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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Entrance Sign for Natural Bridges National Monument, Est. 1908

Seward Sesquicentennial

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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.

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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.

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Sea Otters in Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

The First Family of Chaco

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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.

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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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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

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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.

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Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Winter Solstice Sunset

Arctic Artifacts

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Kotzebue, Alaska

From time to time I like to point out interesting resources I come across, even if they’re not directly related to Southwestern archaeology. One that I just saw via an article in my local paper today is a new website with pictures and information on artifacts discovered in 2013 during construction of a fiber optic line in Kotzebue, Alaska by the Alaska-based telecom company GCI. The artifacts, mostly bone tools, date to the thirteenth century AD based on two radiocarbon dates, and are associated with the Thule culture, which is directly ancestral to the Inupiaq people who now live in Kotzebue and the surrounding region.

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Wind Farm, Kotzebue, Alaska

I’ve been to Kotzebue several times, and it’s an interesting place. It is located slightly north of the Arctic Circle and serves as a “hub” community for the Northwest Arctic region of Alaska, which means it’s a larger community (with a population of about 3,000) that provides services to the smaller villages in the region. Relevant to my own work, Kotzebue has also been a pioneering community for renewable energy development in Arctic environments. Like most rural Alaska communities, Kotzebue is not interconnected to a larger electric grid, so it runs its own system, which has historically been primarily based on diesel generation. However, the local electric utility has been integrating wind turbines into its diesel-based power system for about 20 years now, and wind currently provides a substantial portion of its total power production (18.5% in State Fiscal Year 2015). It doesn’t get as much attention as Kodiak, another pioneering Alaska community that has used a combination of hydro and wind power to make its electrical system virtually 100% renewable, but it’s nevertheless an impressive achievement in a very challenging environment.

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Aerial View of Wind Farm, Kotzebue, Alaska

Room 33 Revisited

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Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

In my post about the recent radiocarbon dating of macaw remains from Chaco Canyon, I mentioned another paper I’ve been meaning to post about. Published in 2010 by Steve Plog and Carrie Heitman of the University of Virginia, it takes a close look at burial practices at Chaco, particularly focusing on the northern burial cluster within Pueblo Bonito. Within that cluster it focuses on Room 33, the location of the most elaborate burial assemblages ever found in the Southwest.

Plog and Heitman take advantage of their Chaco Archive project, which is collecting and making available lots of archival material on excavations at Chaco that was previously very hard to access, to look back at the field notes from the excavators of Pueblo Bonito, particularly those of George Pepper, who excavated this part of the site in the 1890s as part of the Hyde Exploring Expedition. Pepper took very detailed notes, especially by the standards of the time, and particularly for the rooms in the northern burial cluster he kept track of artifact locations and the positioning of skeletal remains, which makes it possible for Plog and Heitman to plot the vertical and horizontal positions of the burials and grave goods in Room 33 to see what patterns there may be.

They find some interesting patterns in the burial and artifact locations, but the most important data they report are radiocarbon dates, directly on the bones, from ten of the burials, including the ones with the most elaborate funerary assemblages, known as Burials 13 and 14. Burials 13 and 14 had actually already been dated for a different study a few years earlier, which I have discussed before, but Plog and Heitman redated them to see if they the earlier results would be replicated. (They were.)

At this point I should back up and review some basic facts about Room 33 and its burials, as well as some assumptions that had seeped into the Chacoan literature over the years despite not being well-supported by evidence.

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Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Facts: Pepper found 14 identifiable individual burials in Room 33. He numbered them in order of discovery, which roughly corresponds to vertical distance from the roof beams, so 13 and 14 were the lowest. Burials 13 and 14 had the most elaborate grave goods by far, including vast numbers of turquoise beads and other ornaments. They were intact and undisturbed, and were separated from the higher burials by a “floor” of wooden planks. The burials above this floor were accompanied by grave goods, but they were mostly disarticulated and appeared to have been disturbed at some point after burial. Pepper proposed that they had been scattered by water flowing into the room at some point.

