Peñasco Blanco Framing Huerfano Mesa
One piece of data that sometimes gets mentioned in support of more hierarchical models of Chacoan social organization is the diversity of sizes found among Chacoan great houses both inside and outside the canyon. The idea behind this argument is that the great houses fall into a few rough groups based on size, with the number of great houses increasing as the size decreases, which suggests that they were all organized into a coherent, hierarchical system with the largest ones (mostly in the canyon) at the top and the others playing subordinate roles. One conclusion that follows from this interpretation is that the entire Chacoan system was a single highly organized polity with a central leadership at Chaco. Given this type of organization, it is natural to further conclude that that central leadership was composed of a socioeconomic elite with political power over the other people in the system.
While I’m by no means opposed in principle to the idea of a hierarchical Chaco, I’ve never found this particular argument for it very convincing. A hierarchical social system is certainly one possible source for a hierarchical settlement pattern, but it’s by no means the only one; I can think of several other possible ways such a pattern could emerge just off the top of my head. Recent scholarship on Chaco, in fact, has largely turned away from the idea of Chaco as a single, centralized polity, with the idea of a collection of loosely connected separate polities being more popular now and supported by a variety of lines of evidence (some more convincing than others). Even within this trend toward decentralized interpretations there are varying opinions about social hierarchy, which is actually a separate issue that is often conflated with centralization. I’ll have more to say on that in later posts. Here, my main concern is with the idea that settlement hierarchies serve as evidence for social stratification and regional integration.
Chaco is not the only part of the ancient southwest where this argument has been used. Another, the subject of Peter Pilles‘s chapter 5 of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, is the Sinagua, who occupied the area that is now north-central Arizona around the modern towns of Flagstaff, Sedona, and Camp Verde. While Pilles stops short of actually endorsing the argument that Sinagua settlement patterns indicate social hierarchy, he does discuss it at the end of the chapter. First, however, he gives a useful overview of Sinagua settlement patterns, focusing on the period that is the main focus of the book as a whole, the “Pueblo III” period from approximately 1150 through 1350.
As Pilles points out at the beginning of the chapter, however, Sinagua archaeology tends to use a different system of chronology from the Pecos system in which “Pueblo III” covers this period. Sinagua archaeology is distinctive in several ways from the traditional approach used in the Anasazi area, both because of clear cultural differences between the Sinagua and the Anasazi and because of the pivotal role played by the Museum of Northern Arizona in early research on the Sinagua. (MNA was, and remains, active in Anasazi research as well, particularly in the Kayenta area, but other institutions have always been prominent in Anasazi studies as well and it never played the dominant role there that it has for the Sinagua.) As a result, Sinagua chronology is based on a system of “phases” which correspond only roughly to the “periods” of the Pecos system.
Vent at Hungo Pavi
To make things even more complicated, there are actually two series of Sinagua phases, one for each of the major regional areas of Sinagua settlement. The northern area, encompassing the Flagstaff, Wupatki, and Anderson Mesa subareas, has one series of phases, while the rather different southern area, basically the Verde Valley and the nearby uplands and tributaries of the Verde River, has another. The northern Elden and Turkey Hill phases correspond roughly to Pueblo III, as does the southern Honanki phase.
In addition, chronology in the Sinagua region is considerably cruder than in the various Anasazi regions. The main reasons for this are a relatively small amount of excavation, resulting in few tree-ring dates, and the inconvenient fact that Sinagua pottery shows little variation over time, meaning that, unlike in the Anasazi case, pottery assemblages are of limited usefulness in making chronological placements of unexcavated sites. The main tool for such placement is, therefore, Anasazi pottery imported into Sinagua sites. Since this is not always present in large enough numbers for reliable sampling, Sinagua sites cannot always be dated at all, and even when they can be the chronological control is pretty crude by Anasazi standards. This leads to some problems, as we will see when we return below to the settlement hierarchy question.
