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Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

I was in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, and the next day I went with my family to the quaint nearby town of Doylestown, where we visited two local museums: the Michener Museum (named after, yes, that Michener, who grew up in Doylestown and spent most of his life in the area) and the Mercer Museum. The Michener is basically a local art museum, and we went there to see an exhibit about Grace Kelly, who is a big deal in the Philadelphia area. Not really my kind of thing, but it was fine.

The Mercer, on the other hand, is a really unusual sort of museum. It was established by Henry Mercer, a Doylestown native who had a variety of interests and a good deal of money with which to pursue them. He studied law but never practiced it, instead going into archaeology in the 1890s. I haven’t found much information about his specific contributions to American archaeology, which was in its infancy at that time, except that he apparently supported the authenticity of the obviously forged Lenape Stone that allegedly contains an image of a mammoth and is now part of the Mercer Museum collections (though not on display).

In the late 1890s, however, Mercer came to the realization that the advancement of industrialization meant that most aspects of traditional life in the US were likely to disappear forever, and he began to collect what were then considered mundane objects for the museum of the Bucks County Historical Society. He collected huge numbers of things from all aspects of pre-industrial life, over time branching out to the US as a whole and eventually other parts of the world as well. His collection got so big that he built a new building to house it, using an innovative design and construction approach using poured concrete. He organized the collection thematically by the sorts of societal needs that objects served, and put together display cases by category.

The museum is still much as he designed it, although there have been various changes over the years. It’s a fascinating place, idiosyncratic and full of extremely detailed information. What I found especially interesting, however, was the way the museum’s own self-descriptions explicitly tied Mercer’s collecting of what most people considered “junk” to his earlier interest in archaeology. That is, one way to see what Mercer was doing was taking an archaeological approach to studying and preserving the material culture of the present and recent past, to ensure it would be understood in the future. This approach was quite ahead of its time for both history and archaeology, and the museum that resulted is fascinating and well worth a visit.

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Reconstructed House, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma

Mississippian societies are best known for their mound centers, with Cahokia in Illinois being the largest and most impressive but by no means the only one. These sites have drawn the interest of archaeologists since the very beginning of American archaeology as a field of study, but the focus on mounds meant that other aspects of Mississippian culture got relatively little attention until much later.

One of these aspects was domestic architecture. While Mississippian mounds, unlike those of many earlier societies in the Eastern Woodlands, often served at least in part as platforms for elite residences, the fact that both these and more humble dwellings were made of perishable materials and did not survive in the damp conditions of the region led their subtle remains to be largely ignored until well into the twentieth century. At this time archaeology as a discipline was rapidly professionalizing, and archaeologists began to shift their focus from acquiring impressive specimens for museum display to investigating the remains of ancient societies in an attempt to understand them as totalities, including the more humble parts.

Partially Reconstructed House, Angel Mounds, Evansville, Indiana

When it came to Mississippian residential architecture, what these newer, more careful excavations revealed was that Mississippian houses were relatively flimsy, at least as compared to the impressive stone architecture of the Southwest and Mexico. Indeed, masonry architecture was apparently totally unknown in the East throughout the prehistoric period, even in areas near outcrops of useful stone. The conception thus entered the archaeological literature that the Mississippians, for all their effort at building mounds, didn’t do much to build substantial houses.

This is kind of a misleading way to think about it, however, as John Bennett of the University of Chicago pointed out in a 1944 article. As he put it:

There can be no doubt that a dwelling or ceremonial structure built of such perishable materials as wood, canes, and grass thatch is hardly as durable or lasting as a stone building. From the standpoint of preservation such construction is “flimsy.” This interpretation unfortunately implies, however, that this architecture was flimsy in terms of its own cultural setting. That is, it represented a poor attempt at sheltering and housing the people.

Bennett goes on to argue that this is a mistaken conclusion to draw, basing his remarks on his institution’s recent excavations at the Kincaid site in southern Illinois, which had exceptionally well-preserved remains of burned houses. Basically, he argues that while the individual materials may have been flimsy, they were put together in an ingenious way that gave the result structures plenty of strength and durability for their intended purposes:

Walls were constructed by placing poles or saplings in a trench and bending these over at the top to produce a peaked or domed roof. Horizontal poles were lashed to the sides, to produce a lattice. Reeds were then lashed to the lattice. The next step was to plaster a thick layer of clay on both sides of this lattice, over the reeds, then to cover this clay with a matted layer of grass fibers. The final step was to cover this grass with cane mats—large and thick for the outside, thinner for the inside. The wall thus formed was nearly one foot thick, and obviously very rigid—hardly a “flimsy” structure.

There was actually quite a bit of variation within the Mississippian tradition in house construction; some areas had straight-walled houses with gabled thatch roofs, while others had houses with more of a curved shape. This basic pattern of wall trenches filled with upright poles which were then covered with some sort of wattle-and-daub was widespread, however, and in some areas the appearance of wall trenches is considered a sign of the beginning of the Mississippian period. It’s true that these houses didn’t last very long and had to be replaced frequently (which has been used in some cases to estimate occupation spans and population totals at certain sites), but any type of construction short of stone masonry would have this drawback in the rainy East. Given that these houses would have provided quite useful shelter with relatively little effort, they seem quite well suited to their context.

