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Archive for the ‘Chaco Canyon’ Category

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“Area Closed” Sign at Fajada Butte View

This is just a quick post to share some information likely to be of interest to my readers. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly how the National Park Service is responding to the government shutdown, which park units are accessible and not, and so forth. I’ve been pretty confused myself, and unfortunately this led me to give incorrect advice to a reader who asked if Chaco Canyon is accessible during the shutdown. I said my understanding, based on media reports, was that the parks are open but no visitor services are being provided. Since Chaco is mostly a self-guided experience, I took that to mean that the park would be accessible but the visitor center would be closed and no tours would be provided.

Well, the reader took my advice and headed out to Chaco, only to find that the gate was closed and the park was definitely neither open nor accessible. He let me know, and was nice about it, but I felt bad about leading him astray so I figured I would pass that information on here. Chaco is closed for the shutdown. Anyone planning to visit in the next few weeks should keep that in mind and monitor the news for information on when the government and the park will reopen.

If you do end up having to redirect a trip to Chaco as a result of the shutdown, Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield, New Mexico is one of the largest and most accessible Chacoan outlier sites, and since it’s managed by San Juan County rather than the federal government it is unaffected by the shutdown. Another option a little further afield is Edge of the Cedars in Blanding, Utah, which is a Utah state park and similarly unaffected. Most other Chacoan outlier sites that are open to the public are managed by federal agencies and will likely be inaccessible.

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Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

In previous shutdowns parks have been closed entirely, which is the simplest and, from a resource-protection standpoint, most reasonable approach. This time it seems the NPS is taking a different and more complicated approach for reasons that are unclear. To try to get a better understanding of what exactly the NPS is doing with parks in this shutdown, particularly as it relates to Chaco, I took a look at the official NPS contingency plan. Two sections seem to explain what’s going on there:

As a general rule, if a facility or area is locked or secured during non-business hours (buildings, gated parking lots, etc.) it should be locked or secured for the duration of the shutdown.

This seems to explain what’s going on on the ground at Chaco, as reported by my reader who went there. The park loop road is ordinarily gated at night, so it appears that they’ve closed the gate for the duration of the shutdown. There are a few things to see on the way in to the park before the gate, but the vast majority of the sites and trails are beyond it.

At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty to conduct essential activities.

It’s possible that this section is also relevant, though it’s less clear. Certainly it would be best for resource protection to close all the major sites and trails; it’s hard enough for the law enforcement rangers to monitor visitor activity when the park is operating under normal circumstances. The test for this would be whether the attractions on the way into the park, particularly the Gallo Cliff Dwelling and the trail to Wijiji, are closed, which is not clear to me from the information I have. The park website currently says it’s closed entirely but without explanation of what that entails, so it may well be the case that this section has been invoked.

Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon and things will go back to normal, but for now it’s best to steer clear of Chaco. If I hear of any changes or get more information I’ll do another post.

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Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

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Changes

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Winter Solstice Sunset, Chaco Canyon

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s the tenth anniversary of this blog.

Ten years is a long time for this sort of thing, and the online landscape has changed a lot in the time I’ve been doing this. When I started, blogging was still a relatively hip new thing, and there were blogs starting up all over the place on all sorts of topics. Social media as we know it today was in its infancy, and while most of the major platforms did exist they didn’t have nearly the reach or the cultural position that they do now.

Over those ten years, blogging has waned as a medium, and a lot of the discursive energy that made it so interesting migrated to various social media platforms. It never totally went away, as it’s a very good medium for the sort of long-form, infrequent content that does not fit easily into social media, and my own blogging has increasingly moved into that mode as well. I get few comments and fewer active discussions in comment threads these days, although that is partly due to the fact that I rarely engage in the comment threads myself anymore. Blogging has just become a different beast than it once was.

I also haven’t had as much time for it in recent years as I used to. My posting frequency has declined over time, and in recent years it’s generally been once a month. I’ve made a point of never missing a calendar month, although it’s been a close call a few times. Some of the posts I’ve done to meet those deadlines have been pretty insubstantial, though, and I’m not very proud of them. I’ve continued to do occasional longer, more in-depth posts, but I just don’t have as much time in my life for blogging as I used to.

I’m not quitting, though. I’ve considered it, and even considered using this anniversary post to announce it, but I still have more to say. Tim Burke had a post recently about the decline of blogging, and a lot of it resonated deeply with me although not all of it is relevant to the type of blogging I do here. Particularly resonant was his conclusion:

And yet, I remain hopeful about blogging. I am not sure why. I am not sure when. This remains open for business, nevertheless.

Likewise, this site remains open for business, but with some changes. I still have plenty to say about the ancient Southwest as well as other topics, but I’ll be restricting my writing here to the former. I may find a new outlet (or more than one) for writing about other topics, including some that I’ve written about here in the past, and if I do I’ll mention it here. But in view of the particular audience for this site and its history, I think it’s best to keep the focus here fairly narrow going forward. I haven’t been as able to keep up on recent research on Chaco Canyon as I used to, but there’s been a lot of it and I’m sure I will return to it at some point. When I do, I’ll discuss it here.

I’m also going to dispense with the artificial monthly schedule and just post whenever I have something to say. The sorts of posts I have in mind, some of which I’ve been thinking about for years, will be long and take a while to write, and I don’t want to either rush them or put them off even longer in an effort to post with a consistent rhythm. Stay tuned.