Drainage Path over Slickrock
The name “Sinagua” comes from the Spanish for “without water,” originally applied to the San Francisco Peaks, which the early Spanish explorers found surprisingly dry for such large mountains. This is indeed a dry area, so water sources were always a key factor in settlement patterns. In the northern Sinagua area, the main water sources were isolated springs, while in the south the permanently flowing Verde River was the main source. This resulted in very different patterns of settlement locations in the two areas. In general, northern sites (or clusters of sites) were more isolated from each other, while southern sites were lined up in a row along the river, though the specifics varied over time.
The main reason for that variation also seems to have been water-related. The amount of moisture available varied over time, and in wetter times people expanded into areas that had been too unproductive to farm during dry years, only to retreat back to better-watered areas when the dry years returned. This pattern is visible all over the southwest over the course of the centuries, although from the way Pilles tells it the Sinagua area seems to have been oddly out of sync with other regions. In most of the southwest the wettest time was the Pueblo II period, from roughly 900 through 1150, and this is when most of the Anasazi regions saw their greatest extension (most notably, but by no means only, the Chaco Phenomenon). For the Sinagua, however, this seems to have been a relatively dry period and a time of settlement locations in areas with more reliable water supplies. In the north, this meant the higher elevations near the Peaks, while in the south it meant lowland locations closer to the river. A pattern of small sites surrounding a larger site seems to be present at this time in both areas, and these apparent communities often had either a large communal pithouse or a Hohokam-style ballcourt, either of which would have presumably served to integrate the community. Although there was some masonry construction at this time, the older pithouse form was still predominant, with northern (and southern upland) sites having large pithouses with ramp entry and southern lowland sites having more of a variety of designs, with some similar to Hohokam pithouses. There was clearly a certain amount of Hohokam cultural influence during this period, but Pilles argues against previous interpretations that saw cultural changes as being due mostly to Hohokam immigration.
It is during the following Elden and Honanki phases, after 1150, that the Sinagua reached their greatest geographic extent and cultural florescence. Pilles attributes the substantial growth during this time to favorable climatic change, which is an interesting and potentially important contrast to the deteriorating climate and resulting cultural changes in the Anasazi region at the same time. With the wetter conditions they experienced, the Sinagua expanded into lower elevations in the north and higher elevations in the south. There were a wide variety of site types, ranging from very common small pueblos to larger habitation sites with various layouts. None of these, however, were very large compared to Anasazi sites, especially at this time, though some of them grew considerably larger in subsequent phases after 1300. Almost all of the larger sites before 1300 are in the Flagstaff and Wupatki areas rather than the south.
Fajada Butte from Una Vida
Pilles identifies four types of large sites, although the numbers for some are so small that I’m a little dubious about some of these assignments. In any case, they are:
- Massed room block pueblos: by far the most common; basically just large blocks of rooms that generally seem to have grown gradually, with rooms being added on as necessity dictated.
- Plaza-oriented pueblos: roomblocks arranged around a central plaza; these are not very common and are found mainly on the fringes of the Sinagua area, near the neighboring Anasazi and Salado regions where these layouts are more common.
- Courtyard-oriented pueblos: also rare, but these are distinctively Sinagua and seem to have played some sort of important role regionally; they have courtyards defined by walls, generally two of them with room blocks inside the inner one.
- Clustered room block pueblos: basically just multiple room blocks in close proximity; only three of these, two of which are in the Verde Valley.
In addition to the various types of masonry structures, pithouses and cave dwellings known as “cavates” were also common at this time. These are sometimes clustered into apparent communities that would have held populations comparable to those of the larger masonry pueblos.
After reviewing these site types, Pilles concludes that the preferred type of habitation at this time was a small masonry pueblo of 5 to 20 rooms. Smaller and larger sites are present as well, but they seem to have served special purposes which remain somewhat obscure. These are all much smaller than typical Anasazi sites in room count, but it is important to note that Sinagua rooms are typically significantly larger than Anasazi rooms, probably because the Sinagua, unlike the Anasazi, rarely had separate rooms for storage. Large numbers of storage jars are often found in excavated Sinagua habitation rooms. Still, even when this is taken into account, Sinagua sites are generally much smaller than contemporaneous Anasazi sites.
As for the patterns of these sites and their locations at this point, Pilles notes that overall there seems to be a mix of isolated large sites, isolated small sites, and clustered small sites. This is clearer in the north than in the Verde Valley, where sites are strung out along the river and larger sites are sometimes in close proximity to each other. Still, throughout the region there seems to be a mix of dispersed and aggregated settlements.