Kincaid Mounds, Massac County, Illinois

Speaking of stone, though, why didn’t they use it? Some sites in alluvial plains wouldn’t necessarily have had nearby sources of stone, but this isn’t the case for Kincaid and many other sites. As it turns out, Bennett has an answer to this too:

The proximity of Kincaid to stone outcrops in the hills might make us wonder why the Indians never utilized stone for building materials. The answer is twofold: (1) The southeastern cultural tradition did not include such a trait, and (2) the climate and frequent floods in the bottoms required just such a structure as described. The architecture can be considered as a nearly perfect adaptation to the environment.

It’s interesting to see here, given the early date of Bennett’s article, that he hits on both of the major categories of explanation that have dominated archaeology in recent decades: environmental determinism and cultural specificity. Neither is necessarily all that convincing on its own, but between the two of them they probably cover whatever the true answer was. It’s noteworthy that when Europeans began to settle eastern North America they mostly didn’t build with stone either, instead preferring wood until well into the nineteenth century when cities grew to such a size that local wood resources became scarce and fire became a major concern. This even though they, unlike the indigenous tribes, did have a cultural tradition of building in stone which reached quite a high degree of elaboration in the castles and cathedrals of medieval Europe.

Closeup of Kincaid Mounds Mural, Paducah, Kentucky

One way to interpret this information is to posit that building with stone is sufficiently difficult that people are only going to do it when they have few other options, as in arid regions with little wood and when local wood resources have been largely exhausted. In the forests of the Eastern Woodlands this was never really a problem during the prehistoric period (and well into the historic), so people just built with wood and other easily available materials. Even for monumental purposes, such as mound-building, they used dirt rather than bothering with stone. Ironically, this meant that everything they built except the mounds eventually rotted away in the wet climate, so their ingenuity in this regard wasn’t discovered until rather recently.
ResearchBlogging.org
Bennett, J. (1944). A Note on Middle Mississippi Architecture American Antiquity, 9 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275792

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The Great Plaza and Monks Mound, Cahokia

The greatest of the Mississippian mound centers, by far, is Cahokia. This vast site contains numerous mounds and is located in the American Bottom area of southwestern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from the modern city of St. Louis, Missouri. This is a highly strategic location, very close to the confluence of the two largest rivers on the North American continent (the Mississippi and the Missouri), and about twenty years ago Peter Peregrine published a short paper using graph theory to demonstrate that Cahokia was located at the point of highest centrality in the entire Mississippi drainage, potentially giving Cahokia’s inhabitants the ability to control riverine trade across a large portion of the continent. In addition, the American Bottom is an area of very fertile bottomlands along the Mississippi potentially allowing for substantial agricultural surpluses. As early as 1964 Charles Bareis noted that the configuration of the mounds at Cahokia relative to the meander loops where the Mississippi had changed its course over time indicated that the river had been relatively stable over time in this region, changing its channel much less frequently than in areas further downstream. The combination of fertile soil and a relatively stable, predictable river could have combined with the strategic location within the river system to provide the conditions under which Cahokia rose to prominence.

Ecological/geographical explanations like this for the rise of “complex” societies like Cahokia were quite popular among processual archaeologists from the 1960s to the 1980s, but they have since been challenged by a newer generation of archaeologists influenced by the post-processual movement that began in Europe. As Michelle Hegmon noted in an important summary of the theoretical status of North American archaeology a few years ago, Americanists have generally not been inclined to go all the way over to European-style post-processualism, instead adopting elements of both processual and post-processual approaches in varying ways. Hegmon labels the resulting theoretical orientation “processual-plus,” and that seems like an apt description to me.

With regard to Cahokia specifically, the main voices for the “processual-plus” perspective have been Thomas Emerson and Timothy Pauketat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Pauketat, in particular, has argued vigorously for what he calls a “historical-processual” approach to archaeology, incorporating the insights of processual culture ecology as well as a more historical-particularist approach more associated with post-processualism. One of his more important contributions along these lines has been a 2003 paper discussing both Cahokia and an area to the east, in the uplands surrounding the American Bottom, that contains what he calls the “Richland Complex”: a group of rural agricultural sites that appear to date to right around the time of the rise of Cahokia, circa 1050 AD. Cahokia rose very rapidly, and it’s apparent that the population increase in the mid-eleventh century couldn’t possibly have been due solely to natural increase. Migration from surrounding areas seems to have been a major part of the development of the site, and Pauketat argues that the Richland Complex also shows evidence of having been rapidly settled around the same time. This area was apparently very sparsely populated before this, and the settlements established in the eleventh century show sufficient diversity in material culture to suggest that their resident immigrated from different areas. Some show a particularly distinctive pottery style typical of southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas, also found at Cahokia itself, which suggests migration from that region into the American Bottom at the time of the rise of Cahokia. (This may be particularly important in explaining the Mississippian phenomenon in general, for reasons I’ll discuss in a future post.)

