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Mix of Covered and Backfilled Rooms in Old Bonito

My main area of expertise when it comes to archaeology is the Southwest, but I currently live in New Jersey, and while I don’t know a whole lot about the archaeology of this part of the country I feel like I should probably weigh in on those rare occasions when an archaeological issue makes it into the news.  We seem to be in the midst of one of those occasions now, with the State Capitol Joint Management Commission having recently approved an order by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno to rebury the Petty’s Run archaeological site, which is immediately adjacent to the Statehouse in Trenton.  This site, which was uncovered in 2008, contains a variety of buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that shed considerable light on the early history of Trenton.  The site lies right between the Statehouse and the Old Barracks Museum, and the administration of then-governor John Corzine planned to make it a key part of a new state park.  The plan for establishing the park called for the site to be enclosed in glass, presumably to protect it while leaving it visible.

Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

When Chris Christie defeated Corzine last year, however, plans for the new park came to a halt and the site has just been sitting there, exposed but visible behind a fence.  Indeed, Guadagno’s problem appears to have been that the site is all too visible.  She can see it from her office in the Statehouse and she apparently considers it an “eyesore,” which is why she wants it reburied.  Many people, including political opponents of the Christie administration and Old Barracks Museum director Richard Patterson, are outraged by this move.  (The archaeologist who excavated the site, Richard Hunter, has declined to comment on the issue.)  Guadagno’s apparent motivation in having the site reburied does seem rather petty, but a lot of the outrage seems to be directed at the very idea of reburying the site.  I think this outrage is misplaced.  This may be a silly reason to rebury a site, but reburying (or “backfilling”) sites is a standard and very effective way of preserving them.

Chaco Preservation Crew at Work on the Fort Site

One of the major problems with excavation, and one of the reasons it is often avoided when possible, is that once a site is excavated it is no longer protected by the dirt that covered and preserved whatever was in it.  If left open a site will rapidly begin to deteriorate, so whatever organization is responsible for the site has a choice.  It can leave the site open and let it fall apart (not a popular option), or it can do something to preserve it.  In places like Chaco Canyon, where the visual impact of sites is considered a high priority, preservation involves an elaborate and very expensive effort at stabilizing standing walls and preventing further deterioration.  Since the main sources of impacts are weather and visitation, and these are ongoing year after year, preservation through stabilization means continual work.

Structure Covering Megalithic House, Mesa Verde

Another option is to build some sort of structure over the site to protect it from impacts while still leaving it visible to visitors.  In the Southwest this is rarely done for major sites because it makes them look “inauthentic,” with some exceptions such as Casa Grande and some of the especially well-preserved rooms at Pueblo Bonito.  For smaller sites and particularly fragile ones, however, this is a popular option, as it is much cheaper and less labor-intensive than constantly struggling to prop up the walls and generally provides better protection as well.  Many of the mesa-top sites at Mesa Verde and other parts of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah have this kind of protection.  It sounds like this is the kind of thing the Corzine administration was planning to do with Petty’s Run, although it’s not totally clear to me exactly how the glass enclosure concept would have worked.

Backfilling Using Tarps at Homol'ovi I

The final option, which is generally both cheaper and more protective than the other two, is backfilling.  This takes most or all of the site out of public view, of course, which makes it problematic for sites that are intended to be developed as tourist attractions.  For sites that are not publicly accessible, however, this is the standard means of preservation.  It can be done in a way that makes it relatively easy to open up the site again later for further excavation, and in many cases archaeologists will refill sites at the end of each excavation season with the intent of returning to them later.  This can be done with tarps, for example, as the Arizona State Museum has done in its multi-year research project at the now-closed Homol’ovi Ruins State Park in Winslow.  In some cases responsible organizations start out trying to stabilize excavated sites and end up backfilling them when they can no longer afford to.  This is what has happened at Casa Malpais, which is owned by the town of Springerville, Arizona.  Some rooms that had been left open after excavation were recently backfilled because the town could no longer afford to stabilize them.

Preparations for Backfilling a Room, Casa Malpais, Springerville, Arizona

Now, this is all based on my experience of preservation techniques at sites in the Southwest, and it’s certainly possible that archaeologists in the Northeast don’t do things the same way.  For one thing, Northeastern archaeology seems to be much more focused on the historic than the prehistoric period, presumably because there has been so much historic development overlying whatever prehistoric sites remain.  Since historic sites are often built of sturdier materials than those that were available to prehistoric people, it might not be as problematic to leave a typical historic site exposed as it would be to do the same with a typical prehistoric site.  On the other hand, preservation conditions are much worse in this humid environment than in the arid Southwest.  Water is one of the biggest threats to preservation of exposed sites, and with the amount of precipitation that is typical of this area I’m sure even the best-constructed historic sites are at considerable risk.  The fact that the Corzine administration’s park plan called for enclosing the Petty’s Run site in glass makes me think this is indeed a major concern in Northeastern archaeology.

Structure Covering Coombs Village, Anasazi State Park, Boulder, Utah

The upshot of all this is that to the extent that the Christie administration is showing a lack of respect for the state’s heritage in its treatment of the Petty’s Run site, that’s being manifested in the decision not to pursue the park plan rather than the decision to backfill the site.  Guadagno may be motivated by superficial aesthetic considerations in wanting the site reburied, but whether or not the site is an eyesore leaving it exposed is not the way to preserve it.

