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Walls at Wijiji

Walls at Wijiji

Today is the winter solstice, and the seventh anniversary of this blog. I’ve traditionally posted about archaeoastronomy on these anniversaries, so I’m going to briefly interrupt my series on Crucible of Pueblos to discuss an interesting article on the evidence for astronomical observations at Chaco Canyon. There turns out to be some overlap, actually, which is interesting.

The article is by Andrew Munro and Kim Malville, who were also the authors of the article on building orientations that I talked about last year on this date, and it was published in the same special issue of the journal Archaeoastronomy in 2010. The content is rather different however. This article summarizes the evidence for specific locations in and around the canyon for which there is evidence of use as solar observation “stations,” including two sites which are newly identified here. (Worth noting here is that Munro left a detailed and interesting comment on last year’s post, in which he linked to his unpublished thesis which contains more detailed and up-to-date information on his approach to archaeoastronomy. I haven’t read it yet, so I’m focusing here on the published articles while recognizing that they don’t have the most recent information.)

Identifying viewing stations is more complex than simply demonstrating alignments, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, based on modern Pueblo ethnography, sun-watching locations were not necessarily marked physically with architecture, rock art, or anything else. This makes their archaeological identification difficult, and probably means that the stations that did happen to have physical markers are probably over-represented.

Identifying these stations also requires careful consideration of how exactly the observation process would have likely worked, what its specific purposes were, and how they could have been met. If, as Munro and Malville argue, the main role of these observations was to fix the dates of ceremonies marking key times in the year, there would have been a practical need to mark not just the date of the ceremony itself, but dates leading up to it which would have given time to prepare for it. Munro and Malville use the term “anticipatory” for stations that would allow prediction of an event in advance, and “confirmatory” for those that would allow observation of the date of the event. There would also need to be a system for communicating the information from the observation stations quickly and easily to other sites in the canyon and beyond.

There is also an important distinction between observation stations and shrines. The former were used for the practical purpose of making observations, while the latter were associated with those observations but used for ritual activities rather than observation, and often were not in locations from which accurate observations could be made. Munro and Malville use the terms “primary” and “secondary” to refer to these different types of sites; secondary stations could include both shrines, which could involve rock art and/or simple architecture, and alignments within or associated with buildings. The well-known, though not universally accepted, alignments at Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada would fall into the secondary category, as would the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph site atop Fajada Butte. In this paper Munro and Malville focus on the primary stations, which they further divide into two categories depending on whether they could be used both to predict significant dates in the solar calendar and to observe them when they occurred, or just to observe the occurrence. For practical purposes the former type would be more useful.

Despite Chaco’s reputation for astronomy, it turns out that good locations for primary observation are pretty rare in the canyon. One key requirement for such a location is a “broken” horizon with obvious landmarks that can be used to track the sun’s (or moon’s) progress along the horizon, but from most great houses the horizon is actually pretty flat and unsuitable for observation. This is presumably due to the flat mesa tops to the north and south of the canyon itself. The number of possible locations for observation stations is therefore reduced to a few areas of the canyon where the horizon is more varied. Munro and Malville list five previously documented stations and add two more based on their own research. (A few more have since been identified.) They are briefly described below.

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Piedra del Sol is a large rock near the current Chaco visitor center that has a wide variety of rock art as well as multiple astronomical alignments. Of particular interest is an apparent viewing station for summer solstice sunrise associated with a large spiral petroglyph on the northeast face of the rock. The horizon as viewed from this spot could allow for both anticipatory and confirmatory observations for the solstice. Even more intriguing, the station has a direct line of sight to the “Sun Dagger” site on Fajada Butte, suggesting that this may have been the location from which the observations were made that allowed the spiral petroglyph at that site to be placed in exactly the right position for the “dagger” of light to pierce it on the summer solstice.

There are multiple identified observation stations in the area of the Wijiji great house at the eastern end of the canyon. One site, 29SJ931, is near a pictograph site on a ledge near the great house and allows observation of the winter solstice. There are some features at the site that are similar to the sorts of features found at post-Chacoan observation sites in the Mesa Verde area, as well as evidence for later Navajo use, so it’s not clear that this site was actually used at all during the Chacoan era. Another site near Wijiji, 29SJ1655, has many Navajo petroglyphs nearby but does also have Chacoan rock art and a possible shrine, suggesting Chacoan as well as Navajo use. This site actually consists of three siting locations, allowing observation of both solstices as well as both equinoxes.

More firmly established as a Chacoan siting station is the Wijiji great house itself. From the northwest corner of the building a notch is visible on the horizon that serves as both an anticipatory and a confirmatory marker for the winter solstice: about two weeks before the solstice the sun rises at the left edge of the notch, and on the solstice itself it rises on the east edge. Since Wijiji was one of the latest great houses to be built in the canyon, it’s possible that it was sited at a location already used as a solstice observation station. As we shall see, it is not the only great house for which this appears to be the case.

