Archive for the ‘Suburban Chaco’ Category

Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s also the sixth anniversary of this  blog. On these anniversaries I like to write about archaeoastronomy, which is a very interesting topic and an important one for understanding Chaco and Southwestern prehistory in general. Last year I wrote about some research indicating that in the Rio Grande valley, an area generally thought to be outside the Chaco system but that was certainly occupied at the same time as Chaco, there was a long and very consistent tradition of orienting pit structures to the east-southeast, which is the direction of winter solstice sunrise. The winter solstice is very important in the cosmology and rituals of the modern Pueblos, so it makes a lot of sense that at least some Pueblo groups would orient their dwellings based on it.

As I noted at the time, this orientation is very different from that in the San Juan region to the west, including Chaco and Mesa Verde. In this area there is an equally long tradition of orienting pit structures to either due south or south-southeast. I’ve long wondered why this might be, and an article I read recently discusses the issue and proposes some interesting potential answers.

The article is by Kim Malville and Andrew Munro and was published in the journal Archaeoastronomy in 2010 as part of a special issue on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest. Malville is an astronomer who has done a lot of research on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest and identified many potential astronomical alignments, but this article is actually largely about debunking many of the alleged alignments claimed by others, particularly Anna Sofaer and her Solstice Project. Sofaer, an artist who turned her attention to archaeoastronomy after discovering the “Sun Dagger” effect involving a spiral petroglyph on Fajada Butte that on the summer solstice appears (or appeared) to be bisected by a “dagger” of light coming through a slit between large boulders in front of it. Sofaer went on to organize surveys of the major great house sites in Chaco Canyon to identify any celestial alignments in the orientation of their walls, and her team found that virtually all of them did show alignments to the positions of the sun or moon on solstices, equinoxes, or lunar standstills.

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Sofaer and her collaborators went on to publish these findings widely, and to make a well-known documentary that has often been shown on television and inspired a lot of interest in Chaco. As Malville and Munro show in this paper, however, the evidence for these alignments is very thin. There is little to no justification in Pueblo ethnography for the idea of celestial building alignments, and the alignments themselves are identified with a substantial margin for error that makes spurious positive identifications likely, especially when so many potential alignments are tested for. Particularly concerning is how many of the alignments are to the minor lunar standstill, which is not a very impressive or noticeable event. (The major lunar standstill is a different story, and there is strong evidence at Chimney Rock in Colorado that the Chacoans were familiar with it and considered it important.) Malville and Munro also argue that the fact that most of the alignments are based on the rear walls of sites is also questionable, since there is no evidence that rear wall alignments were or are important culturally to Puebloans.

Instead, they argue that the alignments of rear walls are epiphenomenal, and that they mostly result from the more solidly established concern with the orientation of the front of a site. The bulk of the article is devoting to tracing these frontal orientations across time and space, with a primary focus on Chaco itself and on the earlier Pueblo I villages in the area of Dolores, Colorado that are often seen as being partly ancestral to the Chaco system.

As I noted above, there are two main orientations that persist through time in the San Juan region. One is to due south, and the other is to the south-southeast (SSE). With pit structures these axes are typically defined by a straight line of sipapu (if present), hearth, deflector, and vent shaft. There is often also a measure of bilateral symmetry between features on either side of this line, such as support posts. When there are surface rooms behind a pit structure, they often (but not always) conform to the same alignment, and when the back of a row of surface rooms is straight, it is typically perpendicular to the main orientation. Malville and Munro argue that these perpendicular back walls on many Chacoan great houses, which Sofaer has identified as having alignments to various astronomical phenomena, are really subsidiary effects of the main emphasis on frontal orientation.

The authors start their survey of orientations with the Basketmaker III pithouse village of Shabik’eschee at Chaco. Of 15 pithouses for which they could find adequate information on orientation, 11 faced SSE with an average azimuth of 153.7 degrees and 4 faced south with an average azimuth of 185 degrees. Strikingly, none of the pithouses showed any other orientation.

The north-south orientation isn’t difficult to understand, and Malville and Munro attribute it to use of the night sky for navigation (which would have been easy enough at this time even though there wasn’t actually a north star), and they also mention the widespread presence of Pueblo traditions mentioning origins in the north. While the exact reasons for adoption of this orientation may not be clear, its consistency isn’t unexpected since it’s pretty obvious and easy to replicate.