Assumptions: At some point over the years, the idea entered the literature that these burials dated to the time of the “florescence” of Chaco starting around AD 1030 and lasting for about 100 years. Despite the fact that Room 33 is in the oldest part of Pueblo Bonito and its masonry style indicates that it dates to early in the site’s construction, many archaeologists (starting with Pepper himself) have suggested that it was not originally constructed as a mortuary chamber, and that the burials reflect a reuse of a room that originally had a different purpose. I don’t know where the idea that this reuse coincided with the rise of Chaco as a regional power, or with the advent of monumental construction in the canyon at roughly the same time, originated, but it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to see the establishment of a crypt with unusually elaborate grave goods would happen at the same time as the enormous labor effort reflected in the expansion of Pueblo Bonito and other early great houses, along with the building of many new ones. However, it’s important to note that there was never a rigorous argument made for a late dating of the burials, bringing in support from the pottery styles reflected in the grave assemblages or any other independent lines of evidence.

And, in fact, the most comprehensive study of Chaco burials to date, that of Nancy Akins as part of the Chaco Project in the 1970s, concluded that the pottery types in Room 33 covered a potentially long timespan, which could mean the burials themselves were deposited over a long period of time. On the other hand, it could also mean that certain “heirloom” vessels of styles that were no longer being produced but that had been kept around might be buried with particularly important people, so this evidence wasn’t dispositive about the late-burial theory.

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Old Bonito from Above

Plog and Heitman’s radiocarbon dates, on the other hand, provide firm evidence that the burials do indeed date to a long period, more or less corresponding to the full span of Chaco’s importance as a regional center. Burials 13 and 14 both date to quite early in the history of Pueblo Bonito, with 95% confidence ranges of AD 682 to 870 and 687 to 870 respectively. When averaged with the dates from the earlier study, which were comparable but slightly later, the 95% ranges become AD 691 to 877 and 690 to 873.

That’s very early! It means that these two burials, at least, could easily have occurred at the same time as the initial construction of Room 33, which was likely in the late ninth century. One other burial above the plank floor dates to this period as well. (The bones got relabeled at some point and it’s not clear which sets correspond to which numbers assigned by Pepper, so it’s not possible to say for sure that this was one of the burials immediately above the floor, but it’s a reasonable surmise.) Despite the near-identical age determinations on Burials 13 and 14, the vertical distance between them is by far the highest in the room. This suggests strongly that the large amount of sand separating the two vertically was brought in deliberately rather than accumulating naturally, and they could well have occurred at exactly the same time, or nearly so, very early in the occupation of Pueblo Bonito.

From then on, the dates are more or less continuous up to around AD 1200. The ranges are too wide to come to very firm conclusions on exactly where these later burials fall in the Chacoan sequence, but they do suggest that Room 33 continued to be used as a high-status burial chamber throughout the Chaco Era after beginning to serve that role early on.

This is all very interesting, and Plog and Heitman draw a number of tentative conclusions from it. They argue that this shows that social hierarchy arose earlier in the canyon than often assumed, well before the beginning of construction on a monumental scale, and suggest that the concept of “house society” may be a useful way to interpret Chacoan great houses, with symbolically important spaces like Room 33 serving to legitimize the position of elites through a connection to illustrious ancestors. They also argue that the preservation of the delicate placement of burials and artifacts, as demonstrated in Pepper’s notes, makes it very implausible that the scattering of remains he mentions could have resulted from water intruding as we suggested. Instead, they suggest that some of the scattering could have resulted from disturbance of earlier burials in the course of creating new ones in this small space over the centuries. Another possibility they suggest is that some of the burials are actually secondary, and were placed in Room 33 after having been left to decompose somewhere else for a while. This practice is not documented among the historic Pueblos, but then again lots of the other aspects of the Room 33 burials don’t have obvious modern parallels either.

The evidence for unexpectedly early import of macaws starting around AD 900 in the more recent paper reinforces the evidence in this one for an early development of complexity at Chaco. It’s still not clear exactly what was going on at Chaco in the ninth century, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was very important for the subsequent history of the canyon and of the Southwest as a whole.
ResearchBlogging.org
Plog, S., & Heitman, C. (2010). Hierarchy and social inequality in the American Southwest, A.D. 800-1200 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (46), 19619-19626 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014985107