Kin Kletso

Kin Kletso

Further west in the canyon, another late great house, Kin Kletso, shows a similar alignment to the winter solstice, with both anticipatory and confirmatory observations possible but in a different way. Here, looking from the southeast corner of the building toward a nearby cliff about two weeks ahead of the solstice (the same dates as the Wijiji anticipatory alignment) shows the sun rising at the base of the cliff. Over the course of the next few weeks, the same sunrise alignment is visible by gradually moving north along the east wall of the site, until on the solstice itself the alignment is visible from the northeast corner. As with Wijiji, it is possible that Kin Kletso was built at the site of an existing observation station, perhaps associated with the large boulder at the western end of the site. (I mentioned both the Wijiji and Kin Kletso observation alignments in my very first post on this site, as it happens.)

In addition to these previously identified observation stations, Munro and Malville describe two new ones based on their own recent research. Both of these are interesting partly because of what they imply about the date at which these sorts of observations began at Chaco.

29SJ2539 is in the general area of Wijiji, and also near the important Basketmaker III village of Shabik’eschee. The site itself includes a boulder with an alignment allowing for confirmatory observation of the winter solstice sunrise through a notch at the foot of a nearby cliff, along with a wide variety of artifacts and rock art indicating both Chacoan and Navajo use. An immediately adjacent site, 29SJ2538, includes a ledge overlooking the boulder that could have been used for storage but apparently wasn’t. Another nearby site is a small-house habitation that was excavated by Frank H. H. Roberts in 1926, now known as “Roberts Small House.” This site was apparently occupied over a long span of time, from Pueblo I through the post-Chacoan “Mesa Verdean” occupation of the canyon. It contained a large number of turkey bones, giving it the alternative name of “turkey house.” It also contained human remains, including some that have been argued to show evidence of cannibalism. Christy Turner, who initially made the cannibalism claim, identified the remains as dating to early Pueblo II, but Munro and Malville cite more recent research showing that they were actually from an earlier Pueblo I context. They also argue that there is no reason to associate the cannibalism evidence with the evidence for astronomical observation or related ritual practices, but without going into detail.

Looking West from Peñasco Blanco

Looking West from Peñasco Blanco

Finally, Munro and Malville identify a possible observation point for winter solstice sunrise at Casa del Rio, an early great house just west of the canyon that seems to have been an important site in the Pueblo I period, with an exceptionally large trash midden suggesting possible feasting activity involving people beyond those living at the site. From this site (Munro and Malville don’t specify the exact viewing location) the solstice sunrise is aligned with West Point, the high point on the west side of West Mesa that contains a Chacoan shrine and has direct lines of sight to the Peñasco Blanco great house as well as to other shrines from which messages could be quickly sent throughout the canyon and beyond. This close association with the signaling network, in combination with the large amounts of trash (which seems to have been primarily domestic trash associated with food consumption, unlike the more complex contents of the later, more formal mounds associated with Chacoan great houses), implies that Casa del Rio may have been a location where people gathered for feasts and other ceremonies during the Pueblo I period, with at least some of the ceremonies tied to astronomical events such as the winter solstice (or the full moon nearest to it). In this scenario, inhabitants of Casa del Rio would have watched the sunrises over West Mesa to determine the dates of their festivals, then communicated those dates to others by signaling to the shrine on West Point, from which the signal could have been transmitted to many other places.

Speaking of signaling, Munro and Malville also discuss how it could have been done. Fires or smoke signals are possibilities, but another intriguing options would have been mirrors made of selenite, a mineral that can be polished to a high reflective sheen which is found in some natural outcrops in the Chaco area, including one near the observation site at 29SJ2539. Pieces of selenite were in fact found at 29SJ2539 itself, as well as at several other sites in the canyon.

Several interesting patterns emerge from the data compiled by Munro and Malville. First, the winter solstice sunrise appears to have been the most important astronomical event observed by the ancient Chacoans, at least judging from the viewing stations that have been identified so far. This is consistent with modern Pueblo ethnography, which similarly indicates the winter solstice as the most important event and sunrise observations as generally being more important than sunset ones.

Second, there is a strong association between possible viewing stations and so-called “Late Bonito” great houses, those built in the early AD 1100s toward the end of the period of Chacoan florescence, often in the so-called “McElmo” architectural style that is sometimes associated with influence from the north. The relatively standardized sizes and shapes of these great houses, as well as their short periods of construction, suggest an aggressive building program at this time that might have been associated with an attempt to reassert Chaco’s importance at a time when regional focus was starting to shift north to Aztec. Siting these buildings at locations already used as astronomical observation points, and designing them to incorporate aspects of such observation into the buildings themselves, may have been a way for Chacoan leaders to emphasize their esoteric knowledge and spiritual power at a time when it was being challenged.

