Archive for October, 2010

Second-Story Door, Pueblo Bonito

In comments to the previous post, john barton asked:

I’ve been many times in 20 years to chaco and read much and I’ve been forming a blasphemous opinion; what makes pueblo bonito the greatest of the great houses? Assuming all the other great houses were controlled by different entities even while sharing the same religion, why should there have been no successful challenges for bonitos status or position?

I responded, but I think this issue is actually important enough for a post.  I think john is quite possibly on to something, for reasons explained in my response, but here I want to talk about a slightly different way to look at the question of Pueblo Bonito’s uniqueness.  In my response I said that in my view the main thing that makes Bonito the greatest of the great houses is that it’s the best known and most thoroughly excavated.  There are really two parts to this.  On the one hand, the fact that so much is known about Bonito from the extensive excavations there and so little is known about other great houses means that all interpretations of Chaco are necessarily skewed by an overemphasis on Bonito and an underemphasis on the other sites.  The importance of this skew is impossible to tell, of course, because it depends on what the actual nature of the Chaco system was and what the roles of the different great houses were within it, which are basically unknowable with the information we have now.  So in that sense, Bonito is the “greatest” of the great houses just because we know more about it than we know about any of the others, and it quite possibly was not actually the greatest at the time.  In other words, the Bonito-centric nature of current models of the Chaco system could just be due to the historical accident of choices about where to excavate first, and Bonito may not actually have been the greatest of the great houses at the time.

Great Kivas A and Q, Pueblo Bonito

In another sense, though, Bonito really is the greatest of the great houses regardless of whether or not it was the greatest when it was in use.  This is precisely because it has been so extensively excavated and left open for visitors to see.  It’s really a very impressive site, and the visual impact of seeing it and wandering through its huge maze of rooms is one of the highlights of a visit to Chaco.  Because none of the other great houses have been been excavated and left open to that extent, they can’t possibly have the same effect on visitors despite.  They’re all impressive, of course, but the unexcavated and less-excavated ones are not impressive in the same way as Bonito.  The only other great house that can be experienced in anything like the same way is Aztec West, which was also extensively excavated and left open.  It’s bigger than any other great house except Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, but it is smaller than those two, and less of it is open to the public than is the case at Bonito.  It’s also somewhat less impressive just because the setting of the Aztec complex is much less striking than Chaco Canyon.

Tour Group at Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

Back when I was giving tours of Pueblo Bonito, I began to get tired of it after a while, and I would think it was a bit overrated and that the other sites should get more attention.  I, of course, had been reading about all these sites and was interested in them based on that, and it took me a while to realize that for most visitors they’re just not going to have the same effect as Bonito.  All the sites at Chaco are worth seeing, but once I realized just how different Bonito is from all the rest I began to heavily emphasize it when advising people about what to see during their time in the park.  Places like Una Vida and Pueblo del Arroyo are definitely interesting, but I think for most visitors they’re a lesser priority, and rightly so.  Pueblo Bonito is what people come to Chaco to see.

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

When you look at it that way, it doesn’t actually matter if Bonito was the most important of the great houses in the eleventh century (or the tenth, or the ninth).  It’s the most important of the great houses now, because it’s the one that impresses people enough to draw them to the canyon from all over the world.  It’s the most impressive not because it’s the biggest, although it is, nor because it was at the center of the Chaco system, although it probably was, at least at the height of the system in the late eleventh century.  It’s the most impressive because it’s the only one you can actually walk through and experience personally.  It is of course largely because it’s the biggest of the great houses that it was excavated early on and left open as an exhibit for visitors to see, so in that sense it is the greatest of the sites because it (probably) was the greatest of them originally.  Even if a new, bigger, more important great house were somehow discovered tomorrow, however, it would not displace Pueblo Bonito as the most important of the great houses to visitors today, because there’s no way it would be excavated and left open the way Bonito has been.  Archaeology has changed over the past century, as has Park Service policy.  Pueblo Bonito is still there, though, open and accessible, and it will remain so for at least the near future.