Interpretive Sign at Cahokia

A recent article in Science discussing recent research in the Cahokia area has drawn the notice of Mike Smith at Arizona State, one of the foremost authorities on ancient urbanism. He seems pretty comfortable with the idea that Cahokia was a city (an idea strongly pushed by the interpretive material at the site itself), but he does question the assertion that it had a lower population density than the Maya cities, which apparently had notably low population densities within the urban centers themselves but notably high densities in the rural areas outside the cities:

Now I don’t know the demographic data for Cahokia and its hinterland, but I think the population density within the Cahokia urban center was probably HIGHER than within Maya cities, but the population density of the “Greater Cahokia” region was most likely lower than that of the Maya lowlands.

Maya cities had very low URBAN population densities (even compared to a sprawling modern city like Phoenix):

  • Tikal (Maya):    600 persons per square kilometer
  • New York City:  9,400
  • Phoenix:    1,900

But the Maya lowlands had a very high  REGIONAL population densities:

  • Maya lowlands:  180 persons per sq. km
  • New York State:   150
  • Illinois:   80
  • Arizona:  17

The high density of Maya regional populations (how many people lived on the landscape, whether in large or small settlements) is one of the remarkable features of ancient Maya society. I’d be interested to see how Cahokia fits in comparison with these figures.

Population estimates for Cahokia vary, as you might expect, but I figured I could chime in with Pauketat’s estimates from his 2003 paper. It’s important to note here that Pauketat is an advocate for a larger, more urban Cahokia than that seen by some other archaeologists, so his figures are relatively high compared to some other estimates, but he goes into some detail in this paper about where he gets his figures and his procedure seems reasonable to me.

St. Louis from Monks Mound, Cahokia

For the core area of Cahokia, which is about 1.8 square kilometers in area, Pauketat calculates a population range of 10,000 to 16,000 people at the site’s peak during the Lohmann Phase (ca. AD 1050 to 1100), which equates to a population density of about 5500 to 8900 people per square km. As Smith suspected, this is much higher than Classic Maya cities like Tikal. Indeed, it’s much higher than contemporary St. Louis, which has about 2000 people per square km, and at the high end it approaches the density of New York! Calculating the regional density is trickier because of limited survey coverage in some areas, but for the 300-square-km Richland Complex specifically (a relatively dense rural area), Pauketat calculates a population range of 3000 to 7400 people for roughly the same period, which equals a density of 10 to 25 people per square km. Again, as Smith predicts, this is much lower than the Maya regional density and down with the more sparsely populated US states like Arizona. It’s lower than both Illinois (89 people per square km) and Missouri (34 people per square km) today.

There’s way more to say about Cahokia. The literature on this site is vast, not unlike the literature on Chaco. (Observant readers may have noted some striking similarities between the two sites, which I’ll discuss later.) Given that Cahokia is widely acknowledged these days to have been a city, population density is a useful way to look at it and to compare it to other cities. There are other aspects of this fascinating site worthy of discussion, however, and I’ll have much more on it soon.
ResearchBlogging.org
Bareis, C. (1964). Meander Loops and the Cahokia Site American Antiquity, 30 (1) DOI: 10.2307/277637

Hegmon, M. (2003). Setting Theoretical Egos Aside: Issues and Theory in North American Archaeology American Antiquity, 68 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3557078

Lawler, A. (2011). America’s Lost City Science, 334 (6063), 1618-1623 DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6063.1618

Pauketat, T. (2003). Resettled Farmers and the Making of a Mississippian Polity American Antiquity, 68 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3557032

Peregrine, P. (1991). A Graph-Theoretic Approach to the Evolution of Cahokia American Antiquity, 56 (1) DOI: 10.2307/280973

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United Country Mimbres Realty, Silver City, New Mexico

Inspired by my recent visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, I’ve been reading about the Mimbres Mogollon culture of southwestern New Mexico.  As I noted earlier, the cliff dwellings themselves aren’t actually Mimbres, instead belonging to the Tularosa Mogollon culture more common to the north, and they postdate the “Classic” Mimbres period (ca. AD 1000 to 1150, exactly contemporary with the florescence of Chaco further north) by over a century.  They do, however, fall well within the area occupied by the Classic Mimbres, and there is in fact a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, within the monument boundaries.  The upper Gila River valley was a major area of Mimbres settlement during the Classic period, and it had some of the largest Classic villages, although it is not nearly as well understood as the Rio Mimbres valley which is often considered the Mimbres “heartland” and which gave the culture its name.  A review article by Michelle Hegmon from 2002 provides a good and relatively recent overview of the major issues in Mimbres archaeology.