Highly Deteriorated Vertical Intramural Beams at Pueblo Bonito

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Second-Story Door, Pueblo Bonito

In comments to the previous post, john barton asked:

I’ve been many times in 20 years to chaco and read much and I’ve been forming a blasphemous opinion; what makes pueblo bonito the greatest of the great houses? Assuming all the other great houses were controlled by different entities even while sharing the same religion, why should there have been no successful challenges for bonitos status or position?

I responded, but I think this issue is actually important enough for a post.  I think john is quite possibly on to something, for reasons explained in my response, but here I want to talk about a slightly different way to look at the question of Pueblo Bonito’s uniqueness.  In my response I said that in my view the main thing that makes Bonito the greatest of the great houses is that it’s the best known and most thoroughly excavated.  There are really two parts to this.  On the one hand, the fact that so much is known about Bonito from the extensive excavations there and so little is known about other great houses means that all interpretations of Chaco are necessarily skewed by an overemphasis on Bonito and an underemphasis on the other sites.  The importance of this skew is impossible to tell, of course, because it depends on what the actual nature of the Chaco system was and what the roles of the different great houses were within it, which are basically unknowable with the information we have now.  So in that sense, Bonito is the “greatest” of the great houses just because we know more about it than we know about any of the others, and it quite possibly was not actually the greatest at the time.  In other words, the Bonito-centric nature of current models of the Chaco system could just be due to the historical accident of choices about where to excavate first, and Bonito may not actually have been the greatest of the great houses at the time.

Great Kivas A and Q, Pueblo Bonito

In another sense, though, Bonito really is the greatest of the great houses regardless of whether or not it was the greatest when it was in use.  This is precisely because it has been so extensively excavated and left open for visitors to see.  It’s really a very impressive site, and the visual impact of seeing it and wandering through its huge maze of rooms is one of the highlights of a visit to Chaco.  Because none of the other great houses have been been excavated and left open to that extent, they can’t possibly have the same effect on visitors despite.  They’re all impressive, of course, but the unexcavated and less-excavated ones are not impressive in the same way as Bonito.  The only other great house that can be experienced in anything like the same way is Aztec West, which was also extensively excavated and left open.  It’s bigger than any other great house except Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, but it is smaller than those two, and less of it is open to the public than is the case at Bonito.  It’s also somewhat less impressive just because the setting of the Aztec complex is much less striking than Chaco Canyon.

Tour Group at Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

Back when I was giving tours of Pueblo Bonito, I began to get tired of it after a while, and I would think it was a bit overrated and that the other sites should get more attention.  I, of course, had been reading about all these sites and was interested in them based on that, and it took me a while to realize that for most visitors they’re just not going to have the same effect as Bonito.  All the sites at Chaco are worth seeing, but once I realized just how different Bonito is from all the rest I began to heavily emphasize it when advising people about what to see during their time in the park.  Places like Una Vida and Pueblo del Arroyo are definitely interesting, but I think for most visitors they’re a lesser priority, and rightly so.  Pueblo Bonito is what people come to Chaco to see.

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

When you look at it that way, it doesn’t actually matter if Bonito was the most important of the great houses in the eleventh century (or the tenth, or the ninth).  It’s the most important of the great houses now, because it’s the one that impresses people enough to draw them to the canyon from all over the world.  It’s the most impressive not because it’s the biggest, although it is, nor because it was at the center of the Chaco system, although it probably was, at least at the height of the system in the late eleventh century.  It’s the most impressive because it’s the only one you can actually walk through and experience personally.  It is of course largely because it’s the biggest of the great houses that it was excavated early on and left open as an exhibit for visitors to see, so in that sense it is the greatest of the sites because it (probably) was the greatest of them originally.  Even if a new, bigger, more important great house were somehow discovered tomorrow, however, it would not displace Pueblo Bonito as the most important of the great houses to visitors today, because there’s no way it would be excavated and left open the way Bonito has been.  Archaeology has changed over the past century, as has Park Service policy.  Pueblo Bonito is still there, though, open and accessible, and it will remain so for at least the near future.

Entrance to Pueblo Bonito with Snow

As I explained in my response to john, I suspect that Pueblo Bonito may well not have always been the most important of the great houses, although I find it most plausible that any shift of influence would have been to increase rather than diminish Bonito’s role over time, at least up until the decline of the canyon and the probable shift of the system to Aztec.  Understanding the changing dynamics of the Chaco system over time is, I think, a very important part of understanding the system in general, and one that has been largely neglected by most research, although this is starting to change.  None of that matters much for the average park visitor, though, who will remain most impressed by the stunning remains of Pueblo Bonito from the period of its height.  Whether there were other great houses that were even more impressive at that time is a rather abstract question when the grandeur of Bonito is right there, and whether earlier versions of Bonito were less important than other sites at some earlier time is even more abstract and immaterial.  It’s Bonito that people see, and they are impressed by it.  That’s a core reality that I think those of us who tend to delve deeper into the world of Chaco research can easily forget.  It’s important, though, and an occasional reminder of it is a useful reality check.