Entrance to Pueblo Bonito with Snow

As I explained in my response to john, I suspect that Pueblo Bonito may well not have always been the most important of the great houses, although I find it most plausible that any shift of influence would have been to increase rather than diminish Bonito’s role over time, at least up until the decline of the canyon and the probable shift of the system to Aztec.  Understanding the changing dynamics of the Chaco system over time is, I think, a very important part of understanding the system in general, and one that has been largely neglected by most research, although this is starting to change.  None of that matters much for the average park visitor, though, who will remain most impressed by the stunning remains of Pueblo Bonito from the period of its height.  Whether there were other great houses that were even more impressive at that time is a rather abstract question when the grandeur of Bonito is right there, and whether earlier versions of Bonito were less important than other sites at some earlier time is even more abstract and immaterial.  It’s Bonito that people see, and they are impressed by it.  That’s a core reality that I think those of us who tend to delve deeper into the world of Chaco research can easily forget.  It’s important, though, and an occasional reminder of it is a useful reality check.

Old Bonito from Kiva Q

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Civil Engineering Plaque at Mesa Verde

I’ve previously discussed water control technologies at Chaco, where they were particularly important given the extreme aridity of that area even by Southwestern standards.  There is abundant evidence, however, that water control was a widespread activity throughout the ancient Southwest, even in areas with more reliable water sources.  The best-studied water control systems have been the impressive large-scale canal systems built by the Hohokam in southern Arizona, but less elaborate systems are known in the northern Southwest as well.

Among the better-studied of these systems are those in the Mesa Verde area of southwestern Colorado.  In comparison to Chaco especially this area is much more suitable for agriculture.  The Mesa Verde proper in particular is high enough that it gets quite a bit of regular precipitation, and it is generally thought that the majority of agriculture on the mesa throughout its occupation was dry farming on the mesa top, depending only on direct rainfall.  Interestingly enough, however, there is extensive evidence of water control features even in this more favorable environment.  A detailed description of some of them can be found in an article by Arthur Rohn published in 1963.  He focused on two main types of soil and water control: checkdams forming small terraces, presumably agricultural, along intermittent drainages and large reservoirs, probably for domestic water.  The checkdams, which have since been discovered in other parts of the greater Mesa Verde region such as Hovenweep as well as other regions of the northern Southwest (including Chaco), consisted of small masonry walls, laid without mortar, which served to hold back water and soil which would otherwise drain right off the mesa top during rainstorms.  Some drainages had dozens of these, typically about a yard high and a few yards apart.  Most had been breached at some point after the abandonment of the area and were visible only as rock alignments of varying lengths and heights, but some apparently still held soil and water back well enough that they were covered in vegetation, preventing Rohn from observing much about them.  The agricultural function of these terraces is suggested by the frequent association with them of small structures generally interpreted as seasonal field houses.

Checkdam, Hovenweep National Monument

It is not at all clear, however, why the people on Mesa Verde would have needed to go to the effort to build all these terracing systems when they had so much fertile land right on the mesa top.  Rohn calculated that the likely extent of the terraces added only about 1% of the total area of tillable land on top of the mesa.  He suggested several potential reasons for their construction, including depletion of mesa-top soils, increasing population and subsequent need for more intensive farming, and cultivation of specialized crops of high value that made the additional effort invested in constructing the terraces worthwhile.  Ultimately, however, Rohn had insufficient data to come to any firm conclusions about the purposes of the terraces, and as far as I can tell the situation has not improved much since his time despite the much more extensive paleoclimatic data now available.

The other water control features that Rohn described were the large reservoirs associated with certain of the more densely populated areas of the mesa.  Most of these consisted of large dams, much larger than the small checkdams, across certain canyon heads, where they likely impounded water either for use right there or to soak down through the porous sandstone to feed springs underneath.  These reservoirs thus used the natural characteristics of the canyon heads and required relatively little additional effort to store water for human use.

Far View Reservoir, Mesa Verde

The best-known reservoir on Mesa Verde, however, which Rohn described in detail, was quite different.  Rohn called it Mummy Lake, which was the standard name for it in his time, but it is now often known as Far View Reservoir.  This is a large oval masonry structure, of mostly artificial construction and about 90 feet in diameter.  It is near the cluster of sites known as the Far View Group, including Far View House, which is often claimed to be an outlying Chacoan great house.  These sites mostly date to the Pueblo II period in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries AD (contemporaneous with the height of the Chaco system), which makes them earlier than the most impressive sites on the mesa, which date to the Pueblo III period (late twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD) when Mesa Verde apparently had its highest population.