The Mimbres are best known for their pottery, some of which features elaborately painted naturalistic designs unlike anything else known from the prehistoric Southwest.  This pottery was painted with black paint on a white slip, as was Anasazi pottery from Chaco and other areas at the time, and many of the abstract geometrical designs that form the bulk of the decorated pottery are reminiscent of Anasazi styles.  There’s no equivalent among the Anasazi to the naturalistic designs, however, which show elaborately detailed people, animals, possible mythical scenes, and much else.  No two designs are exactly alike.  Most of the figurative designs were on bowls which were placed with burials, usually with a “kill-hole” through the center of the vessel, which was then placed over the face of the buried individual.  Iconographic study of Mimbres pottery dates back nearly a century, starting with the work of Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian in the 1910s, but in the past 20 years it has been supplemented by studies taking a more technological approach.  Particularly important has been a series of studies using instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) to determine the sources of the clay used in the pots and untangle patterns of production and exchange.  The results of these studies have generally been consistent with widely distributed production of pottery throughout the region, which is in contrast to other documented cases of community-level specialization in pottery production known from other parts of the Southwest at various times.  Design analysis has led some to suggest that the finest of the black-on-white bowls were made by a very small number of potters, however, which implies that perhaps a few specialists in villages scattered across the region made almost all of the well-known naturalistic vessels.

Tune Town Music Exchange, Silver City, New Mexico

Speaking of villages, one of the most interesting things about the Mimbres is that theirs were quite different from communities found throughout the rest of the Southwest during the Classic period.  While most areas, including the Chaco region, had communities of loosely clustered small house sites, the Mimbres were aggregated into large, dense villages made up of roomblocks very similar to those that would become increasingly common in Pueblo sites to the north starting in the thirteenth century and continuing into the historic period.  Indeed, some have argued that the Classic Mimbres invented the “Pueblo” as a type of community, and even that many of the social institutions of the modern Pueblos, such as the kachina cult, derive ultimately from Mimbres precursors.  There is definitely a clear continuum in artistic style from Mimbres pottery through Jornada Style rock art to the Rio Grande style of rock art and mural painting that appears among the northern Pueblos beginning around AD 1300.

After the decline of Chaco around AD 1130, the northern Southwest witnessed a pattern of ever-increasing aggregation eventually resulting in the modern Pueblos with their very Mimbres-like plans and institutions.  There have been various explanations offered for why this occurred, and I think those that attribute it largely to increased warfare are among the most persuasive.  There is definitely much more direct evidence for violence after about AD 1150 than before then.  Whatever was causing trouble in Pueblo societies at this time, it seems very likely that solutions drawn from the Mimbres experience became increasingly attractive further north.

But what was that experience?  Why did the Mimbres aggregate into large Pueblos at a time when everyone else lived in scattered small houses?  The Classic Mimbres period coincides with a time of remarkable peace throughout most of the Southwest, so defense seems less likely as an explanation here than it does later on.  Some of the Mimbres pots do show scenes of violence, including a well-known beheading, but it’s not at all clear that these show actual events rather than myths.  In general, there doesn’t seem to be any more evidence for warfare among the Classic Mimbres than anywhere else at the same time, which makes their much denser settlement pattern particularly mysterious.  It may have had something to do with irrigation agriculture, which the Mimbres had probably adopted somewhat earlier under the influence of the Hohokam in southern Arizona, who were by far the most accomplished irrigators of the prehistoric Southwest.  Among the Mimbres, as among other Mogollon groups, there was extensive Hohokam influence early on, which seems to have largely ceased by AD 1000, possibly replaced by increased influence from the Anasazi to the north (although this is controversial).  Steve Lekson, who has done a lot of work in the Mimbres area in addition to his work at Chaco, has argued that the Classic Mimbres consists of “an Anasazi lifestyle supported by Hohokam infrastructure,” and I think there may be something to that.  The labor demands of irrigation may have led to residential aggregation, although it’s important to note that the Hohokam themselves never aggregated to anything like the same degree despite their much more elaborate irrigation systems.

Welcome Sign, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

What’s even more puzzling about the Mimbres, however, is what they did after the end of the Classic period.  The large villages and figurative pottery seem to come to a rather sudden end around 1150, about the same time that Chaco declined and the northern Southwest entered a long, difficult period of warfare, aggregation, and regional abandonment.  It used to be thought that the Mimbres just “collapsed” at this time, with their ultimate fate unknown, but more recent research, especially in the eastern Mimbres area along the Rio Grande near the modern town of Truth or Consequences, has shown that the real story is more complicated.  Margaret Nelson has been researching settlement patterns in the eastern Mimbres area, and she has found that one notable shift after the end of the Classic period involved the dissolution of the aggregated Classic villages and the dispersal of people into small hamlets, often built on the sites of Classic fieldhouses.  She also sees continued production of Mimbres pottery, although apparently without the distinctive naturalistic designs, for a long time after the end of the Classic.  Hegmon, who has collaborated with Nelson on much of this work, has proposed calling these occupations “Postclassic Mimbres.”  They show much more extensive trade of pottery with surrounding areas than during the Classic period, as well as more variable architecture, implying that whatever social controls had held the large Classic villages together had broken down and been replaced by a more flexible social system.

