsurprising because they speak different languages.  It’s interesting that the distinction between square and round forms is geographic rather than linguistic; Laguna and Acoma speak Keres, the same language as the eastern pueblos of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Zia, but they have square kivas like those of Hopi and Zuni whereas the eastern Keres pueblos have round ones like their neighbors who speak various languages of the Tanoan family, unrelated to Keres.  Also, whether round or square, these “kivas” are sometimes, but not always, subterranean.  Among the eastern pueblos, only Taos has subterranean kivas.  The kivas at the other eastern pueblos are entered from the roof, which simulates in some sense a subterranean structure, but they are built above grade.  Similarly, Hopi kivas are generally subterranean or semi-subterranean, but kivas at the other western pueblos are above-ground.  All these structures do have certain formal and functional similarities, however; they all have firepits and entrances by a ladder through the smokehole above the fire, and they were used historically as both ceremonial spaces and something like clubhouses for men.   At most pueblos women are not allowed in the kivas at all, although at Hopi the women’s societies are allowed to conduct certain ceremonies in them.  They are not residential spaces at any modern pueblos.

Sign Describing Kiva at Homol'ovi II, near Winslow, Arizona

When the Spanish first settled in the Rio Grande Valley starting in 1598, they noticed the round chambers in which the local pueblos conducted many of their ceremonies and called them estufas (“stoves”), presumably from the heat of the fires in them.  This term persisted as a generic term for centuries, and the early Anglo archaeologists who began exploring the ancient ruins in the area in the late nineteenth century generally called the round, subterranean chambers they found “estufas”; this is the term George Pepper used in his descriptions of the excavations at Pueblo Bonito in the 1890s.  Use of the term “kiva” rather than “estufa” is probably due largely to the influence of Jesse Walter Fewkes, a towering figure in early Southwestern archaeology and ethnography, who did extensive ethnographic fieldwork among the Hopis as well as excavations of prehistoric sites in the Hopi country and at Mesa Verde.  In one important article on the kivas at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde, Fewkes even said:

The special chamber set apart by Pueblo Indians for ceremonial purposes was called by the early Spanish discoverers an estufa, or stove, a name no doubt suggested by the great heat of the room when occupied. An estufa is commonly designated by the Hopi Indians a kiva, which term is rapidly replacing the older name. It is found that prehistoric ruins as well as modern pueblos have kivas and that specialized rooms of this kind likewise exist in cliff-dwellings.

There is a lot of other interesting stuff in this article on kiva form at Mesa Verde, which is useful as a comparison for kivas at Chaco.  In this context, however, the most important thing is just to note that the archaeological assumption that kivas were ceremonial is already here in 1908, as is the belief that the small round rooms of the San Juan region are equivalent in function to modern Hopi kivas despite their different shapes, sizes, and features.  In the course of justifying his argument that the vertical shafts associated with these chambers were for ventilation, Fewkes says:

Modern Hopi kivas, which like those of Spruce-tree House are subterranean, but unlike them in being quadrilateral, have no air  vent except the kiva hatchway. As a rule quadrilateral kivas are much larger and their roofs higher than those of circular kivas, so that the ventilation, which is also facilitated by a more capacious hatchway, is not a matter of great concern.

Note that the assumption that the “kivas” at Spruce Tree House are identical in function with those at Hopi even though they are round rather than square, small rather than large, and equipped with ventilation shafts.  This assumption became virtually universal among archaeologists working in the Mesa Verde and San Juan Basin regions over the course of the twentieth century, until Lekson came along to challenge it in the 1980s.

Kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

When Lekson did begin to challenge this conventional wisdom, he did so on several grounds.  For one thing, whereas a modern pueblo typically has between one and six kivas for the entire community, and this ratio holds true for most late prehistoric sites as well, pre-1300 sites in the San Juan region tend to have many more.  Indeed, as early as Fewkes’s day T. Mitchell Prudden was exploring southwestern Colorado and finding numerous small, modular sites with a few rectangular rooms, a kiva, and a trash mound, which he proposed were basic units of architecture in the region.  To this day these small sites are often called “Prudden units,” and it is generally accepted that even larger sites in the region are composed of large numbers of them aggregated together.  And yet, for many decades the assumption was that these small kivas may have been associated with individual households or extended families but that they were still identical in function with modern kivas, which serve whole villages or large subsets of them, and the additional simplifying assumption crept in that those functions were more or less exclusively ceremonial.

