Park Map Sign, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Today is the summer solstice, on which I traditionally post about archaeoastronomy, which is a major topic of interest in studying Chaco Canyon. Lately, however, I’ve been very busy and have not been keeping up on recent developments in Chaco studies (not helped by the fact that I don’t currently have access to the academic databases where recent research can be found), so this time I thought I would talk about the archaeoastronomy of a fascinating and unjustly obscure site in a different part of North America, the Pinson Mounds site in western Tennessee.

I visited Pinson a few years back more or less on a whim; I was driving across the country after finishing grad school, taking a meandering route and hitting a variety of archaeological and historical sites as I went. Pinson was not originally on my list of sites to visit, but for some reason that I no longer remember I decided to go there as I made my way through the Mid-South. It was a good decision.


Sauls Mound, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

There are a lot of prehistoric mound sites in the Southeast, and at first glance Pinson doesn’t seem particularly distinctive among them except that one of its mounds, known as Sauls Mound or Mound 9, is unusually large. And indeed, although the site was first documented in 1823 it was not until the 1970s when it became a Tennessee state park that extensive archaeological work was done there and its true nature became apparent. There are various types of mounds at Pinson, but the most prominent, including Sauls, are of the type known as “platform mounds” which are square or rectangular, often with buildings of presumed ritual function at the top, and are generally associated with the Mississippian period of circa AD 900 to 1600. Earlier Woodland period mound sites are more known for burial mounds, which are typically rounded or conical without buildings on top, with the Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio being the most prominent examples.

The platform mounds at Pinson, along with a single house of Mississippian “wall-trench” form excavated back in the 1960s, led most archaeologists to assume that this was a relatively minor Mississippian site until the excavations of the 1970s and the resulting radiocarbon dates showed that it actually dated to the Middle Woodland period in the early centuries AD, contemporaneous with Hopewell. And some of these dates were directly associated with the platform mounds, demonstrating clearly that they too dated to this early period! This led to a major reëvaluation of the Middle Woodland period in the Midsouth, which is in some ways still ongoing. It also led to the reëvaluation of some other platform-mound sites in the same general area which also ended up dating to the Middle Woodland. It remains unclear what the exact nature was of the relationship between these precocious southern platform-mound sites and the contemporaneous Hopewell sites to the north, and the same is true of their relationship to the later Mississippian sites.


Stairs to the top of Sauls Mound, Pison Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

One thing that does appear to be true of these sites, however, as well as of the Hopewell ones, is that they were primarily ritual or ceremonial centers without substantial residential components. They appear to have served dispersed communities of small hamlets, who were likely small-scale farmers growing indigenous plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. This is in contrast to Mississippian mound centers, which are now considered to have been large residential settlements of farmers growing crops of Mesoamerican origins (especially maize). Also unlike the strongly hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, Middle Woodland communities are also generally thought to have been relatively egalitarian in structure.

Some of these ideas may seem familiar to those familiar with Chaco. A similarly egalitarian structure has been proposed by some archaeologists to explain Chacoan great-house communities, based on models proposed by earlier generations of archaeologists to explain the Classic Maya polities. These models are now falling out of fashion for Chaco, much as they eventually did for the Maya, based on new research that makes them less tenable. It might seem odd that they have remained so tenacious for the Hopewell and other Middle Woodland societies in the east, but they have, which to me suggests that they really might be on to something here. I know a lot of people find these explanations of Chaco as an empty ceremonial center for a dispersed society of small-scale egalitarian farmers inspiring as a vision of what a society can be; as Chacoan research makes this a less plausible reconstruction they may wish to turn their eyes eastward, and further back in time, for a better example.

Anyway, on to the astronomy. The arrangement of the mounds at Pinson, as at many other Hopewell/Middle Woodland sites, has suggested to archaeologists for a while that there might be astronomical aspects to the site. One extensive, though admittedly speculative, exploration of this idea was published by Charles H. McNutt in a 2005 paper, which I will focus on here. McNutt proposed that Sauls Mound was the central focus of a set of astronomical alignments with other mounds at the site, and he compared the angles of these various inter-mound alignments to rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars.