What’s remarkable about this is that it’s basically the opposite of what was happening everywhere else in the Southwest, where the dominant trend during this period was aggregation.  The Mimbres, at least in the east, were instead dispersing.  The picture is less clear in the Mimbres and Gila valleys further west, but at least some of the Classic villages seem to have continued to be occupied at lower population levels (similar to what was going on at Chaco), while a new type of occupation seen at some sites in the area, known as the Black Mountain Phase, may or may not represent a change in Mimbres culture.  There is debate over whether the Black Mountain Phase actually shows continuity with Classic Mimbres or not.  It’s also possible that some people headed south, to the rising center at Casas Grandes, in which case they would be participating in the trend toward aggregation.

It’s becoming increasingly clear, then, that the Mimbres didn’t really collapse or totally abandon their region in 1150.  Instead, they seem to have sort of splintered, with some scattering to hamlets on the sites of former field houses, others possibly reorganizing their communities into Black Mountain Phase sites, and still others migrating away from their region either south to Casas Grandes or east to the Jornada area, where the very Mimbres-like Jornada petroglyph style seems to appear around this time.  This process of dispersal when everyone else was aggregating, combined with their earlier aggregation when everyone else was sprawling across the landscape, gives a distinct “out of phase” feel to Mimbres cultural dynamics.

I certainly don’t have any solutions to propose to the mysteries of the Mimbres, and as far as I can tell no one else really does either.  They’re among the most fascinating of the many peoples who inhabited the prehistoric Southwest, and while they are by no means the most obscure, outside of specialist circles they are known almost exclusively for their pottery.  The pottery is amazing, of course, and quite deserving of attention, but there’s much more to the Mimbres than their pots.
ResearchBlogging.org
Fewkes, J. (1916). Animal Figures on Prehistoric Pottery from Mimbres Valley, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 18 (4), 535-545 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1916.18.4.02a00080

Gilman, P., Canouts, V., & Bishop, R. (1994). The Production and Distribution of Classic Mimbres Black-on-White Pottery American Antiquity, 59 (4) DOI: 10.2307/282343

Hegmon, M. (2002). Recent Issues in the Archaeology of the Mimbres Region of the North American Southwest Journal of Archaeological Research, 10 (4), 307-357 DOI: 10.1023/A:1020525926010

Hegmon, M., Nelson, M., & Ruth, S. (1998). Abandonment and Reorganization in the Mimbres Region of the American Southwest American Anthropologist, 100 (1), 148-162 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.1.148

Nelson, M., & Hegmon, M. (2001). Abandonment Is Not as It Seems: An Approach to the Relationship between Site and Regional Abandonment American Antiquity, 66 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2694606

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Cliff Dwellings from Trail, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Over Labor Day Weekend my mom and I went down to southwestern New Mexico to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  We had been wanting to go there for a long time, but it’s pretty far from Albuquerque (about a six-hour drive) and not really on the way to anywhere else, so we hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  With me going away to Alaska soon, this was a good opportunity.  We camped at Lower Scorpion Campground, which turned out to be a fortuitously good location since there are some pictographs and a cliff dwelling right in the campground.  The main attraction, of course, was the cliff dwellings themselves, and they were quite spectacular.  They’re not particularly easy to get to.  They are accessible by paved road, unlike Chaco, but it’s a very long winding road through the mountains, so it takes quite a bit of effort.  The sites are definitely worth the effort, though.

Labor Day is apparently the busiest time for visitation there, so it was quite crowded, and there were a lot of volunteers around answering questions and so forth.  Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the less-visited Park Service units, so it relies almost entirely on volunteers.  At the visitor center they told us that the monument only has two paid employees; I had heard once that they only had one (the superintendent), but I guess they’re up to two.  Part of the reason they can get by like this is that they’re surrounded by the Gila National Forest, so the Forest Service can pick up a lot of the slack and do the things that the monument doesn’t have the staffing for.  The monument itself is tiny, and basically consists only of the cliff dwellings themselves and a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, which is apparently not open to the public.  The visitor center and the campgrounds are on Forest Service land, and the visitor center is shared by both the Forest Service and the Park Service.

