Cliff Palace and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

In addition to reports of potential astronomical features at prehistoric sites and speculations on the role of astronomy in ancient societies, Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited contains some chapters giving guidance on methodology for archaeoastronomical research, particularly aimed at developing increased rigor that can make the results of this research more useful for archaeologists. One of these chapters, by Gregory Munson, focuses on archaeoastronomy at Mesa Verde National Park and how it can be supported or challenged by using a methodology he calls architectural documentation or “ArcDoc.”

Munson spends much of the paper laying out the details of how to do ArcDoc, which basically amounts to a standardized set of recording procedures for sites and a commitment to fully research historical archives for materials relating to site excavation and restoration. The formal procedures are apparently those used by park management at Mesa Verde, but the basic ideas here are standard pretty much anywhere archaeologists have put in place a rigorous site documentation program (e.g., on most public lands in the US).

Munson then turns to specific examples of how ArcDoc has helped clarify findings from archaeoastronomy, focusing on three sites at Mesa Verde: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Sun Temple. In each case, archival research has either significantly challenged findings from initial archaeoastronomical research or otherwise improved understanding of the sites.


Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

With Cliff Palace, Munson focuses on two features in the well-known “Tower” part of the site, both of which have been proposed to have associations with lunar standstill observations. One is a vent in the wall of the tower that has been demonstrated to align with moonset over Sun Temple during the southern major lunar maximum. The other is a nearby pictograph of four vertical lines with horizontal “ticks” that has been proposed to be a record of four 18.6-year lunar standstill cycles.

The vent alignment turns out to be very questionable after looking back at records of excavation and reconstruction of the site beginning with the work of Gustav Nordenskiöld in the 1890s and Jesse Walter Fewkes in the 1900s. Photographs from before the partial reconstruction of the site by Fewkes in 1909 show that this whole portion of the tower had largely collapsed, and the original size and shape of the vent in question is impossible to determine. Furthermore, the current vent that has the documented alignment isn’t even the result of Fewkes’s reconstruction, but of a later one by Earl Morris and Al Lancaster in the 1930s that replaced it. Munson claims that there is another opening in the wall that is more original and seems to display the same alignment, but this is an important cautionary tale for archaeoastronomers who, like many visitors, all too often assume that what they see at a site today is exactly what was there when it was originally occupied.

A similar problem affects the pictograph. The current version turns out to be a partial reconstruction by Lancaster in 1934 after two of the vertical lines had severely deteriorated, and the number of ticks on these lines does not match what appears to have been the original pictograph based on a photo taken in 1902, which Lancaster appears to not have had access to when doing his reconstruction. The numbers are still fairly close and Munson argues they could still be a record of lunar standstill cycles given the level of precision that might be expected for these observations, but still, another cautionary tale. Especially at a well-known, heavily visited, and actively managed site like Cliff Palace, you can’t assume that everything you’re seeing is original. (I used to make this point frequently to visitors at Chaco, and toward the beginning of my tours of Pueblo Bonito I would explain which parts of the masonry are and are not original.)

At Balcony House, Munson explains that proposed summer solstice and equinox alignments are thrown into question, in one case because an editing error resulted in results from observations at a different site being attributed to this one in publication, and in another case because archival research showed that a wall opening with a purported alignment had been partially sealed before impacts from recent visitation. These issues aren’t as major as those with Cliff Palace mentioned above, but they are noteworthy because they affect Munson’s own previous research, and he deserves a lot of credit for being straightforward and transparent about them.


Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Finally, a happier story from Sun Temple. Fewkes excavated here in 1915, and a 1916 publication of his illustrates two prayer sticks found in these excavations. However, the collections from this work, housed at the park, do not include any prayer sticks. Where did they go?

Through some archival sleuthing in Fewkes’s papers at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, it turned out that he had also excavated at Oak Tree House in 1915, and the collections from this work are now held at the Smithsonian. And sure enough, this collection turned up two prayer sticks that could be matched to those in the illustration through their shapes and distinctive cracks. The fact that these actually appear to have come from Sun Temple rather than Oak Tree House helps to better understand the history and use of both sites.

In all these cases, the understanding of potential astronomical or ritual use of specific sites has been improved by carefully examining the archival history of their excavation and reconstruction. Archaeologists are increasingly aware of the importance of looking at this history when trying to understand sites like this, but this awareness is only beginning among archaeoastronomers, and Munson’s contribution here is a welcome illustration of its value.