Finally, and most interestingly from the perspective of the series of posts I’ve been doing lately, Munro and Malville provide tentative but intriguing evidence for astronomical observation points in and around Chaco Canyon beginning in the Pueblo I period. This would to my knowledge make this the earliest known evidence for detailed astronomical observation in the northern Southwest, and possibly in the Southwest as a whole (evidence for the Hohokam in southern Arizona is more ambiguous). That, in turn, provides further support for my theory that the rise of Chaco was enabled in part by the development of a new ideology in which astronomy played a major role.

In this regard it is interesting that one of the early centers for astronomical observation may have been Casa del Rio, which was one of the most important local centers during the late Pueblo I period when the great houses in the canyon proper were just starting to be built. As noted in my earlier post on Pueblo I in the Chaco area, it’s clear that at this time settlement was largely focused to the west of the canyon along the lower Chaco River, which may have been a conduit for migrants leaving the villages in the Dolores, Colorado area when they collapsed in the late ninth century. It may have been these migrants, bringing the lessons they had learned from their experiments in village life and adapting to a new and very different environment, who first began to pay careful attention to the sky, perhaps in an attempt to improve their prospects of survival in an area that is exceptionally arid even for the Southwest. If their initial adaptations were successful, as they appear to have been at least in some places, they may have begun to gain prestige and to attract additional migrants from various areas, who would have brought their own ideas and lessons learned. Astronomy may have been the development that united these people and allowed them to develop a new social order that would go on to underlie the spectacular achievements at Chaco that we see evidence of even today. And when that social order began to be challenged, for reasons that are still unclear, its leaders may have sought to revitalize it through a renewed emphasis on their astronomical knowledge in the form of the Late Bonito great houses.

Obviously this is all fairly speculative, but more and more evidence has been accumulating in recent years to focus and ground such speculation in solid data. Archaeoastronomical research has been a key part of this, and this article is an important contribution to the developing picture.
ResearchBlogging.org
Munro AM, & Malville JM (2010). Calendrical Stations in Chaco Canyon Archaeoastronomy, 23, 91-106

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Peñasco Blanco

Returning to my theory that the large square rooms with hearths and other residential features found at some great houses in Chaco and elsewhere were in some sense replacements for earlier kivas, I think the best evidence for this at Chaco itself (as opposed to at outlying great houses like Salmon) comes not from Pueblo Bonito, which is just too complicated a palimpsest to make something like this easy to see, but from the other early great houses: Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco.  These at least seem to have simpler layouts than Bonito, though the extent to which this is just an effect of their being (mostly) unexcavated is unclear.  Nevertheless, at least some parts of these two great houses do seem to show basically the pattern that I’m proposing for the development of residential room suites at great houses.

To recap the idea: The very earliest great houses, those built in the AD 800s, seem to show a pattern of suites similar to that seen at small houses or unit pueblos, with each suite consisting of one rectangular room backed by two smaller rooms.  In front of each roomblock there are subterranean kivas, usually with slightly fewer than would be expected if each suite had its own kiva.  This suggests to me that the suites housed individual nuclear families, but that they were grouped into larger units, perhaps extended families, which shared kivas.  Whatever rituals these residential units would have conducted would probably have been in the kivas, but for the most part these were still residential structures, similar to the pithouses occupied in earlier centuries but with some of their functions transferred to the rectangular front rooms of the roomblocks.  The smaller rooms in the back would have been used for storage.  A typical great house would contain a few of these suites, with a kiva for every two or three.  It’s unclear what the relationships among different kiva-units within a great house would have been, but they could have either been separate extended families within the same real or fictitious “clan” or “lineage,” or they could have been separate lineages that were politically or ceremonially allied.  Importantly, all of these buildings are still residential at this point, although the residents may well host rituals or feasts open to the whole community either to solidify their political authority or because generosity is expected of them in exchange for community acceptance of their greater wealth or political/religious authority.  The main difference between great houses and small houses is just that great houses are bigger, with multiple stories in some instances and generally bigger rooms, as well as more extensive use of masonry rather than adobe or jacal construction.