Gila Visitor Center, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

I hadn’t known very much about the Gila Cliff Dwellings before going there.  I knew that they were built by the Mogollon culture, and that they were the only Mogollon sites managed by the Park Service, but aside from that I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect.  Luckily, the visitor center has a nice museum and a very informative and up-to-date video explaining a lot of the background.  The cliff dwellings are really quite unusual for Mogollon sites, which were usually either pithouse villages or above-ground pueblos in open areas like the Mimbres villages.  Cliff dwellings are more typical of the Anasazi to the north at places like Mesa Verde, of course, and these were very reminiscent of sites like that architecturally.  They’re quite close to the Mimbres Valley, so I had thought there might be some connection between them and the Mimbres, probably the best-known division of the Mogollon, but apparently the current archaeological thinking is that the cliff dwellings were not built by the Mimbres but by the Tularosa Mogollon, who mostly lived a bit further north but apparently migrated to the south and built the cliff dwellings in the late thirteenth century AD.  This seems to be established by the pottery found at the cliff dwellings, as Tularosa pottery is very distinctive and different from other Mogollon pottery traditions.  I believe it’s more similar to some Anasazi styles, which would fit well with the Anasazi-like architecture.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907, the same year as Chaco, but apparently the sites had already been very significantly pothunted by then, and there was very little left for archaeologists to find once the sites were protected.  Interestingly, one of the volunteers answering questions at the sites when I was there mentioned that the pothunters mostly left behind things like corncobs, so we have a pretty good idea of the subsistence system of the people who occupied the sites even though we don’t know a whole lot about their tools or other aspects of material culture.  I guess there must have been a bit of Tularosa-style pottery left behind and/or in private collections originating from the early pothunting.  Anyway, the upshot of all this is that there has been essentially no professional excavation of the cliff dwellings, and they are rarely mentioned in the archaeological literature as a result, which is really unfortunate because they’re fascinating sites.

Corncobs at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Like most cliff dwellings, these ones preserved a lot of perishable materials that rarely survive in open sites.  I mentioned the corncobs before, and there are also a lot of wooden beams in situ.  These have been sampled for tree-ring dating, which found that all construction of the sites took place between AD 1270 and 1300, mostly in the 1280s.  The sites were probably only occupied for one generation at most.   This seems like a short period, but it’s actually pretty typical for cliff dwellings.  Many of the much larger sites at Mesa Verde were occupied for almost exactly the same interval.  The late thirteenth century seems to have been the main period for cliff-dwelling construction throughout most of the Southwest.

This is of course the period of the “Great Drought,” and the obviously highly defensible nature of cliff dwellings has led to much speculation that their florescence at this time was due to defensive considerations.  This has been a somewhat controversial proposal further north, and Park Service sites tend to downplay it, but at the Gila sites the interpretive material states outright that defense was probably a major factor in the occupation of the cliff dwellings.  I find this interesting.  It may have to do with the relative distance of the modern Pueblos from this area, and resultingly lower political controversy over discuss of prehistoric warfare, but it may also have to do with the nature of Mogollon archaeology, which developed somewhat differently from Anasazi archaeology.  Steven LeBlanc, who is probably the most prominent archaeologist to argue for a major role for warfare in the prehistoric Southwest, has his particular expertise in the Mimbres area.  This is all just speculation on my part, of course.

T-Shaped Doorway, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

One of the cliff dwellings has a t-shaped door.  This is a type of architectural feature that is common at Chaco (and Mesa Verde) as well as at Casas Grandes to the south.  Many people have argued that this represents some sort of Mesoamerican influence on those sites, and Steve Lekson has argued that it is one of the signs of continuity between Chaco and Casas Grandes.  Its presence here, between the two, and in association with a very Anasazi-like type of architecture deep in Mogollon territory, is certainly intriguing.  Macaw feathers were also found at the cliff dwellings.  The importance of the macaw at Chaco and Casas Grandes (where they were bred on a huge scale), as well as in the Mimbres area, is well known, and of course they would have to have come from further south initially.

Anyway, these are some really fascinating sites that raise the possibility of a lot of intriguing connections to other parts of the Southwest and beyond.  I highly recommend a visit to them for anyone.  Unlike a lot of the sites in the Southwest, these are very impressive even to people without much particular interest in archaeology, on account of their fantastic preservation and stunning location.

Labor Day Weekend Crowds at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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Room 38, Pueblo Bonito

In a recent post, I noted the limited distribution of macaw remains within Pueblo Bonito.  While this site has a much higher number of macaws than any other Chacoan site, and more than almost every other site in the prehistoric Southwest, within the site macaw remains were highly concentrated.  All macaws were found in the eastern half of the site, and most were in the eastern part of “Old Bonito” at the northern end of the overall site, particularly in Room 38, which had twelve.  This suggests to me that macaws were closely associated with whatever social group lived in or used that part of Pueblo Bonito.

It’s hard to say what that social group was, but it’s possible that the burials in a complex of four rooms in the northern part of Old Bonito were associated with it.  Associating these burials with the eastern rooms in Old Bonito is perhaps a bit of a stretch, since the burial rooms are actually in the western half of the Old Bonito arc, but they’re just barely on the west side, and there is a separate set of burial rooms at the far western end of Old Bonito that could be plausibly associated with whatever social group lived in or used those rooms.  There is no equivalent set of burial rooms in the eastern part of the arc, although there are a few isolated burials of infants and fetuses.  (Two of the infant burials, in Rooms 306 and 309, were associated with macaws.)  The eastern end of Old Bonito was covered over by later construction and is poorly known, but there is no evidence that it ever held a mortuary complex comparable to the one at the western end.  Given the circumstances, I think it’s plausible that the northern burial complex was associated with the group (or one of the groups) associated with the eastern part of Pueblo Bonito, perhaps in addition to the group associated with the immediately adjacent room suite at the west end of the northern part of Old Bonito, if this was indeed a different group.

