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Archive for the ‘Touring’ Category

What Are Museums For?

Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska

In the same post about photography I discussed earlier, Matthew Yglesias also has some thoughts about museums:

It’s extremely difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that these super-gigantic collections represent an inefficient allocation of global resources. If 15 percent of the stuff on display at the Louvre vanished at random, the impact on the experience of visiting the museum in particular or Paris in general would be minimal. But in the majority of the cities of the world, that 15 percent would be the basis for an excellent new museum.

This touches on a longstanding debate about the purpose of museums in general.  One school of thought holds that amassing “super-gigantic collections” is precisely the point of having “universal museums” like the Louvre, the British Museum, the Smithsonian, etc.  The idea is that these institutions are the ones that have the resources to care for their collections properly, which can be quite a challenge with certain types of specimens, and that their locations in major cities and general cultural clout make the portions of their collections they display (necessarily a tiny fraction of the total) more accessible to more people than would be the case if they were scattered among numerous smaller museums.  The result of this approach is that while most people go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, whoever also wants to see the antiquities collections and so forth can do so all in one trip to Paris rather than having to go all over the world.  This view was also traditionally associated with the less savory imperialist attitudes of the elites who founded these museums in the nineteenth century, of course, which is one of the major reasons that it’s not the only view out there these days.

Entrance to Carnegie Museums, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The main opposing viewpoint is basically the one Yglesias takes: cultural treasures should be distributed more equitably, rather than amassed in a handful of huge museums.  A more specific variant holds that these treasures should really be kept and displayed as close as possible to their places of origin, which is a viewpoint particularly held by the governments of countries like Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Peru, i.e., the places of origin of all that stuff being collected by the museums during their more overtly imperialistic eras.  There have been some recent high-profile cases of these governments demanding (and in some cases getting) their stuff back from major museums.  You also see this sort of thing within the US, especially with regard to archaeological collections.  One of the main points of criticism of the Hyde Expedition at Chaco, for example, was that the artifacts were being shipped off to New York, to be kept by the American Museum of Natural History, rather than staying in New Mexico where they belonged.   Tellingly, however, many of the most strident (and effective) critics of the Hyde excavations were closely associated with the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, preeminently the founder of the museum, Edgar Lee Hewett.  Although the dispute was often portrayed as between “looters” shipping the stuff off with no regard for its scholarly value and professional archaeologists who wanted to preserve it, it was in reality primarily a dispute between two sets of professional archaeologists with different institutional sponsors.  Both groups wanted the sites to be excavated, and neither had excavation techniques that were up to modern standards.  Both also wanted the artifacts to leave Chaco, too.  It was really a matter of whether they went to New York or Santa Fe.  Nobody wanted to leave the stuff at Chaco (except the Indians, of course, but in those days nobody with any power cared what they wanted).  Hewett and the Santa Fe side ended up winning, and a few years after the AMNH gave up on Chaco for good Hewett began his own excavations there, only to be immediately pushed aside by Neil Judd and his institutional sponsor, the Smithsonian.  Hewett did get his chance once Judd was done, and the institutions with which he was affiliated, including the University of New Mexico and the School of American Research in addition to the MNM, have dominated research at Chaco ever since.

Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

This local approach generally sounds better when viewing these issues from a distance, I think, although it’s important to note that the upshot of the various institutions competing over Chaco was that the collections from excavations there are scattered all over the country with very few of them on public display.  From the perspective of the residents of a given place, whichever approach results in more of the stuff being near them sounds good, however, and the impetus for the founding of local museums in places like New Mexico has to be understood in the context of the general spirit of boosterism and economic development that pervaded small western cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as the universal museum concept resulted from the rapid growth of major industrial cities slightly earlier.  From the perspective of the visitor, concentration has the virtue of reducing the number of trips necessary but with the potential for increasing the distance traveled, while dispersion has the opposite effects (all depending, of course, on where a given visitor lives).  Basically, as with so many disputes, this one ultimately comes down to a clash of fundamental values.  Thus, there isn’t really a “solution” to it, just the necessity in each specific context of deciding which values to prioritize.

Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas

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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Matthew Yglesias, on vacation in Paris, says:

In the age of the Internet, I think it’s often hard to know what to take photos of. I got a lovely shot of the gardens at Versailles, to be sure, but Flickr and Wikipedia and all the rest are already loaded with pictures of everything obvious. Pictures taken by more skilled photographers. At the same time, I like taking pictures of things. It’s fun. So I often end up taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of things.

This is an issue I’ve encountered myself as well.  I’ve traveled a lot in the past few months, and taken a lot of pictures.  It does often seem silly, though, to take a picture of something I can find numerous pictures of with the click of a mouse.  I do still generally take those obvious pictures, mostly because I figure I might want to write blog posts about them at some point and my policy on this blog of only using my own pictures, while particularly silly in this sort of situation, does give me a pretext for taking pictures of many things.

The Hammer Museum, Haines, Alaska

There’s only so many pictures like that you can take, though, and once I’ve got one shot of each famous place I might want to write about I face the issue that I want to keep taking pictures, because it’s fun, but I no longer have any real idea what purpose those pictures might serve.  Now that huge memory cards are cheap, this doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but it’s still an issue.  One approach is to try to actually become a good photographer and take pictures that have intrinsic artistic merit.  I’ve considered this, and certainly tried to improve the quality of my pictures over the years, but really doing a good job of taking pictures would require a substantial investment of time that I’m not sure I want to make.

Passengers on Alaska State Ferry Taking Pictures of Mendenhall Glacier

Another option is to take pictures of unusual things.  Yglesias notes above that he likes to take pictures of other tourists taking pictures of famous things, and I’ve done the same thing at times.  What I’ve done more often, though, is focus more on documenting the mundane: city streets, houses, office buildings, and especially signs.  I take a lot of pictures of signs these days.  I like signs because people rarely take pictures of them, they’re often surprisingly photogenic (and make great generic illustrations for all sorts of topics I might want to discuss here), and they sometimes contain a remarkable amount of information beyond the literal message of the sign itself.  It’s also generally easier to take good pictures, with compelling composition of so forth, of simple things like signs than of more complicated scenes.

Sign for Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska

I’m not sure that there’s really a “right” answer to this question, or even that it’s an important enough problem to worry about, but I thought it was interesting to see Yglesias’s post about it because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.  The post also contains some interesting thinking about museums, but that’s a topic for another post.

"No Parking" Sign at Ferry Terminal, Juneau, Alaska

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Cliff Dwellings from Trail, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Over Labor Day Weekend my mom and I went down to southwestern New Mexico to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  We had been wanting to go there for a long time, but it’s pretty far from Albuquerque (about a six-hour drive) and not really on the way to anywhere else, so we hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  With me going away to Alaska soon, this was a good opportunity.  We camped at Lower Scorpion Campground, which turned out to be a fortuitously good location since there are some pictographs and a cliff dwelling right in the campground.  The main attraction, of course, was the cliff dwellings themselves, and they were quite spectacular.  They’re not particularly easy to get to.  They are accessible by paved road, unlike Chaco, but it’s a very long winding road through the mountains, so it takes quite a bit of effort.  The sites are definitely worth the effort, though.

Labor Day is apparently the busiest time for visitation there, so it was quite crowded, and there were a lot of volunteers around answering questions and so forth.  Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the less-visited Park Service units, so it relies almost entirely on volunteers.  At the visitor center they told us that the monument only has two paid employees; I had heard once that they only had one (the superintendent), but I guess they’re up to two.  Part of the reason they can get by like this is that they’re surrounded by the Gila National Forest, so the Forest Service can pick up a lot of the slack and do the things that the monument doesn’t have the staffing for.  The monument itself is tiny, and basically consists only of the cliff dwellings themselves and a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, which is apparently not open to the public.  The visitor center and the campgrounds are on Forest Service land, and the visitor center is shared by both the Forest Service and the Park Service.