Finally, to give this post a little bit of substantive content in addition to my blathering on, here’s a nice post, written fifteen years ago by another old-school blogger, Kieran Healy, about the Irish megalithic site of Newgrange and its solstice alignment. Healy’s conclusion about it is thought-provoking and seasonally appropriate, now more than ever:

A society—a civilization, if you like—is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, and you have only stone, wood, and bone for tools, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build something like a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it.

Times change, but we’ll make it too. Happy solstice.

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Chetro Ketl, the Talus Unit, and Pueblo Bonito from the Cliff Top

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New Museum at Chaco Canyon

Last week I went down to New Mexico for Thanksgiving, and while I was there I stopped by Chaco Canyon to see the new museum there. I had seen the new visitor center last year when I was there last, but the museum was still under construction so I wasn’t able to see it. It’s actually still not totally complete, but it is open to visitation and it is very impressive.

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Old Museum of Chaco Culture

The old Chaco museum was put together in the 1980s and by the time I was working at Chaco it was very outdated. It only had artifacts from the park’s own collection, which is fairly limited and doesn’t include the extraordinary finds excavated by early archaeologists, which are now in various museums elsewhere in the country. The interpretations weren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they were old and didn’t incorporate recent findings. It was also just a generally dark and dingy space, and not very pleasant as an experience.

The new museum is a vast improvement on all these counts. When it is complete it will have artifacts borrowed from those other museums, so the enormously impressive artifacts for which the canyon is famous will finally be available for viewing at the park itself after decades away. I say “when it is complete” because the artifacts are not actually there yet. Due to the lending museums’ strict standards, the park needs to develop and demonstrate very high-quality protective environmental conditions, which takes time and specialized expertise, and that process is not yet complete though park staff told me it is expected to be in the next few months. For now, there are a lot of empty cases with notes explaining the situation.

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Note Explaining Lack of Artifacts at New Chaco Museum

Even so, however, the types of artifacts intended to be shown and the explanatory material already in place shows that the new museum will incorporate current understandings and recent research to an impressive degree. Several interesting concepts that have come up in research discussed on this blog will be highlighted, including the discovery of chocolate residue in cylinder vessels and the idea that the “hachure” designs on black-on-white pottery represent the color blue-green. There is also a much more extensive discussion of modern Native communities and their connections to Chaco.

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Discussion of Modern Native Connections at New Chaco Museum

Aesthetically, too, the new space is much lighter and feels more open. It actually has the same footprint as the old one and isn’t any bigger, but it feels more spacious and comfortable. It’s a very pleasant visiting experience.

I’m looking forward to returning once the artifacts are in place, of course, but even without them it was a very worthwhile visit. This well-planned museum bodes well for the future of the park.

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“Chaco in Color” Display at New Chaco Museum

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Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte is one of the most prominent and noticeable landforms in Chaco Canyon. Standing as it does in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the canyon, it never fails to impress new visitors and longtime ones alike. These days it is most famous for the “Sun Dagger” spiral petroglyph near its summit that marks the summer solstice through an ingenious use of naturally occurring rockfall, but there is much more to Fajada than this one site and it seems to have played an important role in human understanding of the canyon for centuries, down to the present day.

We have only the limited information that can be gleaned from archaeology to use to try to understand what Fajada may have meant to the ancient Chacoans, but we are on firmer ground in understanding its meaning to the modern Navajo residents of the canyon and surrounding area. (Whether there is any connection between the two sets of meanings is an interesting question that is even harder to answer.) Navajo traditions about the butte center on a widespread and very interesting story, which serves in part to explain how it rises as an isolated promontory in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the mesas that define the canyon. This is the story of the “Witch Woman” or “Woman Who Dries You Up” who is said to live atop the mesa.

There are many versions of the story told by Navajos from various places, not just in the vicinity of Chaco itself, but the core of it is that the Witch Woman disguises herself as a young woman to seduce a man and bring him back to her house, which is at ground level. When he wakes up in the morning, she has transformed into an old crone and the butte has magically risen up beneath her house. Since there is no source of water atop the butte, the men entrapped this way generally die of thirst, hence the name “Woman Who Dries You Up.” There is an isolated boulder on top of the butte that is locally called the “Witch Woman’s House” from this story.

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Fajada Butte from Road into Chaco

The simple version of the story given above is pretty straightforward and could be viewed as merely an attempt to account for the origin of the notably isolated landform, and that may well be the origin of it. There are some versions that are more complex, however, possibly weaving in parts of other stories that may not have been originally related but that are certainly evocative.

One such version was reported in a brief article by W. W. and Dorothy Hill published in 1943 based on fieldwork by one of them (it’s not clear which) a few years earlier. It was told by a man from Crown Point, New Mexico, which is one of the closer communities to Chaco but definitely well outside the canyon itself. As reported in the article it is somewhat disjointed, and it’s clear that there must be more detail in the full version, though whether it was abridged by the Hills or by the original teller is unclear.

Anyway, the story centers on a “Holy Man” who has various adventures. He runs a race against Old Man Frog and has to give up his legs, which Frog gives to his wife who then grinds corn for four nights without stopping. Some men put pollen on her and she falls asleep, which allows the Holy Man’s brother to retrieve the legs and return them to him. The Holy Man then heads home and lightning misses him four times, which “initiates” him into something (presumably giving him some sort of supernatural power).

