As I’m sure regular readers have noticed, I haven’t been posting much here over the past few weeks. As is usually the case, this is because school got in the way; this semester was particularly busy for me because it was my last one, and I had little time for blogging. I graduated about a week ago, though, so I now have plenty of time to read and blog. And with the job market the way it is, I’ll probably have quite a bit of time on my hands for at least the next few weeks.
To ease myself back into thinking about Chaco after this recent hiatus I’ve been reading The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, edited by Steve Lekson, which is part of the series of publications forming the capstone to the Chaco Project. It’s a bit uneven, as edited volumes tend to be, but some of the chapters are very good summaries of the state of knowledge of certain aspects of Chacoan architecture as of 2007 (when the book was published). It’s definitely not an entry-level sort of book, and I would only recommend it to people who have already read some of the introductory literature on Chaco, but if you have the requisite background it’s a very good way to get up to speed on architecture issues.
Among the more interesting chapters are Lekson’s on great house form (an update of a chapter from his seminal book on the topic, which is still an essential reference for Chaco architecture), Tom Windes‘s on early great houses in the San Juan Basin, and Ruth Van Dyke‘s on great kivas. Jill Neitzel‘s chapter on the history of architectural research at Pueblo Bonito is a bit weaker; it’s fine as a summary, and makes some good points, but doesn’t really go into much depth on the more interesting questions. The chapter on Chetro Ketl, by Lekson, Windes, and Patricia Fournier, is more interesting, not least because of the obvious tension between Lekson and Windes on certain points of interpretation and how that gets reflected in the text. I’m still reading the book, so I can’t say much about the remaining chapters, but they seem to be more interpretive than descriptive. The one I’m currently reading is by Wendy Ashmore and promises to be something of an outsider’s take on Pueblo Bonito, from a scholar who has specialized in Maya architecture and planning (and who has some ideas in that area that have been criticized by others, most notably Mike Smith). The next chapter, by John Stein, Rich Friedman, Taft Blackhorse, and Rich Loose, is probably the most infamous and controversial in the book, from what I’ve heard, so it should be interesting to see what it says exactly. The last chapter is a reprint of a paper by Anna Sofaer that was printed in an earlier edited volume, and I find it particularly interesting that Lekson (presumably) decided to give her the last word, given how controversial some of her theories are among Chaco archaeologists.
I’ll have some more thoughts on the specific chapters in the book in subsequent posts, but for now I just want to mention a few key issues that the chapters I’ve read so far have brought up. One is the recurrent issue of exactly what the function of great houses and their constituent parts was. Over the past few years there has been an ongoing debate over whether they were elite residences or ceremonial centers (the older assumption that they were aggregated communities analogous to modern pueblos only being held by a few diehards like Gwinn Vivian), but as Neitzel points out for Pueblo Bonito it’s become increasingly clear that they were both, and the real question, to the extent that there is a real question underlying this debate, is which function was dominant, where (both within a given great house and among different ones), and when. One of the major points Neitzel makes is that this debate is both tedious and increasingly unmoored from reality, and that the whole typological approach is probably best avoided. Questions of “is it or isn’t it?” are not very helpful at this point, whether applied to a single great house or to the Chacoan phenomenon as a whole, and the use of vague typological categories like “ceremonial center” only exacerbates the problem.
One aspect of the functional question that does seem to finally be getting the attention it deserves is the temporal dimension. It seems pretty clear that at least some great houses changed in function over time, though the extent to which this was the case in general is unclear (as, indeed, is the question of whether “great house” is actually a meaningful category of structure). Windes makes clear in his chapter that as far as we can tell early great houses outside of Chaco were primarily residential in function, although few have been excavated so it’s hard to be certain about this. The data for the earliest great houses inside the canyon is not much better, even for the ones that have been excavated, but it also seems that they were probably initially residences. There is also substantial evidence that many great houses had residential functions at the end of their occupation, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The big question is the extent to which great houses were residences during the “Chacoan era” of roughly AD 1030 to 1130, when the Chaco system reached its height and new great houses were being built all over the place. These buildings probably had multiple functions, and it seems plausible that at least some had residential functions, but it’s frustratingly difficult to tease out the uses of specific rooms and spaces during this period, partly because neither built-in features (often dating earlier) nor artifacts (often dating later) are necessarily related to uses at this time.
A related issue is the function of kivas (or “round rooms”) specifically. Lekson sees them as primarily residential, with the ceremonial functions traditionally attributed to them on the basis of (rather lazy) ethnographic analogy being a later development. I find his arguments pretty convincing, and they seem to be increasingly accepted among other archaeologists, especially to the north in the Mesa Verde region, where the sheer numbers of kivas associated with all sorts of sites, and the careful recent excavation data from many sites, is making it increasingly clear that small kivas were indeed residential structures. This attitude is also beginning to be adopted further south at Chaco itself, and many people on the interpretive staff at Chaco have been incorporating Lekson’s arguments into their tours, which is important because visitors very often ask about this. I, of course, talked up Lekson’s interpretation a lot when I gave tours at Chaco. There are some issues about the functions of great houses that arise from this interpretation, however, and the chapters I’ve read so far in this book really only allude to them. I’ll talk more about this later.
Part of Lekson’s reinterpretation of kiva function is the idea that “great” kivas are fundamentally different from small round rooms, and really did have the ceremonial or community-wide integrative functions traditionally implied by the term “kiva” (there some issues with terminology surrounding these interpretations that I won’t go into now). Certainly the uniformity of the Chacoan great kiva form, and the marked differences between great kivas and small kivas, is consistent with this argument, and Ruth Van Dyke’s chapter is a good collection of the information available about great kivas in the canyon. Only a few of these are exacavated, and not all of them have been well-documented, which makes interpretation a bit hazardous. The general uniformity of Chacoan great kivas both in and out of the canyon is striking, however, and it argues for a considerable amount of standardization and a key role in the Chacoan system. The relationship between great houses and great kivas is another perennial topic of debate, partly due to the limited dataset available. Van Dyke argues that the association between the two forms is relatively late, and that the building of great kivas at great houses such as Pueblo Bonito starting around 1040 was an attempt to justify new societal arrangements associated with the rise of the Chaco regional system by associating them with the much older great kiva form. There may well be something to this, but there is also some evidence for great kivas associated with the early great houses at Chaco in the 900s, which complicates the argument. I’ll do a post on this later.
Finally, one issue that arises particularly in Windes’s chapter on origins is regional variations in architecture and the possible implications of this for migration and connections to areas outside of the central San Juan Basin. There has been an increasing consensus that there is some connection between the collapse of the Pueblo I villages in southwestern Colorado in the 800s and the huge increase in population in the San Juan Basin to the south around the same time, and similarities between sites like McPhee Pueblo in the Dolores area and early great houses like Pueblo Bonito seem to imply a cultural connection of some sort. Connections to the south have been studied less, but Windes points out that many early great-house communities have sightlines to prominent southern landmarks such as Hosta Butte, rather than northern ones like the Huerfano. As far as I know no one has done a really systematic study of which architectural forms correspond to which regions, and the ability to do such a study would be complicated by the numerous migrations over time that are becoming increasingly apparent in the early archaeological record of the region. It would be a useful thing to try, however. Again, I’ll do a more in-depth post on this later.
Clearly there’s a lot to say about Chaco architecture and community planning, and with my newly acquired graduate degree in planning I suppose I am well-situated to address these issues, which I intend to do in the coming days and weeks. However, there are also other topics I want to cover in future posts, including coal, cotton, and chocolate. Stay tuned.