Gila Visitor Center, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

I hadn’t known very much about the Gila Cliff Dwellings before going there.  I knew that they were built by the Mogollon culture, and that they were the only Mogollon sites managed by the Park Service, but aside from that I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect.  Luckily, the visitor center has a nice museum and a very informative and up-to-date video explaining a lot of the background.  The cliff dwellings are really quite unusual for Mogollon sites, which were usually either pithouse villages or above-ground pueblos in open areas like the Mimbres villages.  Cliff dwellings are more typical of the Anasazi to the north at places like Mesa Verde, of course, and these were very reminiscent of sites like that architecturally.  They’re quite close to the Mimbres Valley, so I had thought there might be some connection between them and the Mimbres, probably the best-known division of the Mogollon, but apparently the current archaeological thinking is that the cliff dwellings were not built by the Mimbres but by the Tularosa Mogollon, who mostly lived a bit further north but apparently migrated to the south and built the cliff dwellings in the late thirteenth century AD.  This seems to be established by the pottery found at the cliff dwellings, as Tularosa pottery is very distinctive and different from other Mogollon pottery traditions.  I believe it’s more similar to some Anasazi styles, which would fit well with the Anasazi-like architecture.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907, the same year as Chaco, but apparently the sites had already been very significantly pothunted by then, and there was very little left for archaeologists to find once the sites were protected.  Interestingly, one of the volunteers answering questions at the sites when I was there mentioned that the pothunters mostly left behind things like corncobs, so we have a pretty good idea of the subsistence system of the people who occupied the sites even though we don’t know a whole lot about their tools or other aspects of material culture.  I guess there must have been a bit of Tularosa-style pottery left behind and/or in private collections originating from the early pothunting.  Anyway, the upshot of all this is that there has been essentially no professional excavation of the cliff dwellings, and they are rarely mentioned in the archaeological literature as a result, which is really unfortunate because they’re fascinating sites.

Corncobs at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Like most cliff dwellings, these ones preserved a lot of perishable materials that rarely survive in open sites.  I mentioned the corncobs before, and there are also a lot of wooden beams in situ.  These have been sampled for tree-ring dating, which found that all construction of the sites took place between AD 1270 and 1300, mostly in the 1280s.  The sites were probably only occupied for one generation at most.   This seems like a short period, but it’s actually pretty typical for cliff dwellings.  Many of the much larger sites at Mesa Verde were occupied for almost exactly the same interval.  The late thirteenth century seems to have been the main period for cliff-dwelling construction throughout most of the Southwest.

This is of course the period of the “Great Drought,” and the obviously highly defensible nature of cliff dwellings has led to much speculation that their florescence at this time was due to defensive considerations.  This has been a somewhat controversial proposal further north, and Park Service sites tend to downplay it, but at the Gila sites the interpretive material states outright that defense was probably a major factor in the occupation of the cliff dwellings.  I find this interesting.  It may have to do with the relative distance of the modern Pueblos from this area, and resultingly lower political controversy over discuss of prehistoric warfare, but it may also have to do with the nature of Mogollon archaeology, which developed somewhat differently from Anasazi archaeology.  Steven LeBlanc, who is probably the most prominent archaeologist to argue for a major role for warfare in the prehistoric Southwest, has his particular expertise in the Mimbres area.  This is all just speculation on my part, of course.

T-Shaped Doorway, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

One of the cliff dwellings has a t-shaped door.  This is a type of architectural feature that is common at Chaco (and Mesa Verde) as well as at Casas Grandes to the south.  Many people have argued that this represents some sort of Mesoamerican influence on those sites, and Steve Lekson has argued that it is one of the signs of continuity between Chaco and Casas Grandes.  Its presence here, between the two, and in association with a very Anasazi-like type of architecture deep in Mogollon territory, is certainly intriguing.  Macaw feathers were also found at the cliff dwellings.  The importance of the macaw at Chaco and Casas Grandes (where they were bred on a huge scale), as well as in the Mimbres area, is well known, and of course they would have to have come from further south initially.

Anyway, these are some really fascinating sites that raise the possibility of a lot of intriguing connections to other parts of the Southwest and beyond.  I highly recommend a visit to them for anyone.  Unlike a lot of the sites in the Southwest, these are very impressive even to people without much particular interest in archaeology, on account of their fantastic preservation and stunning location.