When he gets home he asks his relatives to have a ceremony for him, perhaps to cure him of some sort of bad influence from his adventures so far. At one point in the ceremony he is sent outside the hogan, where he meets the Witch Woman in her seductive young woman form. She brings him to her house, described as “a piece of hard rock where he found all kinds of jewelry, shells, and hides.” He spends the night, during which the rock grows and becomes the butte.

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Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So he wakes up and the young woman has become a crone, and he’s up on top of the butte with no way down. He walks around for a while until a jay and a dove, who are explained to be young girls in disguise, come to him. They make fun of him but also give him water, foiling the Witch Woman’s usual modus operandi.

The birds feed and water him for four days, then they tell him that Big Snake will come up to the east side of the butte and take him down, which does indeed happen. The snake tells him to run when he gets to the ground, which is good because the Witch Woman somehow got down too and is in hot pursuit.

He runs to the east and meets a series of lizards and frogs who can’t help him, until eventually he gets back to his old adversary Old Man Frog. After the Holy Man begs him four times for help, Frog does help him by hiding him in a hole. The Witch Woman comes up and asks about him, but Frog says he hasn’t seen him. Frog and the Witch Woman then race around Mt. Taylor (which is visible from many parts of Chaco including Fajada Gap) with the understanding that if Frog wins she has to let the Holy Man go. It’s a close race through various types of wind and rain, but Frog narrowly wins and the Witch Woman lets the Holy Man go free. Frog then advises him never to let anything like that happen again.

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Mt. Taylor from Chaco

So that’s the story. There are a lot of fascinating elements to it, along with a lot of traditional folktale elements common to Navajo stories as well as Pueblo ones, especially the prominence of the number four. It seems likely to me that some of these elements are from other stories that have been combined with the Fajada Witch Woman story, but some of them have echoes in other Navajo stories, likely of Pueblo origin, that relate to Chaco, such as the Gambler story. The Big Snake part is also fascinating due to the importance of the horned/feathered serpent concept in Pueblo tradition, and the role in plays is interesting in light of the artificial ramp leading up to the summit that appears to have been built in Chacoan times.

I don’t really have a theory tying this all together, and coming up with one would require a more detailed survey of the different versions of this story than I’ve done. Still, it is really interesting. Happy Halloween!

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Fajada Butte at Sunset

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Fajada Butte at Sunset

Today is the winter solstice, which makes this the ninth anniversary of this blog. It’s a particularly appropriate date for the paper I’m going to discuss in this post, another chapter from Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited. It’s by prominent archaeoastronomer J. McKim Malville, and entitled “The Enigmas of Fajada Butte.”

Fajada Butte is plenty enigmatic. Though it’s one of the most prominent landmarks within Chaco Canyon, and the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph on top of it is one of the most famous pieces of astronomically aligned rock art in the world, there has been surprisingly little detailed archaeological study of the butte itself. While there has been considerable more study of other ancient sites in the general area, that work has not really been well-integrated with what is known about the butte, which makes Malville’s integrative work in this paper extremely interesting, tentative though it is.

Much of Malville’s paper discusses cross-cultural examples of sacred mountains and stairways, as support for the idea that Fajada played this role in ancient Chacoan culture. This is plausible enough, though of course speculative, and I don’t have much more to say about it. More interesting to me is his discussion of the archaeology of the butte itself and the nearby Fajada Gap community, which contains three great kivas dating to the tenth century AD along with many small-house residential sites, some possibly dating as early as the eight century but most apparently from the tenth and early eleventh. Several of these small houses were excavated by the Chaco Project in the 1970s and are among the best-documented sites in the whole canyon. The great kivas, two of which are part of great houses (Una Vida and Kin Nahasbas), are largely unexcavated and much less thoroughly understood.

The third, isolated, great kiva (site 29SJ1253) is of particular interest to Malville, as it appears to have a winter solstice alignment with the butte. Malville presents documentation that on the winter solstice as viewed from the great kiva the sun rises over the summit of Fajada Butte. Malville suggests that the great kiva was positioned where it was in order to set up this alignment, which would have been an important ritual event for the people in the Fajada Gap community. Based on ceramic evidence, the great kiva appears to have been built in the tenth century, which makes it one of the earliest in the canyon. It is also one of the largest, with a diameter of 20 meters. Both of these characteristics suggest that it was a particularly important site from a very early point in the development of Chaco into a regional center, especially in the tenth century when the Fajada Gap community may have been particularly important, even more so than the South Gap community which may have become more prominent later.

Evidence for this importance also comes from some of the excavated small houses. 29SJ1360, the closest site to the butte, is known especially for one of its pithouses containing the remains of several people who apparently died accidentally there in the early eleventh century. One of the women was found with a necklace containing an exceptional number of beads, suggesting relatively high status in life. These are the remains, furthermore, that Nancy Akins in her biometric analysis found showed the greatest similarity to the extremely high-status burials in the north rooms of Pueblo Bonito, some of which we now know were quite early themselves (as are the rooms). 29SJ1360 contained the only macaw remains found outside of a great house context at Chaco, along with evidence that macaws may have been raised there, and it also had a cylinder jar, a high-status pottery form, perhaps used for consumption of chocolate, that is also very closely associated with the north part of Pueblo Bonito.