Room 330, Pueblo Bonito

Then, at some point in the 900s, a change takes place in some (all?) great houses.  Use of the kivas is discontinued, and instead the activities that had been conducted in them are transferred to square surface rooms added onto the existing roomblocks.  This definitely seems to be what happens at Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco, although the extent to which there were earlier kivas is unclear given the lack of excavation.  In great houses newly begun during this time (it’s unclear how many of these there were in Chaco itself, but Kin Nahasbas may be an example), room suites were built without any kivas but with large, square rooms in front and smaller rectangular rooms varying in number behind them for storage.  This pattern continues well into the 1000s, at least at some great houses, and it’s associated with the very formal, symmetrical, rectilinear layout seen at sites such as Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Alto.  Some outlying great houses, such as Kin Bineola and (especially) Salmon, show this pattern as well.  Salmon seems to show that new great houses with (almost?) exclusively square rather than round living rooms were still being built as late as 1090, and if the early construction at Aztec is in the same pattern, which seems to be a matter of some dispute, it would still be going on well into the early 1100s.  This is probably also what we see at Pueblo Bonito too, with the possible addition of square rooms like 329 and 330 to the older suites at the west end of Old Bonito and the later addition of linear suites to the south of these rooms at the southwest corner of the site.

At some point in the late 1000s, however, a different type of room suite begins to arise at some Chaco great houses.  This is still a linear suite, sort of, but it consists of a round kiva built aboveground into a first-story square room, with one or two rows of two- or three-story rectangular rooms extending back from it.  These are the “blocked-in” kivas that are probably the most famous innovation of Chacoan architecture.  I see them as still residential spaces, in combination with the rooms behind them.  Their appearance at most outlying great houses indicates residential use of those sites, perhaps by local elites.  It’s not clear what the relationship is between these plaza-facing blocked-in kiva suites and the “elevated” kivas surrounded by rectangular rooms that start to appear at the centers of the rectilinear great houses with the square living rooms around this same time.  If those rooms are still residential, they’re pretty damn fancy residences.  They’re also quite unlike the other residential rooms at these sites, which are still square.  The “Tower Kiva” at Salmon is one example, as are the corresponding kiva at Hungo Pavi and the numerous examples at Chetro Ketl.  The central placement and unusual elaboration of these structures has led many to assume that they were ceremonial rather than residential in function, but I’m not so sure.  These sites do generally have great kivas, which pretty much everyone agrees were community-scale ceremonial/integrative structures, and they look quite different from elevated kivas (although it’s not clear to what extent the unique features of great kivas are due to structural requirements following from their size).

Kivas in the Southeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

In any case, the best examples of the plaza-facing blocked-in kiva suites are at Pueblo Bonito in the southeast and southwest wings.  These appear to have been built over earlier construction, so it’s not totally clear what was going on with these multiple, quite rapid changes in site layout during this period.  Again, though, they’re also obvious at Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco, where some (but not all!) of the earlier square living rooms are replaced by blocked-in kivas.  This also appears to have happened in the west wing of Chetro Ketl, but it’s unexcavated so it’s hard to say for sure.  There definitely are two blocked-in kivas there, though, and they appear to have rooms behind them like at Pueblo Bonito.

Then, at some point toward the very end of the eleventh century or very early in the twelfth, a totally new type of room suite begins to appear at Chaco great houses.  This is the famous “McElmo unit,” with a central blocked-in kiva surrounded on three or four sides by rectangular rooms, most of them significantly higher (three or four stories), creating a sort of “patio” over the kiva.  These rarely have ground-floor exterior walls, and they are remarkably uniform and modular in form.  The most famous of these structures are the freestanding ones, including New Alto, Casa Chiquita, and Kin Kletso (which comprises two adjacent units), but clearly analogous forms can be seen within certain great houses, including the north and south wings of Pueblo del Arroyo and the Kiva B complex at Pueblo Bonito.  Similar units that are just outside of existing great houses can be seen at Chetro Ketl and Peñasco Blanco.  The masonry of most of these is very different from that used at earlier great houses, being composed of blocky yellow sandstone rather than fine, hard, dark sandstone, and this has been used to argue that they represent influence from the north.  The masonry may indeed reflect northern influence (though in a different way from what the original proposers of this idea thought), but the form predates the shift in masonry and probably developed locally in Chaco.

Kiva E, Kin Kletso

There has been a lot of debate over the function of McElmo units.  Some see them as warehouses, while others see them as ritual (or possibly astronomical) special-use sites.  I’m increasingly thinking that all this speculation is based on an overemphasis on their differences from earlier great houses, and that they were probably residential and represent the final version of the Chacoan room suite.  More on this later.

McElmo units may represent the final development of Chacoan architecture in terms of form, but the great houses continued to be occupied for quite some time after the construction of these roomblocks in the early 1100s.  What we see at this point is an increased emphasis on the blocked-in kiva concept, with new kivas, often of “non-Chacoan” form, being built into earlier square or rectangular rooms.  Some call these “intra-mural” rather than “blocked-in” kivas, to emphasize that they were built into earlier rooms rather than having square rooms built around them, and I think this is a helpful distinction.  These really proliferate at Pueblo Bonito late in the occupation period, and this also happens at Aztec and Salmon during their “post-Chacoan” (also called “secondary” or “Mesa Verdean”) occupations.  At the same time, many great houses also see the construction of new subterranean kivas in the plazas, often with accompanying small blocks of square rooms.  These aren’t usually datable directly, but they appear to be very late.   Pueblo Bonito has particularly many of these, and there are a few in the southeast corner of Chetro Ketl too.  These appear to represent the construction of typical small-house or unit-pueblo style residential units within earlier great houses, and they may or may not represent an occupational discontinuity of some sort.