Labor Day Weekend Crowds at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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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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Carson Trading Post

In 1918 my great-grandparents built a trading post in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, between Chaco Canyon and the town of Farmington, which was then and is now the main town in the area.  They had both grown up in Farmington and married in 1908, after which they spent a few years emulating the farming and small-scale ranching lifestyle of their parents and most other local residents, but they were unsatisfied with this and began to look for other opportunities.  Some other members of their families were beginning to go out into the vast rural areas nearby occupied by the Navajos to establish trading posts, and they were curious enough about this to move out to one of these stores to help out for a while.  They found that they liked it and began looking around for a store of their own to buy.  The story goes that my great-grandfather was heading out to look at a store that was being offered for sale and on his way over happened upon two brothers who were building a store at a very promising location at the confluence of a small side wash with the Gallegos Wash, one of the main drainages in the region.  The Navajo name for the area is Hanáádlį́, which means something like “the place where it flows out again,” which presumably refers to something about the confluence of the two washes.  He offered to buy the store from them, but they were not interested in selling, so he continued on to the store he was headed towards.  He found it much less impressive and decided not to buy it, but on his way back he encountered the brothers again at their much better location.  By then they had had a falling out, and according to local lore were even running around shooting at each other, and they were quite happy to sell.  So my great-grandfather bought the store, moved his wife and two daughters to the site, and finished building it.  Their last name was Carson, so the store came to be known as Carson Trading Post and the community surrounding it is often called Carson.  It is very close to Huerfano Mountain, one of the most sacred mountains to the Navajos and the site of many events recounted in the Navajo origin story.

The Carsons ended up having four daughters, all of whom grew up, married, and went on to own trading posts of their own.  These stores were scattered across the Navajo Reservation and the surrounding off-reservation areas inhabited primarily by Navajos in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  One daughter, my grandmother, stayed at Carson’s, and there she and her husband raised their only child, my father, who was born in 1947.  When my he was old enough for school they bought a house in Farmington and he and my grandmother stayed there during the week and went back out to the store on weekends.  Meanwhile my great-grandparents, having turned Carson’s over to my grandparents and attempted to retire to Farmington, found that retirement was not for them and ended up buying another trading post, this one way out in the western part of the reservation in Arizona at a place called Inscription House, named after a local Anasazi cliff dwelling that is part of Navajo National Monument but that has now been closed to the public for many years.  A little later, my grandfather and his brother-in-law, who owned Two Grey Hills Trading Post and a few other stores in that area, teamed up to buy another store near Inscription House at a place called Shonto.  They were both busy with running their other stores, of course, so Shonto was run by managers for the rest of their lives.

Shonto Trading Post, Shonto, Arizona

One of those managers was my father, whom his parents sent out to Shonto around 1972 after he had graduated from college and moved back to Carson’s, where he apparently just sort of hung out for a couple of years.  When they sent him out to manage Shonto they let him hire an assistant manager, and he hired a friend of his from college named Les.  Les’s girlfriend at the time came out to join him.  I don’t know many of the details about what happened over the next few years, but the eventual result was that Les and his girlfriend broke up, he married one of the Navajo clerks who had worked in the store, and she married my father and in time became my mother.  I was born in 1984 and my sister was born in 1986.  My grandmother and grandfather died in 1985 and 1987 respectively, and two of my grandmother’s three sisters died around that same period.  At the same time the trading business was falling on hard times as social and technological changes were making the Navajos less isolated and more integrated into the mainstream American economy, which eliminated the economic and sociocultural niche the trading posts and traders occupied as cultural intermediaries.  By 1991, my parents had come to believe that there was no real future in the trading business, and they decided to just sell the store, move to Albuquerque, and try to make a new life.  My dad applied to a PhD program in history at the University of New Mexico, and my mom, who had gotten a teaching certification from Northern Arizona University, got a job as a kindergarten teacher in a small, semi-rural school district south of Albuquerque.

This kind of wholesale lifestyle change was one way trading families during this period dealt with the changes that were wreaking havoc with their way of life.  Another option was to try to upgrade and modernize the store to try to actually compete with the businesses in the reservation border towns that were becoming the traders’ competition.  This was a very risky approach, because it was not at all certain that even massive investments could make a store competitive, but some traders felt they had no other real options.  One of them was a second cousin of my dad’s named Al, who had ended up owning Inscription House at this point.  He didn’t have the sort of educational background my parents had that enabled them to go into other careers in town, so he decided to build a laundromat and big modern grocery store as adjuncts to the old one-room trading post, which he turned into a hardware store.