Vent at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde


Salmon Ruins Sign

One of the most interesting chapters in Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited reports on archaeoastronomical research at Salmon Pueblo (also known as Salmon Ruins), a large Chacoan “outlier” great house near modern Bloomfield, New Mexico. The paper is by Brooks Marshall and Larry Baker of the San Juan County Museum Association, which manages the site, and it argues that one particular room at Salmon was likely used as an observation station for both solar and lunar events.

The room, known as Room 82, is in the southeast corner of the central room block on the north side of the plaza, just southeast of the elevated “tower kiva” in the center of the block. When it was excavated in the 1970s, the excavators found that it had several unusual features that suggested it was used for specialized non-domestic purposes, though it was not clear to them at the time what those might be. In addition to the commonly found hearths, milling bins, and T-shaped doorways, there was an unusual opening in the east wall which Marshall and Baker call a “window” (unfortunately they don’t explain why they use this term, which is generally not used in describing Chacoan architecture), an adobe platform in the northwest corner that had two shallow pits at its north end, and a dividing wall in between of uncertain original height. The platform and wall were destroyed in the course of excavation, while the window has deteriorated a bit over time but is still there.

The unusual nature of these features and their east-west alignment made Marshall and Baker suspect an astronomical role, so in 2008 they created a replica of the adobe platform out of plywood and positioned it where they calculated it would be hit by light through the window at equivalent times to the original, taking into consideration the higher floor level due to backfilling of the room. In 2009, a stabilization project removed the backfill and allowed them to place the replica in the original location of the platform to verify their results. Further testing in 2010 and 2011 involved simulating the original size and shape of the window opening. Throughout these tests they placed two rocks on the platform to simulate the two pits at the north end of the original, known as Features 71 and 72.


Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

Their results were striking. They found that the northernmost pit, Feature 72, was lit by sunlight coming through the window only on the summer solstice, and when the original window opening was simulated the light was quite narrowly focused on this feature. Feature 71, despite being only a few centimeters away, was never lit up by the sun at all. It was, however, lit by moonlight during the major lunar standstill, when the moon rises at its most extreme position relative to the sun for a few years. It’s long been known that the first major period of construction at Salmon in AD 1089 and 1090 corresponds to the lead-up to a major lunar standstill, and indeed Marshall and Baker’s calculations showed that it was in these years that moonlight would have first illuminated the features at the north end of the platform. By the standstill itself, which lasted from AD 1093 to 1095, moonlight would have hit about three quarters of the platform. Marshall and Baker propose that the south end, which is never nit by moonlight, may have served as an observation point where someone could sit and observe the moonlight move across the platform over time, possibly allowing the prediction of the standstill.

Obviously the wall in between the window and the platform adds a complication to all this, as it would have blocked at least some light from coming through. There’s no way to tell how high it initially was, so Marshall and Baker ran some calculations based on different heights to see how they effected the illumination patterns they documented. They found that at a certain height the wall would have prevented the beam of light coming through the window from moving beyond the platform onto the floor, which may have been intentional. At higher heights it would have blocked the beam entirely, but the base of the wall was fairly thin and probably couldn’t have supported a full-height wall.


Excavated Rooms at Salmon Ruin

This is exciting research for several reasons. It’s always interesting to see a careful study of architectural alignments to celestial phenomena that takes into consideration excavation history and possible confounding factors. It’s particularly interesting that this study seems to have shown strong evidence for alignments even taking those other factors into consideration. The solstice alignment seems like the best established to me, which is unsurprising since solstice alignments in general are the best documented phenomena in ancient Pueblo archaeoastronomy. What I find most intriguing, however, is the possible lunar alignment and its relation to the construction dates at Salmon, since despite a lot of talk about lunar alignments at Chacoan sites very few have been securely documented, and unlike solar alignments there is no support for them in modern Pueblo ethnography. If this lunar alignment really does hold up, it helps strengthen the argument that the Chacoans really did observe and care about these subtle lunar cycles.

The strongest evidence so far for Chacoan observance of lunar standstill cycles comes from Chimney Rock Pueblo, further north in Colorado. The evidence here is quite strong indeed, as the full moon rises between twin spires of rock as seen from the great house only during the major lunar standstill, and this accounts for the otherwise very puzzling location of the great house atop a high, steep mesa. There is also some evidence from the dates of construction at Chimney Rock that some building periods were related to specific lunar cycles. The lack of support from other Chacoan sites, however, has made the seemingly solid evidence fr,om Chimney Rock hard to integrate into the picture as a whole. If people at Salmon, which is fairly close to Chimney Rock and is connected to it by an easy travel corridor along the San Juan River, were also marking the lunar standstill cycle, the picture begins to fill out a bit.