Overall, then, there are many indications that the people living at 29SJ1360 were of relatively high status and had connections, possibly familial, to some of the people associated with the earliest part of Pueblo Bonito. Malville documents a winter solstice alignment here as well: viewed from about 100 meters upslope, around noon on the solstice, the sun briefly disappears behind the butte then reappears. This is a less rigorous alignment than the one from the great house, obviously, but it is still suggestive, and combined with the other evidence reinforces the sense that this is an important site despite its small size.

Another small house in this community, 29SJ629 or the Spadefoot Toad site, had evidence for a workshop for the manufacture of turquoise beads, which Malville suggests indicates connections to trade routes coming up from the south. Turquoise at Chaco actually came from all over the place, but it’s true that the Fajada Gap community seems to have connections to the south, which makes sense given that the gap itself is an entrance to the canyon from that direction. As I’ve mentioned before, earlier sites to the south of Chaco are much less well understood than those to the north, but there are indications that these connections were very important in the early development of the canyon, and Malville’s argument that the spiritual status of Fajada Butte played an important role in this development is quite plausible.

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Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So much for the community; what about the butte itself? Malville discusses two main items of interest: the ramp leading up the butte from its base, and the rooms at its top. The ramp, which appears to take advantage of some natural ridgelines but is definitely at least partly artificial especially in its upper parts, has received oddly little attention in the literature despite being an impressive accomplishment that, judging from the pottery found on it, apparently dates to the tenth century just like the nearby community sites. There are fire pits at the base and top of the ramp, which Malville suggests may have been used in winter solstice ceremonies that ritual procession up the ramp. Again, this seems pretty likely to me and may well have played an important role in Chaco’s rise to preeminence regionally.

The rooms at the top, on the other hand, appear to date much later than the ramp and to have had a quite different purpose. The pottery on them is overwhelmingly late, mostly thirteenth-century, and the construction of the rooms is rather slapdash by Chacoan standards. Extensive remains of the debris of daily life indicate that they were occupied residentially. Based on these characteristics, Malville suggests that these rooms were used as refuges by the thirteenth-century residents of canyon floor sites like the Gallo Cliff Dwelling during times of upheaval and violence. He associates them with the widespread pattern of “pinnacle” refuge sites throughout the northern Southwest during this period, which is very different from the residential patterns of the much more peaceful Chacoan heyday in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. He notes that most of the rock art on the butte was clearly accessed from these rooms, which suggests strongly that it dates to this late period rather than earlier.

This mention of rock art brings us to what might be considered the punch line of the paper: a reevaluation of the famous Sun Dagger spiral petroglyph with its alignment to the winter solstice. Malville proposes that the “sun dagger” alignment around noon on the solstice at the site with three rock slabs was discovered serendipitously by the thirteenth-century residents of the upper butte, who pecked the spiral petroglyph to mark it. This is quite different from the interpretation that others have made, that it was a primary focus of ritual during the height of the Chacoan era, but it does explain some odd things about it pretty well. The spiral could not have easily served a direct calendrical role in calculating the date of the solstice, which some other petroglyphs with astronomical alignments elsewhere in the canyon could have done, and its noon alignment is both not particularly precise and not documented to be of particular importance in modern Pueblo religion.

Most importantly, however, this theory explains something that has always puzzled me about the Sun Dagger: it no longer works. That is, the alignment of the slabs no longer results in a dagger going through the center of the spiral. This is generally thought to be the result of the ground underneath shifting as a result of too many interested people going to look at it in the period between its (re)discovery in 1978 and its closure to general visitation in the 1980s. If this really was a key site visited by at least some Chacoan ritual specialists for hundreds of years, after which it remained intact for several hundred more years until its rediscovery, why did it only take a few years for modern visitors to impact it enough to ruin the alignment? One possible answer was that it was so important in antiquity that it was only visited by very few people with particularly important roles, and may not even have been widely known about among the general population. Malville’s theory provides what I find a more plausible answer, that it was discovered late in the prehistoric occupation of Chaco by the small population who occasionally retreated to the top of the butte for refuge, and it may not even have been particularly important to them. There is extensive evidence in modern Pueblo ethnography for individual people marking astronomical alignments and keeping solar calendars, apart from the formal roles of Sun Priests and so forth to do so for the community. (Indeed, there is evidence that some people did this because they didn’t trust the Sun Priest to get it right.) I think it makes sense to interpret the Sun Dagger as part of this tradition. (Malville also notes that recent reevaluation of the supposed secondary alignments to lunar standstills and other astronomical events hasn’t confirmed that they are real and deliberate.)

Malville’s conclusions about the Sun Dagger are controversial in some circles, I’m sure, but for the more interesting part of this paper is the part about the early alignments between the butte and sites in the Fajada Gap community. This provides nice support for the theory I’ve suggested that the rise of Chaco was due in part to it being the place where certain kinds of astronomical knowledge were first developed or introduced within the (northern?) Southwest, which gave the canyon and its residents a kind of spiritual power that they were able to translate into considerable economic and/or political power, as manifested in the monumental architecture, exotic trade goods, and other things that make Chaco such an impressive place even today.