Far View Reservoir Intake Channel, Mesa Verde

Far View Reservoir was apparently not used for agricultural irrigation, as it has an intake channel but no outlet.  It was fed by an elaborate canal system upstream that channeled water to down the mesa.  Rohn noted that the intake channel was of quite sophisticated design:

The feeder ditch coming from the north did not empty directly into the north side of the reservoir, but rather ran by the west uphill side until it met the mouth of the intake channel at the southwest corner. There water was diverted into the inlet around a right-angle turn and conducted in a northeasterly direction into the reservoir. Such a complicated maneuver caused the suddenly slowed water to drop its silt burden in the intake channel, which could be easily dredged, rather than in the deepest part of the reservoir, where dredging operations would be difficult and would muddy the water.

Trenching of the reservoir by Earl Morris in 1934 revealed that the original bottom lay about 12 feet below the intake.  This would give the reservoir a maximum capacity of about 76,000 cubic feet, equivalent to about 1.74 acre-feet or 568,000 gallons.  That’s a lot of water.

Since there was no outlet from the reservoir, it presumably didn’t feed a system of irrigation canals.  What, then, was this water for?  Rohn’s answer, with which most other archaeologists have agreed, was that it was used for domestic water.  Trenching of the walls of the reservoir revealed pottery of Pueblo II date, contemporaneous with the nearby Far View sites, which makes sense.  A small ditch led off from the main ditch leading to the reservoir, emptying some of the water diverted from upstream into a small drainage with a series of checkdams similar to those documented elsewhere on the mesa, which were presumably farmed by the Far View residents.  Most of the water, however, went into the reservoir, from which it could be easily extracted with pots and brought home for cooking and other daily uses.  Residents of other parts of the mesa seem to have used nearby springs (perhaps fed by canyon-head reservoirs above them) for their domestic water, but there are no springs near the Far View group, so this elaborate reservoir seems to have been built to support the community there, which as Rohn pointed out was the largest concentration of population on this part of the mesa before the Pueblo III period.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

At some point in late Pueblo II or early Pueblo III a very elaborate ditch was built carrying water from the Far View area south almost to the very end of the mesa.  This ditch skirts the Far View sites, suggesting that they were still occupied when it was constructed, but it heads toward the major cliff dwellings to the south that became the major focus of occupation in late Pueblo III.  It’s not clear exactly what this ditch led to, but the fact that it heads toward the major cluster of sites including Cliff Palace, in an area with few springs but a very large population during late Pueblo III, suggests that it likely supplied domestic water for these sites, especially after the abandonment of the Far View sites allowed the intake channel to Far View Reservoir to be blocked and all of the water from the whole system to be brought south.

Rohn mentioned in his article that while Far View Reservoir is the only such reservoir known from this part of Mesa Verde proper, there are several other such facilities known from elsewhere in the region, especially in the Montezuma Valley to the northwest.  A more recent article by Rich Wilshusen, Melissa Churchill, and James Potter (from 1997) provides a valuable summary of information known on reservoirs throughout the region, as well as detailed information on one reservoir studied intensively by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.  This reservoir is known as Woods Canyon Reservoir after Woods Canyon Pueblo, a late Pueblo III site nearby.  Also in this general area are a Chaco-era (late Pueblo II) outlying great house known as the Albert Porter site and a site called Bass Ruin that apparently dates to the poorly understood early Pueblo III period, in between the decline of Chaco and the rise of the large aggregated pueblos and cliff dwellings in late Pueblo III.  This reservoir much less elaborate than the Far View one, consisting merely of an earthen dam built across a natural drainage, impounding the water behind it.

Excavation of both the dam and the impounded reservoir area, along with surface collection of sherds, showed that the dam was likely constructed during early Pueblo III or possibly earlier.  An innovative use of tree-ring dates from trees growing on top of the dam in the 1950s, which must have begun growing after the reservoir no longer held water, put the date of dam failure at no later than about AD 1350.  Assuming that it would have taken a century or two for the reservoir to fill with enough sediment for the dam to fail, the authors put the likely usage of the reservoir in early Pueblo III.  These two lines of evidence converge nicely.