That said, this research is still fairly preliminary and I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the lunar alignment proposed here has been definitely established. More research is certainly necessary to confirm and interpret the patterns documented here. It is certainly suggestive, however, and very interesting.


Backfilled Rooms at Salmon Ruin

Fajada Revisited


Fajada Butte at Sunset

Today is the winter solstice, which makes this the ninth anniversary of this blog. It’s a particularly appropriate date for the paper I’m going to discuss in this post, another chapter from Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited. It’s by prominent archaeoastronomer J. McKim Malville, and entitled “The Enigmas of Fajada Butte.”

Fajada Butte is plenty enigmatic. Though it’s one of the most prominent landmarks within Chaco Canyon, and the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph on top of it is one of the most famous pieces of astronomically aligned rock art in the world, there has been surprisingly little detailed archaeological study of the butte itself. While there has been considerable more study of other ancient sites in the general area, that work has not really been well-integrated with what is known about the butte, which makes Malville’s integrative work in this paper extremely interesting, tentative though it is.

Much of Malville’s paper discusses cross-cultural examples of sacred mountains and stairways, as support for the idea that Fajada played this role in ancient Chacoan culture. This is plausible enough, though of course speculative, and I don’t have much more to say about it. More interesting to me is his discussion of the archaeology of the butte itself and the nearby Fajada Gap community, which contains three great kivas dating to the tenth century AD along with many small-house residential sites, some possibly dating as early as the eight century but most apparently from the tenth and early eleventh. Several of these small houses were excavated by the Chaco Project in the 1970s and are among the best-documented sites in the whole canyon. The great kivas, two of which are part of great houses (Una Vida and Kin Nahasbas), are largely unexcavated and much less thoroughly understood.

The third, isolated, great kiva (site 29SJ1253) is of particular interest to Malville, as it appears to have a winter solstice alignment with the butte. Malville presents documentation that on the winter solstice as viewed from the great kiva the sun rises over the summit of Fajada Butte. Malville suggests that the great kiva was positioned where it was in order to set up this alignment, which would have been an important ritual event for the people in the Fajada Gap community. Based on ceramic evidence, the great kiva appears to have been built in the tenth century, which makes it one of the earliest in the canyon. It is also one of the largest, with a diameter of 20 meters. Both of these characteristics suggest that it was a particularly important site from a very early point in the development of Chaco into a regional center, especially in the tenth century when the Fajada Gap community may have been particularly important, even more so than the South Gap community which may have become more prominent later.

Evidence for this importance also comes from some of the excavated small houses. 29SJ1360, the closest site to the butte, is known especially for one of its pithouses containing the remains of several people who apparently died accidentally there in the early eleventh century. One of the women was found with a necklace containing an exceptional number of beads, suggesting relatively high status in life. These are the remains, furthermore, that Nancy Akins in her biometric analysis found showed the greatest similarity to the extremely high-status burials in the north rooms of Pueblo Bonito, some of which we now know were quite early themselves (as are the rooms). 29SJ1360 contained the only macaw remains found outside of a great house context at Chaco, along with evidence that macaws may have been raised there, and it also had a cylinder jar, a high-status pottery form, perhaps used for consumption of chocolate, that is also very closely associated with the north part of Pueblo Bonito.

Overall, then, there are many indications that the people living at 29SJ1360 were of relatively high status and had connections, possibly familial, to some of the people associated with the earliest part of Pueblo Bonito. Malville documents a winter solstice alignment here as well: viewed from about 100 meters upslope, around noon on the solstice, the sun briefly disappears behind the butte then reappears. This is a less rigorous alignment than the one from the great house, obviously, but it is still suggestive, and combined with the other evidence reinforces the sense that this is an important site despite its small size.

Another small house in this community, 29SJ629 or the Spadefoot Toad site, had evidence for a workshop for the manufacture of turquoise beads, which Malville suggests indicates connections to trade routes coming up from the south. Turquoise at Chaco actually came from all over the place, but it’s true that the Fajada Gap community seems to have connections to the south, which makes sense given that the gap itself is an entrance to the canyon from that direction. As I’ve mentioned before, earlier sites to the south of Chaco are much less well understood than those to the north, but there are indications that these connections were very important in the early development of the canyon, and Malville’s argument that the spiritual status of Fajada Butte played an important role in this development is quite plausible.


Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So much for the community; what about the butte itself? Malville discusses two main items of interest: the ramp leading up the butte from its base, and the rooms at its top. The ramp, which appears to take advantage of some natural ridgelines but is definitely at least partly artificial especially in its upper parts, has received oddly little attention in the literature despite being an impressive accomplishment that, judging from the pottery found on it, apparently dates to the tenth century just like the nearby community sites. There are fire pits at the base and top of the ramp, which Malville suggests may have been used in winter solstice ceremonies that ritual procession up the ramp. Again, this seems pretty likely to me and may well have played an important role in Chaco’s rise to preeminence regionally.

The rooms at the top, on the other hand, appear to date much later than the ramp and to have had a quite different purpose. The pottery on them is overwhelmingly late, mostly thirteenth-century, and the construction of the rooms is rather slapdash by Chacoan standards. Extensive remains of the debris of daily life indicate that they were occupied residentially. Based on these characteristics, Malville suggests that these rooms were used as refuges by the thirteenth-century residents of canyon floor sites like the Gallo Cliff Dwelling during times of upheaval and violence. He associates them with the widespread pattern of “pinnacle” refuge sites throughout the northern Southwest during this period, which is very different from the residential patterns of the much more peaceful Chacoan heyday in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. He notes that most of the rock art on the butte was clearly accessed from these rooms, which suggests strongly that it dates to this late period rather than earlier.

This mention of rock art brings us to what might be considered the punch line of the paper: a reevaluation of the famous Sun Dagger spiral petroglyph with its alignment to the winter solstice. Malville proposes that the “sun dagger” alignment around noon on the solstice at the site with three rock slabs was discovered serendipitously by the thirteenth-century residents of the upper butte, who pecked the spiral petroglyph to mark it. This is quite different from the interpretation that others have made, that it was a primary focus of ritual during the height of the Chacoan era, but it does explain some odd things about it pretty well. The spiral could not have easily served a direct calendrical role in calculating the date of the solstice, which some other petroglyphs with astronomical alignments elsewhere in the canyon could have done, and its noon alignment is both not particularly precise and not documented to be of particular importance in modern Pueblo religion.

Most importantly, however, this theory explains something that has always puzzled me about the Sun Dagger: it no longer works. That is, the alignment of the slabs no longer results in a dagger going through the center of the spiral. This is generally thought to be the result of the ground underneath shifting as a result of too many interested people going to look at it in the period between its (re)discovery in 1978 and its closure to general visitation in the 1980s. If this really was a key site visited by at least some Chacoan ritual specialists for hundreds of years, after which it remained intact for several hundred more years until its rediscovery, why did it only take a few years for modern visitors to impact it enough to ruin the alignment? One possible answer was that it was so important in antiquity that it was only visited by very few people with particularly important roles, and may not even have been widely known about among the general population. Malville’s theory provides what I find a more plausible answer, that it was discovered late in the prehistoric occupation of Chaco by the small population who occasionally retreated to the top of the butte for refuge, and it may not even have been particularly important to them. There is extensive evidence in modern Pueblo ethnography for individual people marking astronomical alignments and keeping solar calendars, apart from the formal roles of Sun Priests and so forth to do so for the community. (Indeed, there is evidence that some people did this because they didn’t trust the Sun Priest to get it right.) I think it makes sense to interpret the Sun Dagger as part of this tradition. (Malville also notes that recent reevaluation of the supposed secondary alignments to lunar standstills and other astronomical events hasn’t confirmed that they are real and deliberate.)

Malville’s conclusions about the Sun Dagger are controversial in some circles, I’m sure, but for the more interesting part of this paper is the part about the early alignments between the butte and sites in the Fajada Gap community. This provides nice support for the theory I’ve suggested that the rise of Chaco was due in part to it being the place where certain kinds of astronomical knowledge were first developed or introduced within the (northern?) Southwest, which gave the canyon and its residents a kind of spiritual power that they were able to translate into considerable economic and/or political power, as manifested in the monumental architecture, exotic trade goods, and other things that make Chaco such an impressive place even today.


Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Star Wars


Four-Pointed Star Petroglyph with Bird Imagery, Albuquerque, New Mexico

When I was in New Mexico in September, my lovely girlfriend bought me a book for my birthday. The book is Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited, a collection of papers from a conference in 2011 on Southwestern archaeoastronomy that is in some ways a follow-up to a previous collection of papers published in 1987 as a volume titled Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest. That volume collected papers from a 1983 conference that was an important event in the early development of Southwestern archaeoastronomy, but it is out of print and hard to find, so I haven’t read it myself.

I recently started reading the new book, and I decided to do a series of blog posts about some of the chapters in it. I’m not going to do a post on every chapter the way I have for some books in the past, but just talk about the ones I find particularly interesting. The one I’ll start with is Polly Schaafsma’s paper on “The Morning Star/Rain/Maize Complex in the American Southwest.”