Old Bonito from Kiva Q

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Northeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

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

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

West Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

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

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

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

Kiva A and Southeast Corner, Pueblo Bonito

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Yurt and Modular Office Unit in Chaco Visitor Center Parking Lot

When I left Chaco last summer, plans were underway to do a major renovation of the visitor center.  The idea was to leave the exterior alone, apparently because it was considered of historical value as part of the Mission 66 program, but almost totally redo the inside, rearranging the office space and most of the visitor center functions to use the space more efficiently.  Only the museum was going to be left as it was.  I thought this was basically a good idea, since the way the building was laid out at the time was noticeably suboptimal.

Chaco Yurt

The project was supposed to take a few months, and while it was underway the offices were to be moved to a series of trailers and the visitor services were to be put in a yurt to be constructed in the visitor center parking lot.  Work began this March, and the movement into the trailers and the yurt was apparently smooth, but about three weeks in it became apparent that the building was structurally unsound and that just redoing the inside was not going to be a feasible option.  Apparently when the building was originally constructed in the 1950s nobody really checked to make sure the ground underneath it was stable, and it turned out it wasn’t and had been eroding away over time.  There had been indications of something like this over the years, and some cosmetic alterations had been done to continue using the building, but by now it was clear that the only realistic option was to tear the building down entirely.

Modular Unit for Chaco Interpretation Division Offices

Since the park still wants to move forward with the renovation plan, under which any new work must be within the footprint of the original building, the next step after demolition will be construction of a new building on the same spot, with engineered soil brought in first to ensure that the ground is stable this time.  Right now the decision has apparently been made that the old building will be demolished, but plans for what to replace it with are still being formulated by the architects.  So it looks like we’ll be in the yurt and the trailers for quite a while now; people have been saying at least a year, but I’m thinking it’ll probably be more like two.  That’s okay with me, actually, since the yurt is quite nice and I don’t mind working in it.  I’m only here for the summer, of course, and it remains to be seen how comfortable the yurt will be when winter comes.

Chaco Visitor Center, Closed for Renovation

Lots of visitors, seeing the boarded-up and fenced-off visitor center, have been asking what’s going on.  When I tell them, they often respond with a knowing chuckle.  People seem to understand that these things happen.  Some are a bit disappointed that we no longer have a museum to show any artifacts or an auditorium to show the park video, but even they are pretty understanding of the situation.  I’ve heard considerably more positive comments about the yurt than negative comments about the closed visitor center, in fact.  This is a marked contrast to the amount of outrage people showed when the campground was closed.  Luckily it’s now open, so at least that nightmare is over.  Just goes to show what the priorities of visitors to Chaco are, I guess.

Sign at Closed Chaco Visitor Center

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Wheels at Chaco Museum from Ore Cart Used to Haul Fill from Pueblo Bonito

I’m back at Chaco and giving tours again, so I’m once again being exposed to visitors’ common questions and preconceptions in a way I haven’t been in a long time.  One thing that seems to surprise a lot of visitors is the fact that the Chacoans apparently had no knowledge of the wheel, or if they did have such knowledge they didn’t apply it to transport any of the many things they brought into the canyon from distant sources.  (People are also sometimes surprised to learn that they didn’t have draft animals either, which I find a bit surprising myself since I tend to think of that as common knowledge.)

I think it’s actually not difficult to see why the Chacoans wouldn’t have seen any use for the wheel even if they somehow knew about it, and the lack of draft animals is the key to understanding why.  (This is admittedly a bit speculative on my part, but I think it works.)  Without big, strong animals to pull wheeled vehicles, any efficiency gains from them in terms of human labor would be decidedly non-obvious.  The only type of wheeled vehicle that would really be effective using only human labor would be the wheelbarrow, and while this may provide some efficiency gains over carrying goods by hand I don’t think they would have been clear enough to compensate for the increased effort involved in building the thing, especially given the often rough and broken terrain of the Southwest.  Even the Chacoan roads, which may or may not have actually been intended for use in transporting goods but certainly could have been so used once they were built, were actually not as level and easy as people often assume, although they were more level than the surrounding terrain.  Most of the effort put into the roads went into clearing the surface and defining the curbs, but grading of the cleared ground surface was typically not done and the road beds follow the underlying terrain for the most part.  This was fine for foot traffic, and definitely an improvement over the uncleared surrounding terrain, but it wouldn’t have been particularly suitable for wheeled vehicles.  Furthermore, the vaunted straightness of the roads would actually have made them even less suitable for wheeled vehicles or draft animals, given the common practice of handling steep cliffs in the path of the road with stairways.  Good luck getting a cart up or down one of those!

Jackson Stairway

The lack of draft animals and the unevenness of the terrain have also been posited as reasons for the lack of wheeled vehicles throughout the Americas.  While the terrain would not have been an impediment everywhere, such as in the Yucatan where the terrain is generally flat and the roads built by the Maya were much more elaborate and level than anything seen around Chaco, in highland areas like Central Mexico and lowland areas covered by dense vegetation such as those along the Gulf Coast of Mexico the maneuverability of a person on foot would likely have been far more important to efficient transportation than any increase in efficiency resulting from wheeled vehicles in the absence of animals to pull them.  Gordon Ekholm of the American Museum of Natural History, whom we last saw discovering atlatl finger loops, discussed many of these issues in an interesting article from 1946 about the wheeled toys found in various parts of Mexico, which demonstrate that at least the Mesoamericans were in fact aware of the wheel even though they didn’t use it for any practical purpose.  These clay toys, in the form of animals with wheels in place of feet, had been found in widely scattered parts of Central and Northeast Mexico, from Oaxaca to Veracruz, and while the axles connecting the wheels to the feet were apparently made of a perishable material like wood and did not survive, the fact that one example was found in situ with the wheels in the proper position led Ekholm to conclude that they definitely were originally wheeled.  Robert Lister (a very prominent figure in the history of Chacoan archaeology who also did some work in Mesoamerica) followed up on Ekholm’s article shortly afterward, noting the apparent presence of similar wheeled toys in West Mexico and referring to the discovery of copper examples in Panama as well.

