The great houses at Chaco are by any measure monumental in scale. This has been in some ways the defining characteristic of the Chaco system in the eyes of many who have studied it, and the overriding question has been “why are these monumental buildings here, in such an unexpected place?” Many, many answers have been proposed over the years. Some have simply argued that the massive scale of the sites was a result of the number of people they housed. This is the traditional approach, which was dominant up until the 1970s, in which archaeologists saw prehistoric sites like Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and the rest as functionally equivalent to modern pueblos like Taos and Acoma, which is to say, as massive towns in the form of apartment buildings. Some still hold to this idea, most notably Gwinn Vivian, but most have accepted the reinterpretation of the “scale of social action” at Chacoan great houses that sees much less evidence for residential use than would be expected if they were standard pueblos. This reinterpretation is based in part on the (relative) lack of features indicating residential use, but also on the fact that the buildings are not only huge but very carefully built. In this respect they differ dramatically from the late prehistoric sites, unquestionably pueblos in the modern sense and ancestral to the extant ones, that are in some cases even bigger in bulk but generally of much rougher, more expedient construction. Sites like Hawikuh and Grasshopper Pueblo were clearly residential pueblos, and they’re really big, but they show nothing like the formal layout and fine masonry of the great houses at Chaco.
So if great houses weren’t pueblos, what were they? Here’s where contemporary archaeologists tend to break into two main camps. One sees them as elite residences, part of some sort of hierarchical system centered on the canyon or, alternatively, of a decentralized system of “peer-polities” with local elites who emulated the central canyon elites in the biggest great houses. In either case, note that the great houses are still presumed to have been primarily residential. The difference from the traditional view is quantitative, rather than qualitative. These researchers see the lack of evidence for residential use in most rooms, but they also see that there is still some evidence for residential use, and they emphasize that and interpret the other rooms as evidence of the power and wealth of the few people who lived in these huge buildings and were able to amass large food surpluses or trade goods (or whatever). The specific models vary, but the core thing about them is that they see the great houses as houses, not for the community as a whole (most people lived in the surrounding “small houses” both inside and outside of the canyon) but for a lucky few. In this camp are Steve Lekson, Steve Plog, John Kantner, probably Ruth Van Dyke (although she doesn’t talk about the specific functions of great houses much), and others.
On the other side are those who see the difference between pueblos and great houses as qualitative. To these people, the great houses were not primarily residential in function, although they may have housed some people from time to time. Most of these researchers see the primary function of the sites as being “ritual” in some sense, although what that means is not always clearly specified. In many cases a focus on pilgrimage (based on questionable evidence) is posited. This group tends to make a big deal out of the astronomical alignments and large-scale planning evident in the layouts and positions of the great houses within their communities. They tend to see the few residents of the sites as caretakers, priests, or other individuals whose functions allowed them to reside in these buildings. Importantly, they don’t see these sites as equivalent to other residences in any meaningful way. They are instead public architecture, perhaps built by egalitarian communities as an act of religious devotion. Examples of monumental architecture built by such societies are known throughout the world (Stonehenge is a famous example), and this view fits with the traditional interpretation of modern Pueblo ethnography, which sees the Pueblos as peaceful, egalitarian, communal villagers. There is a long tradition of projecting this image back into the prehistoric past based on the obvious continuities in material culture, so while these scholars are in some ways breaking with tradition in not seeing great houses as residential, they are also staying true to tradition in other ways by interpreting them as a past manifestation of cultural tendencies still known in the descendant societies but expressed in different ways. In this corner are such researchers as Wolky Toll, Dean Saitta, and maybe Tom Windes. Not everyone who looks at Chaco fits into this neat dichotomy, of course, but it does express one of the major issues over which “the experts” are divided.
Another axis along which people are divided over Chaco concerns the source of the aspects of the Chaco system, whatever they were exactly, that set it apart from other manifestations of Pueblo culture. The two camps here are the “Mexicanists” and the “Indigenists.” The Mexicanists, who have been out of the mainstream for a while now but may be moving back toward the spotlight with the recent discovery of chocolate at Chaco (and elsewhere, as documented in a recent paper that I still need to read), see the sudden florescence of Chaco as the result of direct action by Mesoamerican societies, usually seen as an attempt to control the supply of turquoise. The noteworthy association of Chaco with turquoise gives this a certain plausibility, as does the huge scale of the great houses and other aspects of the Chaco system compared to developments in the region earlier and later. The most extreme version of Mexicanism sees actual Mesoamericans physically coming up and establishing Chaco, either as a merchant outpost or as a military center. Few hold to this theory today, although it enjoyed some respectability in the 1970s and 1980s, but it adherents include Dorothy Washburn, Christy Turner, and a few others. These scholars are all in the “more hierarchy” camp, of course, given the high levels of inequality in the Mesoamerican societies in the question, which generally also means they interpret great houses as elite residences, although some see them as more specialized facilities associated with whatever system they see being imposed on the hapless Southwesterners by the Mexican interlopers. Another version, which might be called “soft” Mexicanism, sees Chaco as the result of influence by Mesoamerican centers on indigenous societies. This view, which could just as easily be called soft Indigenism, is held by Lekson and Ben Nelson, and there may be other Indigenists who prefer this interpretation to the rejection of any meaningful Mexican influence by the “hard” Indigenists like Vivian. Many Chacoan specialists just don’t talk much about the level of Mesoamerican influence they see as having been important to the development of Chaco, which makes them hard to classify using this typology but implies that they’re somewhere in the Indigenist camp by default.