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Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

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Changes at Chaco

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New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center Exterior

Today is my birthday. I’m 33. As I’ve often done in the past few years, I’m in New Mexico this week visiting my mom. This time I decided to come visit Chaco Canyon, which I hadn’t done in quite a few years. Weather meant I couldn’t spend as much time there as I wanted this time, but I did get to see some of the changes since my last visit.

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Interior of New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

The most obvious change is the new Visitor Center. This was under construction the last time I was there, and visitor services were operating out of a temporary yurt. The yurt worked fine, but the new VC is quite nice. Importantly, it now has the wall map of the canyon on the north wall rather than the south one, so that the directions you point to on the map are the same ones as in real life. This was a constant source of confusion and frustration when I was working at Chaco, so it’s nice to have it fixed now.

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Windows on East Side of New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

The east side of the VC now has some exhibits on the geology of Chaco, as well as a series of picture windows with a nice view of Fajada Butte. The main museum is still being renovated so I wasn’t able to see it, but I’m sure it’s nice. The old one was getting quite outdated and really needed an update.

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New Sign at Pueblo Bonito

There were a few other differences I noticed, like new signs in various places and further deterioration of some of the exposed wood, and I’m sure I would have noticed more changes if I’d been able to spend more time. Still, the main features of the canyon are of course the same and just as impressive this time as the many times I’ve seen them before.

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Old Bonito: A Little More Wear, but Mostly the Same as Ever

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Entrance to Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

A fascinating and important article about Chaco was published last week in Nature Communications, an open-access offshoot of the venerable journal Nature (already a good sign). Since it’s open-access, the full text of the article is available free online here.

The researchers behind the article, based mainly at Penn State and Harvard but also including Steve Plog at the University of Virginia and a couple of people at the American Museum of Natural History, sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of several of the people buried in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito in an attempt to determine if they were related. This addresses a number of outstanding issues in the interpretation of the Chaco Phenomenon, particularly those revolving around the political economy of Chaco and the degree to which it was a hierarchical society. They also radiocarbon-dated the remains and did some additional genetic analysis to confirm the sexes of the people and try to determine any close genetic relationships among them.

The results were striking. All of the tested remains had identical mitochondrial genomes, indicating that they were all related through the maternal line, which in turn suggests strongly that Chaco was a matrilineal society in which this particular maternal lineage had an enormous amount of power and wealth that led it to have the most elaborate burials in the history of Pueblo societies. The radiocarbon dating suggests in addition that people from this lineage continued to be buried in the special crypt in Room 33 throughout the florescence of Chaco, starting in the early ninth century AD and continuing until the early twelfth century. (What exactly happened then remains obscure.) The DNA sex determinations matched those previously determined through osteological analysis 100% as well.

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Old Bonito from Above

These results, which are based on carefully controlled analyses and seem very solid, are not exactly surprising, but they do provide apparent confirmation of certain models of Chaco and apparent falsification of others. Specifically, they support models involving robust social hierarchy and inequality, with some lineages having more authority than others and one at the top. Most recent evidence has pointed in this direction, but this study is a particularly strong support for it. Also, they provide support for the idea that Chacoan society was more like the ethnographic Western Pueblos, which are matrilineal and structured around kin groups known as “clans” that derive their power and status from their control of esoteric religious knowledge, than the Eastern Pueblos, which are patrilineal and structured around non-kin-based groups known as “societies” that derive their power and status from similar bases. (If this distinction seems fairly minor, that’s because it is. But in attempting to reconstruct historic societies it’s important.)

It’s important to note that while these results do provide support for a matrilineal model of Chaco, that’s very different from saying they support a matriarchal one, as some media coverage I’ve seen has either implied or stated explicitly. Reckoning descent through the mother’s line is very different from having women run things with men in a subordinate position. The former is quite common cross-culturally, while I’m not sure if the latter exists at all in the ethnographic record. The fact that several of the people buried in Room 33 appear to have been related maternally doesn’t negate the fact that the two most elaborate burials were both of men, and in general there’s no reason to think that Chacoan society wasn’t strongly patriarchal, and plenty of reason to think it was.

Finally, from a methodological perspective this is a particularly interesting paper. The authors say that it appears to be the first use of genomic analysis to determine family relationships in a prehistoric society (i.e., without the availability of written records to check the results). I’m not completely sure that’s correct, but this has certainly not been a common type of study. In discussing DNA evidence a while back, I mentioned that in the Southwest it had mostly been used so far just for determining mitochondrial haplogroups, which provide some useful information but not nearly as much as can be provided by genomic analysis, which at that time hadn’t really been used at all in the Southwest. This paper marks the first major use of this type of analysis in the region, and it shows how powerful it can be. Now that the precedent has been set, it can be used in other contexts to see where this particular matrilineage shows up elsewhere in Southwestern prehistory both before and after Chaco, as well as to address other issues of kinship and identity within Chaco.
ResearchBlogging.org
Kennett, D., Plog, S., George, R., Culleton, B., Watson, A., Skoglund, P., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Stewardson, K., Kistler, L., LeBlanc, S., Whiteley, P., Reich, D., & Perry, G. (2017). Archaeogenomic evidence reveals prehistoric matrilineal dynasty Nature Communications, 8 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14115

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Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

In my post about the recent radiocarbon dating of macaw remains from Chaco Canyon, I mentioned another paper I’ve been meaning to post about. Published in 2010 by Steve Plog and Carrie Heitman of the University of Virginia, it takes a close look at burial practices at Chaco, particularly focusing on the northern burial cluster within Pueblo Bonito. Within that cluster it focuses on Room 33, the location of the most elaborate burial assemblages ever found in the Southwest.