Sign for Inscription House Trading Post

What Al did at Inscription House was mostly just separate the goods carried by a typical trading post into separate buildings.  Trading posts functioned much like old-fashioned general stores, and they carried any and all goods that the community might need, including foodstuffs, dry goods, hardware, and weapons for hunting or for shooting coyotes or stray dogs that got into people’s sheep.  In the early days the stores functioned economically on the basis of a credit system whereby the local Navajos would run up bills of credit for the goods they purchased and pay them off with wool when they sheared their sheep or lambs when they had them.  The trader would then sell the wool and lambs and use the money to buy more goods.  People would also often sell arts and crafts to the stores, and this provided a supplemental income stream for most traders.  A few stores in certain areas where arts and crafts were particularly well developed, in some cases as a result of influence by early traders, bought and sold large amounts of arts and crafts, but for most of my family’s stores this was a minor sideline and the core business was in wool and lambs until the penetration of cash into the Navajo economy reached a point where most stores stopped extending credit to most customers and became effectively cash-only operations.  In most areas this took place sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s.

Some observers consider this the point at which the traditional trading post ceased to exist, but I think that’s an overly narrow way to define the institution.  From the Navajo community’s perspective, certainly, the trading posts still existed after they stopped extending credit, because they still provided the same variety of goods.  The term “trading post” I think leads a lot of Anglo observers to think of them primarily in terms of the system of exchange that supported them admittedly for most of their existence, but in Navajo the word for “trading post” is naalyéhé bá hooghan, which literally means “house for merchandise.”  The word for “trader” is naalyéhé yá sidáhí, literally “the one who sits for the sake of the merchandise.”  This certainly implies, to my mind, that the key element of a trading post from a Navajo perspective was the goods it provided to the community rather than what it took in exchange.

Store Room at Inscription House Trading Post

Be that as it may, by the late 1980s there were few trading posts left by any definition.  Many had closed entirely, and some, especially those that happened to be located on major highways, had converted to simply gas stations and convenience stores, no longer offering the wide range of goods that they had before.  People could now go into town on paved roads to buy those goods at Safeway or Walmart for much less than the traders charged, and there was no way most old stores could compete.

The handful of stores that specialized in high-quality arts and crafts had an option not available to most stores to focus more on that as their business, and some did just that, opening shops in Farmington, Gallup, or even Santa Fe to sell the rugs and jewelry they would buy from their customers.  Two Grey Hills, which by this point was run by my parents’ old friend Les, was able to eke out a living without changing much about its business model just because the rugs it got, widely acknowledged to be the finest Navajo rugs anywhere, brought in enough money on the infrequent occasions when someone stopped by to buy one to keep the business afloat.

Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post from Navajo Highway 16

Al’s gamble at Inscription House paid off because the area was sufficiently isolated that competition from the nearest town, in this case Page, Arizona, was not as intense as in the case of many other stores, and because most of the other stores in the area were no longer vibrant enough to be much competition, if they were open at all.  After we sold Shonto the new owner struggled to find decent managers and eventually lost the lease, which resulted in the property reverting to the ownership of the Navajo Nation, which closed it for a while.  It’s now open again under a new manager working for the tribe, but it’s a shadow of its former self.  It’s not much competition for Inscription House, which is still going relatively strong, although the last time we visited there Al had closed the hardware store and focused all operations on the new store.

While all this was going on, however, during the 1990s, we were in Albuquerque, and my childhood there was pretty typical of the suburban Sunbelt.  We would continue to go out to the reservation frequently to visit family and deal with various hassles in the process of selling Shonto, which took several years, so I remained aware of what it was like out there.  I knew that I hadn’t really experienced the trading lifestyle for myself, however, since I had been six years old when we’d moved and only had vague memories of actually living at the store.  During two summers when I was in high school, therefore, I decided to spend some time out at the remaining trading posts operated by family and friends of the family: Inscription House and Two Grey Hills.