Sign at Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

The most straightforward of the alignments he found were to solar events, i.e., the solstices and equinoxes. Mound 29 is due east of Sauls Mound within a circular feature known as the Eastern Citadel (which may have its own internal astronomical features), and it appears that this relationship may represent an equinox sunrise marker. Mound 28, northeast of Sauls Mound at a similar distance to Mound 29, has been proposed as a summer solstice sunrise marker (as indicated by a sign posted at the site, even), but McNutt found that it is not really close enough to the solstice alignment for this to be plausible. However, another mound indicated on early maps of the site, but not visible today, does appear at the proper angle on those maps to have been a solstice marker.

McNutt describes other possible alignments, to the lunar standstills as well as various stars, but he is rightly cautious about these and notes that the stellar alignments in particular are dubious because there are so many stars that alignments can easily arise due to chance. He then goes on to look at other contemporaneous mound sites in the same general area to determine if they have similar possible alignments, and finds that they do, although the quality of the data is not great for all of them and these too need to be treated with caution.


Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Finally, McNutt ties the existence of these celestial alignments back to the presumed reliance of the Middle Woodland people on agriculture, specifically of the crops of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. Farming peoples do rely on accurate calendars, it is true, and this may well have been the impetus for the astronomical observations that appear to be encoded at Pinson and other sites. I would note, however, that the immense effort required to build these mounds, especially for a dispersed and relatively egalitarian society, suggests that something more than utilitarian timekeeping needs led to their construction. But this may ultimately be a matter of perspective and emphasis more than anything else.

I may have more to say about Pinson in the future; it really is a fascinating place, well worth visiting. But for now I just want to draw some attention to it on this solstice day. Happy solstice!


Turtle at Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Holy Wars Again


Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

I recently finished reading God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman (it’s a long book so it took a while). As I’ve mentioned before, the florescence of Chaco Canyon in what is now the southwestern US was contemporary with the earlier part of the Crusade era in the Middle East, and I try to learn as much as I can about events elsewhere in the world contemporary with Chaco to gain a fuller understanding of the context in which it arose. As part of that ongoing tradition, therefore, this post is a brief review of Tyerman’s book.

It’s a good book, and provides a comprehensive overview of this long-lived and complicated phenomenon in world history. Tyerman starts with the intellectual origins of the ideology of Christian holy war that underlay the crusading effort, which is a very interesting topic given how difficult it is to fit such an ideology into Christianity as expressed in the New Testament. The solution that developed over the course of the early middle ages, on which the popes who launched the early crusades relied, depended heavily on a mix of emphasizing the Old Testament rather than the New and interpreting some of the writings of the church fathers in a highly tendentious manner. As much of an ideological kludge as this may have been, it fit well with the martial spirit of the Germanic warrior aristocracy that consolidated its power over secular affairs in this era, and in this light it is not all that surprising to see the crusades arising from this time and place.

Another interesting factor in crusade ideology that Tyerman draws out is its connection with the efforts of medieval popes to elevate their authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs over the secular rulers, particular the Holy Roman Emperors, of the era, as exemplified in the long-running “investiture controversy” of the eleventh century. Crusading offered an opportunity both for popes to consolidate their position and for secular aristocrats (and, increasingly, kings) to cast their warlike pursuits as holy Christian efforts. Over time, these tendencies led both popes and kings to try to cast their secular wars as crusades, with the accompanying spiritual privileges. As Tyerman notes, these attempts to co-opt the crusade for secular ends never attracted the same level of popular enthusiasm as the more “classic” crusades aimed at liberating the Holy Land from infidels.

I’m not going to try to summarize the long and complex history that Tyerman narrates, but a few notes about his perspective are worth making. This is clearly intended to be a magisterial work that will serve as a standard account for many years to come, and I’m sure it will do so. As befits such an ambition, Tyerman’s general approach is sober and measured, and in many places he seems to be intent on debunking sensationalistic interpretations of the crusades and simplistic narratives, including those that have become very common in recent years as religious conflict in the Middle East has made the crusades seem more relevant than ever to current events. Tyerman has a decidedly dim view of such interpretations. At times this makes him seem surprisingly sympathetic to the crusaders compared to other writers, as with the Fourth Crusade, which has been widely viewed as a debacle that weakened Christendom for centuries through its capture of Constatinople. More ambiguously, his account of the Third Crusade pushes back hard against the romanticization of both Richard I and Saladin, and here as elsewhere he tries to put the characters he describes in the context of the very brutal, warlike environment in which they lived and acted. His account of Louis IX, on the other hand, comes across as a brutal takedown of a remarkably unsuccessful crusader who was able to nevertheless parlay that record into a reputation as an exceptionally pious monarch and eventual saint.