The SSE orientation, on the other hand, is a different matter. Note that at Shabik’eschee this was much more common than the southern orientation, from which it is offset by about 20 to 30 degrees in individual cases. There is more variation in this orientation than with the southern one (standard deviation of 7.7 degrees versus 2.4), but it’s sufficiently consistent and common that it seems like there must be some specific reason for it. Unlike the southern orientation, however, it’s not at all clear what that might be. Malville and Munro, sticking to their interpretation of orientations as references to places of origin, suggest that in the case of Shabik’eschee it might reflect the fact that some people might have migrated to Chaco from an area that was more to the north-northwest than due north, which seems implausible to me but then I don’t have a better explanation myself.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

In any case, this pattern continues through time. The next set of orientations Malville and Munro look at are those of the pit structures at the Pueblo I Dolores villages. What they find is that SSE orientations are dominant here too, even more so than at Shabik’eschee. In fact, all of the pit structures they looked at had SSE orientations except those at Grass Mesa Village, which mostly faced faced south (although even here there were a few SSE orientations). This is in keeping with other evidence for differences in architecture among different villages at Dolores; Grass Mesa is known for having long, straight room blocks, as opposed to the smaller and often crescent-shaped roomblocks at McPhee Village, which with it is most often compared.

The Duckfoot site, to the west of the Dolores villages but contemporaneous with them, also had a SSE orientation. Further west, however, southern orientations become more common, including at the important village sites of Yellow Jacket and Alkali Ridge, plus some of the earlier Basketmaker II sites on Cedar Mesa in Utah.

There was one more orientation used during the Pueblo I period in the Northern San Juan region, however. At Sacred Ridge, in Ridges Basin near modern Durango, Colorado, the average azimuth of the pit structures is 120 degrees, the same east-southeast orientation corresponding to winter solstice sunrise so common in the Rio Grande. Malville and Munro remark on the similarity to the Rio Grande pattern and consider it “puzzling,” positing some potential ways that it could have come about. They argue, however, that wherever this pattern came from it didn’t last in the north, and they point to the extremely violent end to the occupation of Sacred Ridge as the end of this orientation tradition in the San Juan region (although this may not be strictly true, as discussed below).

From here Malville and Munro turn back to Chaco. Specifically, they look at the great houses at Chaco during its heyday from about AD 850 to 1150. Rather than pit structures, they focus on roomblocks, and they interpret the orientation of a roomblock to be the perpendicular to its long axis (in the case of rectangular roomblocks) or the perpendicular to the ends of the crescent of roomblocks with that shape. They find that most of the great houses have a SSE orientation, in keeping with the general trend throughout the region, as do the three northern outlier great houses of Chimney Rock, Salmon, and Aztec. Since this orientation is very close to the perpendicular of the minor lunar standstill moonrise alignment that Sofaer has proposed for many of these buildings, Malville and Munro argue that this widespread orientation explains the pattern much better than the lunar alignment. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletzin have north-south orientations, which is unsurprising since they lie on a north-south line with each other.

A few of the great houses have a more complicated situation. Peñasco Blanco appears to face east-southeast at an azimuth of approximately 115 degrees. This is intriguingly close to the Rio Grande/Sacred Ridge winter solstice orientation, which Malville and Munro do note. Although the unexcavated nature of the site makes it hard to tell for sure, it is possible that this is in fact an example of this orientation surviving much later in the San Juan region than the destruction of Sacred Ridge, although what, if any, connection there might be between the two sites is unclear.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

And then there’s Pueblo Bonito. While the very precise north-south and east-west cardinal alignments of some of the key walls at this site are well known, it has also long been noted that there is evidence for different alignments and change over time here. Malville and Munro interpret the early crescent shape of the building as having a SSE orientation, and like many others they relate it to the similar size, shape, and orientation of McPhee Pueblo at McPhee Village. They then describe multiple stages of drift away from this orientation toward the cardinal orientation. There is surely something to this interpretation, but a careful look at the stages of construction of the site shows that the picture is probably more complicated. The very first construction at Bonito appears to have been straight and oriented to the south, and to have been incorporated later into the SSE-facing crescent. Subsequent building stages show evidence of both orientations having been present throughout the history of the building.

The complicated situation at Pueblo Bonito provides a convenient segue to the key issue here: what was driving this long-term but consistent variation? Why were two different orientations for buildings present in close proximity for hundreds of years, even as populations moved long distances and adjusted their cultures in profound ways? Malville and Munro suggest that these orientations may reflect longstanding cultural and ethnic diversity in the prehistoric Southwest. Given how long-lived and consistent these patterns are, they propose that they were related to deep-seated cultural identities. This is an intriguing idea that may allow tracking of specific cultural groups across the Southwest over centuries. It also provides another piece of evidence that Chaco Canyon was a multicultural community, and implies that even Pueblo Bonito itself contained groups with diverse backgrounds.