Schaafsma’s name may sound familiar to longtime readers from her theory of the origin of the kachina cult tying it to the Jornada style of rock art. She’s a prominent authority on Southwestern rock art, and in fact literally wrote the book on the subject. In this paper she discusses evidence, largely from late prehistoric rock art iconography but also from the Pueblo ethnographic record, for the presence in the Southwest of a version of the Mesoamerican ideological complex connecting the planet Venus, warfare, and maize agriculture.

In Mesoamerica this ideology is highly developed, and closely associated with both the calendar and the practice of human sacrifice, neither of which existed in the Southwest on anything like a Mesoamerican scale. In the late prehistoric period after about AD 1050, however, there do appear to have been some major changes in Southwestern religious ideology, as evidenced by new styles of pottery, architecture, and especially rock art. Many scholars, including Schaafsma, have interpreted these changes as evidence for a wave of Mesoamerican influence bringing new ideas into the area, though the exact routes of transmission and reasons for adoption are unclear. The kachina cult, however, seems to have originated through this process, and in this paper Schaafsma makes an interesting case for a version of the “Venus complex” linking the Morning and Evening Stars to warfare and fertility having been transmitted at the same time.


Boulder at Petroglyph National Monument with Various Symbols Including Stars

The core of her argument is the presence of four-pointed star imagery in the Rio Grande Style of rock art, found in the northern Rio Grande Valley and adjacent areas and dating to roughly AD 1350 to 1600. (This is the style that predominates at Petroglyph National Monument on the West Mesa of Albuquerque, where many examples of these stars can be found.) These four-pointed stars are not found in earlier styles of rock art, and they are often associated with imagery suggesting warfare, such as projectile weapons, warrior figures, and characteristics of birds of prey. In Pueblo oral traditions there is also an association between warfare and stars, which were traditionally feared. Stars are also associated with ice and cold, and projectile weapons are associated with lightning, rain, and moisture that helps corn germinate, as are the warrior societies that may have been the mechanism for carrying this ideological package into and through the Pueblo world. Schaafsma admits that there isn’t really a “picture trail” connecting this imagery to its purported Mesoamerican origin, but the story she tells is suggestive, and there are a few links along the way. Some related imagery shows up on Mimbres pottery, which is intermediate both temporally and spatially between Classic-Period Mesoamerica and the late prehistoric Pueblo world, so the story is definitely plausible if not exactly proven.

One final note is that this all postdates the time of Chaco Canyon, where despite evidence for Mesoamerican connections the rock art is quite different, and in fact the spread of these apparently new ideas and images in the late prehistoric period is one of the reasons it is very difficult to interpret Chaco by looking at modern Pueblo ethnography. A lot can change in a thousand years, and in this case definitely has. There are likely still many cultural phenomena among the modern Pueblos that go back to Chaco, but disentangling them from those that developed later is an enormously complicated task that I don’t think anyone has made much progress on so far.

Gender and Identity


Famous Petroglyph Panel High on Cliff Wall

It’s only in the past few years that gender identity, and specifically the issue of the rights of trans (and otherwise gender-nonconforming) people, has become a prominent topic of public discourse and political debate in the US. It’s now firmly ensconced in the culture war pantheon, with “bathroom bills” being hot topics of political controversy in many parts of the country (including here in Anchorage, where an initiative to roll back current protections is on the upcoming municipal ballot). But it’s new enough as a prominent issue that it is still not well understood among wide swathes of the population, which is a large part of why it has become such a flashpoint now that earlier battles over issues like same-sex marriage are effectively settled. Culture-war political fights are always over things that seem new and scary to people who value traditional social norms and structures, and the turf is constantly changing as those norms and structures do.

Within anthropology, however, gender variation and how to understand it has long been a topic of interest and discussion. Anthropologists have long been aware that different societies have different interpretations of gender, and different ways of classifying it. In particular, many of the indigenous societies of North America had (and have) gender concepts and roles that do not fit neatly into the male/female binary traditionally prescribed by Ango-American culture, and American anthropologists have for decades been arguing over how best to interpret these social structures.

In particular, this debate has focused on a role common to many North American societies and recorded by both modern ethnographers and early European explorers: one in which an individual who appears to be morphologically male but has a social role more akin (but not necessarily identical) to that of women. Early French explorers referred to this role by the word berdache, from a term used at the time for the passive partner in male homosexual intercourse, and the word has stuck in the anthropological literature.