Effigy Vessels at Chaco Museum

Ekholm’s article provides a solid discussion of the implication of these toys for Mesoamerican technology and general anthropological understanding of technological development.  He discusses the lack of draft animals and the difficult terrain, but ultimately concludes that the main factor preventing more widespread use of the wheel was likely a cultural and technological conservatism that privileged the old way of doing things, which in this case meant carrying goods on people’s backs, over an untried new invention like the wheel.  He attributes the origin of the idea of wheeled toys to pure invention, probably stemming from experimentation with the round spindle whorls that are very common Mesoamerican artifacts.  It’s not clear just how far this idea spread, and to my knowledge there is no evidence that anyone in the Southwest was aware of it, although some of the ceramic animal effigies found at Chaco and elsewhere do bear some resemblance to the Mesoamerican toys.  Ekholm makes a convincing case that despite the ingenious nature of these toys, without suitable social and ecological conditions for the wider adoption of the technology it remained more of a curiosity than anything else.

Basically, without draft animals, the idea of making a big vehicle like a cart which could carry a heavy load more efficiently than a person could would be unlikely to have occurred to anyone, because such a cart would still have to be pulled by people.  Or, in other words, if you have a cart but not a horse, you are, well, putting the cart before the horse.  And who would do a thing like that?
ResearchBlogging.org
Ekholm, G. (1946). Wheeled Toys in Mexico American Antiquity, 11 (4) DOI: 10.2307/275722

Lister, R. (1947). Additional Evidence of Wheeled Toys in Mexico American Antiquity, 12 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275708

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Parry Lodge, Kanab, Utah

Several years ago I was in Kanab, Utah on the Fourth of July.  When the segment of the town parade representing the local office of the Bureau of Land Management went by, a man standing near me in the crowd yelled out “Management, not ownership!”  The people around him laughed and slapped him on the back good-naturedly.  It was obvious that he was just saying what they were all thinking.  This was just a few years after President Clinton’s controversial establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is administered by the BLM’s Kanab Field Office, and there was still a lot of obvious bitterness about that.

Sign for Anasazi Indian State Park, Boulder, Utah

I was there because my family had decided to do a big trip that summer to explore the new monument.  I was a teenager at the time and had never been to that area, but my parents used to go to Kanab and the surrounding area a lot before I was born and they were curious to see if and how it had changed with the new designation.  (It’s also just a beautiful area; I went through it again last year when I did a big road trip to California.)

Sign Describing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kanab, Utah

We did a lot of things on that trip.  We camped at Calf Creek in the monument itself and visited Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah, which is a fascinating place, of considerably more importance archaeologically than I realized at the time.  We ended up in Kanab, where we stayed at Parry Lodge, which prides itself on its history of housing movie stars who came to film in the area, and which was also where my parents used to stay when they had come to Kanab years before.  It’s a nice little town, but it’s definitely part of southern Utah and has its share of the political attitudes typical there, as shown clearly by the man’s outburst at the parade.

Linear Roomblock at Coombs Village (Anasazi State Park), Boulder, Utah

That kind of attitude toward the BLM in particular, and the federal government in general, is very common in southern Utah.  It’s particularly obvious right now in light of the outrage over a leaked government document mulling the possibility of establishing new national monuments throughout the West, including at two sites in southern Utah, but it’s been there for as long as there have been white people in the area and it’s never really diminished.  Another recent example of the same attitude is the local reaction to the arrests in the Blanding pothunting sting, many of which portrayed it as an example of the BLM and FBI overreacting to a harmless hobby and oppressing good people for no reason except to show that they could.

Entrance Sign for Natural Bridges National Monument

There’s a fundamental selfishness and sense of entitlement lurking behind this attitude, a feeling by many of these people that they should be allowed to do whatever they want just by virtue of being who they are.  How exactly “who they are” is defined differs in different contexts, but most of the time I think it boils down to being white people (often specifically white men) in a country where the untrammeled right of certain white people to do anything they want has long been a powerful ideal.  It’s an easy attitude to imbibe as a white person growing up in America, and I think it’s much more widespread than extreme examples in the rural West would suggest.  I’ve encountered plenty of good liberals who are quite happy to propose and support policies that restrict the ability of others (corporations, polluters, police, soldiers, etc.) to do whatever they want, but whenever their own freedom is threatened suddenly change their tune.  It’s an easy enough attitude to understand, and I don’t mean to be accusing anyone of hypocrisy here.  I’ve certainly done plenty of this sort of thing myself.  I’m mostly just suggesting a bit more humility and a bit less self-righteousness on everyone’s part, not as a transcendent moral principle but as a practical way to get along in a pluralistic society with lots of conflicting interests and opinions.

Southern Utah Regional Map, Kanab, Utah

It’s in that context that I note a good post by Keith Kloor on the monument kerfluffle, which includes a link to a very good meditation on some of these issues from an environmental journalist who is very clearly aware of his own sense of entitlement when it comes to issues of wildness and preservation.  Resource management and preservation are fundamentally difficult issues to address, and there are no easy answers.  There are too many conflicting priorities and contrasting opinions for there to ever be a simple way out.