So basically, what we see is a sequence of underground kiva to above-ground square room to above-ground kiva.  There are plenty of variations and complications, but that’s the general sequence.  The later use of intra-mural kivas, especially at Pueblo Bonito, has tended to obscure the middle stage here, but it really seems to represent something meaningful at least as a chronological marker in Chacoan architecture.  Does it mean anything else culturally?  That part I’m still looking into, but it may.

Fajada Butte from Una Vida

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Pueblo Bonito from Peñasco Blanco

The paper I discussed earlier about evidence that corn was imported to Chaco was interesting, but while it provided important information about the poorly understood “Mesa Verdean” period after the fall of the Chaco system it didn’t address the question of food imports during the operation of that system.  This has been a topic of considerable debate, and the extent to which corn was being imported to Chaco from outlying areas versus being grown in the canyon itself has major ramifications for which theories about the nature of the system seem most plausible.  Luckily, however, that paper was just one in a long series reporting on research done by Larry Benson and others on this topic, and a slightly earlier one by Benson, H. E. Taylor, and our old friend John Stein addresses the question of earlier (and later) periods.

Peñasco Blanco from Pueblo Bonito

This paper uses the same basic methodology of the other one, based on strontium isotope ratios, and it also attempts to use concentrations of other trace elements to further narrow down source areas for corn cobs from archaeological sites.  Unfortunately, however, most of the trace elements the researchers looked at had their concentrations heavily skewed by post-depositional contamination, which made them useless for determining sources.  The only elements that seemed to be mostly unaffected by this problem were potassium and rubidium, so the paper uses the ratio of these two elements as an additional marker for places where the cobs may have been grown, although it cautions that it’s not yet totally clear that this ratio is actually as meaningful as the analysis implies.

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

This study looks at more cobs than the other one.  These are from both Chaco and Aztec, and the Chaco ones come from a variety of sources.  The most numerous are from Gallo Cliff Dwelling and are part of the large group with nearly identical radiocarbon dates in the late 12th century that was analyzed in the more recent paper.  This paper conducts a similar analysis and comes to similar conclusions about the wide range of possible sources for these cobs.  This group also includes a few cobs from Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Kin Kletso, although the authors caution that the late dates on these cobs don’t necessarily imply that these great houses were still occupied at this late date; the cobs could also result from people living in small sites like the Gallo Cliff Dwelling dumping their trash in the abandoned buildings.  While most of the Chaco cobs come from this narrow time period, and the Aztec cobs (which have not been carbon-dated) likely date from a roughly comparable time as well, some Chaco cobs are dated to both earlier and later times.  The later ones, some of which date to the nineteenth century, are presumed to reflect the later Navajo occupation of the area.  It’s the earlier ones that are of interest for the light they can shed on the operation of the Chaco system in its heyday.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

There are six cobs with carbon dates earlier than the major drought of the mid-12th-century.  Five of these come from Pueblo Bonito, and one comes from the Gallo Cliff Dwelling.  The Gallo one is puzzling, since all the other Gallo cobs date to much later and cluster tightly together, and the site itself was probably not occupied early enough to account for the early cob.  It’s possible that this date is due to something odd going on with the radiocarbon dating, and in any case it seems hard to generalize from, so I’m not going to discuss it further here and will instead focus on the five cobs from Pueblo Bonito.

Interior T-Shaped Doorway, Pueblo Bonito

Four of these come from Room 3; the other one comes from Room 170.  These are both interesting rooms in their own right, but first let’s talk about the cobs.  Although the authors of the paper classify them only as “pre-AD-1130” (i.e., before the drought that is thought to have coincided with the fall of Chaco), they actually all date considerably earlier than that.  The earliest, which unfortunately seems to have been contaminated and thus unusable for the strontium analysis, is from Room 3 and has a calibrated radiocarbon date range of AD 765 to AD 902 with 95% confidence (2σ).  The other four are somewhat later and cluster tightly together, with 95% confidence intervals of AD 944–1052 (this is the one from Room 170), AD 892–1034, AD 893–1026, and AD 889–1021.  This means that these cobs all date to a period before the Chaco system reached its full florescence, which is generally dated to the late eleventh century.  They also seem to date earlier than the expansion of Pueblo Bonito in the 1040s.  The 95% confidence interval for the cob from Room 170 does make it possible that it dates to the period of the expansion, but at a lower level of confidence (1σ) it has a tighter range of AD 974 to AD 1040, which means it too probably predates the expansion.