Overall, then, this is a good book, but it’s not a breezy read. In addition to its length and heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to have been edited very well, and there are a surprising number of typos and other obvious editing errors. The prose style is also rather leaden and inartful, though admittedly this is a more subjective judgment. These quibbles aside, however, this is a magisterial effort and an excellent introduction to an important though complicated and ambiguous topic.


Bears Ears from Natural Bridges National Monument

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order requiring the Secretary of the Interior to review all presidential designations of national monuments under the Antiquities Act since 1996 where the size of the designated monument exceeds 100,000 acres or where “the Secretary determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders,” and to provide a report within 120 days evaluating the extent to which any monument designations did not conform to the requirements of the Act and recommending actions the president or Congress might take to remedy these problems. This order has widely been interpreted and reported as an attempt by Trump to abolish controversial national monuments designated by his predecessors, especially Barack Obama, who designated more monuments than any other president. This certainly seems like a fair reading of Trump’s intent in signing the order, or at least of the impression he sought to make with it.

It’s not clear that he can actually do this, though. It’s noteworthy that the Executive Order itself only orders a review and report on whether there are problems with the designations and what might be done about them if so. It doesn’t directly have any substantive impact on anything. While this is a common pattern with Trump’s executive actions so far, in this case there is a very clear reason for it, which is that it’s not at all clear that a president actually has the authority to abolish a national monument or to revoke a designation made by one of his predecessors.

Much of the discussion of this order has centered on Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, which President Obama designated on December 28, 2016. Local officials in Utah were furious about this particular designation and have been trying to overturn it since it was made. Bears Ears is the only specific monument designation mentioned by name in the Executive Order, in a section that requires an interim report within 45 days on it and any other designations the Secretary sees fit to include. Bears Ears is also potentially of interest to readers of this blog as the location of numerous ancient Pueblo (and other) archaeological sites, including the Mule Canyon and Butler Wash Ruins, which are easily accessible Utah Highway 95 and developed for visitation. It surrounds Natural Bridges National Monument, which also contains many archaeological sites in addition to the geological structures for which it is named.


Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling near Blanding, Utah

To understand why it is unclear whether the president has the authority to abolish a national monument designated under the Antiquities Act, it is necessary to go back and look at the Act itself. Passed in 1906 under president Theodore Roosevelt, who went on to use it to establish many monuments including Chaco Canyon in 1907, the Antiquities Act is noteworthy these days for being both remarkably short and remarkably ambiguous. It states:

That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected

Presidents since Roosevelt have interpreted this authority broadly, and have used it to designate monuments of up to millions of acres to protect the “objects of historic and scientific interest” therein. (Bears Ears alone is about 1.35 million acres.) This seems inconsistent with the colloquial meaning of the term “monument,” which to many people implies something much smaller than, say, a national park, but in fact the broad interpretation goes back to the very beginning and even Roosevelt himself designated 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument (which, like many monuments, was later changed by Congress into a national park). Furthermore, the courts have generally agreed with this broad interpretation of the president’s power under the Act, including in an important Supreme Court case in 1920 regarding Grand Canyon. Thus, opponents of particular monuments, such as the Utah politicians upset about Bears Ears, have sometimes been inclined to try to get a subsequent president to revoke a monument designation.


Tower at Mule Canyon, Utah

However, as a recent Congressional Research Service report explains, no president has ever tried to do this, and while this means there has been no test in court of a president’s authority in this area, there are other indications that it is unlikely to hold up. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to abolish a monument and consulted with his Attorney General to determine if this was possible. The AG determined that the text of the Act did not explicitly give the president the power to abolish a monument, and that there was no precedent for that power being given implicitly either. Roosevelt elected not to put this to the test.

It may seem odd that the president would have authority to take an action but not to revoke it, especially since Executive Orders are often described in exactly these terms (i.e., that they are weaker than Acts of Congress because a future president can unilaterally revoke them). A designation under the Antiquities Act isn’t quite a regular Executive Order, however. This is not an inherent power of the executive, but a Congressional power delegated explicitly to the president through the Act. Congress can also designate national monuments, and only it can establish national parks. The power to establish parks is an authority that Congress has not delegated to the president. The authority to abolish national monuments, including those designated by a president under the Antiquities Act, appears to be another such undelegated authority retained by Congress alone, and Congress has in fact abolished a few presidentially designated monuments by statute.


