Sand Canyon Pueblo, which I discussed in the previous post, is one of the best-known prehistoric communities in the Southwest due to the multi-year research program conducted there by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in the 1980s and 1990s. Crow Canyon selected it for this research for a variety of reasons, including its short period of occupancy and its status as a typical example of a “canyon-head village,” a common settlement type in the Northern San Juan region during the thirteenth century AD. One of the highly characteristic features of a canyon-head village that Sand Canyon has is the site-enclosing wall which extends around almost all of the architecture at the site. As Bruce Bradley noted in the 1993 paper that I discussed earlier, this wall seems to have been built as a communal effort early in the occupation of the site, perhaps at the very beginning, and the other parts of the site that have been excavated were built into the space already enclosed by the wall. The wall thus served to define the boundaries of the community and to determine where subsequent construction could occur.
This appears to have been one of the main purposes of walls in the Northern San Juan region more generally. In 1997 Susan Kenzle published an article surveying information available about walls at a wide variety of communities in this region. Based on published reports on 88 sites, 41 of which have walls and 47 of which do not, she did some statistical tests of various other features of the sites and came up with some proposals for the functions of the walls in the villages that had them. The two main categories of functions she proposed were “sociophysical boundaries” and defensive fortifications.
Under “sociophysical boundaries” Kenzle basically subsumes a variety of functions of walled or enclosed space, based largely on the environmental psychology literature. These mainly revolve around control of who can access a community and what they can do there, particularly in the context of separating “insiders” (i.e., residents of the community) from “outsiders” (e.g., peaceful visitors coming to trade or enemies attacking). Restricting access to and information about the resources in the community, such as food stores or water sources would be one major purpose for trying to control access this way. Ensuring privacy for the residents, which may have become increasingly important as previously dispersed communities began to aggregate into dense villages during this period, is another possible reason. Kenzle notes that in many societies, including our own, walls or fences associated with individual dwellings can serve to increase privacy for households living close proximity.
Another obvious purpose of walls like the one at Sand Canyon is as defensive fortifications, and Kenzle devotes considerable attention to this idea. She evaluates the plausibility of a defensive interpretation of the walls at these communities by looking at the research on defensive fortification in general and finds that the walls do indeed meet many of the criteria identified for effective fortifications, especially in combination with other community characteristics such as defensible locations (including canyon heads and rims) which correlate in her sample with presence of walls. Specifically, many of the walls were high enough to serve as effective cover for defenders while also serving as obstacles for attackers, and they also tend to have few openings, which reduces the number of ways in available to attackers and makes it easier for defenders to guard the entrances to the community. There are a few arch-shaped projections in walls that may have served as bastions, allowing defenders to fire on attackers from the side in addition to the front. There is also one example, at Sand Canyon, of possible loopholes through which defenders could have fired unseen, although is is unclear if this is what these holes were actually for. While this is apparently the only known example of possible loopholes in the Northern San Juan, I know that there are some other possible examples elsewhere in the Southwest. There are apparently some alleged loopholes at Wijiji in Chaco Canyon, although I’ve never noticed them myself. There are also small holes in the walls of various other sites in the region which could possibly be loopholes, although it can be difficult to tell these from vents or holes for roof beams.
Other aspects of defensive systems involving these walls include the numerous towers found throughout the region at both walled and unwalled communities from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and protected water sources, also typical of these communities. Kenzle also summarizes the extensive evidence from a variety of sources for violent conflict in the Northern San Juan during this period, which further supports the idea that the walls were largely defensive. The people certainly had something to defend against.
Whether the walls were successful at defending the communities is a different matter, and one Kenzle doesn’t really address. It’s worth noting that some of the walled communities, Sand Canyon included, show evidence of violent death suggesting that they experienced successful attacks which in some cases seem to have ended site occupation entirely. It’s also noteworthy that after the Northern San Juan region was abandoned entirely around AD 1300 the wall tradition does not seem to have been carried on by the people who left the region for other parts of the Southwest such as the Rio Grande Valley, where the preferred form of defensive settlement pattern seems to have involved massive sites with enclosed plazas surrounded by roomblocks with little or no exterior access. This pattern was carried on well into the historic period, so it seems to have been fairly successful, although there are still examples of communities like this this being successfully attacked. Kenzle does note that the more recently occupied pueblos of Pecos and Taos both have walls. In the case of Pecos she implies that the function of the wall may have been more symbolic as a social boundary than practical as a defensive feature. In the historical period members of Plains tribes who came to trade at Pecos were not allowed to spend the night within the wall, a social boundary that they apparently respected but also presumably a defensive precaution. At Taos the wall apparently dates to the eighteenth century and was initially defensive, used for fending off Comanche raids. Interestingly, it also apparently had loopholes. After defense was no longer such a concern the wall was reduced in height and began to serve as more a symbol of Taos culture and a boundary meant to metaphorically defend that culture from Anglo influence. In both cases it is unclear if there is any continuity between these walls and the earlier ones in the Northern San Juan. None of the other modern Pueblos have walls.
This paper is an interesting examination of a topic that had not previously been given much attention, despite its importance to a variety of other issues in Southwestern archaeology, including the aggregation of communities, the abandonment of large areas, and the role warfare may have played in these processes. The strength of Kenzle’s conclusions is limited by the poor quality of much of the information on the sites in question, but that is a constant issue in Southwestern archaeology and she takes it into consideration by being appropriately tentative about her conclusions.
Kenzle, S. (1997). Enclosing Walls in the Northern San Juan: Sociophysical Boundaries and Defensive Fortifications in the American Southwest Journal of Field Archaeology, 24 (2) DOI: 10.2307/530471