So, having laid out the schools of thought like that, which are best supported by the evidence? Obviously each individual scholar would see the evidence as supporting their own view of Chaco, but there are a few lines of evidence that I think do clearly support some more than others. On the question of great house function, those who see great houses as primarily non-residential tend to finesse the fact that there is actually rather a lot of evidence for residential use of many great houses, especially outliers like Salmon. Pueblo Bonito also has plenty of evidence of residential use in many of its rooms, although that’s hard to interpret given how complicated a site it is. A lot of these interpretations seeing little residential use rely heavily onto Pueblo Alto, but even there Chaco Project excavations found some evidence of residential use. It’s not that people who support a primarily non-residential function ignore this data entirely, but they tend to pass over it too quickly. An explanation for what a great house was that sees it as something other than a house needs to address the fact that there is evidence for residential use. There are potentially ways to do this convincingly, but many explanations just get kind of hand-wavy.
Similarly, “hard” Mexicanists really need to explain the lack of most of the defining characteristics of Mesoamerican societies at Chaco if they want to posit Mesoamericans actually coming up and founding the sites there. Where are the ballcourts? Where are the pyramids? (Some have, to their credit, tried to answer that one. More on that later.) Where are the incense burners, mirrors, and copals? Where’s the obsidian? (This one is particularly puzzling, as I’ll explain in a subsequent post.) “Hard” Indigenists have a similarly tough road in front of them; they have to explain the chocolate, for one thing, as well as the macaws, copper bells, cylinder jars, and other signs of rather more substantial Mesoamerican influence than casual, down-the-line trade would be likely to produce.
Overall, I think great houses were most likely elite residences, occupied by elite families of local origin who selectively appropriated Mesoamerican objects and symbols to justify their power and perhaps to try to emulate the great cities of Mexico to the extent they could in the very different environment of Chaco. Obviously they failed at this, if it is indeed what they were trying to do, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. The fact that their descendants, the modern Pueblos, have a generally egalitarian ideology and often aggressively act to suppress personal aggrandizement and the accumulation of power doesn’t conflict at all with this model. Indeed, that ideology may have developed specifically in reaction to the excesses of Chacoan elites. This is Lekson’s basic model, and I agree with it at least up to this point.
My conclusions on both these questions really stem from the same source: the architecture of the great houses. Basically, what strikes me about them is that they look overwhelmingly like extremely elaborate, formal versions of the ubiquitous small houses or unit pueblos that were the standard form of regional architecture during this period. What makes them special and unusual is not any difference in overall form but, rather, their massive scale and fineness of construction. This, to me, implies strongly that they were built to be houses, but special houses, and that they were built by local people, but special local people. There’s nothing in Mexico that looks like Pueblo Bonito, but there’s plenty of stuff in the Southwest that resembles it to a greater or lesser degree. Furthermore, the Chacoans already had a form of public architecture that they seem to have appropriated as their power grew: the great kiva, which is clearly non-residential and both predated and outlasted the great houses. There was no need for a new form of public architecture in the local architectural system, and there’s no sign that the Chacoans tried to import one from Mexico or anywhere else. No ballcourts, no pyramids. Just houses. Big, elaborate, formal houses, but houses nonetheless. Houses full of Mesoamerican imports, but again, still houses.
On the other big questions about Chaco, I’m still undecided. I don’t have a clear answer for why Chaco developed where and when it did or why it declined when it did. I don’t know exactly where the Chacoans came from or where they went; I’m confident enough to say that all these movements were within the Southwest, but the Southwest is a big area, and we’re increasingly learning that migrations were frequent and often quite long-distance. I don’t know what went on in the great kivas (and frankly, I don’t particularly care). I don’t know why great house form changed so much over time, but I do care about this one and am determine to figure out as much as I can about it.
I do know what’s so special about Chacoan architecture. The great houses were big, bigger than anything the Southwest had seen before, and they were remarkably well built, so well that they’re still in pretty good shape after a thousand years. But most importantly, the great houses were a recognizable part of the local architectural system that had been developing for hundreds of years when they first appeared and would continue to develop for hundreds of years after they were abandoned.