Sun Marker at Edge of the Cedars with Bears Ears in Background

So it seems that if Trump were to unilaterally try to revoke Obama’s proclamation and abolish Bears Ears or another monument covered by this Executive Order, the move would probably (but not necessarily) be overturned by the courts. This doesn’t mean these monuments are totally safe, however. There has been precedent for a president to add or subtract land from an existing national monument, and while the addition of land appears to be legally valid under the same theory underlying the power to create new monuments, the authority to remove land is more questionable. While this is also untested by the courts, presidents who have removed land from monuments have claimed to  have authority to do so under the provision of the Antiquities Act requiring that monuments be confined to the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” In theory this means Trump could reduce the size of a monument like Bears Ears to a tiny area, perhaps the immediate surroundings of the eponymous buttes, and claim to be within the law. Obama’s proclamation, however, in this case referred to “numerous objects of historic and of scientific interest” within the monument boundaries, without being very specific about what those objects are, which might make it difficult for a reduction in size to pass muster with the courts. As with so much else on this topic, however, this theory remains untested in an actual court case.

Finally, setting aside all of these questions about the president’s authority, there’s Congress. Note that Trump’s order asks the Secretary for recommendations on congressional as well as presidential action to address any problems he identifies with the monument designations. Here, there is no legal ambiguity: Congress has the authority to modify or abolish a national monument in any way it wants. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and Trump in the White House, it might seem like the obvious approach for the anti-monument forces would be for Congress to pass a law abolishing Bears Ears and whichever other monuments the Secretary recommends getting rid of. In theory this would indeed be possible, but in practice the current Congress and president have had a lot of trouble passing even their highest-profile priorities, so it’s by no means a sure thing that they would be able to get a bill like this through. Public lands are quite popular with the country as a whole, if not with Utah politicians, and it’s likely that any attempt to roll back monuments would stoke extensive public opposition that would make it a hard lift for a Congress with plenty of problems already. Similarly, while Congress could effectively neuter the management of new monuments by withholding funding for them from spending bills, the current state of budget negotiations suggests that they would have trouble doing that as well.

Does all this mean Bears Ears and the other monuments are definitely safe from the machinations of Trump and his congressional allies? By no means; if they’re committed enough there are definitely things they can do to harm them, such as through budgeting decisions within the executive branch departments tasked with managing them. But like so much else in our system of government, once a monument is in place it’s no easy feat to get rid of it.


Entrance Sign for Natural Bridges National Monument, Est. 1908

Seward Sesquicentennial


Fish-Weighing Station, Seward, Alaska

150 years ago today, US Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard de Stoeckl signed the treaty known as the Alaska Purchase, under which Russia sold Alaska to the US for $7.2 million. The agreement was controversial at the time, and remains so in some circles, but for better or for worse it shaped the destiny of this far corner of the world from that point on.


Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

There are a few events both in Alaska and in Washington DC commemorating the anniversary this year, and “Seward’s Day” is an Alaska state holiday that state employees get off annually (it was actually on Monday this year), but otherwise this isn’t a widely celebrated or noted date even within Alaska. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it either, actually, but I figured I’d at least point it out and share some pictures of the charming town in Alaska that bears Seward’s name.


Sea Otters in Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

The First Family of Chaco


Entrance to Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

A fascinating and important article about Chaco was published last week in Nature Communications, an open-access offshoot of the venerable journal Nature (already a good sign). Since it’s open-access, the full text of the article is available free online here.

The researchers behind the article, based mainly at Penn State and Harvard but also including Steve Plog at the University of Virginia and a couple of people at the American Museum of Natural History, sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of several of the people buried in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito in an attempt to determine if they were related. This addresses a number of outstanding issues in the interpretation of the Chaco Phenomenon, particularly those revolving around the political economy of Chaco and the degree to which it was a hierarchical society. They also radiocarbon-dated the remains and did some additional genetic analysis to confirm the sexes of the people and try to determine any close genetic relationships among them.

The results were striking. All of the tested remains had identical mitochondrial genomes, indicating that they were all related through the maternal line, which in turn suggests strongly that Chaco was a matrilineal society in which this particular maternal lineage had an enormous amount of power and wealth that led it to have the most elaborate burials in the history of Pueblo societies. The radiocarbon dating suggests in addition that people from this lineage continued to be buried in the special crypt in Room 33 throughout the florescence of Chaco, starting in the early ninth century AD and continuing until the early twelfth century. (What exactly happened then remains obscure.) The DNA sex determinations matched those previously determined through osteological analysis 100% as well.