Old Bonito

Thus, all these corn cobs seem to have been grown and eaten during the period when Pueblo Bonito consisted only of the original arc of rooms, constructed with early, Type I masonry, that we now call Old Bonito.  This makes their geographical origin even more interesting to investigate.  During this period, consisting of the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries, Chaco Canyon seems to have been growing in regional importance, as evidenced by the construction of the early great houses, but it doesn’t seem to have yet attained the preeminent position and centrality it would achieve in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries before its collapse.  The earliest cob, which probably dates to the ninth century, which is when the early great houses were first being constructed, would be of particular interest in determining where the people in Chaco were getting their food at that time.  It’s very unfortunate, then, that its origin can’t be determined from strontium analysis because of its apparent contamination.  The other three cobs, however, which probably date to the late tenth or early eleventh century, were included in the strontium analysis, so it’s worth looking closely at what the results of that analysis can tell us.

Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

These cobs date to a period when there seems to have been little or no construction at Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco, the three earliest great houses in the canyon.  All three saw extensive construction in the late ninth and early tenth century, and major expansion starting in the middle of the eleventh.  The time of the cobs, then, seems to have been a relatively quiet period in the canyon, although the early stages of construction at some of the other great houses, such as Chetro Ketl and Hungo Pavi, may date to this period.  There doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of great-house construction outside of the canyon, either; there were already quite a few great houses out there, especially to the south in the Red Mesa Valley and to the west along the Chuska Slope, but most had already been built, and the biggest of the outliers, especially to the north, wouldn’t be built until considerably later.

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

So, if the strontium evidence were to suggest that the cobs from this period were grown in the canyon, that would suggest that local agricultural production was important at Chaco, and it would support theories that attribute Chaco’s rise to regional dominance as having to do at least in part with agricultural surplus during favorable climatic conditions.  If, on the other hand, the strontium evidence were to suggest that the cobs were grown outside of the canyon, that would be evidence in favor of other theories that see the rise of Chaco as due not to local production but to the Chacoans’ ability to somehow acquire food from other areas with better growing conditions.  This would be particularly the case if the cobs came from areas that had early outliers.  It would also be interesting if the cobs came from areas that aren’t known to have had outliers this early but did have them later (e.g., the Totah).  These theories propose a variety of answers for how the Chacoans could have done this, of course, ranging from coercive political domination to inspirational spiritual power.

High Walls at Kin Bineola

So, with that in mind, what does the strontium (and potassium/rubidium) evidence say?  In brief, it supports the latter option.  The strontium ratios in the cobs are close to the values at a few of the sampled sites in and around the canyon, but when the potassium/rubidium ratios are added in, they narrow the potential sources down considerably, and none of the local Chaco sources makes the cut.  So, to the extent that the potassium/rubidium evidence is useful (which, remember, is still not totally clear), it seems that the Chacoans were importing corn at least as early as the early eleventh century, and possibly a century earlier.  This seems to support the theories that hold that local agricultural production was not the main driver of Chaco’s rise, although this is of course a very small sample and it would be foolish to draw too many firm conclusions from it.

Sign at Kin Bineola

So if the corn wasn’t being grown at Chaco, where was it grown?  Unlike with the later cobs, and again likely owing at least in part to the small sample size, the number of potential source areas identified here is pretty small.  A couple are in the Totah near Aztec, but all the rest are in the area surrounding Chaco often called the “Chaco Halo” and consisting of the parts of the Chaco Wash drainage both upstream and downstream from the canyon, including the South Chaco Slope area on the north side of Lobo Mesa.  The specific sampling sites with matching ratios were near a number of important Chacoan outliers, including Kin Ya’a, Kin Klizhin, Kin Bineola, and Pueblo Pintado.  Interestingly, of these four only Kin Bineola is known to have been built at this time, and the others were not built until considerably later, at least in their current form.  The fact that Kin Bineola is one potential source area, as are a few smaller early great houses that were present at this time, suggests that the later outliers may have been built on top of earlier versions, or at least that the communities surrounding them may have been incorporated into the Chaco system earlier than the dates of their great houses would imply.  Of course, it’s also possible that all of these cobs came from one or a few of the areas with known early great houses; the fact that a large number of areas could have grown these cobs doesn’t mean that they all did, and in fact given the small number of cobs it would be impossible for all the areas identified to have contributed to growing them.