Obviously, however, these “kivas” had developed out of the earlier pithouses, which were clearly residential structures.  So the story came to be that in Basketmaker times everyone lived in pithouses, sometimes with adjacent surface storage rooms, then at some point around AD 800 or so came the “pithouse to pueblo transition” when everyone suddenly moved out of the pithouses and into larger versions of the storage rooms, instantaneously converting the pithouses to exclusively ceremonial use.  Then nothing happened for a thousand years, and when Anglo anthropologists showed up in the nineteenth century they encountered a  simple, communal way of life that had been unchanged for centuries.

Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

I exaggerate, but only a little.  What Lekson pointed out was basically that this story sounds nice but doesn’t really match either the archaeological or the ethnographic evidence.  There was a huge series of migrations and cultural changes around AD 1300 that involved the abandonment of the Mesa Verde and Chaco regions and a massive influx of people to the Rio Grande Valley as well as to the Hopi and Zuni areas, and the end result was a settlement pattern across the region that had few similarities to that obtaining in the Four Corners area in Chacoan times (ca. 1030 to 1130) or shortly thereafter.  From 1300 on things look very similar to what the Spanish encountered in the 1500s, but rather different from what they looked like earlier.  Suddenly there were only a few kivas in each village, and they were big.  Not as big as the earlier “great kivas,” generally, but certainly bigger than a typical kiva at Pueblo Bonito or Spruce Tree House.  Also, especially in the west, many of them were square or rectangular.  This probably indicates influence from the south, where square “great kivas” had long been present in settlements of the Mogollon culture.

Kiva at Homol'ovi II, near Winslow, Arizona

Extrapolating backward from this change, Lekson argues that the small “kivas” so common at Chacoan and Mesa Verdean sites were not the forerunners of the later kivas in the large, aggregated pueblos the Spanish found but rather the last of the pithouses, which had a long history as habitation structures in the region and were present at earlier sites in similar numbers.  One implication of this is that the number of round rooms at a given site may be an index not of the importance of that site as a “ceremonial center” but of the resident population.  The idea is not that these round rooms were the only space used for residence but that they were part of “suites” of square and round rooms that served as units of household residential space, basically the “Prudden unit” concept but without any assumptions about which rooms were used for which specific household functions.

This argument has been gaining increasing acceptance in recent years, especially now that careful excavations of many sites in the region are coming up with clear indications of residential use of “kivas.”  Some of these excavations have demonstrated that there really wasn’t an instantaneous “pithouse-to-pueblo transition” but rather that pithouses, or structures with features intermediate between Basketmaker pithouses and “pueblo” kivas, continued to be used well into the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  At site 5MT10010 on Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado, for instance, notorious for the claims of cannibalism there, the excavators reported that:

[t]he presence of domestic artifacts, storage features, and mealing bins indicate residential use of the pithouses. In contrast, the surface structures contained few interior features; hearths were small, informal constructions; and no mealing bins were identified. Consequently, the surface structures were probably used seasonally for a narrower range of activities than the residential pithouses.

This site dates to around AD 1150, shortly after the decline of Chaco.  The elaborate masonry round rooms at Chaco great houses were certainly fancier than the humble earthen pithouses occupied by the unfortunate inhabitants of 5MT10010, but there is no reason to assume that they had radically different functions.

Kiva J, Pueblo Bonito

I think Lekson’s arguments are very convincing.  I’m less sure about whether it makes more sense to rebrand these rooms as “round rooms” rather than “kivas” (as Lekson does) or to redefine “kiva” as a formal rather than a functional designation (as many other archaeologists who agree with Lekson’s basic argument seem to be doing).  One possible way out might be to use the term for “kiva” from one of the other pueblo languages, perhaps one of the languages spoken in the eastern pueblos that have round kivas more similar to the Chaco and Mesa Verde ones, but it is quite hard to find information on those languages, partly because their speakers are very wary of outsiders studying any aspect of their culture including language.