White Ware Bowls at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

Another striking aspect of the potsherd evidence was the extraordinarily high prevalence of white wares (77%) and of jars (71%).  The predominance of white wares and the low occurrence of gray utility wares suggests that most of the sherds came from white ware jars used to carry water from the reservoir to habitation areas which broke in the process, and the lack of bowls shows that those habitation areas were not in the immediate vicinity of the reservoir.  Habitation sites usually have assemblages consisting mainly of gray ware jars, which were used for cooking, with large numbers of white ware bowls, which were used to serve food, as well.  The authors mention that previous work at Far View Reservoir (after Rohn) had shown a similar distribution of ceramic wares and forms, and the few sherds mentioned in Rohn’s article also show this distribution.  Given this, as well as the lack of nearby canals or soils suitable for farming, the authors conclude that this reservoir was likely used primarily or solely for storage of domestic water, as Rohn had argued for Far View Reservoir.  They also note that the dating was surprisingly early; these reservoirs are usually found in association with late Pueblo III aggregated sites, and there has been a frequent assumption that they served those communities.  The evidence from Woods Canyon, however, suggests that the reservoir was actually constructed well before Woods Canyon Pueblo, at a time when the local population lived at Bass Ruin or even in the Chacoan community around the Albert Porter site.

Gray Ware Jars at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

In addition to this interesting information about this one reservoir, the authors collected all the information available at the time on other reservoirs in the Mesa Verde region, including the extensive information published only in the so-called “gray literature” (i.e., reports from salvage excavations and other cultural resource management projects that are not easily available to the general scholarly community).  From this data set they find that there are two main categories of reservoirs: those built as integral parts of late Pueblo III aggregated villages and those like Wood Canyon Reservoir built near such villages but probably dating to an earlier period and associated with Chaco-era or immediate post-Chaco communities.  This implies that these large reservoirs may not have been a response to drought as climatic conditions deteriorated in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as is often assumed, but that they may instead have been monumental public architecture, like great houses, great kivas, and roads, associated with Chacoan communities and used to sustain the large populations of those communities.  As conditions did deteriorate, however, the existence of these communities and their dependable water sources may have encouraged others to join them, leading to the well-known process of aggregation and formation of large villages during the late Pueblo III period.

Furthermore, the creation of these large, permanent features would have required substantial labor and indicated a commitment of a community to a particular location for the long term.  This was likely a new development in the northern Southwest during Pueblo II, perhaps associated with Chacoan influence; previously, sites had been mostly occupied for quite short periods of time, and people seem to have moved very frequently.  From the eleventh century on, however, the trend is toward increasing commitment to particular localities, although the actual sites in which people lived didn’t necessarily last very long.  Multiple sites occupied one after another in a given area, with the general trend toward increased aggregation and more defensive locations, is typical throughout the Mesa Verde region in the period between AD 11oo and 1300, when the whole area was abandoned.  The role of Chaco Canyon, which is both one of the longest-occupied areas in the prehistoric Southwest and one where water control is most necessary, in all this is interesting to ponder.

Pueblo Bonito and Basin with Captured Rainwater

Finally, it’s worth noting the distinction between different uses of water here.  The largest quantities of water would have been needed for agriculture, but only at certain times of the year, and with careful planning the seasonal rains and spring runoff could be harnessed to adequately water the crops.  The amount of water needed for domestic use was much smaller, but it was needed all the time.  Springs were likely adequate for domestic use as long as populations remained small, but as larger communities developed in some areas with few springs more elaborate measures were necessary to ensure sufficient water was available at all times.  This was most obvious in very dry places like Chaco, but even better-watered areas like Mesa Verde began to have to deal with these issues as population increased and the climate changed.
Rohn, A. (1963). Prehistoric Soil and Water Conservation on Chapin Mesa, Southwestern Colorado American Antiquity, 28 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278554