Sign for Butler Wash Ruins Overlook, Southern Utah

Keith’s quote from Ed Abbey is a case in point.  I’ve never read any Abbey, but I know my dad hated him, more for The Monkey Wrench Gang than for Desert Solitaire, which I don’t remember him ever mentioning.  I’m not sure what it was exactly about Abbey that rubbed him the wrong way, but I suspect it had to do with what Abbey represented: the outsider blundering crudely through a place extolling its virtues without ever really understanding it the way the locals did.  My dad was very much a local in the Southwest, and while he had his own strain of entitled-white-guy thinking, it was very different from Abbey’s.  It wasn’t so much Abbey’s environmentalism per se that annoyed people like my dad and his relatives, many of whom were strong supporters of the Sierra Club, Rachel Carson, and the “mainstream” environmental movement that they saw as totally compatible with their small-town petit bourgeois Republican worldview.  Abbey, though, was different, a representative of a worldview that, while “environmentalist” in some sense, seemed to be more about self-indulgent destruction and nihilistic romanticism than about stewardship and preservation.  It was people like Abbey, and especially his more extreme acolytes, who I think contributed heavily to the souring of local white people in the rural West on environmentalism in general and activist groups composed mainly of people from elsewhere in particular.  It’s a shame, too, because there is actually a lot of sentiment among westerners in favor of conserving natural resources and limiting destructive development, but these days that sentiment seems to be used mainly as a rhetorical cudgel against environmental groups, giving cover to exploitative corporations, some of which have become pretty good at ingratiating themselves with local communities.  I don’t mean to try to pin all of this on Abbey, since there has obviously been a lot of other stuff going on that has contributed to this dynamic, but I do think he played a role.

Butler Wash Ruins Overlook, Southern Utah

One other thing about Abbey that Keith notes in his post, however, is the fact that he was living in Hoboken, New Jersey when he completed Desert Solitaire, and he may even have written the whole thing there.  One way to interpret this, in light of what I wrote above, is that it reinforces his “outsider” status relative to the West, but I think there’s a better way to look at it.  Abbey’s West, like most people’s, existed primarily in his mind, and his perception of the landscapes he wrote about was filtered through his experiences and preconceptions.  That doesn’t make it any less “real,” however.  Abbey’s books, which I emphasize again I have not read, should stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of how much or how little time their author spent in the places they describe.  I’m a strong believer in the idea that physically being in a place, while helpful and perhaps necessary to having a “complete” or well-rounded understanding of it, is not a necessary precondition for talking about it at all.  Indeed, I could hardly think otherwise, given that I write all about the Southwest on this blog while living in (a different part of) New Jersey myself.  For me, then, the idea of Abbey sitting in a bar in Hoboken recalling the canyons of Utah makes me more sympathetic to him, not less.

Slickrock along Trail to Butler Wash Overlook, Southern Utah

Personally, I’m not a very adventurous type.  I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, and those experiences have been immensely valuable to me, but I’d fundamentally prefer to be sitting in a cute little coffeeshop somewhere, reading or writing a book, rather than hiking across slickrock canyon rims contemplating the beauty of the landscape.  Not that I don’t enjoy the latter, but it’s not my usual preference.  Personal preferences don’t matter that much to larger issues most of the time, but when aggregated across large numbers of people they do add up, and in the context of resource protection there are actually some important implications.  One way to look at it, and by no means the only one, is to ask a simple question: On the margin, who is impacting the landscape more, the reader in the coffeeshop or the hiker on the canyon rim?

Bench on Trail to Butler Wash Overlook, Southern Utah

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Turquoise-Covered Pottery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Probably no single material is more closely associated with Chaco than turquoise.  The vast amounts found in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito alone suggest its importance, but it has been found in considerable quantities at many different sites, both small houses and great houses and both inside and outside of the canyon.  There is considerable evidence that manufacture of turquoise jewelry became a major activity in Chaco and some of the outlier communities during the period when the Chacoan system was beginning to form, and probable ornament manufacturing areas have been found at both great houses and small houses.  It’s not clear what precise role turquoise may have played in the system (though there are some intriguing possibilities suggested by other lines of evidence), but it is apparent that it was an important one.  It’s also important to note that unlike some rare artifacts, such as shell trumpets, turquoise seems to have been associated with the system as a whole rather than with Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Bonito specifically.  Both finished artifacts and manufacturing debris are found in significant quantities at many outliers, especially to the south in the Red Mesa Valley.