The picture is probably even more complicated than Malville and Munro suggest. They tend to implicitly assume that the orientations of pit structures are the same as those of the room blocks with which they are associated, but at least at Chaco this is not necessary true, particularly for small-house sites, which they also don’t address at all in this study. There are many examples of small houses where the room blocks are oriented to the east but the pit structures are oriented to the south (and possibly also SSE, although I haven’t checked this). This eastern orientation may reflect connections to the south, which have gotten a lot less attention in the literature than connections to the north although they appear to have been pretty important in the origins of Chaco.

In any case, I think this is fascinating stuff. It may not be archaeoastronomy per se, but it seems like a fitting way to mark the solstice.
Malville JM, & Munro AM (2010). Cultural Identity, Continuity, and Astronomy in Chaco Canyon Archaeoastronomy, 23, 62-81

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"Supernova" Pictograph

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.  The Fourth is actually a pretty important date for the study of Chaco, but in a roundabout (and somewhat controversial) way.  It all has to do with a very famous pictograph panel below Peñasco Blanco at the west end of the canyon.  While the interpretation of this panel is a matter of considerable debate, one way it’s been seen is as a record of an astronomical event that is known to have occurred during the height of Chaco’s power and influence: the supernova of 1054, which formed the Crab Nebula.

We know from several Chinese reports that the “guest star” resulting from the supernova first appeared on July 4, 1054 and continued to be visible day and night for almost two years.  There are a few Japanese records of the supernova as well, along with one report from the Arab world.  No clear-cut and unambiguous accounts are known from Europe or elsewhere in the world, although a few rock art panels in the Southwest have been proposed as representing the event.  The most famous of these is the one at Chaco, which is often referred to as the “Supernova Pictograph” (even by the park itself in a sign at the site).  It consists of three symbols painted onto the rock face in red: a hand, a crescent, and a starburst-like shape.  It’s the starburst that has been interpreted as representing the supernova itself, of course, and the crescent has been seen as representing the crescent moon.  On the morning of July 5, the moon, which was a crescent at the time, would have appeared in roughly the same relationship to the supernova, as seen from the pictograph site, as the relationship between the two symbols on the panel.  Furthermore, the handprint points in the direction one would have looked to see this at at the time.  The combination of the three symbols together, plus the fact that this would have happened at a time of considerable activity in the canyon, has led some to suggest that this pictograph panel was created to commemorate this historic event.  The specific location may have been an established sun-watching position, from which the new star was seen unexpectedly and recorded.

Sign at the "Supernova Pictograph"

It all sounds fairly plausible as it goes, but there are some problems with this theory.  Probably the biggest problem is that the specific set of symbols on the panel is known from ethnographic evidence to have been used by the Zunis to mark generic sunwatching sites, with the crescent representing the moon, the starburst representing the sun, and the hand marking the location as sacred.  Now, it’s certainly possible that these symbols came to be associated with this activity as a result of the observation of the supernova at this site, but as far as I know there’s no reference to the supernova in ethnographic descriptions of astronomical observation at Zuni or any of the other modern Pueblos, so this is a pretty tenuous claim.

Furthermore, while the 1054 supernova would certainly have been noticeable at Chaco, there was an earlier supernova in 1006 (also recorded by the Chinese, and possibly by the Hohokam in southern Arizona) that was much brighter, and it’s not clear why the Chacoans wouldn’t have recorded that one too.  It took place before the Chaco system really got going on a regional scale, but there was plenty of activity in the canyon during the 900s, so people there would presumably have seen it.  It’s possible that it was recorded too, at some other site that hasn’t been found or that has disappeared in the thousand years that have elapsed since the event (note that the existing Supernova Pictograph has only survived because it was under a protective overhang), but again, there’s not any evidence for this.  The Chacoans are definitely known to have kept careful track of regular patterns in the skies, such as the solstices and the lunar standstills, so they surely would have seen unusual events such as supernovae, but it’s not clear how they would have reacted to them or how inclined they would have been to record them.

View Looking East from "Supernova Petroglyph"

So it’s not really clear how to interpret the Chaco pictograph.  I think the balance of evidence at this point leans slightly against it being a representation of the supernova, but I could be talked out of that position if some additional evidence for the supernova theory can be found.

Others, however, have proposed even more extreme theories based on the 1054 supernova.  Among the more noteworthy of these is a proposal by Timothy Pauketat and Thomas Emerson, in a 2008 article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, that the rather sudden florescence of the Cahokia site in Illinois around AD 1050 may have had something to do with the supernova.  The theory they present is interesting, but hard to effectively support.  For one thing, dating methods in the Midwest are much less precise than in the Southwest, so pinning down any event to the year is usually not possible.  There is certainly a suggestive correspondence between the sudden rise of Cahokia and the supernova, however, and this is supported by the apparent use of stellar imagery and symbolism at Cahokia and the importance of the stars to later cultures in the area, so there may well be something to this.