There’s much more to say about kivas (or whatever we want to call them) at Chaco specifically, but this post is long enough.  The point I want to make here is really just that interpreting these structures and understanding what they are is a much thornier problem than it seems at first glance.
ResearchBlogging.org
Billman, B., Lambert, P., & Leonard, B. (2000). Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region during the Twelfth Century A.D. American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694812

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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Chuska Mountains from New Mexico Highway 371

In the year AD 1098 a spruce tree was chopped down in the Chuska Mountains, which run roughly along what is now the border between Arizona and New Mexico.  We don’t know who cut it down, exactly, since the people living in the area at the time had no system of writing and have therefore not left us any explanation of their actions.  We do know why it was cut down, however, and what became of it, and that gives us some clue to who might have wielded the axe.  It was likely either the local inhabitants of the Chuskas or the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, 45 miles to the east, who had close connections to the Chuskas and may have traveled there regularly to do things like cut down trees.

After the bark and branches of the tree were carefully stripped from the trunk, and its ends laboriously ground flat, it was probably left to dry out for a couple of years.  At the end of that period, a group of men carried it carefully, by hand, the 45 miles to Chaco, where it was used in the construction of Kiva G at Chetro Ketl, the prominent elevated round room that can still be seen prominently at the site today.  This room was built over the remains of earlier round rooms, and the architectural history of this part of Chetro Ketl is very complicated and hard to unravel.  This particular beam, now known as CK-168, was used as a “tie beam” in the northeast corner of the square room into which Kiva G was built.  I take this to mean that it was used to span the interstitial space roughly tangent to the outside of the circle of Kiva G as part of the elaborate support structure of beams that was necessary to support the “blocked-in” kivas like this one that are so typical of Chacoan great house architecture.  The stage of construction involving Kiva G, and therefore beam CK-168, was one of the latest at Chetro Ketl, and Kiva G is noteworthy for displaying the “McElmo” style of masonry, which is a relatively late style at Chaco that echoes the style of masonry found to the north at sites such as Aztec Ruins.

Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl from the North

We know when and where beam CK-168 was cut down because of two types of analysis that have been done on this and many other pieces of wood from Chaco and other prehistoric archaeological sites in the American Southwest.  The first is tree-ring dating, which allows the determination of the date a given tree was cut down with amazing precision, potentially to the calendar year.  Not every beam that is analyzed produces what is called a “cutting date,” indicating the exact year in which it was cut, but CK-168 did, and this is how we know it was cut down in 1098.  The other technique, which was developed much more recently, is strontium isotope ratio analysis, which at its current level of development allows the determination of the general area in which a tree (or a person) lived.  Many fewer pieces of wood have undergone this type of analysis than have been tree-ring dated, but CK-168 is one that has, and it is from this testing that we know it came from the Chuskas.  We don’t know exactly where in the Chuskas it came from, but we can be reasonably sure it was somewhere in the range.  These techniques are more or less the state of the art in wringing information from the archaeological remains of the prehistoric Southwest, and the amount of information available from them in this arid region with good preservation of materials like wood is quite remarkable by the standards of prehistoric archaeology in general.

At the same time the tree that became beam CK-168 was being cut down and left to dry out, on the other side of the world a group of heavily armed men was rampaging through a country that was not yet under their control but soon would be.  These were the Crusaders, a group of pious Christian knights and others, mostly from the various lands that are now part of France, who had heeded Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 to aid the Byzantine emperor in fending of the Turks who were threatening his lands and who at some point added the goal of conquering the holy city of Jerusalem from the Turks as well.  This expedition is now known as the First Crusade, and by 1098 it had reached the Holy Land and begun to conquer parts of it.  In June of that year they captured the important coastal city of Antioch (now in Turkey) after an eight-month siege and began to move on toward Jerusalem.  One group, under the command of Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles, arrived at the nearby city of Ma’arra (now in Syria) on November 28 and began to lay siege to it.  This siege, in striking contrast to the long, miserable one at Antioch, lasted only two weeks, and on December 12 the Crusaders entered the city after having destroyed its defenses.  They then remained at Ma’arra for another month as Raymond and the other commanders who had assisted him in the siege argued over how to divide up the spoils of their conquests.  On January 13, 1099 the ordinary soldiers, who were impatient to get to Jerusalem, finally prevailed on Raymond to move on and the army left Ma’arra.  They reached Jerusalem in early June and, assisted by a group of Genoese sailors who landed at Jaffa on June 17 and disassembled their ships to make siege engines, seized the city on July 15.  They then massacred the majority of the inhabitants.