Wilshusen, R., Churchill, M., & Potter, J. (1997). Prehistoric Reservoirs and Water Basins in the Mesa Verde Region: Intensification of Water Collection Strategies during the Great Pueblo Period American Antiquity, 62 (4) DOI: 10.2307/281885

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Plaza-Facing Rooms at Pueblo del Arroyo

I’ve had a link to the Chaco Archive under “Resources” in the sidebar ever since I started this blog.  It’s always been a useful site, run by Steve Plog at the University of Virginia, but they’ve now just finished a huge redesign that makes it both much fancier-looking and more useful than it was before.  Not that it wasn’t useful before; there was quite a bit of information there, and I would use it pretty frequently.  Now, though, you can actually directly query their database, which wasn’t possible with the way it was set up before, and they’ve also added a bunch more stuff that wasn’t accessible at all before.  They also kindly linked to me under their “Resources” section.  Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Chaco (and if you’re reading this blog you probably are) there’s a ton of interesting stuff there and I definitely recommend checking it out.

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Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

Yesterday the water level in Lake Mead hit its lowest point since the lake was originally filled in the 1930s.  John Fleck was there to mark the occasion, and he has some interesting thoughts on this historic event.  The importance of this milestone is more symbolic than practical; the lake level has not yet become low enough to trigger an actual shortage of water.  Nevertheless, this is an important reminder of the importance of water in the Southwest and the brave new world it is entering as the climate changes and conditions become both drier and less predictable.

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Albuquerque from Volcanoes on West Mesa

I’ve lived in both the Southwest and the Northeast, and one thing I’ve found very striking is just how different they are physically in just about every conceivable way.  The differences are so extreme, in fact, that I’ve found it basically impossible to explain.  This comes up pretty often, especially in the Northeast.  When people find out that I’m from New Mexico they often ask what it’s like and when I say it’s really different they ask me to explain further.  I’ll generally give some examples, but they don’t really convey the extent of the differences.  I don’t often say that actually going to a place is necessary to talk about it, but this is one case in which you really have to see both regions to understand the differences.  I think the difference is actually between the East and West, separated roughly by the Great Plains (which are somewhat transitional), but it’s the Southwest and Northeast specifically that I have the most experience with and so it’s those two that I’ll be talking about here.

One of the many ways in which the two regions differ is in population density.  This flows rather obviously from some other differences, especially climatic.  It’s tricky to discuss this, though, because density is a function of both population and area, so where you draw the lines around the area you’re talking about makes a huge difference.  This makes intuitions about density very unreliable in many cases.  To take a concrete example, I was recently talking to some of my fellow graduate students in city planning here in New Jersey about the differences between New Jersey and New Mexico.  I was talking about how I’ll probably eventually go back to the Southwest after I finish my degree here, and one colleague asked what I was going to do when New Mexico filled up with people, like New Jersey had.  I said that would never happen.  The other students seemed shocked and pressed me to explain.  I could have talked about resource constraints, but I decided to focus on land area instead.  Basically, I said that you would run out of people before you ran out of land.  In practice, of course, you would run out of water first, but assuming you had the resources to bring in enough water to build up the whole state at New Jersey’s density the resulting population would be so high that there’s no way that could ever happen in reality.  The colleague who had asked the initial question then clarified that he didn’t mean the whole state would fill up, just the part that was already built up to some extent.  There I was less sure but said it would probably not happen either, and that’s where we left it.

I decided to take a more rigorous look at this, using 2000 Census data.  First I calculated the number of people that would fit in New Mexico’s entire land area if it had New Jersey’s overall population.  Then I looked at just the part of New Mexico that the Census Bureau designates as “urban”; this is part of a general division of the whole country into “urban” and “rural” that exists separately from the designation of metropolitan areas and I think most closely corresponds to the distinction between the parts of the state that are already built up and those that are not and are unlikely to be developed to the same extent in the future.  Then, to provide more context, I did the same calculation for both the whole state and the urban part using the density of the urban parts of New Jersey from the same classification.  To provide some context and a plausible maximum, I then did the calculations using the density of Manhattan, which is an easily recognizable reference point for a very dense urban place.