New Store at Inscription House Trading Post

The first summer I spent two weeks at Two Grey Hills, then two weeks at Inscription House.  I don’t remember why the periods were so short; I guess maybe I was trying to ease myself into what was a somewhat unfamiliar experience.  There was very little for me to do at Two Grey Hills, which didn’t get much business, so I spent most of my time taking care of the extensive gardens and cleaning the place up for an annual festival the store had begun putting on in 1997 for its hundredth anniversary and had continued in subsequent years.  I think Les was mostly taking me on as a favor to my parents.  Al, on the other hand, was very enthusiastic about having me come out there, I think in part because he had been somewhat isolated from the family for various reasons for several years and wanted to cultivate closer ties.  There was plenty of work for me to do at Inscription House, which was very busy.  I mostly worked in the new store, ringing up grocery purchases and loading hay into people’s trucks.  That summer was an important experience for me, but I have a hard time explaining exactly how.  The next summer, I went out again, but only to Inscription House and for a longer period of time; I forget exactly how long, but it was a few weeks.  I also spent some time that summer working for some other relatives in Kayenta, but that’s another story.

Later, when I was in college, I went back out to Inscription House for part of one winter break.  This time, Al had me working in the old store, with the hardware.  This was more of a challenge, since I was often the only one working there, and the customers who came into the old store were often older men who didn’t speak any English.  I had taken a little Navajo at UNM when I was a senior in high school, but my knowledge was very rudimentary, and on multiple occasions I would try to use it and realize that I was soon in way over my head.  One time, a guy walked in and I asked him what he wanted (that was one thing I could say), so he told me (uh oh).  The only part I recognized was dibé, which means “sheep.”  We sold lots of stuff that had something to do with sheep, though, since they’re the mainstay of the traditional Navajo economy.  Eventually, after failing to get me to understand with words or gestures, he went out and got a younger guy, probably his son or nephew, to explain that what he wanted was a package of rubber bands used to castrate sheep by wrapping around their testicles.  There were other incidents like this, but this one was typical and I remember it particularly clearly.

Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post

One other incident also shows something of what it was like at Inscription House in a more unusual way.  Trading posts had traditionally sold guns and ammunition, which were necessary tools for life early on.  One of the most infamous events involving the sale of a gun at a trading post was of course the murder of Richard Wetherill in 1910.  By the time I was at Inscription House, however, relatively few stores did much business in guns, although they often sold ammunition and I sold quite a bit.  Al, being a rabid rightwinger, however, made a point of putting guns on display in a prominent location behind the counter but easily visible to customers walking in.  Most of these were standard hunting rifles, which is what the few people who might want to buy a gun at Inscription House were likely to need, but as a pointed jab at the liberal establishment or whatever Al had an AK-47 in the gun rack next to them.  I’m sure he didn’t expect anyone to buy it, but I think he just wanted to flaunt his constitutional right to sell it or something.

Anyway, one day an old guy came in and asked in Navajo for “the little gun.”  I pointed to one of the smaller rifles, but no, he made it clear that it was the AK-47 he wanted to see.  So I took it out of the rack and handed it to him.  He looked it over and asked how much it was; it was $475, surely well beyond his means, and in any case there’s no way this old guy who didn’t speak any English would have any idea what to do with a weapon like that.  After examining it for a while he handed it back to me and went on his way.

Icicles on New Store at Inscription House Trading Post

I mention this experience not because it was typical of life at Inscription House or in the Southwest but because it wasn’t.  This was an exceptional event.  People would often come in to buy bullets, but no one ever bought a gun while I was there.  Similarly, they often bought chainsaw parts but never a whole chainsaw, which we often sold.  We did some chainsaw repairs too (which I didn’t do personally).  There was a lot of demand for those because it was winter and a lot of people in that area, which gets very cold, heat their hogans with wood.  Nevertheless, the AK-47 story sticks with me.  So does the whole experience, however brief, of working at two of the few remaining trading posts on the Navajo Reservation.