Plog and Heitman take advantage of their Chaco Archive project, which is collecting and making available lots of archival material on excavations at Chaco that was previously very hard to access, to look back at the field notes from the excavators of Pueblo Bonito, particularly those of George Pepper, who excavated this part of the site in the 1890s as part of the Hyde Exploring Expedition. Pepper took very detailed notes, especially by the standards of the time, and particularly for the rooms in the northern burial cluster he kept track of artifact locations and the positioning of skeletal remains, which makes it possible for Plog and Heitman to plot the vertical and horizontal positions of the burials and grave goods in Room 33 to see what patterns there may be.

They find some interesting patterns in the burial and artifact locations, but the most important data they report are radiocarbon dates, directly on the bones, from ten of the burials, including the ones with the most elaborate funerary assemblages, known as Burials 13 and 14. Burials 13 and 14 had actually already been dated for a different study a few years earlier, which I have discussed before, but Plog and Heitman redated them to see if they the earlier results would be replicated. (They were.)

At this point I should back up and review some basic facts about Room 33 and its burials, as well as some assumptions that had seeped into the Chacoan literature over the years despite not being well-supported by evidence.

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Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Facts: Pepper found 14 identifiable individual burials in Room 33. He numbered them in order of discovery, which roughly corresponds to vertical distance from the roof beams, so 13 and 14 were the lowest. Burials 13 and 14 had the most elaborate grave goods by far, including vast numbers of turquoise beads and other ornaments. They were intact and undisturbed, and were separated from the higher burials by a “floor” of wooden planks. The burials above this floor were accompanied by grave goods, but they were mostly disarticulated and appeared to have been disturbed at some point after burial. Pepper proposed that they had been scattered by water flowing into the room at some point.

Assumptions: At some point over the years, the idea entered the literature that these burials dated to the time of the “florescence” of Chaco starting around AD 1030 and lasting for about 100 years. Despite the fact that Room 33 is in the oldest part of Pueblo Bonito and its masonry style indicates that it dates to early in the site’s construction, many archaeologists (starting with Pepper himself) have suggested that it was not originally constructed as a mortuary chamber, and that the burials reflect a reuse of a room that originally had a different purpose. I don’t know where the idea that this reuse coincided with the rise of Chaco as a regional power, or with the advent of monumental construction in the canyon at roughly the same time, originated, but it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to see the establishment of a crypt with unusually elaborate grave goods would happen at the same time as the enormous labor effort reflected in the expansion of Pueblo Bonito and other early great houses, along with the building of many new ones. However, it’s important to note that there was never a rigorous argument made for a late dating of the burials, bringing in support from the pottery styles reflected in the grave assemblages or any other independent lines of evidence.

And, in fact, the most comprehensive study of Chaco burials to date, that of Nancy Akins as part of the Chaco Project in the 1970s, concluded that the pottery types in Room 33 covered a potentially long timespan, which could mean the burials themselves were deposited over a long period of time. On the other hand, it could also mean that certain “heirloom” vessels of styles that were no longer being produced but that had been kept around might be buried with particularly important people, so this evidence wasn’t dispositive about the late-burial theory.

oldbonitofromabove

Old Bonito from Above

Plog and Heitman’s radiocarbon dates, on the other hand, provide firm evidence that the burials do indeed date to a long period, more or less corresponding to the full span of Chaco’s importance as a regional center. Burials 13 and 14 both date to quite early in the history of Pueblo Bonito, with 95% confidence ranges of AD 682 to 870 and 687 to 870 respectively. When averaged with the dates from the earlier study, which were comparable but slightly later, the 95% ranges become AD 691 to 877 and 690 to 873.

That’s very early! It means that these two burials, at least, could easily have occurred at the same time as the initial construction of Room 33, which was likely in the late ninth century. One other burial above the plank floor dates to this period as well. (The bones got relabeled at some point and it’s not clear which sets correspond to which numbers assigned by Pepper, so it’s not possible to say for sure that this was one of the burials immediately above the floor, but it’s a reasonable surmise.) Despite the near-identical age determinations on Burials 13 and 14, the vertical distance between them is by far the highest in the room. This suggests strongly that the large amount of sand separating the two vertically was brought in deliberately rather than accumulating naturally, and they could well have occurred at exactly the same time, or nearly so, very early in the occupation of Pueblo Bonito.

From then on, the dates are more or less continuous up to around AD 1200. The ranges are too wide to come to very firm conclusions on exactly where these later burials fall in the Chacoan sequence, but they do suggest that Room 33 continued to be used as a high-status burial chamber throughout the Chaco Era after beginning to serve that role early on.