Manhattan Skyline from Newark Airport

I think the results basically support my arguments, but they’re also interesting on their own.  New Mexico has a total land area of 121,356 square miles and a population of about 2 million, resulting in a statewide density of about 15 people per square mile.  New Jersey, in contrast, has a land area of 7,417 square miles and a population of more than 8 million, giving a statewide density of 1,134 people per square mile and making it the densest state in the country.  This comparison also points out how at least in a physical sense “state” is not a very useful category to use for comparisons, but let’s set that aside for now.  Using just those numbers, if New Mexico had the population density of New Jersey it would have over 130 million people.  Since the population of the entire US is about 300 million, I feel pretty confident in predicting that New Mexico will never have that many people.

It turns out that the urban part of New Mexico actually has a slightly higher population density than New Jersey as a whole (1,814 people per square mile), so if we’re just talking about when the settled portions of New Mexico will fill up to the same extent as New Jersey it’s already happened.  That’s not really a fair comparison, though, since the New Jersey number is being dragged down by the rural parts of the state (which are more extensive than people elsewhere often realize).  The density of the urban parts of New Jersey is 2,846 people per square mile, which when applied to the whole of New Mexico results in a population of 345 million.  I’m very confident in predicting that that will never happen.  If applied only to the urban parts of New Mexico, however, the New Jersey urban density results in a population of 2.1 million, as compared to a 2000 actual population of 1.4 million, which is a big increase but quite plausible if the state continues to grow as it has in recent decades (which may or may not actually happen).  So I concede on that point.

Manhattan has a density of 66,951 people per square mile.  If applied to the whole of New Mexico, this would result in a population of over 8 billion people, considerably higher than the current population of the entire world.  If applied just to the urban parts of New Mexico it would result in a population of about 50 million.  There’s no way either of those is ever going to happen, of course, but it’s interesting to see the numbers.

So there you have it.  These numbers in isolation don’t actually say very much, of course, but they do hopefully give some sense of both the differences between the Northeast and the Southwest and the importance of area as well as population in calculating densities.

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Houses with Yards, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Today is Blog Action Day, and the topic is water.  I did a post for this last year when the topic was climate change, so I figured I’d do it again.  Water is obviously a huge issue, especially in the arid Southwest, so there are a lot of directions I could go with this.  I did an earlier post on the importance of water at Chaco, which is certainly worth linking in this context.  For Blog Action Day, however, I thought a discussion of a rather different issue,  a bit far from my usual fare here, would be interesting.

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of urban sprawl is inefficient use of land, symbolized most obviously by the suburban development pattern of single-family houses on large lots.  Whatever space on these lots is not covered by the building footprint or a driveway is typically divided into yards.  Front and back yards are nearly universal in suburbia, and found at a smaller scale in some urban areas as well, and on particularly large lots side yards are found as well.  These yards are generally interpreted today as being for recreational use, and backyards in particular often have recreational amenities like swimming pools, but at least in my experience people don’t seem to use this space for recreational purposes to nearly the degree you might expect given the sheer amount of it.  Maintaining a yard is also a major effort in time and resources, especially if it is covered with a grass lawn which requires regular mowing and (at least in more arid regions) watering.  The amount of energy and water expended on these activities is huge, and for what?  A big empty space that isn’t generally used for much of anything.  This is not to disparage the choices of people who prefer to have large amounts of space on their property or like maintaining lawns, just to say that I really don’t understand the appeal, and judging by the popularity of apartment-style living where it is available it seems I’m not alone.  Plenty of people, it seems, find the amounts of open space provided by public parks and other public or semi-public areas to be perfectly adequate for their needs.  And yet, we still have all these yards.  In most suburban areas they are essentially mandated by setback requirements in zoning and subdivision codes.

So how did we get here?  Obviously it’s a complicated story, and I’m sure there are many different parts to the answer.  One important aspect of the story that doesn’t seem to get much attention is described by Jon Peterson in an article on the nineteenth-century sanitary reform movement and its influence on American urban planning.  As Peterson describes it, the origin of the yard is something of a byproduct of a series of important changes in urban sanitation and waste management in response to the rise of the industrial city.