Opening at Casa Rinconada That Channels Sunbeam at Sunrise on Summer Solstice

I’m a bit troubled, however, by the reliance of Pauketat and Emerson on evidence from Chaco and the way they interpret it.  For one thing, they say that the Supernova Pictograph is “above” Peñasco Blanco, when it’s actually below it, and not visible from the great house itself.  More importantly, they say of the effect of the supernova:

Some believe that this particular cosmic event, which left behind the Crab Nebula, was commemorated in architecture and iconography at the time or in subsequent years. The most compelling evidence for this comes not from the Cahokia region but from the American Southwest, where a tree-cutting date places the construction of the largest and most isolated ceremonial building in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada (noted for its many astronomical alignments) to AD

Now, it’s true that there is a single tree-ring cutting date from Casa Rinconada that dates to 1054.  This is, however, the only tree-ring date for the site, so while it’s plausible that it dates the construction of the site this definitely cannot be stated as definitively as Pauketat and Emerson state it here.  There is no specific provenience information available for this beam, so there’s no way to tell how it was used and whether it can plausibly be said to date to the initial construction of the site.  The general architecture of Casa Rinconada is consistent with a construction date in the 1050s, but without more specific information tying it to a specific year on the basis of one unprovenienced beam is unwarranted.

Looking through Solstice-Aligned Opening at Casa Rinconada toward Aligned Niche

Furthermore, even if Rinconada was built in 1054, that doesn’t establish that it was built because of the supernova.  There was extensive construction in the canyon throughout the mid-1000s, associated with Chaco’s apparent rise to regional dominance, and this began well before 1054.  The major expansion of Pueblo Bonito began by the 1040s at the latest, and various other construction projects at other sites in the canyon dates to this general period.  Rinconada could easily have been part of this general process without any specific relationship to the supernova.  Indeed, there’s nothing about Rinconada that seems to refer to the supernova, despite the various astronomical alignments (some of them controversial as well, it should be noted) identified there.

None of this means that the supernova didn’t have an important role at Cahokia, of course, and it doesn’t even rule out an important role at Chaco itself.  It does mean, however, that developments at Chaco shouldn’t really be used as evidence for developments at Cahokia, even though the two sites are contemporaneous and Chaco can be dated much more precisely.  Cahokia may well have risen as a result of the 1054 supernova, but neither the Supernova Petroglyph at Chaco nor the one tree-ring date at Casa Rinconada provides evidence that it did.
Pauketat, T., & Emerson, T. (2008). Star Performances and Cosmic Clutter Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (1), 78-85 DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000085

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Room 38, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

Western Burial Rooms in Old Bonito

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

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

Bc 59 from Casa Rinconada

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

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

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

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Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

The Basketmaker III period (ca. AD 500 to 750) is a very important time for understanding the prehistoric Southwest.  Maize agriculture had been introduced earlier, although exactly how early is still a matter of debate, and it was definitely well-established by the immediately preceding Basketmaker II period, but Basketmaker III saw the introduction of beans, pottery, and the bow and arrow, all of which led to major changes in the lifestyles of local agriculturists.  Residence was in pithouses, which are clearly ancestral in form (and probably in function) to the “kivas” of later sites, and while these are usually found isolated or in very small groups, there are a few known examples of large “villages” containing dozens of pithouses.  The processes that led to the formation of these sites, as well as their relationships to the more common isolated sites, are very poorly understood, but it seems pretty clear that residential aggregation in certain locations during this period set the stage for the later formation of large villages during the succeeding Pueblo I period and afterward.

Two of the largest and best-known Basketmaker III villages are in Chaco Canyon.  The better-known of these, by far, is called Shabik’eschee Village, and it is located on the lowest terrace of a finger of Chacra Mesa at the east end of the current Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Shabik’eschee was excavated by Frank H. H. Roberts in the 1920s as part of the Smithsonian/National Geographic project led by Neil Judd.  The main focus of the project was the excavation of Pueblo Bonito, but Judd had other members of the team, including Roberts, excavate several other sites in and around the canyon as well.  Roberts published his results in 1929, and this publication has been enormously influential in shaping subsequent interpretations of Basketmaker III villages and the period as a whole.

Looking South from Peñasco Blanco toward 29SJ423

The Chaco Project in the 1970s did some additional work at Shabik’eschee, as well as at the other Basketmaker Village in the canyon.  This site, known as 29SJ423, is just south of Peñasco Blanco at the far west end of the canyon, near the confluence of the Chaco and Escavada Washes.  It is situated in a similar location to Shabik’eschee, on a lower terrace of West Mesa (but above Peñasco Blanco, which is on the lowest terrace).  Tom Windes excavated a small portion of 29SJ423 in 1975, but he and other Chaco Project personnel soon came to the conclusion that additional excavation there would not be worth the considerable effort involved.  The collections from this excavation are important, however, since they were acquired using more careful, modern methods than Roberts’s.  Similarly, a very small amount of additional excavation at Shabik’eschee in 1973 has provided important supplemental information with which to evaluate Roberts’s interpretations.