Old Bonito from Above

These results, which are based on carefully controlled analyses and seem very solid, are not exactly surprising, but they do provide apparent confirmation of certain models of Chaco and apparent falsification of others. Specifically, they support models involving robust social hierarchy and inequality, with some lineages having more authority than others and one at the top. Most recent evidence has pointed in this direction, but this study is a particularly strong support for it. Also, they provide support for the idea that Chacoan society was more like the ethnographic Western Pueblos, which are matrilineal and structured around kin groups known as “clans” that derive their power and status from their control of esoteric religious knowledge, than the Eastern Pueblos, which are patrilineal and structured around non-kin-based groups known as “societies” that derive their power and status from similar bases. (If this distinction seems fairly minor, that’s because it is. But in attempting to reconstruct historic societies it’s important.)

It’s important to note that while these results do provide support for a matrilineal model of Chaco, that’s very different from saying they support a matriarchal one, as some media coverage I’ve seen has either implied or stated explicitly. Reckoning descent through the mother’s line is very different from having women run things with men in a subordinate position. The former is quite common cross-culturally, while I’m not sure if the latter exists at all in the ethnographic record. The fact that several of the people buried in Room 33 appear to have been related maternally doesn’t negate the fact that the two most elaborate burials were both of men, and in general there’s no reason to think that Chacoan society wasn’t strongly patriarchal, and plenty of reason to think it was.

Finally, from a methodological perspective this is a particularly interesting paper. The authors say that it appears to be the first use of genomic analysis to determine family relationships in a prehistoric society (i.e., without the availability of written records to check the results). I’m not completely sure that’s correct, but this has certainly not been a common type of study. In discussing DNA evidence a while back, I mentioned that in the Southwest it had mostly been used so far just for determining mitochondrial haplogroups, which provide some useful information but not nearly as much as can be provided by genomic analysis, which at that time hadn’t really been used at all in the Southwest. This paper marks the first major use of this type of analysis in the region, and it shows how powerful it can be. Now that the precedent has been set, it can be used in other contexts to see where this particular matrilineage shows up elsewhere in Southwestern prehistory both before and after Chaco, as well as to address other issues of kinship and identity within Chaco.
Kennett, D., Plog, S., George, R., Culleton, B., Watson, A., Skoglund, P., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Stewardson, K., Kistler, L., LeBlanc, S., Whiteley, P., Reich, D., & Perry, G. (2017). Archaeogenomic evidence reveals prehistoric matrilineal dynasty Nature Communications, 8 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14115

The Rebel Rangers


National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage, Alaska

It’s been interesting to me to see a lot of the early resistance to the Trump administration coming from National Park Service employees, starting with the famous tweets about climate change from the Badlands National Park Twitter account and continuing with the various “Alt-NPS” Twitter feeds (the authenticity of which is impossible to confirm, of course, but it’s quite possible at least some are legit). There are some very specific reasons having to do with the NPS’s structure and policies that make it a particularly likely source for this type of thing, and I think some of them are actually problems that really should be addressed in the long term, despite how useful they may be in the short term in pushing back against Trump’s agenda. (I haven’t been very political on this blog in a while, but it should be clear from the above where my sympathies lie, and I think most people who care about scientific inquiry and public lands are lining up similarly.)

First, the NPS relies very heavily on non-permanent staff who are hard to keep in line with threats to their job security because they don’t have any to start with. It’s been reported that the Badlands tweets were actually by a former employee who still had access to the account, which is the justification park management gave for deleting them. It’s possible this is just an excuse made up by management to save face in front of the new administration, but I doubt it. I think it’s most likely that Badlands hadn’t changed their Twitter password in a while, and a former seasonal or term interpretive ranger who still knew it was able to get in and make the tweets before anyone was the wiser.