Aragon Handyman Service Sign, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Up until about 1850, every house in America, rural or urban, had two things which were absolutely necessary for life: a well and a cesspool.  In rural areas, where most people were farmers, everyone had lots of land, so siting these so that contamination of the water supply was not a major issue would presumably have been pretty easy in most places.  Even in towns, lots were generally large enough to maintain a safe distance between the well and the cesspool.  In  preindustrial cities, lots were smaller than in typical towns, but there was still no public provision of water or sewerage, so people still had wells and outhouses on their small urban lots, and disease could be a problem.  As long as cities remained small, however, these problems were manageable.  Garbage, too, would generally be stored on-site until someone took it away, and waste kitchen and washing water would often be dumped right into the street.   There were sewers, but they were used exclusively for carrying away excess stormwater and preventing flooding (basically like storm sewers today), and dumping waste in them was illegal.

The problems with this system, such as it was, became most glaringly apparent once industrial growth led to massive increases in city size.  This happened first in Britain, where by the early nineteenth century the filthy conditions of fast-growing cities were atrocious, and the decision to deal with the problem by allowing waste to be dumped in sewers only made things worse.  Remember, these were storm sewers, and water only flowed through them when it rained.  The rest of the time, all sorts of waste accumulated and clogged them up.  By the 184os it was clear that the problem had reached crisis proportions, and the social reformer Edwin Chadwick came up with the idea of dealing with it by introducing a system by which water would be provided to houses and used to flush waste through a system of sewer pipes laid out so as to use gravity to carry the waste away.  This was known as “water-carriage sewerage,” and it was the principle upon which all subsequent sewer systems were based.  The full implementation of the idea in a slightly different form in London came in the 1860s under Joseph Bazalgette.

Water Tower, Hammonton, New Jersey

In the US, industrialization had not yet progressed very far at that point, but the nation’s few cities were growing, and other factors were making the waste problem worse.  Probably the most important was the introduction of public water supply in the 1840s.  Once people no longer had to depend on their own wells (which would become less productive as more people moved into the area with their own wells, lowering the water table) or cisterns, they began to use vastly more water, much more than the engineers who designed the water systems had anticipated, and the excess water overloaded the cesspools and created many of the same problems that British cities had been experiencing for a while.  US sanitary reforms were impressed with the sewerage ideas coming out of Britain and argued for sewer systems to be implemented in American cities.  Boston and New York, which had the biggest problems, accordingly put in extensive but largely uncoordinated sewer lines in the 1850s and 1860s.

In the 1870s, as industrialization began to take hold and American cities began to grow rapidly, the problems with the traditional water and waste disposal systems became apparent to more and more cities, and the use of sewers proliferated from then on.  This led to a considerable improvement in urban public health, although the other health problems resulting from the expansion of urban industry may have made this improvement less apparent at the time than it is from our perspective today.

Houses with Yards, Hammonton, New Jersey

So what does all this have to do with yards?  Peterson mentions briefly, near the end of his article, what he calls an “illustrative but little appreciated impact of sanitary reform upon urban land use,” namely, new uses for the space on urban lots formerly occupied by wells and cesspools.  Once urban households had running water and water-carriage sewerage, they no longer needed to devote space outside the house to these necessities of life, and they could use that space instead for recreation.  Thus, the yard was born.  In the biggest and fastest-growing cities, of course, rising land values in the late nineteenth century led most of these earlier lots to be bought up and used to build tenements, skyscrapers, and other high-density uses that maximized the amount of the lot used productively and destroyed both the houses and the yards that had been there before.  In smaller cities and towns, however, this didn’t happen to nearly the degree it did in places like New York and Chicago, and the yard remained.  Around the turn of the century civic improvement associations around the country associated with the City Beautiful movement encouraged the planting of grass, flowers, and other plants in these vacant parts of household lots to beautify them.  This is the origin of the lawn.  Later, this particular idea of beauty would be incorporated into the self-consciously suburban developments of the 1920s, and from there to the sprawl of today.  And so here we are, with big empty spaces filled with grass, the result of technological improvements in sanitation intersecting with emerging ideas of civic beauty.
Peterson JA (1979). The impact of sanitary reform upon American urban planning, 1840-1890. Journal of social history, 13 (1), 83-103 PMID: 11632375

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University of Colorado Museum, Boulder, Colorado