Windes and Chip Wills published an article in 1989 looking back at Roberts’s interpretations at Shabik’eschee in the light of the additional knowledge gained by the Chaco Project excavations.  They concluded that some of Roberts’s ideas, such as his proposal that the site had two discrete periods of occupation separated by a hiatus during which it was abandoned, are likely untenable, and they also concluded that the site was considerably larger than Roberts thought.  They agreed with Roberts that some of the pithouses had been abandoned and their materials were used in subsequent construction, but they saw this as more of an ongoing process related to the short use-life of pithouses and the demands of demographic processes rather than a discrete series of two occupations.  They also saw more spatial patterning in the layout of pithouses within the site than Roberts did, suggesting that the pithouses grouped into what might be family residence units, although they were quite tentative in this finding and did not use these groups as units for any subsequent analysis.

Pinyon Trees, Pipe Spring National Monument

Wills and Windes also posited a novel interpretation for the site as a whole.  Rather than seeing it as a permanent agricultural village, they saw it as a site of occasional gatherings of more mobile families practicing a “mixed” subsistence strategy of small-scale agriculture along with hunting and gathering.  In their interpretation, a small number of families inhabited Shabik’eschee permanently, while others joined them periodically to take advantage of the site’s proximity to piñon woodlands in years with bountiful piñon-nut harvests.  They based this theory on the presence of two types of storage facilities at the site: household-level storage in the antechambers associated with some but not all of the pithouses (presumably the residences of permanent residents) and community-level storage bins scattered around the site.  The idea is that occasional surpluses of corn or whatever would be stored in the bins, and the people who lived at the site permanently watched over it and protected it.  Whenever there was a plentiful crop of piñon nuts, which happens at irregular intervals in the fall, people who lived the rest of the time in scattered locations throughout the area would congregate at Shabik’eschee to take advantage of this and stay for the winter.  If conditions in the spring were good for planting, people might stay longer and plant their crops in the area, but if not they would move on to more attractive planting locations.  Other pithouse villages, such as 29SJ423, would presumably have served similar purposes, allowing periodic aggregation to take advantage of various localized resources.

This is an interesting theory, but it’s based on exceptionally thin evidence.  Wills and Windes even concede that they are spinning this whole story purely from the nature of the storage facilities at the site, and they note that there are other ways to interpret the communal bins in particular.  Instead of protecting food stores during periods of reduced occupation, they may just have functioned to protect them in general.  The shape of the bins makes it more difficult to access their contents, which Wills and Windes interpret as evidence for a sort of semi-caching, but it would also just provide better protection from the elements, vermin, etc. for the contents.  Basically, there’s just no reason from the available evidence to buy the Wills and Windes theory.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

Indeed, the assumptions behind this theory seem problematic to me.  The ethnographic comparisons Wills and Windes use to support it are mostly from hunter-gatherer societies, and indeed their model seems to imply that the residents of Shabik’eschee were basically hunter-gatherers who did some farming on the side.  Such societies exist, and may well have existed at certain times in the ancient Southwest (such as the late Archaic), but recent studies have shown with increasing certainty that heavy dependence on agriculture was widespread already in the Basketmaker II period.  Wills and Windes seem to see the Basketmaker III inhabitants of the Chaco area as just beginning to experiment with adding agriculture to a hunter-gatherer lifeway, but it’s much more likely that they were full-time agriculturalists and had been for centuries.  They did of course still do some hunting and gathering, as their Pueblo descendants have continued to do up to the present day, but while this may in some sense qualify as a “mixed” economy that shouldn’t obscure the important fact that Pueblo societies have been overwhelmingly farming-based societies since well before the occupation of Shabik’eschee.

I think this interpretation, and others like it which were popular in Southwestern archaeology in the 1980s, results in part from the enormous influence of Lewis Binford on the development of processual archaeology.  Binford’s personal research and expertise were largely on hunter-gatherer societies, and the guidelines he set forth for “archaeology as anthropology” that were eagerly followed by young “New Archaeologists” were heavily influenced by that background.  Wills and Windes cite Binford several times in this article.