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

What’s really remarkable about this apparent centrality of turquoise is that there are no turquoise deposits anywhere near Chaco, or indeed within the area covered by the Chaco system as a whole.  All of this turquoise had to be imported from somewhere, and this importation was clearly occurring on a vast scale and over a relatively long period of time.  The closest source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe, which have extensive turquoise deposits that show much evidence of being mined in antiquity (as well as in modern times), including some apparent campsites with material culture suggestive of a connection to the San Juan Basin.  For a long time most researchers assumed that most or all of the turquoise at Chaco came from Cerrillos, and for a while it was fashionable to come up with theories explaining the rise of Chaco as being based on control of the Cerrillos mines and the trade routes connecting them with the vast market for turquoise in Mesoamerica.  These theories have more recently fallen out of favor for a number of reasons, one being the general trend away from emphasizing Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system and another being the inconvenient fact that many of the most productive turquoise deposits in the Southwest are in southern Arizona and New Mexico, considerably closer to Mexico than Chaco, which makes it difficult to explain how the  Chacoans could have sustained a monopoly on the turquoise trade.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

This whole issue would benefit greatly from more precise information on the actual source of Chaco’s turquoise.  The idea that it came from Cerrillos is basically just an assumption based on geographical proximity, and while it’s a reasonable enough assumption there have been many attempts to use chemical properties of the turquoise to determine its precise origin and either confirm or deny the Cerrillos hypothesis.  Most of the early attempts to do this using trace element analysis were unsuccessful, due mainly to the complicated internal structure of turquoise as a material.  One recent  paper, however, reports on a remarkably successful attempt to use a new technique based on isotope ratios to characterize sources and assign artifacts to them.  The technique uses two isotope ratios: hydrogen to deuterium and copper-63 to copper-65.  The combination of the two ratios can be used to define a two-dimensional space within which individual samples can be placed to determine if samples from the same source cluster together.

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

It turns out they do.  The researchers used samples from a variety of Southwestern turquoise sources, most of which show clear evidence of having been used in antiquity, including three in the Cerrillos area, one in southern New Mexico, two each in Colorado and Arizona, and four in Nevada.  They analyzed several samples from one of the Arizona mines to test internal variation within a single source.  There turned out to be little variation, suggesting that individual sources generally have homogeneous isotope ratios, and the three Cerrillos sources also clustered close to each other, suggesting that this similarity in ratios operates at a regional as well as local scale.

Sign at Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The researchers also tested several pieces of turquoise found at several small houses in Chaco Canyon and one at the Guadalupe outlier community, which marks the far eastern edge of the Chacoan system and is the closest Chacoan community to Cerrillos.  Guadalupe plays a key role in models of Chaco that posit Chacoan control of the Cerrillos mines, since any transport of turquoise from Cerrillos to Chaco would almost certainly have to have involved Guadalupe as an intermediate stop.  Guadalupe is thus probably the outlying community most relevant to an investigation of Chacoan turquoise sources.

Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The results were interesting.  Several of the artifacts seem to have come from Cerrillos, with a much higher proportion at Guadalupe than at Chaco, but a few other sources were present as well, including one of the Colorado sources at Guadalupe and the southern New Mexico source and two Nevada sources at Chaco.  Four artifacts matched none of the sources tested, implying that they came from some other, as yet unidentified, source.  The Chaco artifacts came from a wide range of chronological contexts, with earlier periods more strongly represented than later ones.  The Guadalupe artifacts unfortunately didn’t come from a securely dated context, so nothing much can be said about their relative or absolute chronology.  In general, the Chaco artifacts seem to have come from a wide range of sources in all time periods, but the sample size is so small that it is hard to come to any more specific conclusions.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This paper is really just a pilot project, intended primarily to demonstrate the methodology used, and the conclusion mentions that continued research using more sources and artifacts is underway.  The main conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that assuming all the Chaco turquoise came from Cerrillos is no longer warranted, and it seems the trade networks in the prehistoric Southwest were much more elaborate and far-flung, at least for valuable, portable materials like turquoise, than such an assumption would suggest.  Chaco may or may not have been primarily about turquoise, but it certainly wasn’t about Cerrillos turquoise.
ResearchBlogging.org
HULL, S., FAYEK, M., MATHIEN, F., SHELLEY, P., & DURAND, K. (2007). A new approach to determining the geological provenance of turquoise artifacts using hydrogen and copper stable isotopes Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2007.10.001

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Poorly Drained Dirt Road near Bisti, New Mexico

One of the most frequent questions visitors to Chaco ask is why the road leading there hasn’t been paved.  That particular road, largely because it leads to Chaco, has a particularly thorny set of issues surrounding the idea of paving, which I’ve discussed before, but one thing I would often mention in dealing with these questions is the fact that paved roads are fairly rare throughout the Four Corners area.  Most roads are dirt, and there are a lot of them.  So it’s not really surprising that the road to Chaco would be dirt, since that’s sort of the default state for roads in the Navajo country.  This would often be surprising to visitors from other parts of the country, where dirt roads are rare to nonexistent.  To them paved roads are the default, and the lack of paving on a given road is odd and demands an explanation.

Informal Two-Track Road at Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, New Mexico

What all this doesn’t address, however, is why so few roads in the area are paved.  Especially since the Navajo country is so large and sparsely populated that for practical purposes driving is the only way to get places, it does seem odd at first glance that there isn’t more effort put into getting roads paved.  As Cindy Yurth points out in a fantastic article in the Navajo Times, however, it’s not that easy to pave a road, especially on the Navajo Reservation.  Some of the issues she mentions don’t really apply at Chaco, which is off the Reservation, but many of the others do, along with some additional complications, most of which have to do with the bewildering variety of governments and agencies that have a say in decisions around Chaco.  The issues of maintenance and the desire of many local residents for roads to remain unpaved, however, apply equally on and off the Reservation.  Anyway, it’s a great article, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this issue.

"Street Closed" Sign at Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico

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Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

In between a bunch of depressing news about budget cuts, the latest edition of Southwestern Archaeology Today links to a couple of interesting articles with considerable relevance to ChacoOne is about turkeys; I’ll do a post on it later.  The other is a column by Marc Simmons in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Pueblo clothing and how it has changed over time.

