Unit Pueblo with Single Kiva at Mesa Verde
My kiva posts so far have mostly focused on form rather than function, but function is really at the core of most arguments over kivas these days. As I said earlier, I basically buy Steve Lekson‘s arguments that small (as opposed to great) kivas in the San Juan region before AD 1300 were basically residential in function and formed integral parts of household residential units consisting of a kiva and a few rectangular rooms.
Identifying these units at small houses, which constitute the vast majority of sites in the eleventh century and earlier, is very straightforward. Many of these sites include just one kiva and a few rectangular rooms. These are the famous “Prudden units” first identified in the Mesa Verde region by T. Mitchell Prudden a century ago. Each seems to be pretty clearly a residential structure housing a single household. Other small sites include two or more Prudden units, but most have no more than a few and seem to indicate the presence of multiple households, probably extended families.
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
At the large aggregated sites that began to develop in the twelfth century and reached their greatest size in the late thirteenth century, just before the abandonment of the whole region during the “Great Drought” of 1276 to 1299, the most famous of which are the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, it is generally possible to identify individual suites of rooms with associated kivas equivalent to Prudden units. This suggests that these sites formed by the aggregation of existing social units without major changes in social organization. After the major societal dislocations and migrations in the period between 1275 and 1325, this is no longer the case, and the much larger aggregated pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley, as well as those in the Hopi and Zuni areas to the west, no longer have well-defined units with associated kivas. Instead they have many fewer kivas, indicating a new function for these spaces more like their current function at modern pueblos as community-wide ritual and integrative spaces. This function is probably more like the function of great kivas in earlier periods, although it is important to note that post-1300 community-scale kivas do not continue the formal attributes of previous great kivas, Chacoan or otherwise, and instead more closely resemble the smaller kivas that Lekson considers residential rather than ceremonial in function. They are, however, generally quite a bit larger than typical pre-1300 small kivas. It is also in this era that we begin to see the distinction in kiva form between eastern and western pueblos that is continued to the present day, with eastern pueblos adopting round kivas and western pueblos adopting square ones.
The idea, then, assuming Lekson is right, is that in the course of the massive changes around 1300 people adopted new social organizational principles, one of which was the abandonment of the kiva as a residential space and the development of a new ceremonial and social space, shaped like an earlier residential kiva but larger, that may have eased people’s integration into the new communities that were much larger and denser than what they had known before. Increased density would have led to increased social tensions, and new social institutions, probably including the kachina cult, would have been necessary to deal with these tensions. Because of all these changes, the modern pueblos are probably not good analogues for understanding pueblo life before 1300, even though they are clearly and unambiguously descended from the people who occupied pueblo sites in such areas as Chaco and Mesa Verde at that time.
Chetro Ketl from Above
So that’s all well and good, but notice what’s missing from this story: the great houses associated with the system centered on Chaco between 1030 and 1130. Most discussion of Chacoan architecture has focused on these very impressive buildings, particularly on the largest ones, Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, even though the vast majority of sites even at Chaco Canyon itself were small houses, and Lekson’s edited volume on Chaco architecture is no exception. Recently one of the major debates in Chacoan archaeology has focused on the function of these structures, with some arguing that they were primarily ceremonial or administrative in function with minimal residential use, while others see them more as residences of an elite class in a hierarchical society (Lekson has referred to them as “palaces”) and a few still arguing that they were residential communities analogous to the later aggregated pueblos. Sorting this out has been tricky, especially since some of the most important sites in Chaco were excavated long ago when archaeological techniques were not what they are now and figuring out the implications of data collected at that time is very difficult. There is clearly evidence for at least some residential use at most great houses that have been excavated, but it remains unclear how much of this evidence dates to the period of Chacoan florescence rather than earlier or later, and a number of more recent lines of evidence, such as the extensive road system throughout the San Juan Basin associated with the great houses and the elaborate landscape architecture and astronomical alignments found in the vicinity of many great houses, has led others to argue that the primary function of these structures was more esoteric and ceremonial, even if a few people did live in them.
One challenge has been determining the residential population of these sites. Indeed, if it were easy to determine population many of the disputes over function would probably go away. Early estimates based on raw room counts and comparisons with modern pueblos led to estimates as high as 1200 people for Pueblo Bonito alone, but more recent estimates based on the actual presence of residential features in (rectangular) rooms have gone as low as 70 for Pueblo Bonito. That’s quite a range!
Pueblo Bonito from Above
So what does this have to do with kivas? Well, if kivas were residential, then obviously they would have relevance to debates over residential use and population estimates. If, as seems to have been the case at small sites, each kiva corresponds to one household unit, a rough count of population could come from just counting up the number of kivas in use at a given point in time and applying some conversion factor based on the assumed size of a household. As far as I know no one has actually done this, although Lekson or someone else may have done it somewhere I haven’t seen.
So, assuming kivas were residential, and noting the numbers of kivas at great houses, we can perhaps get a rough sense of the number of people who lived in these buildings. But who were these people? And why did they live in great houses while most other people in their communities, both inside and outside Chaco Canyon, lived in the much humbler small houses? The obvious answer is that they were the elites in a hierarchical system, but that poses as many questions as it answers. What was the nature of this system? Where did the elites get their authority, and how did they maintain it?