Excavating the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

Be that as it may, this is an important article just in providing an updated take on the facts about Shabik’eschee, which as Wills and Windes note has been very important in the interpretation of ancient societies generally.  It contains relatively little information about 29SJ423, but it does briefly discuss this site as a comparison.  It says even less about the much more numerous isolated Basketmaker III sites in the canyon, but it notes that Chaco Project surveys identified at least 163 pithouse sites from this period.  One that they didn’t find, because it was deeply buried under the ground, was later found by the park in the course of trying to build a lift station for the septic system.  This site, informally known as the Lift Station Site, is a Basketmaker III pithouse that was excavated while I was working at Chaco.  One of the more interesting things it revealed was an apparent location for pottery manufacture.

One of the major problems with trying to understand the Basketmaker III period at Chaco is precisely that the site are typically deeply buried, so it’s hard to even know how many of them there are.  It’s clear that this was a period of significant population in the canyon, but it’s hard to tell how many sites were occupied simultaneously.  This problem is exacerbated by the difficulty of dating many of the sites.  Tree-ring dates are often hard to obtain from the scarce wood found at excavated sites, and Shabik’eschee is particularly poorly dated.  The few tree-ring dates available seem to suggest it was occupied at some point after the mid-500s, but there are no cutting dates so any greater precision is impossible.  29SJ423 did produce two cutting dates, at 550 and 557, so it seems the two villages were most likely contemporaneous.  The isolated sites are even harder to date, of course, but the Lift Station Site produced corn that was radiocarbon dated.  I don’t know the dates that resulted, but I did hear that they were earlier than was expected based on the pottery types found.

Whole Pot from the Lift Station Site

The size of the Basketmaker III occupation at Chaco, and particularly the presence of the two large villages, has important implications for understanding the subsequent history of the canyon that I think are just beginning to be realized.  The local population seems to have declined during the subsequent Pueblo I period (ca. AD 750 to 900), when people seem to have begun to move in large numbers to higher elevations where they formed some really large villages.  However, it’s not clear that Chaco was completely abandoned during this period, and recent improvements in dating the early great houses in the canyon have shown that some of them, especially Pueblo Bonito, go back further than was once thought.  Pueblo Bonito is now known to have been begun no later than 860, and the earliest part of it may date much earlier, possibly to 800 or even before.  This means that the gap between the Basketmaker III villages and the earliest great houses suddenly looks a lot smaller, and may disappear entirely.  There are pithouses under the plaza at Pueblo Bonito that may date to very early Pueblo I or even Basketmaker III, and there is a small Pueblo I occupation at Shabik’eschee that dates as late as 750.  This suggests that these two iconic sites in Chacoan archaeology, generally interpreted in very different ways, may actually overlap in occupation.  This would require some serious modifications of the ways the origins of the Chaco system are often interpreted.

Chaco had been an important place for a very long time when it started to become a major regional center around AD 1040.  It’s looking increasingly plausible, though by no means certain, that it had been continuously occupied for 500 years at that point, and even if there was a brief gap between the Basketmaker III villages and the first Pueblo I great houses it is very unlikely that is was long enough for people to have forgotten about Chaco and what had happened there.  Even if many of the people who built and/or occupied the early great houses in the 800s hadn’t been born at Chaco, they probably knew it was there long before they made it their home.
Wills, W., & Windes, T. (1989). Evidence for Population Aggregation and Dispersal during the Basketmaker III Period in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico American Antiquity, 54 (2) DOI: 10.2307/281711

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Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

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

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

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

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

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

Room 320, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

Intact Roof Beams in Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

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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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Salmon Ruins Sign

One of the largest and most important of the “outliers” associated with the system centered on Chaco Canyon in the late eleventh century AD is Salmon Ruin on the San Juan River near Bloomfield, New Mexico.  Salmon is about 45 miles due north of Chaco, and its location in a fertile river valley makes it a much less surprising (though still impressive) site than Chaco, with its stark, desolate setting.  Salmon was partly excavated in the 1970s by Cynthia Irwin-Williams of Eastern New Mexico University, and the Center for Desert Archaeology has recently been working on an extended project to collect, reevaluate, and publish data from those excavations as well as new analyses taking into account more recent discoveries and interpretations relating to the Chaco system in general.  One result of this was the publication of a comprehensive three-volume site report in 2006, and another was the publication of a shorter, more synthetic volume in 2008.  I read the report a while ago and am currently about halfway through the newer book.  It’s definitely more accessible than the report, but it doesn’t really stand alone.  A lot of basic information about the site and the excavations seems to be assumed, presumably because it’s discussed in the site report.  The report doesn’t stand alone either, and in general there’s a surprising lack of overlap between the two publications.  You might think that the synthetic volume would be a more accessible book aimed at a general audience, since it’s published by a university press rather than by CDA and the Salmon Ruins Museum, but while the new book goes well beyond Salmon itself in discussing the archaeology of the “Middle San Juan” or “Totah” region in general it really seems to be aimed at specialists with substantial background who have either already read the site report or are willing and able to find and read it if they want to follow up on the numerous references to chapters in it.  Both books are very expensive, which is another factor standing in the way of a general audience for them.