Diorama at Chaco Museum

Interestingly, in my experience visitors to Chaco don’t actually ask about clothing very often.  This may be due to the influence of a diorama in the visitor center museum which seems to answer any questions they might have, since it shows people in the course of various daily activities attired in loincloths and little else, which is pretty common for “Indians” in museum dioramas.  This “all loincloths all the time” interpretation is also common in artists’ renditions of “what life was like” on interpretive signs at many parks.  There aren’t many of these signs at Chaco, but they are quite common at some other parks such as Mesa Verde.  This all has a powerful effect on people’s perceptions, I think, because visual impressions are both stronger and more vivid than anything that can be explained in words.  Indeed, a woman once asked me, referring to the diorama, why the Chacoans had worn anything at all.  To this day I’m not sure what preconceptions she was bringing to the diorama, but clearly its implication that “the Indians” didn’t wear much had led her down that cognitive path.  This strong effect of the visual image is unfortunate, however, because quite a bit is known about how the Chacoans probably dressed, and all the evidence available strongly indicates that the diorama is totally wrong.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

But back to Simmons.  He’s one of the most renowned historians of New Mexico, and I’ve mentioned him before for his excellent book on the history of Albuquerque.  His specialty is the Spanish colonial era, so his column on Pueblo clothing draws most of its information from Spanish documents.  Those documents begin with the earliest exploratory expeditions in the sixteenth century, and they are generally thought to be pretty reliable in their descriptions of the people the explorers encountered.   The main thing that impressed those explorers about the Pueblos was how “civilized” they seemed in comparison to the hunter-gatherer groups they had seen further south.  Indeed, the name “Pueblo” itself, deriving originally from these reports, refers to the people’s settlement pattern based on large, permanent towns.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Similarly, the main comments the chroniclers had about Pueblo clothing were about how substantial it was.  Men typically wore kilts, and women wore a type of dress known as a manta, made out of large square pieces of cloth.  The main material used was cotton, which was grown in the low-lying river valleys, especially in the Rio Abajo region at the southern end of the Pueblo domain, and traded to the villages in areas where cotton can’t be grown.  This cotton was woven into cloth, always by men, and often in ceremonial contexts in kivas or other important spaces.  The Spanish also remarked on the use of tanned buckskin or gamuza as an alternative material for clothes, especially nice during the cold winters.  Another item useful for keeping warm was the rabbit-fur coat, made of strips of rabbit hide woven together by women.  Footwear consisted primarily of leather moccasins known as teguas.

"Ceremonial Chamber" Sign at Mesa Verde Showing Men Weaving in Kiva

This information comes from a few hundred years after the fall of Chaco, of course.  A lot had changed in Pueblo culture during that period, so it would definitely be a mistake to simply project the Spanish reports back in time.  Luckily, we don’t have to.  Due to the good preservation at Chacoan sites, and the even better preservation at the cliff dwellings occupied slightly later, many examples of clothing have survived, though generally only in fragmentary condition.  These materials largely substantiate the Spanish accounts: Cloth is typically made out of cotton (probably underrepresented in the archaeological record because it doesn’t preserve very well), and cloaks made of woven rabbit fur and turkey feathers are common.

Sandals at Chaco Museum

The moccasins and leather garments are not generally found, however.  There is no shortage of footwear, but it takes the form of sandals made of yucca fibers.  These are very common and there are some indications that they may have had ritual importance in addition to their everyday use.  Leather moccasins during this period are rare to nonexistent in the Chacoan area, but common among the Fremont to the north in Utah, and they are even considered a diagnostic feature of the Fremont culture.

Bison Statue in Downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado

At some point between the fall of Chaco and the Spanish entradas, then, leather clothing and footwear seem to have been adopted by the Pueblos.  One theory to explain this, along with various other changes in Pueblo society during this period, links it to increased contact with Plains groups starting in the fourteenth century.  Another theory sees the adoption of leather clothing as associated with a prolonged period of climatic cooling, perhaps associated with the beginning of the Little Ice Age.  These two theories are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I think they actually complement each other nicely.  One proposed way of tying them together is a model in which cooling weather on the southern Plains leads to bison beginning to venture further south than they had before, which leads bison-hunting Plains people to follow them and come into contact with the Pueblos, whose increasingly efficient irrigation agriculture gives them surpluses of crops that they can exchange for meat, hides, and other bison products.  It’s notable that trade networks during this period seem to be oriented along an east-west axis connecting the Pueblos to the Plains, whereas trade during earlier periods seems to have been more north-south and connected to Mesoamerica.

Looking East toward the Great Plains from Las Vegas, New Mexico

Of course, this theory is by no means universally accepted, and there are other ways to interpret the changes in Pueblo material culture during this time.  Still, coming back to clothing specifically, I think all of this shows that the “Diorama Indian” loincloth-based attire has more to do with the preconceptions of the people who made the dioramas than with what people at Chaco and elsewhere actually wore.