Kin Bineola from a Distance

It’s not necessarily surprising to find that nearby areas known to have been in close contact with Chaco would have been supplying it with corn.  Indeed, many of these areas are considerably better for agriculture than the canyon, and there has long been speculation that at least some of the outliers were founded specifically in order to supply the canyon with food.  What is somewhat surprising here, however, is the early date at which this appears to have already been happening.  The great houses at Chaco would not necessarily have been any more impressive than those in many other local communities at this point, and given the lack of construction activity in the canyon it would be quite reasonable to suppose that Chaco was not yet considered exceptional within the region.  This evidence, however, suggests that there was already something unusual going on in the canyon, and that something was getting people around it to supply it with at least some food.

Early Masonry at Kin Bineola

One more thing to consider about these cobs is where they were found.  Since Pueblo Bonito was definitely around at the time they were grown, imported, eaten, and presumably thrown away, and since they were found at Pueblo Bonito, it seems logical to conclude that the rooms where they were excavated were the same rooms where they had originally been tossed.  This is almost certainly not true, however.  Rooms 3 and 170, where they were found, had not yet been built in the early eleventh century.

Room 3, Pueblo Bonito

Room 3 is part of an arc of rooms fronting on the western section of Old Bonito.  Unlike the rooms behind it, however, it is built out of late core-and-veneer masonry, and it was likely built considerably later than those rooms, which are built with early masonry.  The difference is quite noticeable.  The spaces later enclosed by it and the other plaza-facing rooms in this arc was probably originally enclosed by a ramada or awning, or perhaps a wattle-and-daub (or “jacal”) wall, which was later replaced with masonry.  The sequence of construction in this part of the site is hard to untangle, and Room 3 produced no tree-ring dates, but it is pretty clear that it must have been constructed at some point after AD 1040, just judging from the masonry, and the presence of the cobs in it likely dates to a time long after its initial construction when it was used for dumping trash.  One of the other cobs found in this room was part of the late-12th-century date cluster, so that may be when this trash deposit originated.

Room 170, Pueblo Bonito

Similarly, Room 170 is part of the southernmost block of rooms, which was one of the last parts of the site to be built.  It seems to have been built as part of the construction of the southeast corner of the site, one of the largest single building projects in Chaco’s history, which probably took place around AD 1080.  Room 170 has an odd set of internal features; its first story was at some point divided by an east-west wall, and the part of the room north of the wall was filled in, with a space left, however, to allow access to the second floor of both it and the room north of it.  There is also a small opening just south of the dividing wall leading into the next room west, and a step below it.  Again, this room was likely not originally used for trash dumping, and the trash deposits in it likely date to a later period.

Metate Fragment at Pueblo Bonito

Since neither of these rooms was used for dumping trash until quite late, perhaps even after the fall of Chaco as a regional center, why did they contain corn cobs from centuries earlier?  Probably because the trash being dumped in them was being moved from wherever it had originally been dumped.  Where that would have been, who would have been doing this, when, and why are all very difficult questions to answer, but I don’t see any other explanation to reconcile the dates of the corn cobs with their locations.  This also means that, while these cobs were found at Pueblo Bonito, they weren’t necessarily originally brought there.  They may have been, of course, and I’d even go so far as to say that they probably were, but it’s also possible that the trash deposit in which they were originally placed was somewhere else in the canyon, perhaps even associated with another site.

Sealed Vent, Pueblo Bonito

Like all good papers about Chaco, this one answers some questions but opens up others, and it definitely provides plenty of (imported) food for thought.  There’s still a lot we don’t know about the Chacoans, even such basic things as where they  got their food, but the process of finding these things out is quite a ride and full of surprises.
ResearchBlogging.org
BENSON, L., STEIN, J., & TAYLOR, H. (2009). Possible sources of archaeological maize found in Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruin, New Mexico Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (2), 387-407 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.09.023

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Fajada Butte at Sunset

Fajada Butte at Sunset

Today is the winter solstice.  This is an important time here in Chaco Canyon.  Judging from the practices of modern pueblos, where it’s no coincidence that many important dances and feasts take place around Christmas, New Year’s, and Epiphany, it’s likely that the solstice was a major event for their ancestors, the prehistoric Chacoans.  And, indeed, there is evidence encoded into both the buildings that the Chacoans built and the petroglyphs that they pecked onto the rock faces in and around the canyon that the winter solstice was important to them.  Although not all of the astronomical alignments proposed by the Solstice Project have been universally accepted even within the archaeoastronomical community, enough of them have checked out that the idea of at least some alignments is quite widespread and mainstream these days.

The most famous alignment is the “Sun Dagger” atop Fajada Butte, which is most commonly associated with the summer solstice but which also has (or, more accurately, had) a winter solstice alignment in which the main spiral is bracketed by two daggers of light, rather than being bisected by one dagger as on the summer solstice.

For all its fame, the Sun Dagger was actually not very precise.  It didn’t mark the exact day of the solstice, just the general time of year including it.  There are, however, many other alignments in the canyon that are much more precise.  One of these involves one of the mysterious “corner doorways” at the most famous of the Chacoan sites, Pueblo Bonito.