Which is not to say that modern anthropologists have necessarily emphasized the sexual role of the berdache! (Although the explorers were correct about what it typically was.) Especially in the mid-twentieth century, many anthropologists began to argue that it was actually the economic role of the berdache, providing “female”-type labor for crucial activities like farming and pottery-making, that was primary, and various theories came about to explain how this structure might have originated and why it was perpetuated and spread so widely. This “desexualization” of the berdache was perhaps an improvement over the lurid outrage of the explorers and the silence of scandalized Victorian ethnographers, but by the late twentieth century it became increasingly clear to a new generation of researchers that it was incomplete at best, and that the sexual role and identity of the berdache deserved a closer look.

One researcher who took a particularly close, and fascinating, look at the role of the berdache was Walter L. Williams in his book The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, published in 1986. In addition to reviewing the ethnohistoric and ethnographic reports of berdachism, as previous researchers had done, Williams actually went out to reservations and did fieldwork with living Native communities where the berdache role was still practiced to varying degrees (often unbeknownst to anthropologists who assumed it had died out). He found that as of the 1970s when he was doing his fieldwork the berdache tradition was still active among many tribes, and even where it wasn’t there was often a living memory of it having been practiced recently. From this work he developed a theory of berdachism, and of cultural variation in gender and sexuality in general, which is spelled out in the book. From the way he presents it this theory seems to have been innovative and controversial at the time, but it feels eerily prescient today, as it echoes a lot of arguments and concepts commonly encountered today, at least in activist and politically engaged circles.

Before going into Williams’s theory, some things are worth noting about Williams himself: First, despite the heavily ethnographic nature of the fieldwork he did, his training was actually as an historian rather than an anthropologist. This may have given him a different perspective on the internal debates within anthropology about how to define and interpret berdachism. Second, he was an out gay man himself, which by his own account made it easier for him to gain rapport and trust with his informants, some of whom explicitly stated that they would not have been comfortable talking about the same kinds of things with a straight researcher. He also went quite far in participant observation, even undergoing initiation rituals to better understand the spiritual aspects of the berdache tradition. That last part is particularly important, since in his interpretation of berdachism the spiritual component is key.

Indeed, in Williams’s view the spiritual aspect of berdachism is the most important component. Drawing extensively on his informants’ own words about how they understand the tradition and the status, he argues that berdachism is seen as an inherent personal quality of an individual with strong spiritual associations. In tribes that do vision quests, berdache status is often bestowed by a spirit during the quest. In other tribes it is seen as more of an inborn quality, but still spiritually important. It is not a matter, in other words, of an economic need for more “women’s work” but of the observed qualities and felt experience of the individual person that led to berdache status.

Here I am generalizing across many different tribes and cultures, as Williams does as well in many place, though he is careful to document specific evidence as backup for his generalizations. As he emphasizes at various points, the berdache tradition is very widespread, and it doesn’t manifest itself in exactly the same way everywhere. There are many striking similarities across cultures in certain aspects of it, however, and the importance of the spiritual aspect is one of these.


Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Another is the sexual aspect, and here Williams adds a lot of data to rebut more economically focused theories. (There’s a reason for the book’s title, after all.) He goes into considerable detail about how the berdaches and other informants he spoke to behave sexually and interpret that behavior, and he concludes that the sexual aspect of berdachism is vitally important but not at all in conflict with the spiritual aspect, since traditional Native societies typically don’t see the same sort of disconnect between sexuality and spirituality that is typical of Christianity. (Many modern Natives are Christian, of course, and their attitudes toward people who might have become berdaches in a previous era reflect that; Williams discusses this phenomenon too, along with other changes to Native societies since European contact.)

Fundamentally, Williams presents berdachism as about individual identity rather than sexual behavior or economic activity. He notes several times that berdachism is not simply equivalent to the modern American concept of “homosexuality”; for one thing, while the berdache has sex with men, those men are not considered berdaches themselves, nor do they have any other specially designated status. Nor is it quite the same as “transsexual” identity, as it was understood at the time to be heavily focused on physically changing sex.

This is somewhat different from how trans identity is now widely understood, at least to my knowledge. One of the most interesting parts of the book to me, in fact, was where Williams does fieldwork among a (non-Native) segment of what would now be considered the trans community, namely people having male genitalia but living and presenting as women. From how he presents this work this community seems to have been largely unaddressed in the anthropological literature on gender and sexuality, but he finds it one of the closest counterparts to berdache status in mainstream American society.