It’s hard to express what this background and these experiences mean to me.  Thinking about them often casts my current lifestyle, here in New Jersey, in bold relief.  It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy it here or that I feel homesick; I do enjoy being a grad student, and I like New Jersey, and what I feel is not so much homesickness as maybe nostalgia or something similar.  It’s not that I want to go back to the trading lifestyle, because I can’t, really.  The lifestyle no longer exists, and what I experienced of it was but a pale shadow of what my great-grandparents and grandparents spent almost their whole lives doing, and even what my parents spent large portions of theirs doing.  I don’t speak nearly as much Navajo as my dad did or my grandfather did, and I probably never will, because they learned Navajo because they had to, at a time when few Navajos spoke English.  Now most Navajos speak English, and learning Navajo is not something anyone really needs to do.  It’s really hard, too, so it’s not something most people want to do either, and while I do want to do it I doubt I’ll ever really find the time or the motivation.

Gas Pumps at Inscription House Trading Post

I rarely tell people I meet about this trading stuff.  I feel like it belongs to my background and it’s very important to me, but precisely because of that I don’t feel like I can really explain it to people.  I don’t feel like I can make people understand the way I feel about it.  Even if I were to bring them out to the Navajo country and try to at least show it to them, they wouldn’t see what I see.  It’s not about what you see in a landscape, after all, but what you know about it and how you feel about it that gives it significance.

This applies equally well to the urban and suburban settings in which I find myself now, of course, and to the people who come from these backgrounds, whether in the Northeast, the Southwest, or elsewhere.  We can connect on a certain level, of course, since growing up in most parts of the US is pretty much the same these days, and my experiences in Albuquerque are fairly comparable in a lot of ways to the experiences of people in New York or New Jersey or wherever.  But there is always something more, something you experience personally about the places you have lived and been and had important, life-changing experiences, that you can never really explain to anyone else.  For me the most significant of those places are the trading posts, the places where for a few brief moments I, like my ancestors before me, sat for the sake of the merchandise.

House behind Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post

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Jet Contrail from Pueblo Bonito

Regular readers will probably have guessed that the reason I haven’t been posting very often lately is that I’ve been very busy with school.  This week is my Spring Break, however, and I’m in New Mexico visiting my mom, so I have a little time.  This past weekend we went out to Chaco and camped, which was interesting to me since I haven’t camped at Chaco since the first time I went there with my parents several years ago.  It was a different way to experience a place I’ve seen a lot of, and it was fun to go to Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada with my mom and the friend of hers who accompanied us.  The friend’s 12-year-old daughter also came, and she found a beautiful turquoise bead in an anthill at Pueblo Bonito that was perhaps the highlight of the trip.  Finding it reminded me that I’ve been reconsidering some of my ideas about the relationship between Chaco and turquoise, and I should do a post about the topic when I get a chance.

Turquoise Bead from Anthill at Pueblo Bonito

My mom and I camped for two nights (the friend left earlier because her daughter got sick), and the second night it was very cold, as is typical for this time of year, so it wasn’t the most comfortable camping experience I’ve ever had but it was fun nonetheless.  The Chaco campground is one of the nicest I’ve ever seen, and it was quite a pleasant little trip all around.  I may not have time this break to do much more blogging, but I figured I should note this experience so people know what I’ve been up to.

Our Campsite at Chaco

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Judean Desert from Masada

I recently spent a few days in Israel, which is a fascinating, complicated country in all sorts of ways.  It was particularly interesting to see the role archaeology plays there, especially in contrast to the way it works in the US.  Archaeology is much more visible and important in Israel for both historical and ideological reasons.  I haven’t yet had enough time to come to any major conclusions about the implications of this, but I’m thinking about it and may discuss it in future posts.  It was also interesting to compare the geography of Israel with that of the Southwestern US.  Physically and climatically Israel is very similar to California.  It has deserts, humid coastal lowlands, and forested hills, and as in most countries that have both desert and non-desert areas the vast majority of the population lives in the non-desert areas, even though the deserts make up a huge portion of the total land area.  There is a common perception in the US that Israel is a desert country full of camels, but while there certainly are deserts and camels there the majority of the country’s population has little to no contact with them.  Anyway, it was interesting to see a country so different from the US in some ways and yet so similar to it in others, and I’m still processing everything I saw and learned while I was there.  I may or may not discuss Israel at length here, but having seen it will certainly inform my interpretations of archaeology and other issues in the American context from here on out.

Ramesses Gate, Jaffa

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