This is all rather unfortunate, because there’s a lot of important and fascinating information in these two publications.  In the context of my recent discussion of kivas at Chaco and the debate over their function, one of the chapters in the synthetic volume is particularly relevant.  Here Paul Reed, the head of the CDA project at Salmon, makes a strong case for a largely residential function for Salmon during the Chacoan period.  This is interesting in itself due to the longstanding debate over the function of great houses like Salmon in general, with some arguing that they served as primarily non-residential ceremonial structures while others see them more as elite residences.  Reed doesn’t discount the importance of ritual functions at Salmon, nor does he try to argue that all great houses were primarily residential, but he shows from the evidence collected by the excavations in the 1970s that there is abundant evidence for residential use of many of the rooms at Salmon during its brief Chacoan occupation as well as during its longer subsequent occupation, which he sees as being by local people after the Chacoan residents left and went to Aztec.

Excavated Rooms at Salmon Ruin

One of the most important pieces of evidence Reed points to to support a residential function at Salmon is the very obvious presence of room suites throughout the site.  Salmon has a very formal, “planned” layout typical of later great houses, which makes sense since it seems to have been founded around 1090, toward the end of the Chacoan era (which lasted from about 1030 to 1130).  Indeed, it looks virtually identical in layout to Hungo Pavi, an unexcavated great house in Chaco Canyon about which little is known.  Salmon, like Hungo Pavi, is an “E-shaped” great house, with a central room block on the north side and wings extending to the south at the east and west ends.  The whole thing seems to have been constructed as a single unit within a few years around 1090, which makes it by far the largest single building episode known in the Chaco system and has interesting implications for understanding why it might have been built.  There has long been a dispute over whether the outliers in the Chaco “system” represent direct colonization by people from Chaco, local emulation of Chacoan forms by emerging elites, or something else.  Reed supports a colonization model, but he sees the Chacoans who came up to Salmon and built the great house as having also brought local residents in to live there with them, and perhaps to work on building the thing too.  The local area seems to have lacked a substantial pre-Chacoan population, so it’s not entirely clear where these locals would have actually come from, but it does make sense that colonists from Chaco would have selected a relatively uninhabited location for their new settlement.

Anyway, back to the room suites.  Most of the site seems to have originally been laid out as a series of suites, each of which involved a large square room facing the plaza connected to three smaller rooms behind it.  The large square rooms seem to have been single-story, but the smaller rooms mostly had two or three stories.  The large square rooms especially tended to have many residential features such as hearths, and the smaller rooms often had features such as milling bins that also suggest domestic use.  There were also a few rooms that had very large milling bins, larger than would have been necessary for individual households, which suggests that site residents might have been grinding corn on a large scale.  This, combined with Salmon’s location in a fertile valley, in turn suggests that the site may have been founded partly or even primarily as an agricultural colony that would have exported corn and/or cornmeal to Chaco and perhaps other areas with poorer agricultural potential.  There is evidence from studies of corn at Chaco that much of it was imported from the Totah, which meshes nicely with this idea.

Backfilled Rooms at Salmon Ruin

The key thing here, though, is that it’s the large square rooms that seem to have been the primary living rooms.  This is similar to the case at some early room suites at Chacoan great houses, such those in the western wing of Pueblo Bonito.  Later great houses at Chaco seem to have largely either lost the room suite pattern or modified it beyond recognition, but at Salmon it stands out clear as day.

There’s something missing here, though.  Salmon (in the Chacoan period) was composed almost entirely of room suites made up of large square and small rectangular rooms.  But what about kivas?  These round rooms are often considered one of the hallmarks of pueblo architecture, and while their function is disputed their presence is often thought of as near-universal.  Salmon complicates this picture considerably.

Great Kiva, Salmon Ruins

There were two round rooms in the Chacoan-period construction at Salmon (note these caveats; they’re important).  One was the great kiva in the plaza, a standard Chacoan form that presumably had ritual functions, and another was and elevated, blocked-in kiva at the center of the main roomblock that Salmon specialists refer to as the “Tower Kiva,” although it actually isn’t a tower kiva in the sense in which Chaco specialists use the term.  Both of these seem to have had important community-wide functions and they were probably not residential (though I’m less sure of this in the case of the Tower Kiva than in the case of the great kiva).  What Chacoan-period Salmon lacked, however, were the smaller kivas that are ubiquitous at Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and other great houses at Chaco.  These are the kivas that Steve Lekson thinks were residential rather than ceremonial, although others disagree.  In any case, they don’t seem to have been part of the original plan for Salmon.