This is all very interesting, and Plog and Heitman draw a number of tentative conclusions from it. They argue that this shows that social hierarchy arose earlier in the canyon than often assumed, well before the beginning of construction on a monumental scale, and suggest that the concept of “house society” may be a useful way to interpret Chacoan great houses, with symbolically important spaces like Room 33 serving to legitimize the position of elites through a connection to illustrious ancestors. They also argue that the preservation of the delicate placement of burials and artifacts, as demonstrated in Pepper’s notes, makes it very implausible that the scattering of remains he mentions could have resulted from water intruding as we suggested. Instead, they suggest that some of the scattering could have resulted from disturbance of earlier burials in the course of creating new ones in this small space over the centuries. Another possibility they suggest is that some of the burials are actually secondary, and were placed in Room 33 after having been left to decompose somewhere else for a while. This practice is not documented among the historic Pueblos, but then again lots of the other aspects of the Room 33 burials don’t have obvious modern parallels either.

The evidence for unexpectedly early import of macaws starting around AD 900 in the more recent paper reinforces the evidence in this one for an early development of complexity at Chaco. It’s still not clear exactly what was going on at Chaco in the ninth century, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was very important for the subsequent history of the canyon and of the Southwest as a whole.
ResearchBlogging.org
Plog, S., & Heitman, C. (2010). Hierarchy and social inequality in the American Southwest, A.D. 800-1200 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (46), 19619-19626 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014985107

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Centennial

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Welcome Sign at North Entrance to Chaco Canyon

Today is the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. It’s getting more media attention than I had expected, although I had noticed that the NPS had mounted a noticeable publicity campaign in the lead up to the date itself, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, it’s a good milestone to mark. I have my issues with the way the NPS works and some of the things it does and has done, but it’s definitely a hugely important institution both to the country as a whole and to me personally.

I started this blog in December 2008 when I was working for the NPS at Chaco Canyon, and the early posts were mostly attempts to put the information from my tours and my background reading into a more permanent form so I could refer people to them long after I had left the park and moved on to other things. It’s worked quite well for that, although in the meantime the internet has moved on and blogs like this are much less of a focus for interaction than they were then. I’ve kept it up, though at a much less frequent pace of posting, because I like having a platform like this to talk about the things that interest me, and I now have a fairly small but consistent reader base that is interested as well. (Which is not easy to find for what is after all a pretty esoteric interest.)

But beyond being the starting point for this blog, the NPS is an important institution for setting me on the path my life has taken in more general ways too. That job at Chaco allowed me to really delve deep into the backstory of the area where I was born and where my family has a long history (at least by white-people standards). What I learned there has had a profound effect on my life since in all sorts of ways, and I expect that to continue indefinitely. This blog may have slowed in posting frequency in recent years, but it’s not from any decline in my interest in the subject matter, which I’m sure I will continue to write about for many years to come, not necessarily just here. I have some ideas for books I might want to write on related topics at some point, although I’ve been realizing recently that it’s awfully hard to find the time for a project of that magnitude while also working full time. But someday.

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Welcome Sign at Alaska/Yukon Border

The influence of the Park Service on my life goes even further than the Chaco stuff, though. It was an internship with the NPS that brought me to Alaska a little less than five years ago, and my experience there, while frustrating in some ways, led me to discover the first place I had ever lived where I could seriously imagine living permanently. It’s not at all clear that I will actually end up settling down here, and the Alaska of 2016 is so different from the Alaska of 2011 that it’s hard to even explain the difference. But that feeling of finding a place I liked enough to stay, even if I didn’t necessarily have a lot in common with most of the people here, was important to me and it set a standard that anywhere else I might end up will have to meet or exceed for me to stay permanently. And I have the Park Service to thank for that too.

I may or may not ever work for the NPS again. My career path has never been along an established route, and I have no idea how much longer I’ll stay in my current job or what I’ll do next. Some of the most important factors in the future of my career are totally out of my control. But others are mine to control, and I’ll probably have to make some serious decisions in the next few years, if not sooner, about where I want my life to go next. I have to be honest that working for the Park Service again is not my top choice for a next step. It really was a frustrating place in some ways, for a variety of reasons, some of which are I think inherent to the structure and culture of the agency. But it’s a large organization, and I’m sure there are some positions within it that I would find congenial, so it’s definitely still on the list.

Anyway, despite my ambivalence about it, the Park Service has done a lot of good for me and I am very appreciative of that. I’m very happy to celebrate 100 years of this complex, occasionally infuriating but just as often inspiring, American institution. Happy birthday, NPS!

npsakoffice

National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage, Alaska

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macawfeathers

Macaw Feathers and Copper Bell on Display at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

One of the most exciting recent developments in the study of Chaco Canyon is the increasing use of scientific analysis of artifacts and other material remains to test and challenge previous theories based more narrowly on traditional archaeology. This includes the use of radiocarbon dating, which is widely used as a basis for developing chronologies in most other parts of the world but has been underused in the Southwest due to the availability of tree-ring dating for chronology building. Particularly with the development of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating, which requires vastly less material than earlier methods, however, it is now possible to gain direct dates on a very wide variety of materials, including many artifact types as well as plants and human and animal bones. This allows an independent check on dating of material by association with tree-ring dated architecture and pottery, which has been the traditional approach. The increasing use of AMS on the museum collections excavated decades ago from Pueblo Bonito, in particular, is starting to lead to some unexpected and surprising conclusions. This work is largely being done by archaeologists associated with the University of Virginia led by Steve Plog, in collaboration with colleagues at many other institutions.