Western Burial Rooms in Old Bonito

Analysis of the Pueblo Bonito burials by Nancy Akins for the Chaco Project found that, judging from cranial attributes, the northern and western burial groups were distinct from each other but internally homogeneous.  This suggests that they probably represented kin-based social units, and that the site consisted of at least two of these units, perhaps occupying or using different areas.  Akins couldn’t find a very large sample of burials from other sites in the canyon for comparison, but she was able to compare burials from three small sites in the canyon.  One of these, Bc 59, is across from Bonito on the south side of the canyon near Casa Rinconada, while the other two, 29SJ299 and 29SJ1360, are in Fajada Gap, a few miles east and the location of a substantial community of small houses and two great houses (Una Vida and Kin Nahasbas) in close proximity to Fajada Butte.

While the two burial populations in Pueblo Bonito weren’t particularly similar to each other, they more closely resembled the small site samples.  Specifically, the western burial population was similar to the one from Bc 59, while the northern burial group was more similar to the Fajada Gap group.  Importantly, the two Bonito groups were both more similar to these small-house populations than they were to each other.  This suggests that kinship connections among different sites in the canyon were complicated and didn’t break down on straightforward great house v. small house lines.

Bc 59 from Casa Rinconada

What does all this have to do with macaws?  Well, there is only one small house site at Chaco (as far as I know) that has produced macaw remains, and that site is… 29SJ1360, one of the sites with burials that patterned with the northern burial group at Bonito!  As reported by Peter McKenna in his report on this site, which was excavated by the Chaco Project, a few macaw bones were found in the fill from one of the pit structures.  While there were only a few bones found, they were all unique, suggesting the presence of only one macaw, and from various parts of the body, suggesting that the whole macaw was present.  This fill was only casually screened for artifacts and was later used to backfill the pit structure, so the rest of the macaw is probably still there.  This site also had an unusual architectural feature, a small bin attached to the outside of one of the roomblocks, that according to McKenna looked “remarkably like a parrot bin.”  One important feature that appears to have led to this conclusion was the presence of an adobe “plug” in the north wall, presumably reminiscent of the stone plugs used with “cage stones” at macaw pens at Casas Grandes, where there is substantial evidence for the keeping and breeding of macaws a few hundred years later.

This is all pretty tentative, of course.  Very few sites at Chaco have been excavated, so we have very little sense of the overall distribution of rare finds such as macaw remains.  Still, two separate lines of evidence (biological relationship and association with macaws) seem to point to a strong connection between the northern/eastern part of Pueblo Bonito and at least some sites in the Fajada Gap community, which is not particularly close to Bonito.  Given the rarity of macaws, especially, this seems significant.

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

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Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

The “Chacoan era” is a period of about 100 years in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries AD during which Chaco Canyon was at the center of some sort of system that covered a large portion of the northern Southwest.  The exact nature and exact extent of that system are endlessly debated, but the period during which it existed is fairly well-established.  The exact dates given for the duration of the system vary among different researchers, and I’ve given various versions of them myself.  Probably the most common ending date is AD 1130, which coincides both with the approximate end of apparent construction in the canyon and the onset of a 50-year drought that is generally thought to have had something to do with the decline of Chaco.  To make it an even century, 1030 is a useful starting date for the Chacoan era, although it doesn’t actually correspond to anything special in the canyon as far as we can tell.  A better starting date might be 1040, which is approximately when the expansion of Pueblo Bonito began, or 1020, which is about when construction began at Pueblo Alto.  Using these starting dates with the hundred-year span gives ending dates of 1140 or 1120, which again are roughly equivalent to the end of major construction in the canyon.  (It’s a lot easier to date the beginnings of phenomena in the ancient Southwest than the ends of them, due largely to the reliance on tree-ring dates.)

Whenever we say the Chacoan era began, it was long after the first great houses in Chaco Canyon were built.  Indeed, the canyon had a long and probably very eventful history well before things really got going in the early 1000s.  During the 900s it may not yet have been important on as large a scale as it became later but it was definitely already a place where things were happening.  The origins of Chaco lie even earlier, however.

Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

The first three great houses built in the canyon were Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco.  Una Vida is mostly unexcavated and Peñasco Blanco is completely so, so the dating of them relies mainly on tree-ring sampling of exposed wood.  This has shown that these two sites probably date originally to the late 800s, with extensive expansion in the 900s.  The earliest cutting date at Una Vida is from AD 861, while Peñasco Blanco has a cluster of cutting dates at AD 898.  Both have clusters of dates in the 900s that suggest that much of the early construction dates to this period, and both also show expansion later, during the Chacoan era itself.  Beyond that, though, not much can be said about the chronology of these sites.

Pueblo Bonito is a different story.  It’s almost completely excavated, and while the excavation took place a long time ago, it left a lot more exposed wood than at most other sites.  The recent Chaco Wood Project, which sought to sample every piece of exposed wood in the canyon to develop as full a chronology as possible, had its most spectacular results at Bonito.  These were reported in part in an article in 1996 by Tom Windes and Dabney Ford, and the implications of the new dates for the architectural history of the site were more fully explained by Windes in a subsequent book chapter published in 2003.