So far so good, but it’s not actually good for an agency to rely so heavily on such a transient workforce. There are some good reasons for so much of the work being seasonal, to be sure. Many parks have very pronounced seasonal patterns in visitation that require big differences in staffing levels, especially for the jobs that require a lot of interaction with visitors (mostly interpretation and law enforcement). A lot of seasonal staff are young people at a transitional point in their lives, and a short seasonal gig fits well; this was the case for me at Chaco, and it was a great experience that I don’t regret at all. So I’m not saying the NPS should do away with seasonal work entirely. There are a lot of people, however, who decide to make park-rangering a career, which typically requires several seasonal jobs in different parks before a permanent opening opens up. These are not good jobs. The pay is low, and they come with very meager benefits, especially compared to permanent federal jobs. So people who decide to devote their lives to the serving their country through working in its parks have to go through several years of eking out a living with no job security before they get their first “real” job with some semblance of stability. (There are some interesting parallels here to academia.)

A better way to accommodate the seasonality of NPS work might be to expand the use of so-called “career-seasonal” jobs, which guarantee continued employment in subsequent seasons even though they only allow for a certain number of hours per year. This sort of arrangement isn’t for everyone, but it could help provide more stability to people who want to continue doing this work rather than moving on to something else. Whether or not this would be a viable option, some sort of shift away from such heavy reliance on short-term seasonal staff would have a lot of benefits, I think.

Similarly, I think the NPS overuses so-called “term” jobs, which are typically one to four years in duration, for work that is really a part of ongoing operations. Again, these jobs, which are more typically back-office administrative positions rather than visitor-facing ones, have fewer benefits than permanent ones and don’t pay particularly well, and they lead to the same pattern of career people moving from park to park for years before they can snag a permanent position. Unlike with seasonal jobs, I don’t see any valid justification for such extensive reliance on term employees for this sort of work. There is a role for this kind of job, but it should really be focused on short-term special projects rather than ongoing operations.

Secondly, the proliferation of renegade tweets on official accounts early on, and of renegade accounts once management began to crack down on those, is a symptom in part of the highly decentralized structure of the NPS compared to other land-management agencies. There are real problems with the considerable amounts of autonomy granted to park superintendents, which has contributed to recent scandals at parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Tighter oversight of superintendents by regional management would be a good idea, I think.

But the decentralization goes well beyond them, and to some degree is a function of the nature of the work itself, as encapsulated in the term “ranger” itself. There’s just a limit to how much supervision even park management can exercise over individual employees when wandering around the park is a big part of the job. I can attest that when I was first starting to lead tours at Chaco I was told that a senior ranger would go on one of my own tours within the first couple weeks to check on me. It never happened, not just in the first two weeks but ever. Especially at smaller parks where staffing is always stretched pretty thin, there’s not a whole lot of effective supervision and management just has to trust that employees are doing things right. And again, many of these employees are seasonals without any real job security, which further limits the options management has for dealing with a rogue ranger. This has been another contributing factor to the scandals I mentioned above. Visitor feedback is one of the main mechanisms for supervision in this context, which is a good thing to keep in mind if you have a particularly bad (or good!) encounter with a ranger at a park as a visitor. They really do read those comment forms.

Luckily, in my experience the vast majority of NPS employees, regardless of their employment status, are conscientious and passionate about their jobs, so the lack of supervision and need to rely on trust aren’t as big a problem as they could be, although as the recent scandals have showed they can lead to big problems if management isn’t making a conscientious effort to exercise what supervision it can and to create a healthy working environment for all staff. The excessive autonomy of superintendents and especially the over-reliance on non-permanent staff are bigger problems, and the latter in particular is unconscionable even if it does enable some snarky tweets directed at Donald Trump.


Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center


Entrance Sign at Hovenweep National Monument

Today is the winter solstice, which also makes it the eighth anniversary of this blog. I like to mark these astronomical occasions with posts about archaeoastronomy, which is one of the most interesting fields of study relating to Chaco Canyon and other prehistoric sites of the Southwest. Today I just have a brief and fairly speculative post connecting some other suggestions I’ve made about how astronomy related to the larger cultural systems of these societies.

In Ray Williamson’s book Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian, which as I’ve noted is still a very good introduction to the subject despite being more than 30 years old now, he opens the chapter on the ancient Pueblos with fieldwork he had personally done at Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep is one of the more obscure Park Service units in the Southwest, consisting of several different clusters of ruins scattered on both sides of the Colorado-Utah state line just north of the Four Corners. The sites themselves are quite impressive, however, and well worth visiting. The most prominent and striking are the “towers” that tend to be placed along the edges of canyons near their heads, which are generally quite well preserved. These have not been extensively studied by archaeologists, and this area is not very well understood compared to many other parts of the Colorado Plateau


Hovenweep Castle

From what little we do know, the towers and related sites seem to be post-Chaco in age, and they don’t show much evidence of Chacoan influence. Williamson mentions tree-ring dates at Hovenweep Castle, the largest tower site in the Little Ruin Canyon/Square Tower group near the monument’s visitor center, of AD 1166 and 1277, which is after the main florescence of Chaco and contemporary with the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. The towers do have some architectural similarities to the cliff dwellings, and overall seem to fit into the Mesa Verde or Northern San Juan tradition. They don’t show any particular resemblance to Chacoan “great houses” in either size or form.