So what gives?  Well, if we buy Lekson’s theory, which I basically do, what seems to be going on here is that the residential functions filled by kivas elsewhere were filled by the large square rooms at Salmon.  As I noted in the previous post, the fact that some great houses have room suites with big square rooms while others have different types of suites with associated kivas suggests that there were two different residential patterns in the Chacoan system that might correspond to some important dimension of social complexity.  Salmon seems to support this idea, in that it apparently was designed (and occupied?) by one of these groups rather than the other, whereas at Pueblo Bonito, at least, both seem to have been present.

Kiva 121A, Salmon Ruin

If you’ve been to Salmon, this may seem a bit confusing, because one of the most obvious things you can see there is that there are plenty of kivas!  They’re built into the square roomblocks, just like at Chaco!  And, indeed, they are.  Excavation showed, however, that these kivas are not original to the building.  Instead, they were built into the large Chacoan rooms in the post-Chacoan period.  The Chacoan period at Salmon seems to have ended around 1125 or 1130, coincident with the end of major construction at Chaco and extensive evidence of major changes in the Chaco system that may or may not have constituted the “collapse” of that system.  The original idea the excavators had was that this involved the total abandonment of Salmon for a few decades, after which it was reoccupied by a new group with ties to the Mesa Verde region to the north which remained there until the site was abandoned completely in the 1280s or 1290s along with the whole region.  It later became clear that there was at least a small “Intermediate” occupation between the “Primary” (Chacoan) and “Secondary” (Mesa Verdean) occupations, and the CDA project has redefined these occupations to emphasize continuity between the last two, seeing them as “early” and “late” periods of a continuous local “San Juan” occupation as opposed to a migration from the north.

In any case, it was the “Secondary,” “Mesa Verdean,” or “San Juan” occupants, not the Chacoans, who built kivas into the Chacoan rooms.  Note that architecturally, these are not Chacoan kivas, which have a very standardized set of features, but instead more closely resemble Mesa Verde kivas and may reflect local architectural traditions such as the use of river cobbles rather than sandstone blocks in some contexts.  They were mostly built into the large square living rooms, although some were in the smaller rooms, which were also often subdivided with adobe walls to create spaces more typical of small sites in the area than the large rooms typical of Chacoan great houses.

Kiva at Salmon Ruin Showing Use of Cobble Masonry

The fact that these kivas were mostly built into the Chacoan living rooms is another point in favor of Lekson’s arguments that kivas were residential, especially since there’s some evidence from the Salmon excavation data that there was more continuity between the “Chacoan” and “San Juan” occupations than the excavators thought.  One interpretation for the construction of the kivas is that whoever was living at Salmon in the 1200s knew how the room suites had been used in the Chacoan era and wanted to continue to use them the same way but in a way that was consistent with local traditions and practices.  These people may or may not have been descended from the original inhabitants of the site.

The upshot of this is that we have strong evidence here that there was a practice in at least one Chacoan great house in the late 1000s and early 1100s of residential use of room suites focused on large square rooms facing the plaza.  It’s hard to tell if this pattern holds for any of the sites at Chaco itself (Hungo Pavi?), since the most extensively excavated ones were excavated long before the techniques that allowed the Salmon excavators to carefully differentiate between occupations were developed.  There is some evidence from the less extensive excavations at Pueblo Alto, however, which were done by the Chaco Project around the same time Salmon was being dug, that there was a similar pattern there of kivas being added to an original plan lacking them.  The kivas in the southeast corner of the Chetro Ketl plaza also seem to be very late, and the other parts of that site have relatively few kivas, most of them in elevated contexts similar to the “Tower Kiva” at Salmon.  Something similar may be true for the blocked-in kivas in the central roomblock at Pueblo del Arroyo.

Chacoan Masonry at Salmon Ruin

That leaves Pueblo Bonito.  The enormous complexity and early excavation of this site make teasing apart the different stages of construction enormously difficult, but one possibility is that at least some of the kivas there have a similar history to the ones at Salmon.  This may be particularly the case in the southwest corner, which has several kivas that may have been added into older square rooms and is also the area with the well-defined early room suites with large square rooms taking the place of kivas.  It’s also likely that many of the plaza kivas were very late additions like the ones at Chetro Ketl.  The blocked-in kivas in the southeast corner are trickier to interpret, and I’m not sure at this point if they represent something like the Salmon pattern or a different phenomenon entirely.

The excavations at Salmon resulted in a vast amount of information that is only now beginning to be incorporated into the study of the Chacoan system overall.  This evidence for residential use is just one example, but an important one, of how this data can lead to important insights not just about Salmon itself but about other parts of the Chaco world as well.

Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

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