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Star Wars

petrbirdstar

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.

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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.

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Gender and Identity

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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.

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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.

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Petroglyph Panel Showing People

Changes at Chaco

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The Ancient Texas Coast

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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.

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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.

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Texas Flag and Sundial, Brazos Bend State Park

Turkeys on the Edge

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Tijeras Pueblo Overlook

I’ve written some posts before on the interesting recent research being done on the analysis of DNA and stable isotopes to study the genetics and subsistence of the turkeys of the prehistoric Southwest. A recent short paper adds an interesting dimension to this research, by looking at these issues in a sample of turkey remains from a site on the fringe of the Pueblo world, near its interface with the Plains.

The site in question is Tijeras Pueblo, in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The researchers were interested primarily in looking at the stable isotope chemistry of these turkeys to determine whether they primarily ate maize or wild plants, to try to determine how they were raised. In addition, they looked at the DNA of a subset of them to see if they belonging to a previously identified genetic line of domestic turkeys identified in the prehistoric Southwest, or to a separate line associated with modern wild turkeys. In theory, one might expect that turkeys that ate maize belonged to the domesticated line and ones that ate wild foods belonged to the wild one.

In fact, however, what they found was more complicated and interesting. The turkeys fell into two groups which were quite distinct in their chemistry: one that seemed to have eaten maize and another one that seemed to have eaten wild plants. However, the latter group did not have chemistry quite the same as that of the modern wild turkey specimens they compared it to, and was instead somewhat “intermediate” between the maize-fed ones and the wild ones. This suggested to the authors that these turkeys may have been free-ranged, eating a mix wild plants, some maize, and perhaps also insects, and that some of this free ranging may have been in the cornfields for pest control. Similar husbandry practices are documented in the modern Pueblos but had not previously been identified prehistorically.

Even more interesting, however, was the genetic data. Despite the sharp distinction between subsistence strategies implied by the chemical evidence, almost all of the tested specimens belonged to the domesticated ancient Southwestern lineage, and not the wild one. This suggests that the difference in husbandry practices did not correlate to separate origins of the turkeys, but to something different.

Comparisons to specimens from other areas shed some light on possible reasons for this pattern. The researchers compared these turkeys to some from the Albuquerque area, from the Gallina area, and from Arroyo Hondo Pueblo to the north in the Northern Rio Grande area. Since Tijeras Pueblo is at a relatively high elevation where maize agriculture is somewhat marginal, it might be expected that this environment explains part of the difference in turkey husbandry. And when compared with the nearby but much lower Albuquerque samples and the more distant but comparably high-elevation Gallina ones, there is some evidence for this: the Albuquerque samples grouped with the maize-fed Tijeras ones, and most of the Gallina samples grouped with the free-range Tijeras ones. However, the Arroyo Hondo samples, though also high-elevation, showed a much more maize-based pattern, so there is something more than environmental difference going on here.

The authors suggest that the position of Tijeras Pueblo on the eastern fringe of the Pueblo world, at its interface with the very different cultural world of the Plains, may account for the diversity of the turkey husbandry types shown in their data. Conversely, Arroyo Hondo was further within the Pueblo world, while the Gallina region was culturally distinct in ways that are still poorly understood. The authors recognize, however, that further research will be necessary to flesh out the context of these results. In any case, this is a very interesting paper that adds another little bit to our knowledge of the past.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Turtle at Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Holy Wars Again

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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.