Kiva F at Pueblo Bonito
Setting aside these more fundamental questions about Chaco, however, there are also many questions raised by the idea of kivas being residential that focus more on the kivas themselves. As I mentioned before, the classic “Chacoan” kivas found at the great houses have a very standardized set of features that distinguishes them from kivas elsewhere in the region. Were these characteristics of elite residences? If so, understanding their purpose would potentially be very useful in understanding the dynamics of the Chaco system more generally. Unfortunately, we don’t really have any idea what these specialized features may have meant socially or economically. They don’t seem particularly resource-intensive compared to other kiva styles, which suggests that conspicuous consumption may not have been the motivation. This makes sense, since if kivas were private, residential spaces few people would presumably have had access to them.
It’s also possible that the specialized features of Chacoan kivas were markers of ethnicity or heritage. In general they seem to differ most noticeably from those found in areas to the north, and they may resemble southern forms more closely. There are other suggestions of southern origins for at least some early great house architecture which may be instructive, and great kivas, which became integrated with great houses about the time the Chaco system really got going, are also generally more of a southern phenomenon. This idea of regionalism is important, I think, but I don’t have enough information to discuss it more fully just yet.
One of the most striking differences between Chacoan kivas and those found elsewhere in the region is the tendency for Chacoan ones to be elevated and contained within square rooms, whereas most others were subterranean. Is this an “elite” feature? It certainly would make these residences more prominent and given their inhabitants a better view of whatever was happening in the plazas of the great houses. It would also have increased the visibility of these residences from the clifftops above the great houses in Chaco, which is discussed in the chapter on Chetro Ketl in Lekson’s architecture volume. Also discussed in that chapter is the Court Kiva at Chetro Ketl, one of the small number of exceptionally large “Chacoan” kivas built into plazas rather than elevated in roomblocks. The Court Kiva was sited well into the plaza, where it was separated from the nearest rectangular rooms by a greater distance than was typical but was also particularly visible from the cliff above the site. It was later converted into a (presumably non-residential) great kiva, which is interesting and unknown anywhere else at Chaco.
Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl
This same chapter does contain some discussion of the topic of kiva function at great houses which is worth quoting. The differing interpretations of Lekson and Windes are here made explicit; it is not uncommon for coauthors of scholarly publications to disagree about some aspects of how to interpret their research, but it is only in publications on Chacoan archaeology (and this is not the only one I’ve seen do this) that they actively seek to dissociate themselves from each other’s interpretations. Here’s Lekson’s take:
Lekson believes “kivas” at small sites were residences and, at great houses, elite residences—conspicuous and expensive housing. Building big, flashy houses would have posed a problem for emerging elites at Chaco: If homes are traditionally below grade, how do you make one conspicuous? Elevate it, get it out of the ground and up where it can be seen. The Kiva G complex, ending with a third-story “kiva,” is a remarkable example. But even elevated, enclosed kivas are not obvious from ground level; the viewer sees the rectangular exterior walls, not the house form itself.
And here, in the very next paragraph, is Windes:
Windes does not discount the possibility that “kivas” were used in part as habitations, but he does not believe that they were “living rooms” in the traditional sense. Rectangular, surface living rooms are in fact found in great houses, but given the differences in location, shape, floor features, and artifacts, we must ask what roles these two very different types of structures took. In addition, Windes believes that the small kivas represent part of the triad of structures associated with basic domestic units, as found in small sites and tucked away in the corners of great houses during the last occupations, but that the very large “court” kivas, later shifted in location from the plazas to the roomblocks, are specific to Chaco great houses and represent some activity beyond mere domestic use; in fact, their very size, sometimes with the feature attributes of great kivas, would place them as great kivas anywhere else outside the confines of the great house.
Both of these interpretations are plausible, but I still find Lekson more convincing. What is the “activity beyond mere domestic use” that Windes sees these kivas serving? He doesn’t specify. He does, however, point out another important aspect of kivas that I alluded to in the previous post: the proliferation of them late in the occupation periods of many great houses, often associated with rectangular (or irregularly shaped) surface rooms and looking very similar to Prudden units or equivalent single-household residential roomblocks. The masonry on these tends to look very late, and they are most often found sunk into late plaza surfaces, so while they can rarely be dated directly it seems likely that they represent a subsequent reuse of the sites as locations for residential settlement, probably after they were no longer in use for their original purposes, whatever those might have been. Many of the original square rooms in some great houses seem to have been used for trash deposition at this time, implying that they were no longer needed for their original functions but that there were plenty of nearby residents producing trash. Some great kivas, however, especially Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito, also seem to have continued in use at this point, implying that the sites may still have had some ritual or integrative functions, even if they were newly being used for a new type of residential use.
Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito
What Windes doesn’t mention here, however, is that many of the late “non-Chacoan” kivas found at great houses were built into existing square roomblocks, the same way earlier Chacoan kivas had been built into newly constructed square rooms. This implies more continuity in both architecture and population than his phrasing would suggest between the large “court kivas” and the later ones. Recall that Lekson has also argued that these non-Chacoan kivas are more likely a late development of Chacoan architectural traditions than a sign of an influx of “foreigners.”
Windes is certainly right that there are square rooms with residential features in Chacoan great houses, and that this suggests that not everyonewas necessarily living in kivas, but the features of many of those square rooms are actually pretty similar in many cases to kiva features. This implies that the distinction between those who lived in kivas and those who lived in aboveground square rooms that look suspiciously like kivas may be more complicated than Windes (or Lekson) lets on. Perhaps there is some social distinction here, implicit in the architecture, that has received little to no attention in the literature but that may well be quite important. But that’s a topic for another post.
Room 330, Pueblo Bonito
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