Villages in Syria from the Golan Heights

In the grand scheme of the Crusade, and compared to the brutality that marked the Crusaders’ actions at Antioch and Jerusalem, the siege of Ma’arra may seem like a minor chapter.  There was something distinctive about Ma’arra, however, and it remained a painful memory for both sides quite out of proportion to the short duration of the siege.  The Arab historians recorded that the massacre of the people of Ma’arra after the siege was even worse in total number killed than that at Jerusalem, and some reported that the Crusaders had promised the people of the city safety before treacherously killing them.  According to the chroniclers who accompanied the Crusaders, however, what happened at Ma’arra was even worse than that.  With clear discomfort but remarkable consistency, almost all of the chroniclers recorded that some of the Crusaders had engaged in an activity much less respectable in European eyes than killing Muslims: eating them.

The cannibalism at Ma’arra has long been a difficult issue for historians of the Crusades to understand.  Beginning with the contemporary chroniclers, some of whom were at Ma’arra and apparently witnessed the events personally, they have offered various explanations for the behavior.  In a recent article Jay Rubenstein took a close look at the accounts the chroniclers offered of Ma’arra, and found some interesting patterns.  For one thing, although almost all of the contemporary chroniclers mention the cannibalism, the specifics of their accounts vary considerably.  Some placed it during the siege, while others put it afterward, during the month when the Crusaders were hanging around the city as their leaders argued.  Some attributed it to famine and starvation among the soldiers, who were said to have eaten flesh from dead bodies furtively.  One eyewitness account says that when the leaders of the Crusade found out about this they piled the bodies in a mound and set fire to them to put an end to it.  Others, however, said that the Crusaders ate the flesh of the dead Muslim enemies avidly and publicly, and one even said that some of the Crusaders were so disgusted by the sight that they deserted, blaming the leaders of the Crusade for not providing sufficient supplies and letting things deteriorate to this point.  Some of the chroniclers blamed the cannibalism on an apparently fictitious group of poor Crusaders called “Tafurs.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Rubenstein makes some interesting connections between all this and various other medieval references to cannibalism, including various episodes of starvation cannibalism during famines in Europe and references to “theatrical” mock-cannibalism involving the ostentatious preparation of dead enemies as if to eat them in view of living enemies, including one instance allegedly during the siege of Antioch and one earlier, in Spain.  He also mentions Biblical references to cannibalism as a punishment for disobeying God, with the context often being siege warfare quite similar to that conducted by the Crusaders, as well as some suggestive references to the possibility that some Crusaders might have resorted to eating each other (or at least come close) during the long, hard months at Antioch.  This is all rather speculative, however, and most of it has one crucial difference with the reports of what happened at Ma’arra, which Rubenstein does acknowledge: in these cases people were generally eating members of their own group, while at Ma’arra all the chronicles are quite clear in saying that the Crusaders only ate the flesh of the Muslim enemy.  This alone suggests that more than simple survival cannibalism is involved here, since there would surely have been plenty of dead Crusaders around to eat and the contempt the Crusaders had for “infidels” makes it odd that they would choose to defile themselves by eating them.  Rubenstein notes this and comes up with an admittedly speculative reconstruction of what happened at Ma’arra in which he proposes that there had been scattered instances of survival cannibalism at Antioch and perhaps earlier but that at Ma’arra, during the siege, some of the starving Crusaders decided to make a virtue of a necessity by ostentatiously eating dead Muslims in full view of the defenders of the city as a form of psychological warfare.  This would presumably have struck fear in the hearts of the Muslims and perhaps led to an easier conquest of the city than had been the case at Antioch.  Upon learning about this, however, the chroniclers, highly uncomfortable with this celebratory cannibalism, finessed their accounts to put the cannibalism after the siege, attribute it to starvation, and make it furtive and discouraged rather than open and aggressive.  Rubenstein puts the celebratory cannibalism in the context of “holy war” and the idea that the Crusaders thought of themselves as tools of God sent to punish the Muslims, which justified anything they did in the course of achieving that aim, regardless of how perverse and taboo it might be under normal circumstances.

