Kristina Killgrove has an interesting post on the numerous broken Cycladic figurines on the Greek island of Keros that have been documented over the past few years by the prominent British archaeologist Colin Renfrew. Renfrew’s interpretation seems to be that these figurines were deliberately broken in various Cycladic communities, then deliberately brought to Keros to be deposited. This is based partly on the fact that the various pieces can’t be fit together, suggesting that they were not broken on Keros and that the remaining portions were disposed of in some other manner (perhaps dumped in the ocean). Furthermore, as a Cambridge press release on the project explains, there is other evidence suggesting that Keros served as a ritual destination rather than a normal residential community:
Meanwhile, across the short stretch of water to Dhaskalio, a very different picture was emerging. From the outset, the islet showed evidence of having been a major Bronze Age stronghold with structures built on carefully prepared terraces circling a summit, on which a large hall was erected. The settlement dates from around the time of the Special Deposits, and then continued to operate before being abandoned around 2200 BC.
Examination of its geology showed that the beautifully regular walling of the settlement was imported marble rather than the flaky local limestone found on Keros. Remarkably, in the same era the pyramids were being built and Stonehenge erected, Cycladic islanders were shipping large quantities of building materials, probably by raft, over considerable distances to build Dhaskalio.
Here, too, there were puzzling finds: a stash of about 500 egg-shaped pebbles at the summit and stone discs found everywhere across the settlement. And, although there was evidence that the olive and vine were well-known to the inhabitants of Dhaskalio, the terrain there and on Keros could never have supported the large population the scale of the site implies, suggesting that food also was imported.
Readers who are familiar with Chaco will probably have realized by now why I’m talking about this, as it’s eerily similar to a lot of recent interpretations of Chaco Canyon as a destination for pilgrims who brought in vast amounts of pottery, wood, and other materials as part of some sort of ritual system focused on the canyon but also including the whole area throughout the San Juan Basin and beyond in which Chacoan “outliers” are found. There is even evidence that food was being imported to Chaco. The Chaco Project‘s excavations at Pueblo Alto uncovered evidence in the trash mound of repeated events in which huge numbers of pots were broken, which some have interpreted as evidence for ritual breakage of pottery (though not everyone agrees with this). This sort of pilgrimage model is one way to explain the rather inexplicable findings of huge amounts of material being imported to Chaco but basically nothing coming out. It also potentially offers a way to explain the apparently low permanent populations of both the canyon as a whole and the individual great houses, and one version (espoused by Wolky Toll) even posits that there may have been virtually no permanent population at all, with the small houses that comprise the bulk of the residential space in the canyon having only been occupied seasonally or for special gatherings by people who spent most of their time in the outlier communities.
What’s particularly interesting about this comparison is that Renfrew himself, in an article stemming from one of the Chaco Project capstone conferences, proposed a model like this for understanding Chaco as a “Location of High Devotional Expression” or “LHDE.” The article is quite reasonable and measured in pointing out the characteristics of such a center and how Chaco seems to fit pretty well, although Renfrew really seems to go overboard with the use of the passive voice to a greater extent even than most other archaeologists. He acknowledges that some known LHDEs are part of hierarchical societies or states and are often associated with political or economic authority, but he emphasizes that this is not necessarily the case and that many well-known examples such as Stonehenge seem to have clearly been built by egalitarian societies. The implication is that Chaco may have been egalitarian as well, an idea near and dear to the heart of a certain type of Southwestern archaeologist and still quite deeply entrenched in both Southwestern archaeology and popular perception. He does note that the rich burials in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito are problematic for this interpretation, but like most people proposing egalitarian models for Chaco he doesn’t really pursue the implications of that.
At one point, Renfrew discusses where he’s coming from with all this:
My approach to Chaco is colored by my experience of several early societies that are by no means urban but which can nonetheless boast impressive monumental constructions and other presumably symbolic features. Prominent among these are the so-called “temples” of prehistoric Malta, the ahu of Easter Island, and in particular the henges and other prehistoric monuments of Orkney.
It would seem his approach to the Cyclades is similarly colored. Thus the title of this post, although it is admittedly unfair, as Renfrew has a done a lot more in his long career than this LHDE stuff. Still, I think it’s interesting to see the way archaeologists’ backgrounds can influence how they perceive novel sites and societies. In many cases this can lead to important insights that people who have been myopically focused on that society for decades may have missed, and there is some interesting and useful stuff in Renfrew’s article along these lines, but his clearly (and admittedly) superficial knowledge of Chaco leads him to not seem to realize that many of his arguments for an egalitarian Chaco are basically old wine in new bottles. As alternatives to his LHDE model he evaluates two other models, which basically correspond to the “Mexicanist” idea of Chaco as a trading center providing turquoise to Mesoamerica and the “indigenous complexity” model of Chaco as an “elite power base.” These are indeed two of the models that have been frequently put forth to explain Chaco, but there are others, including some egalitarian ones quite similar to his own. He acknowledges this to some degree, but he again doesn’t really go into the details.
I don’t mean to criticize Renfrew too harshly here. He’s clearly a very smart guy, and Chaco is well outside his areas of expertise, so he can be forgiven for not being totally aware of all the nuances of Chacoan research. His article is probably the best summary out there of the evidence for Chaco as a pilgrimage center and what that might mean. As I said above, this is a popular idea these days among a lot of archaeologists who otherwise disagree about the exact nature of Chaco. I have expressed some fondness for it myself in the past, but I’m now starting to reconsider. It’s an attractive way to explain a lot of things about Chaco, but it has the distinct disadvantage of not having any direct evidence supporting it. Any pilgrimage model is therefore sort of inherently speculative about who these pilgrims were, where they were coming from, and why. This isn’t to say that I think Chaco was definitely not a pilgrimage center, but I’m not really convinced that there’s any particular reason to believe it was, based on the evidence we have. The strength of models involving pilgrimage will just have to depend on the strength of the evidence supporting the other aspects of the models, I think.
Renfrew, C. (2001). Production and Consumption in a Sacred Economy: The Material Correlates of High Devotional Expression at Chaco Canyon American Antiquity, 66 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694314