Ever since 1927, when it was established at the first Pecos Conference, the so-called “Pecos Classification” has been the most popular system of chronology used by southwestern archaeologists. This is actually rather odd in some ways, since the classification was developed before absolute dating based on tree rings was totally secure or well-established, and as a result the “periods” it uses are (or at least originally were) based mostly on material culture and organized into a sequence that implied a steady process of “progress” or evolutionary development, with the pithouses of the Basketmaker Period giving way to the small aboveground pueblos of Pueblo I, then the larger but scattered small house sites of Pueblo II, culminating in the “Great Pueblos” of the Pueblo III period: the major aggregated sites that are the best-known examples of prehistoric pueblo architecture. (The Classification continues past Pueblo III, but my concern here is with these early periods.)
Once absolute dating became more secure, however, problems with the classification began to emerge. Most importantly, perhaps, tree-ring dates established conclusively that the great houses at Chaco Canyon, considered among the finest examples of Pueblo III architecture, were actually considerably earlier than the other “Great Pueblos” at places like Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. Indeed, the Chacoan sites were contemporaneous with the small sites throughout the region that the classification put in the Pueblo II period.
Interestingly, however, while some archaeologists used these and other problems as reasons to stop using the Pecos Classification, most did not, and instead modified the classification in various ways to incorporate new understandings. Some reinterpreted the developmental categories as applying to sequences that were similar throughout the region but took place at different absolute times in different areas; thus, Chaco becomes a place with an unusually early transition from Pueblo II to Pueblo III. Others did away with the evolutionary aspects of the system entirely and redefined the periods as purely chronological. Under this adjustment, Chaco becomes one development during Pueblo II. One drawback to both of these approaches is that they tend to be applied differently in different regions, since the relationships between absolute time and material culture vary considerably throughout the southwest.
The authors of the different chapters in The Prehistoric Pueblo World, which is devoted to the Pueblo III period but, interestingly, avoids the use of that term in its title, use a variety of means to deal with this issue. Most retain some version of the Pecos Classification, whether as a series of developmental stages or merely a sequence of arbitrary absolute dates. Some, however, refrain from using the Pecos terminology and substitute other systems, whether because the version of the Classification generally used in their region conflicts with the time frame used to organize the book or because they have more fundamental problems with the Classification.
The most prominent example of the latter approach comes in Chapter 8, by John Stein and Andrew Fowler. Stein, of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, is noted for his contrarianism on a variety of subjects related to southwestern archaeology, but he has also made many important contributions to general understanding of certain parts of the ancient southwest, and both these characteristics are on full display here. The chapter is on the San Juan Basin and its peripheries, which is the region where Chaco Canyon is located, and it thus deals heavily with the Chaco Phenomenon and its aftermath. Stein and Fowler acknowledge at the beginning that this book is not about Chaco but they argue that a full understanding of their area in the post-Chaco period requires them to address the Chaco system and its nature. They also argue equally forcefully that the origins of the Pecos Classification give it a considerable amount of interpretive baggage that makes it more problematic than useful, and they therefore eschew its use even as a series of arbitrary segments of absolute time. (They are not totally successful at this, actually, and there are a couple of places in the chapter where they slip into using Pecos terminology. They mostly manage without it, though.)
One of the main problems Stein and Fowler point out about the Pecos Classification is its near-total emphasis on residential architecture, and its consequent tendency to interpret all architecture, including that of Chacoan great houses, as primarily residential. This is particularly problematic given the curiously limited evidence for residential use of great houses, despite their size, and Stein and Fowler are quite adamant that great houses are not residential structures at all. Rather, they see them as community integrative architecture, and divide the overall Anasazi architectural tradition into three categories:
- Residential, or household-level, represented in the earlier periods by small-house sites
- Community integrative, represented during the Chacoan era (and in some regions in the immediate post-Chaco era as well) by great houses
- Regional integrative, uniting communities throughout a region, represened in the Chacoan era by the Chaco Canyon complex and during the post-Chaco era by the Aztec complex
Importantly, Stein and Fowler see these three types of architecture as originating from the same general cultural background and varying primarily in scale. They also see them as evolving uniformly over the period of Anasazi occupation of the San Juan Basin, with both residential small houses and integrative great houses being regularly replaced in accordance with a long-term progression of “ritual time.” Perhaps most controversially, they see the “collapse” of Chaco and the contemporaneous rise of Aztec in the early twelfth century as merely a replacement of this sort, albeit on a much vaster scale than seen elsewhere in the sequence. Since they don’t see the great houses as reflecting population numbers in any meaningful way, they disagree with the common interpretation of this change as indicating a decline of either population or ideology, instead seeing it as a planned regional reorganization. They even argue that people continued to live in small sites for quite some time after the last reliably dated small houses at Chaco, proposing that for some reason dwellings in this period were much more ephemeral and thus have not survived in the archaeological record.
I find that last part, in particular, extremely dubious, and I’m not entirely sold on any of this. I think the most important contribution this chapter makes, however, in addition to the data it presents on post-Chacoan sites in its region, is in making such a strong argument against great houses being residential “pueblos” in the sense envisioned by the original Pecos Classification. While I’m more open to the idea that at least some people lived in the great houses for at least some part of their history, I definitely think it’s difficult to argue, given the evidence available, that they were ever primarily residential or had high populations comparable to those of later aggregated pueblos. For that reason alone I find this chapter important and useful.
Otherwise, I’m skeptical. In some ways this sort of “ritual time” construction is clearly intended to counteract some of the cruder environmental-determinist models that try to explain all the changes in southwestern prehistory as reactions to changes in the environment, and it’s certainly true that some of those models go too far in that direction, but by the same token it seems just as implausible, if not more so, to totally disregard the possibility of external influences on culture change the way Stein and Fowler do here. Surely there was a certain amount of planned, regular renewal of ritual facilities and other community integrative structures, and there is actually quite a bit of clear evidence for this at least for great kivas, but just as surely climatic conditions did fluctuate, and in an environment as marginal for agriculture as the southwest in general and the San Juan Basin in particular those fluctuations must have had some effect on the decisions of a primarily agricultural people living in that area.
So I remain interested but skeptical, which is my general attitude toward strikingly contrarian interpretations. I do think they’re very useful in stimulating discussion and directing research toward important unresolved issues, so I have no intention of trying to stop them from being proposed, but I have a hard time accepting any of them completely. In the case of Chaco in particular, these theories are both numerous and mutually contradictory, which adds another reason for both interest and skepticism. Bring them on, I say, but I remain unconvinced.