Beams Sampled for Tree-Ring Dating in Room 227, Pueblo Bonito

To get a sense of the scale of this project, before it began in 1985 there were 163 pieces of wood from Pueblo Bonito that had been tree-ring dated.  By the time the 1996 Windes and Ford article was published, this figure had risen to 4,294.  That’s a big difference!  We now have a much better idea of when different parts of Bonito were constructed, and that has shed important light on developments in the canyon at large and their relationship to events elsewhere in the Southwest.

Before this project, Pueblo Bonito was thought to have been initially constructed in the early 900s, with some reuse of beams from earlier structures accounting for a handful of dates in the 800s.  This interpretation, expressed most influentially by Steve Lekson in his 1986 book on Chacoan architecture, was based largely on a tight cluster of cutting dates at AD 919 from Room 320 in the western part of “Old Bonito.”  The enlarged sample, however, showed that it was actually this cluster that was a fluke, and that other beams from this wing produced dates in the mid-800s that more likely represent the initial construction of this part of the site.  This seems particularly likely because the types of wood represented by these beams are largely piñon, juniper, and cottonwood, locally available species that were widely used early on, before the beginning of large-scale, long-distance procurement of large beams of ponderosa pine and other high-elevation woods.  This suggests that the beams in Room 320 which dated to 919 were probably replacement beams rather than original construction.  This block of rooms at the western end of Old Bonito was probably built around 860.

Room 320, Pueblo Bonito

Lekson thought this roomblock was probably the earliest part of the site.  As it turns out, it was even older than he thought, but evidence from other parts of Old Bonito suggests that it was not actually the earliest part.  A cluster of cutting dates at AD 891 in the northeast part of Old Bonito, which was clearly added onto the north-central part to the west of it, suggests that it was the north-central part that was actually first.  This makes sense just from looking at the plan of the rooms, actually.  This part of the site is less regular and formal in organization than the east and west wings of Old Bonito, and since it lies between them it seems logical that they would have been added on to the original central room suites.  This is a bit hard to interpret, however, since the places where these different parts of the Old Bonito arc would have come together are mostly buried under complicated later construction.

Windes suggests in his 2003 paper that the very oldest part of the site was the block consisting of Rooms 1, 2, 4/5, 6, 35, 36, 37, and 61.  None of these rooms produced wood that could be dated.  Room 6 contains a considerable amount of original wood, which can be seen today under a modern roof put on to protect it, but this is mostly cottonwood, which is very difficult to date.  As noted above, however, the use of local types of wood like cottonwood is a characteristic of very early construction at Chaco, so even though these beams couldn’t be dated they do still provide some evidence that this part of the site is very early.  The western roomblock, dating to around 860, was probably added onto this one.  This implies that the north-central block predates 860, and Windes says it is “probably much earlier” even than that (although he doesn’t explain why he thinks this).

Intact Roof Beams in Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

How much earlier?  It’s hard to say.  The earliest cutting date at Bonito is 828, from Room 317 in the western roomblock, which both Lekson in 1986 and Windes and Ford ten years later considered likely to be a reused beam.  Since the overall distribution of dates in this block suggests construction around 860, this is probably right, and it’s hard to say where the beam would have come from.  Probably not the north-central roomblock, which would probably have still been in use in 860.  Interestingly, this beam is of ponderosa pine.

The north-central roomblock could well date to around 800 or even earlier, and that brings us to an interesting point.  There are a bunch of pitstructures buried deep under later construction in what would have been the original plaza of Old Bonito; these were not extensively excavated, but they probably correspond to the room suites that make up Old Bonito and therefore date to the 800s.  There are two even earlier pitstructures, however, further south in the later plaza of the expanded Bonito.  Neil Judd, who excavated the site in the 1920s, didn’t pay much attention to them because he thought they were too early to have anything to do with Pueblo Bonito itself.  They apparently date to the Pueblo I or late Basketmaker III period.  Back when the consensus was the Bonito itself wasn’t built until 919, it made sense to agree with Judd that these pithouses were too early, but now that we know that the earliest parts of Old Bonito date well back into Pueblo I it starts to look more plausible that there is actually some continuity here.  Since Judd didn’t look very closely at the early pithouses, we have no way of dating them, which is unfortunate, but one possibility that is looking increasingly plausible is that there was no hiatus at all between the occupation of those pithouses and the earliest occupation of Old Bonito.  In that case, Pueblo Bonito as an important, inhabited location (rather than as the building we see today) might actually date back to Basketmaker III.  And, importantly, whoever lived there at that time wouldn’t have been alone in the canyon.  But that’s an issue for another post.
ResearchBlogging.org
Windes, T., & Ford, D. (1996). The Chaco Wood Project: The Chronometric Reappraisal of Pueblo Bonito American Antiquity, 61 (2) DOI: 10.2307/282427

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