Corner Doorway at Pueblo Bonito

Corner Doorway at Pueblo Bonito

While most of these doorways, which connect rooms diagonal to each other, have not been found to line up with anything, there is one that serves as a very precise marker of the winter solstice.  At sunrise on the solstice, the rising sun casts a beam of light through the doorway.  One edge of this beam lies exactly along the vertical line of the corner opposite the doorway.  This alignment only occurs on the day of the solstice itself, although the beam begins to appear in the middle of October and gradually moves, day by day, until it reaches the corner on the solstice.  It then moves back, day by day, until it disappears.

While the precision of this alignment is certainly suggestive, there are some questionable aspects of it.  The most important is that the corner doorway connects two interior rooms.  The alignment works today because the outer wall that would otherwise block sunlight from reaching the corner doorway has fallen down.  If that wall were solid, as most of the walls of Pueblo Bonito are believed to have been, there would have been no way for the alignment to work at the time it was allegedly put into place.  It’s possible, then, that this particular alignment just happens to be a wildly improbable coincidence.

There are ways to save the alignment, however, if one is so inclined (as many are).  One option is to argue that the outer wall may not have gone up to the second story, where the corner doorway is.  While this could technically be true, since the surviving parts of the outer wall are all from the first story, the surrounding rooms all have second-story outer walls surviving in part, and one of those would likely have blocked the path of the sunlight even if there were no second-story wall in the room right next to the corner doorway.  The other, more plausible, argument is that there was a second corner doorway, aligned with the surviving one, in the outer wall.  It’s true that corner doorways are exceedingly rare, and that none of the known examples is in an exterior wall.  Furthermore, there are very few exterior doorways in Pueblo Bonito at all.  Very little of the outer wall above the first floor has survived in most of the building, however, so it remains entirely possible, though unproven and unprovable, that there was a second doorway to facilitate the alignment.

If the corner doorway alignment at Pueblo Bonito is in fact genuine, one very interesting aspect of it is that the beam of light begins to come through a fixed number of days before the solstice and moves a little bit each day until it reaches its crucial alignment on the solstice itself.  This would make it useful as a device for marking time until the solstice, which would have been a very important consideration if the solstice itself was the occasion of important events that required significant advance planning.

There are some other solstice markers, less problematic than the corner doorway, which seem to have exactly this function.  From a vantage point at the northeast corner of Kin Kletso, a smaller, later site about half a mile to the west of Pueblo Bonito, the solar disk rises on the winter solstice right in a notch along the horizon.

Kin Kletso

Kin Kletso

There are alignments like this all over the canyon, tied to key features on the complicated horizon line that allow easy tracking of the sun’s movement through the year.  What makes Kin Kletso notable, however, is that from a vantage point at the southeastern corner the sun rises in the same notch two weeks before the solstice, and if one were to move gradually northward along the wall every day for those two weeks the sun would continue to rise in that same notch.  This would be a very effective way to count down the time until the solstice for planning purposes.

A notch seems just a little arbitrary, though.  There are all sorts of horizon features, and the number of possible viewing locations is literally infinite.  This is a common and partly unavoidable problem with archaeoastronomy in general: if you draw enough lines, something is going to line up.  Luckily, in the case of Chaco there are some additional reasons to trust in the likely accuracy of at least some of the proposed alignments.  Probably the most important of these is the fact that the modern pueblos have held onto a great deal of their traditional knowledge, and astronomical observation is a documented part of that.  Some of the pueblos, notably Hopi and Zuni, have sunwatchers to this day, and while the details of their practices are generally considered sacred knowledge not to be divulged to outsiders, enough has become known in various ways to demonstrate a strong continuity with ancient evidence.

Another line of evidence has to do with the specific shapes of some of the horizon features.  A notch isn’t always just a notch.  One good example of this is at Wijiji, a site roughly contemporaneous with Kin Kletso but at the other end of the canyon.

Wijiji

Wijiji

From the northwest corner of Wijiji, looking across the plaza to the southeast, the sun rises on the winter solstice in a notch.  The right side of this notch, from this perspective, happens to have the exact same inclination as the path of the sun, so as the sun rises, on this day and only this day, it appears to run along the side of the notch before continuing up into the sky to continue its journey.  Definitive evidence for the reality of alignments?  Certainly not.  Suggestive of it?  Certainly.  An inspiring, thought-provoking phenomenon?  No question at all.

While the extent and purpose of astronomical alignments will continue to be debated for quite some time, there’s no escaping the sense that the sky is an ever-present and awe-inspiring feature of Chaco Canyon.  The sunsets are amazing.

Winter Solstice Sunset

Winter Solstice Sunset

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