One recent paper, about a year old now, reported some surprising results from the dating of the bones of one of the most distinctive species found at Chaco: scarlet macaws. These birds are not native to anywhere near the Southwest, and they must have been brought up from very far south in Mexico. They are disproportionately found at only a few sites in the Southwest, one of which is Pueblo Bonito. Traditionally it has been thought that the importation of macaws was associated with the “florescence” of Chaco, the roughly 100-year period starting around AD 1040 when most of the monumental great houses in the canyon were built and Chacoan influence is seen over a very large part of the northern Southwest. For this study, the researchers dated 14 macaws from Pueblo Bonito: 11 from Room 38, which had the highest concentration of macaw remains at the site, two from Room 78, and one from Room 71. Both of these latter rooms are in fairly close proximity to Room 38 within the site. They also dated four macaws from Mimbres sites in southwestern New Mexico, another area with a relatively high concentration of these birds that lies between Chaco and Mexico and thus could played a role in their procurement, and two from Grand Gulch in Utah, which is on the far fringes of the ancient Pueblo world and yet has produced a few macaw specimens.

The results were surprising, and they challenge the traditional association of macaws with the Chacoan florescence. Six of the Chaco birds dated to between AD 885 and 990 (all dates given here are at 95% probability), well before the florescence and a time when Chaco would have been much less impressive architecturally. This is, however, a time when population in the canyon was increasing rapidly through immigration from various areas that were affected by the big changes at the end of the Pueblo I period, as we have seen in my recent series of posts on Pueblo I. The authors of this paper don’t mention this population movement specifically, but they do suggest that this indicates that the later period of monumental construction and other signs of sociopolitical complexity was the result of a long period of developing complexity, which fits the demographic evidence pretty well.

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Room 38, Pueblo Bonito

Six other birds date between AD 970 and 1035, which would put them shortly before or possibly at the very beginning of the florescence and building boom. This suggests that trade relations with the far south continued beyond the initial period when macaws were introduced to the canyon. The final two date between AD 1015 and 1155, which suggests they probably were procured sometime during (or even shortly after) the period of florescence. Overall the dates suggest that macaws were procured throughout most of the period of Chaco’s rise from the period when Chaco was first rising to regional preeminence in the ninth and tenth centuries until its loss of preeminence (I think “collapse” is too strong a term for this still poorly understood phenomenon) in the twelfth.

One thing you may have noticed about those date ranges, however, is that they all overlap. Given the statistical uncertainty of radiocarbon dates, this means that it’s possible that these dates indicate a continuous process of importation of macaws from Mesoamerica. (There is no evidence for breeding of macaws at Chaco, unlike at the later site of Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua.) The clustering of sets of dates, however, suggests on the contrary that importation was sporadic, with possibly just three individual procurements of multiple birds at a time. And additional complication is that the shape of the radiocarbon calibration curve differs at different times through this sequence, which can lead to certain time periods being over- or under-represented in series of dates. To test these hypotheses, the authors did some simulation of random dates throughout the period in question and compared the resulting distributions with the actual distribution of macaw dates. The results were that the early cluster of dates did conform to what might be expected from the effects of the shape of the curve, the middle cluster had more dates than would be expected and the late cluster fewer. This suggests that while it is possible that procurement of macaws was a continuous process, it does appear that a larger number of birds were imported in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries than earlier or later. Of course, this is a small sample, and these apparent patterns may change with more data.

As for the non-Chaco macaws, one of the Mimbres ones dated to AD 895 to 1020, straddling the first two clusters of dates at Chaco, while the other three all dated from around AD 1015 to 1155, as did the two Grand Gulch specimens. This suggests that macaws were present earlier at Chaco than in areas to either the north or south, which further suggests that at least initial importation of macaws to Chaco didn’t necessarily depend on Mimbres middlemen. Macaws have also been found at Hohokam sites in southern Arizona that appear to be in earlier contexts than the ones at Chaco, but none of these have yet been directly dated.

room33

Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

While it may appear initially surprising, the early dates for macaws at Chaco do actually fit with increasing evidence from other sources suggesting that the rise of Chaco and its social and economic power significantly predated its “florescence” as seen in monumental architecture. This includes a study from a few years ago, from the same group of Virginia researchers, that dated human remains from Room 33 in Pueblo Bonito, including the two burials that were associated with enormous numbers of valuable grave goods, and found those two burials long predated the Chacoan florescence and may in fact have been contemporary with the earliest construction at the great house in the mid-ninth century or even earlier. (That paper really deserves a post of its own, which I keep meaning to write, but this brief summary will have to do for now.)

Taken in conjunction with the evidence for regional population movement in late Pueblo I, this study provides more support for the idea that the influx of populations into the canyon in the late ninth century, some bringing ideas developed in the earlier short-lived villages to the north in Colorado, set the stage for the development of new ideas about social organization and hierarchy which may have led to new ideologies and the importation of both goods and ideas from areas far away. The fact that macaws would have to have come from the south, where the archaeology of areas immediately adjacent to the Chacoan region is much more poorly known than that of comparable areas to the north, points to the importance of developing a better understanding of those areas. We still know very little about the exact routes of trade connections to the south, even as the importance of those connections becomes increasingly apparent.
ResearchBlogging.org
Watson, A., Plog, S., Culleton, B., Gilman, P., LeBlanc, S., Whiteley, P., Claramunt, S., & Kennett, D. (2015). Early procurement of scarlet macaws and the emergence of social complexity in Chaco Canyon, NM Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (27), 8238-8243 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509825112

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