Nevertheless, part of Williams’s point is that there isn’t an exact counterpart to berdachism in mainstream American society today, but that this doesn’t mean it has no relevance to that society. He discusses at length both the impact that study of berdachism has had on the modern gay liberation movement and the reciprocal impact that movement has had on young gay Native people. There is a sort of symbiosis that seems to have developed, in which understanding traditional attitudes to berdachism has helped non-Native gay activists develop a positive gay identity that can in turn transmit knowledge of berdachism to Native youths, especially those from non-traditionalist backgrounds who have not been exposed to berdachism as a positive aspect of their own cultural heritage.

Williams also addresses the less common counterpart to berdachism where morphologically female people take on male-like gender roles. Unlike some other researchers, he doesn’t accept the use of “berdache” for this role, preferring “amazon.” His analysis here is sketchier than with the berdache, due presumably to the much scantier and primarily ethnohistorical evidence he has to work with. It’s still very interesting, though.

Overall, one of the major and important messages Williams gives in this book is that gender and sexuality are separate concepts, and while they interact in complex ways they need to be understood and analyzed separately. Berdachism, in this view, is primarily a matter of gender identity rather than sexuality. Although the berdache has sex with men and this is an important component of berdache identity, homosexual behavior is not confined to the berdache role, nor is it definitive of it. Again, this is in contrast to the modern concept of homosexuality, which is a matter of sexuality rather than gender. It is more similar, though not identical, to the concept of trans identity, which seems to have been considerably elaborated in the thirty years since Williams wrote such that, as I noted above, it is now an important issue in public discourse and political activism.

All that said, readers of this blog may be wondering what all this has to do with Chaco Canyon. Well, the modern Pueblos are among the groups with a very highly developed berdache complex (along with the Navajos and many other Southwestern tribes), and many of the specific examples of both historic and modern berdaches Williams discusses are from the Pueblos. Gender roles are among the social concepts that are hard to project back from modern societies to prehistory, of course, but given the many continuities between the Chacoans and the modern Pueblos it is quite likely that something like a berdache complex existed at Chaco as well. It would in theory be possible to try to investigate this sort of thing archaeologically as well, through such approaches as comparison of skeletal morphology to presumed gender-identified grave goods, but as far as I know little research like that has been done in the Southwest. Even in archaeology generally, this sort of highly specific and detailed work on gender as a social variable independent of bodily morphology is in its infancy, although new techniques such as ancient DNA analysis should provide the opportunity for innovative approaches. In any case, while archaeology has so far not contributed as much to the study of cross-cultural diversity in concepts of gender and sexuality as other disciplines like history and anthropology, all these disciplines ultimately contribute to a fuller understanding of the human story. As society at large develops more nuanced and complete understandings of gender and sexuality today, we can expect researchers in many disciplines to extend the reach of those understandings much more broadly.


Petroglyph Panel Showing People

Changes at Chaco


New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center Exterior

Today is my birthday. I’m 33. As I’ve often done in the past few years, I’m in New Mexico this week visiting my mom. This time I decided to come visit Chaco Canyon, which I hadn’t done in quite a few years. Weather meant I couldn’t spend as much time there as I wanted this time, but I did get to see some of the changes since my last visit.


Interior of New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

The most obvious change is the new Visitor Center. This was under construction the last time I was there, and visitor services were operating out of a temporary yurt. The yurt worked fine, but the new VC is quite nice. Importantly, it now has the wall map of the canyon on the north wall rather than the south one, so that the directions you point to on the map are the same ones as in real life. This was a constant source of confusion and frustration when I was working at Chaco, so it’s nice to have it fixed now.


Windows on East Side of New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

The east side of the VC now has some exhibits on the geology of Chaco, as well as a series of picture windows with a nice view of Fajada Butte. The main museum is still being renovated so I wasn’t able to see it, but I’m sure it’s nice. The old one was getting quite outdated and really needed an update.


New Sign at Pueblo Bonito

There were a few other differences I noticed, like new signs in various places and further deterioration of some of the exposed wood, and I’m sure I would have noticed more changes if I’d been able to spend more time. Still, the main features of the canyon are of course the same and just as impressive this time as the many times I’ve seen them before.


Old Bonito: A Little More Wear, but Mostly the Same as Ever

The Ancient Texas Coast


Trail in Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The big story in the news these days is of course Hurricane Harvey, which has been battering the Gulf coast and adjacent areas of Texas and Louisiana for days now. While it has so far probably done the most damage in Houston, with record rainfall leading to massive flooding in one of the country’s biggest cities, Harvey first came ashore further south, near the small town of Rockport, Texas just north of Corpus Christi. Rockport was very severely damaged by the wind and rain, of course, and has gotten quite a bit of media attention for that.