This is… odd. It’s much more typical to find the same type of settlement distribution across a region, particularly a small one like this. Pilles suggests two main possibilities for explaining this distribution.
Petroglyph Panel Showing What Appears to Be a Mountain Lion
The first is that the dispersed and aggregated communities aren’t really contemporary. As I mentioned above, temporal control for Sinagua sites, especially those known only through survey (which is almost all of them), is considerably weaker than for Anasazi sites, so what we may be looking at here is a process of rapid aggregation, with the dispersed small sites having been occupied for only a short time before the communities aggregated into large pueblos. The time frame under discussion here is somewhere in the range of 100 to 200 years, so a process of aggregation like this would have been very rapid, but when compared with the better-dated Ansazi sites of this period, many of which do indeed show clear evidence of very rapid aggregation apparently in response to increased warfare, it seems pretty plausible. Pilles stops short of endorsing this interpretation, which is understandable given the limited data, but he does present it favorably.
The second possibility, which Pilles also considers at length without ultimately passing judgment on, is that the different site types and distributions indicate a hierarchical regional system. (And here we get back to the issue we started with.) The idea here is that the large aggregated pueblos existed at the same time as the small dispersed pueblos, which were in some sort of subordinate relationship to them. If this was the case, the different sizes of sites could reflect different levels of a hierarchical society. The different site layouts could also reflect this, although since most of them are only present in a very small number of large sites and some seem to reflect outside influence this piece of evidence is considerably weaker than the size differences. Pilles also mentions burial data that has been interpreted as showing a change during the early Elden phase from a “limited stratified society” to a hierarchical chiefdom.
Within a postulated regional hierarchy, the courtyard pueblos seem to be the best candidates for regional centers. Pilles lists a whole series of characteristics that suggest this: locations on prominent hilltops or ridges along probable trade routes, greater numbers of luxury and trade goods, associated public architecture such as large pithouses and ballcourts, and the courtyards themselves. Not all of the courtyard sites have all of these attributes, however, and since there are so few of them the relevance of the list of attributes seems just a little questionable.
Burial data known from the courtyard sites also suggest some form of stratification. The most famous example is the “magician” burial at Ridge Ruin, which had a surprisingly extensive collection of valuable grave goods associated with an older man. To try to understand this rich burial at what seemed like a fairly small and unimpressive site, the excavators consulted some Hopis, who concluded from the evidence that the man had been a high-ranking member of a society, effectively a war chief. Since the Sinagua were one of the many groups that eventually immigrated to Hopi and contributed to the developing society there, the Hopis’ interpretation carries particular weight in this context. Pilles mentions other rich burials as well, and notes that they are generally of older men, which he contrasts with the Anasazi tendency for the richest burials to be of older women. I’m not sure where he got that last part, since the richest Anasazi burials I know of, at Pueblo Bonito, are definitely of older men. Something to look into, certainly.
Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito from Above
Pilles also mentions the presence of community integrative architecture and the persistence of community locations over time as evidence for stratification, which I don’t really see. It’s quite possible for egalitarian societies to stay in one place for centuries and build communal buildings. Pilles doesn’t offer any additional reasons to believe it suggests hierarchy in this particular case.
Of all this evidence offered for hierarchy, I think the burial data is the most convincing, although the general lack of excavation means that it is rather more limited than would be preferable. It’s clear that something interesting was going on in the Sinagua area, which seems to have been something of a frontier zone where influences from various directions met and combined in ways that we now have trouble understanding. I’m not really convinced that social hierarchy was a major aspect of the resulting mix, but I’m not convinced that it wasn’t either. I do, however, find the “rapid aggregation” theory more plausible than the “social hierarchy” theory for explaining the narrow matter of the mixed settlement pattern.
Few (though not quite no) archaeologists seriously argue that there was any significant direct connection between Chaco and the Sinagua, but the parallels are interesting for both the similarities and the differences that they reveal. I don’t have any clear thoughts about the implications of those comparisons, but they certainly merit further study.
Petroglyph Panel Showing People
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