This is an interesting interpretation, and it is similar in some ways to the model I have proposed for the outbreak of cannibalism in the Southwest around AD 1150 (about fifty years after the Ma’arra incident) in which I argued that the attackers, whoever they were, may have been motivated by both hunger and the desire to terrify their adversaries.  I ultimately don’t buy it, though.  A careful look at how Rubenstein supports his argument shows that the sources he relies on are not the most likely to be reliable.  The chronicles that put the cannibalism at Ma’arra during the siege rather than after it, as well as those that mention the possibility of earlier cannibalism and various other aspects of Rubenstein’s theory, were mostly written well after the events in question by people who did not witness them.  Most of them did apparently speak to eyewitnesses in preparing their accounts, and in some cases these eyewitnesses may have included some of the cannibals themselves, a fact that Rubenstein leans on heavily in arguing for their validity as sources, but this is a thin reed on which to hang such an elaborate argument.  Looking just at the chronicles written by writers who actually accompanied the Crusade, some of whom were at Ma’arra personally, they generally seem to agree that the cannibalism took place after the siege, when the Crusaders were hanging around Ma’arra and probably still hungry from the months of deprivation and disease at Antioch.  These chroniclers do disagree on some other aspects of the cannibalism, but in general their disagreements are more minor than those between them and some of the later accounts by writers who were not there and relied on secondhand testimony.  The fact that only Muslims were eaten does still require some explanation beyond simple starvation, but a desire to humiliate the enemy, perhaps combined with an aversion to eating people they had known personally in life, could explain it at least as well as an attempt at psychological warfare, which as Rubenstein notes really requires that the cannibalism took place during rather than after the siege.  It may be a better explanation, in fact, in light of the fact that the Arab historians do not mention the cannibalism although they do note the brutality of the siege and massacre.  This suggests either that the Crusaders were unsuccessful in trying to terrorize the Muslims through ostentatious cannibalism or that the cannibalism took place after there were no living Muslims left in Ma’arra to see it.  It could also suggest that the cannibalism was successful in intimidating the defenders, who were then massacred, leaving no one left to tell other Muslims about it, but the fact that the eyewitness chroniclers were in general agreement that the cannibalism took place after the siege makes me think that it’s more likely that there just weren’t any Muslims around.

Sunset at St. Peter's Church, Jaffa

Note the difference here between Rubenstein’s interpretation of the cannibalism at Ma’arra and mine.  This is a context where we have abundant written documentation of the events in question, and yet we have a variety of possible interpretations of what really happened and no way to tell for sure which is closer to the truth.  We must just rely on which fits the evidence best and is the most plausible, a somewhat subjective matter at all times.  This is in contrast to the more “objective” evidence we have of what happened in some contexts in the prehistoric Southwest, such as the time and place that beam CK-168 was cut down.  Note, however, that the information we have about CK-168 is extremely limited compared to what we know about Ma’arra, despite the many conflicting accounts in the chronicles.  These just aren’t comparable levels of knowledge, and this points out the difference between history and archaeology.  Both can tell us stories about the past, but the stories are very different.  Without the written documents about Ma’arra we would likely never know that cannibalism occurred there; unlike in the alleged instance of cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest, which are based largely (though not entirely) on extensive “processing” of human bones.  The type of cannibalism alleged at Ma’arra consisted largely of the cutting of strips of meat from the fleshy parts of the body, which would likely not have left any marks on the bones and thus no physical evidence visible in the archaeological record.  But because we do have written records we do know about it.  If we had written records of what happened at Cowboy Wash we would presumably understand it better than we do, but the example of Ma’arra shows that we would not necessarily understand exactly what had happened even then.