Close-Up of Diorama at Chaco Museum

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New Mexico RailRunner Express, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Yesterday I went with my mom and my sister on the RailRunner to Santa Fe to check out the New Mexico History Museum, behind the Palace of the Governors.  It was the first time any of us had either taken the train or seen the museum, which just opened in 2009, and we were very impressed with both.  The museum is very well-designed, in a contemporary, interactive way, and unlike many museums it doesn’t overwhelm by putting too many things on display at once.  The items that are displayed are accompanied by extensive, bilingual (English and Spanish) interpretive texts which help to place them in context.  The approach is broad rather than deep, but it gives a good, balanced, and very accessible introduction to the rich history of the state.  Since it’s part of the Museum of New Mexico, the collections available for display are extensive, and the curators have selected some fascinating original items to show.  They have also arranged for loans of other important original items from other museums with extensive collections of material related to New Mexico history.

New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

One such museum is the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sponsored several important archaeological expeditions to the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and thus has a large collection of artifacts, almost all of which remain locked away in storage rather than on display.  The American Museum doesn’t even seem to have a single permanent exhibition showing its Southwestern material.  (I haven’t been there yet myself, so I can’t confirm this personally.)  A lot of this material is from the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations at Chaco, which the American Museum sponsored, and visitors at Chaco would often ask about these artifacts and whether they could see them anywhere.  When I would tell them the answer, that the artifacts were in New York and not on display, they would often get pretty upset, but I would just say that that’s what museums do: they collect things.  They display some things, but they collect much more than they display, so most of the stuff ends up in storage, awaiting future temporary exhibits or loans to other museums.

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

With that context in mind, imagine my reaction when I walked into the permanent exhibition of the New Mexico History Museum and the very first artifact on display was a bone scraper from Pueblo Bonito on loan from the AMNH.  This particular scraper is one of the most famous and most spectacular of the artifacts found at Chaco.  It is inlaid with a band of turquoise and jet mosaic that is just exquisitely done.  It was found by the Hyde Expedition in 1897 in Room 38 of Pueblo Bonito, along with the even more famous jet frog, and it features prominently in the article George Pepper wrote on the artifacts from Room 38.  Being able to see the real thing, in person, is just extraordinary, and even more so for me because it was such an unexpected surprise.  Like I said, the AMNH collections from Chaco are almost completely inaccessible to the general public, which is very unfortunate since they include some of the most amazing artifacts ever found in the Southwest.  The loan of this scraper is a significant step away from that, and I congratulate both the AMNH and the NMHM for arranging for its loan and display.  There are a few other items from Chaco on display in the same gallery, but this is by far the most famous.  The museum doesn’t allow photography, so I don’t have a picture of the scraper, but I highly recommend a visit to see it to anyone interested in Chaco.

Jet Frog Replica at Chaco Museum

Pepper’s article includes a bit more information about the scraper.  It was found in the summer of 1897, the second season of work at Pueblo Bonito.  It was actually one of two similar scrapers found next to each other in the western part of Room 38, which is an unusually large rectangular room in the oldest part of the site, known as Old Bonito and made up mostly of small rooms with an early style of masonry, the most famous of which is probably Room 33.  The two scrapers in Room 38 were probably originally similarly decorated with mosaic inlay, but one of them was positioned in such a way that the inlay was pointed downward and had fallen out when it was found.  The other scraper, however, was positioned so that the inlay was facing up, and it was therefore preserved intact.  This is the scraper now on display in the NMHM.

Shell and Jet Display at Chaco Museum

The inlay consists of a combination of elongated and triangular pieces of turquoise and jet, alternating and arranged in bands in a way that produces a very striking effect.  The mosaic was put into a groove cut into the scraper just below the butt end and apparently attached with piñon gum.  Once all the pieces were in the whole surface was polished to a high sheen, which is very noticeable even today.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

It is unfortunately very difficult to date the artifacts excavated by the Hyde Expedition.  Pepper kept detailed field notes during the excavations, and the work is therefore fairly well documented by the standards of the day, but those standards weren’t very high compared to today’s practices.  There were no absolute dating techniques available at the time, and even the relative dating technique of stratigraphic analysis was still being developed and was not used during the Hyde excavations.  All Pepper had to say about chronology in his article on Room 38 was that there was no evidence of contact with the Spanish.  The NMHM label for the AMNH scraper gives a range of AD 700 to 1130, which is basically the maximum range for Pueblo Bonito as a whole.  Given the very precise dating techniques available to Southwestern archaeologists today, it may be possible to narrow this down a bit, even with the unfortunate lack of context from the early excavations.  I know Steve Plog at the University of Virginia is working on reëvaluating the field notes and other information on these excavations to get more precise information.  The Chaco Archive, which is connected to this effort, has a lot of pictures and documents from the early excavations, and it seems like more stuff is being added to it all the time.

Old Bonito

Dating is particularly difficult for the Old Bonito artifacts, for a number of reasons.  Although the rooms were the earliest to be built at Pueblo Bonito, as suggested by the masonry style and confirmed by tree-ring dates, the artifacts within them probably date to much later, perhaps even to the very end of the occupation of the site.  They are both numerous and exquisite, which suggests that the rooms in Old Bonito may have been reused for storage of fine objects after they were no longer used for their original purpose, which would presumably have been after the expansion of Pueblo Bonito starting around AD 1040.  With objects made of organic materials, such as bone, it would be possible to try radiocarbon dating the artifacts themselves, but to my knowledge no one has attempted this, possibly because they are so fragile and valuable.  Thus, while it may be possible to narrow down the date range for the bone scraper, as of right now the very wide range given by the NMHM is probably the best way to go.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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