Rockport has another claim to fame, however, at least for those of us interested in archaeology and prehistory: it is the namesake of the Rockport Phase, an archaeological complex that existed on the central part of the Texas coast in the late prehistoric period and is generally thought to be directly ancestral to the Karankawa people who occupied the same area at European contact. The Karankawa are among the better-documented of the many cultural groups that occupied the Gulf Coast, partly because of the detailed account of them left by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked in this area in 1528 and spent several years living with the natives here and further west as he made his way back to his Spanish compatriots in Mexico. Archaeological research over the past few decades has both confirmed some aspects of this and other historic accounts and added additional information about the culture history of this area.

The Rockport Phase is characterized by a distinctive type of pottery, gray in color with thin, hard walls and a sandy paste. It can be plain (i.e., undecorated), incised, or, most distinctively, decorated with the black asphaltum found in the Gulf area and associated with its extensive petroleum deposits. The beginning date for the Rockport Phase varies in the literature but is in the range of AD 1000 to 1250; the variation is probably due to the fact that Rockport is clearly continuous with the previous Late Archaic culture of the same area. In general, however, the Late Prehistoric period on the coast is defined by the appearance of the bow and arrow and pottery, both of which seem to have reached the central coast around AD 1000 from the north. (Note that this makes at least the beginning of Rockport roughly contemporary with Chaco Canyon far to the west.) As noted above, Rockport is also clearly continuous with the historic Karankawa, and Rockport pottery has been found on some early historic sites.

While pottery is often associated with agricultural people, agriculture was never practiced on the prehistoric Texas coast or, indeed, most of the interior areas of prehistoric Texas. The Rockport people, like their neighbors in all directions, were hunter-gatherers, and they appear to have had a subsistence system based primarily on the rich aquatic resources of the coastal estuaries but with seasonal movements inland to hunt terrestrial game and gather plant resources including pecans and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.


Warning Sign, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The stone tool assemblage of the Rockport Phase, at least from around AD 1250 on, was very similar to that of the inland groups in central and southern Texas, all of which were part of the Toyah Horizon distinguished by the use of Perdiz arrow points. This widespread lithic complex is generally thought to be associated with the hunting of bison, which appear to have rapidly spread south from the southern Great Plains into central and southern Texas during the thirteenth century AD, possibly in response to a drying trend beginning a couple centuries earlier that expanded the grasslands favored by bison. Despite Rockport use of this lithic complex and the presence of bison bone in some Rockport sites, however, stable isotope studies of human remains from cemetery sites on the coast that are contemporary with Rockport have not shown evidence that bison was a substantial part of the diet, which seems to have been heavily based on fish and other marine resources. More research may clarify this apparent clash of different types of evidence.

Speaking of those cemeteries, they area also unusual among hunter-gatherers but quite common in prehistoric Texas, in both coastal and interior areas. Cross-culturally, use of cemeteries rather than isolated burials by hunter-gatherers tends to be associated with “packing” into small territories due to high population densities, as well as with “intensification” of production of subsistence resources, especially aquatic ones. Some archaeologists have proposed theories linking intensification, which includes but is not limited to the development of agriculture, to increased population density due to highly productive resources in certain areas, which also leads to packing into smaller territories. Some of these theories further predict that this will mean less use of terrestrial hunting and increased use of aquatic resources where they are available, and plant resources where they are not.

This type of theory has been tested in Texas and found to largely but not completely explain the distribution of cemeteries and other signs of packing and intensification. In the Rockport area, which clearly had a relatively high population density and depended heavily on the aquatic resources of the estuaries, the theory seems to work. It also works for the Rio Grande Delta area to the south, where the populous Brownsville Complex had its own type of pottery as well as various cultural influences from and trade ties to the Huasteca region of northeastern Mexico to the south. It doesn’t really account for the presence of cemeteries and other signs of intensification in the more sparsely populated areas of central and western Texas, however, where hunter-gatherer populations are thought to have been much lower. Clearly more research on this issue is required. Many of these characteristics are associated with “complex” hunter-gatherers such as those of the Northwest Coast, but I doubt any anthropologist would describe even the higher-density groups on the Texas coast as complex in that sense.

It doesn’t get as much attention as some other areas, and it certainly isn’t as flashy as the ruins in the Four Corners region, but the archaeology of Texas is actually quite interesting. The University of Texas has a great website called Texas Beyond History that provides a lot of information in an easily accessible. It wasn’t a major source for this post, but it’s still definitely worth checking out. We’ve been seeing a lot about Texas in the news lately, but there’s much more to it if you dig a little deeper.


Texas Flag and Sundial, Brazos Bend State Park