In honor of the twentieth anniversary of the passage of NAGPRA, Science has an interesting special section of short articles on the impact of NAGPRA on archaeology and physical anthropology.  They’re all definitely worth reading, and free with an annoying registration.  Among them is an interview of Steve Lekson by Keith Kloor which is of obvious relevance to Southwestern archaeology in general and Chacoan studies in particular.  Lekson’s thoughts on NAGPRA, which he has had extensive experience with as anthropology curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, are interesting and nuanced, which comes across more clearly in the longer essay he recently published as part of a similar NAGRPA-at-20 issue of Museum Anthropology.  In the interview, although he states clearly that he considers NAGPRA the right thing to do, his overall attitude toward it sounds somewhat negative, which is typical of archaeologists of his generation.  The essay, however, shows clearly that he actually has a more positive view of it than most of his colleagues, although he is quite clear about the problems it poses for archaeology.  His overall view seems to be that NAGPRA is very problematic for archaeology as a discipline, both in obstructing the practical aspects of research and in calling into question the value of the whole enterprise, but that both NAGPRA and archaeology are nevertheless important and worth doing.  That’s more or less the way I see things as well.

Of course, another reason for me to be mentioning this interview is that it contains a link to one of my posts here, about the radiocarbon dating of the two elite burials in Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito, which Lekson points to as an example of the kind of important information that can be extracted from human remains using new techniques that are made very difficult by NAGPRA.  That post doesn’t discuss NAGPRA issues much, however, so readers following the link may be more interested in this one, which discusses some of the issues raised by one of Keith Kloor’s earlier articles and sets out my thoughts on NAGPRA and “cultural affiliation” in considerable detail.
Lekson, S. (2010). COMMENTARY: MY ADVENTURES IN ZUNI-AND KYKOTSMOVI AND WINDOW ROCK AND … Museum Anthropology, 33 (2), 180-193 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1379.2010.01095.x

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Starbucks, New Brunswick, New Jersey

My post on the atlatl found at the mouth of the Skagit River north of Seattle seems to have led one reader to ask about it in a forum for modern atlatl makers and users.  The responses are interesting.  One respondent linked to an article from the 1960s with more detailed information which is available free online.  This article, by Charles Borden, has some very good pictures of the atlatl, which was at some point acquired by the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, which has even better pictures and more information on its website.  Borden’s analysis focuses mainly on the iconography of the elaborately carved figure, which he puts in the context of ethnographically known imagery from various Northwest Coast cultures representing sea monsters and other mythological creatures with similar characteristics to the one on the atlatl.  He argues, not entirely convincingly, that it represents an early form of the important creature known as the Sisiutl, which is usually represented as a two-headed snake but which can take on other forms as well.  Whether or not he is right about that particular identification, Borden does make a convincing case that the atlatl fits easily into the artistic traditions of the Northwest rather than being an import from elsewhere.  He also argues that it is likely very old, and tentatively suggests that it may be contemporaneous with the Locarno Beach site in Vancouver, which produced an atlatl hook made of antler.  The Locarno Beach site defined the Locarno Beach Phase, which now seems to be dated to around 3500 to 2500 radiocarbon years before present.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the Skagit River atlatl was apparently later radiocarbon dated directly and assigned to the Marpole Phase, which dates to around 2000 to 1500 radiocarbon years before present.  (According to the UBC Museum website the exact date was around 200 AD.)  Borden was therefore off by quite a bit in suggesting that the atlatl was contemporaneous with Locarno Beach, but of course he had less information to go by than is available now.

Also, John Palter recently commented on a post in which I discussed an article of his on atlatl weights, pointing to a more recent article in which he bolsters his theory that they were associated with flexible atlatls by discussing the attitudes of modern atlatl users toward the advantages of flexible, weighted atlatls over more rigid types.  As with the forum discussion on the Skagit River atlatl, this shows the interesting insights on atlatl use that can come from the large corps of amateur atlatl users and their extensive experimental experience with atlatls.  This is a very different approach to learning about atlatls than the abstract study of surviving ancient specimens more typical of archaeologists, and I think the two approaches used together can be quite complementary. I’ve mentioned this issue before with regard to interpretation of an atlatl petroglyph.

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