Williamson measured potential alignments to the solstices and equinoxes at Hovenweep Castle and a smaller site nearby called Unit Type House, as well as at another group of sites within the monument. These alignments generally involved small “ports” or holes in the exterior walls through which sunlight shines on or near the days in question. The beams coming through these ports tend to fall on opposite corners, suggesting that they were being used as calendars to track the progress of the sun, presumably to schedule rituals and/or agricultural activities. There is ample evidence in the modern ethnographic record that the modern Pueblo “Sun Priests” and other officials used solar observations similarly.


Unit Type House, Hovenweep

What I want to note here, however, is that Williamson found ports with solar alignments both at Hovenweep Castle, the largest site in the Little Ruin Canyon group and plausibly either a public/ritual facility or the residence of a community leader (or both), and at Unit Type House, which in keeping with its prosaic name is a smaller site that was likely a more mundane residence. This suggests that watching the sun and keeping calendars was a practice not limited to chiefs or priests at Hovenweep, but was practiced by ordinary people as well. But why?

A possible answer comes from Frank Cushing’s pioneering ethnographic work at Zuni in the late nineteenth century, which is quoted by Williamson in this connection. According to Cushing, while the Sun Priest was responsible for the official observation of the sun to set the ceremonial calendar,

many are the houses in Zuni with scores on their walls or ancient plates imbedded therein, while opposite, a convenient window or small port-hole lets in the light of the rising sun, which shines but two mornings in the three hundred and sixty five in the same place.

Cushing implies that the reason so many people had their own calendars like this was to check the accuracy of the Sun Priest’s observations, which implies that the people didn’t necessarily trust him to get it right.


Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the “Sun Dagger” Petroglyph

So far, so good, and in keeping with the general tendency toward egalitarian ideology and mistrust of hierarchical authority for which the modern Pueblos are known. But what I find interesting is the contrast here with Chaco, where many astronomical alignments are known for the great houses and other sites that were potentially ritually important (like the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph atop Fajada Butte), but none as far as I know in the small houses where most of the population would have lived. Did the Chacoans trust their sun priests more than the later people of Hovenweep and Zuni?

I think they just might have, and this brings me back to another theory I’ve proposed: that the rise of Chaco to a position of regional dominance in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD may have been associated with Chacoan elites’ control of new and ritually important astronomical practices. The astronomical alignments at Chaco appear to be the earliest known ones in at least the northern Southwest, and possibly the Southwest as a whole, and it’s possible that the development (or acquisition) of observation techniques that allowed Chaco’s leaders to demonstrate unprecedented powers of prediction fueled their rise. As long as those powers seemed to hold, they may have been able to keep close control over knowledge of their techniques, or the common people may simply have not thought to question them.

But Hovenweep, with its apparently more “democratic” distribution of astronomical knowledge, dates to only slightly later than Chaco. So what happened in between?


Small House across from Pueblo Bonito

It’s hard to say, and this is one of the enduring mysteries of Chaco, but this period (roughly the middle decades of the twelfth century) does appear to have been a time of great change throughout the northern Southwest, with the ultimate result being the loss of Chaco’s regional influence, although the canyon itself wasn’t completely abandoned until the whole region was at the end of the thirteenth century. There were some major droughts that occurred during this period, which seem to coincide with some of the cultural changes, so maybe the Chacoan elites’ esoteric calendrical knowledge no longer seemed to have the control over rain and fertility that they had claimed, and people began to trust them less and to try to do their own observations too. Or maybe there was a more general spread of astronomical knowledge that undermined Chaco’s influence even if its power didn’t appear to fail. It’s very hard to tell exactly what happened, but the patterns are intriguing.

Anyway, that’s my solstice/anniversary post for this year. Thanks to my long-time readers for sticking with me all these years.


Winter Solstice Sunset