Archaeology has its advantages, however.  Judging from what people typically write down when they have access to writing, it’s very unlikely that anyone in the Chuskas or at Chaco would have bothered to write down exactly when and where beam CK-168 was cut down even if they could.  Hundreds of thousands of beams were imported to Chaco during its florescence, and it’s unlikely that the specific origin of each of them would have been important enough to anyone to record.  Nevertheless, the analytical techniques available to modern archaeology does allow us to know in some cases when and where individual beams were harvested.  The story of CK-168 and the story of Ma’arra may be very different types of story, known to us in very different ways, but they are both known to us, and knowing both of them enriches our understanding of the past despite the still unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions the stories raise.  And remember that these two stories happened at the same time; they were literally simultaneous.  Many things were going on in the world in the year 1098, and the stories of most of them are lost forever.  The stories of these two events, however, are not, and we can still tell them today.
ResearchBlogging.org
Rubenstein, J. (2008). Cannibals and Crusaders French Historical Studies, 31 (4), 525-552 DOI: 10.1215/00161071-2008-005

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Drugstore, Trinidad, Colorado

When I was discussing the archaeoacoustics of Chaco earlier, I mentioned that I was a little dubious about some of the stuff John Stein and Taft Blackhorse had said about Navajo connections to the Chaco Amphitheater.  They associate it with a ceremonial tradition involving the ritual use of datura.  There’s an immense anthropological literature on Navajo religion, and I have read only a tiny portion of it, but from what I had read I had gotten the impression that the use of hallucinogenic substances in ritual was not characteristic of the Navajos, and I had certainly not seen any reference to ceremonies involving datura specifically.  So I was initially skeptical about this claim, although the origin legend for the ceremony that they described did fit well into the usual pattern for Navajo ceremonies.

Ghost Sign for Drugstore, Durango, Colorado

Looking into this a bit more closely, however, I found an article that sheds some more light on the issue and seems to partly vindicate John and Taft, or at least point in the direction of material vindicating them.  The article, from 1945,  is by Leland Wyman and Betty Thorne, and it mainly talks about suicide (a topic of unfortunately continuing importance on this blog) among the Navajo.  The overall conclusion is that suicide is rare and subject to at least moderate social disapproval.  Of more interest to me, however, is the finding that poisoning is virtually unknown as a method of suicide.  This is despite the presence of various poisonous plants in the Navajo country, the most widespread and well-known of them being datura.  Wyman and Thorne address the puzzling absence of datura as a means of suicide in a way that is very important to my purposes:

Since this plant is employed in medicine, in certain ceremonials, and especially in a form of witchcraft (frenzy witchcraft), perhaps this avoidance arises from a configuration which might be expressed as “avoidance of the misuse of ceremonial appurtenances.” This would be especially cogent if the appurtenances were likewise misused by “witches.” One often hears concerning Datura, “they (the Navaho) are kind of afraid of it,” and this refers to mere handling as well as to more intimate contact.

The references to the use of datura in medicine and witchcraft are footnoted, while the reference to its ceremonial use is not.  The witchcraft note refers to Clyde Kluckhohn’s classic study of Navajo witchcraft, while the medicine note refers to a work (co-authored by Wyman) on Navajo medicinal ethnobotany.  I intend to follow up on these references when I get a chance.  Just from the way they are presented here, however, it seems clear that there is in fact a tradition of ceremonial use of datura, but that it is likely relatively obscure and not well documented, probably because of the generally fearful attitude toward the plant and its association with witchcraft.  It seems there is something to this datura connection after all, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.
ResearchBlogging.org
Wyman, L., & Thorne, B. (1945). Notes on Navaho Suicide American Anthropologist, 47 (2), 278-288 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1945.47.2.02a00070

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