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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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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
1054.

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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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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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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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.
ResearchBlogging.org
Windes, T., & Ford, D. (1996). The Chaco Wood Project: The Chronometric Reappraisal of Pueblo Bonito American Antiquity, 61 (2) DOI: 10.2307/282427

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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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Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Although the idea that the small round rooms that area so common at Chacoan sites are ceremonial “kivas” has been increasingly challenged recently, it is still widely accepted that the large, formal, round structures known as “great kivas” were in fact community-wide ceremonial or integrative facilities.  Even Steve Lekson agrees, and he continues to use the term “kiva” in referring to these structures even as he calls the small “kivas” “round rooms” instead.  (He also uses the term “kiva” in referring to “tower kivas,” yet another form of round structure with proposed ceremonial associations.)  Ruth Van Dyke‘s chapter in The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico is a good summary of current knowledge about Chacoan great kivas.  The great kiva is an architectural form that predates Chaco, and it may or may not have outlasted it.  The Chacoan form is distinctive, however, and found even in areas without a long history of pre-Chacoan great kivas.  It is highly standardized in both size and features, and is one of the surest indications of Chacoan influence wherever it is found.

Floor Features of Kiva Q, Pueblo Bonito

The following features are always found at Chacoan great kivas, although their specific realization can vary a bit:

  1. Four post holes, arranged in a square, to support the beams or columns that hold up the roof.  The holes may be either round or square.  Generally the columns themselves would be huge wooden beams, stubs of which have sometimes been found in the post holes during excavation.  Sometimes, such as in the great kiva at Aztec Ruins, square masonry columns, possibly with small poles in them, would be used instead.  It’s apparently not totally clear if the use of square rather than round post holes necessarily indicates the use of pillars rather than beams, since the beams would typically be held in place by shale and this could be done in either a square or a circular space.  When beams were used, they were supported at the bottom by several stacked stone disks, presumably to distribute the weight.  Offerings of turquoise and other valuables were often found in the beam holes, apparently placed during construction.
  2. Around the circumference of the kiva is a bench, sometimes doubled.  These benches were often refaced with new masonry, sometimes in connection with more general renovation of the kiva features and sometimes not.
  3. There is typically a series of wall niches around the circumference of the chamber, above the bench.  These vary in dimensions and number, but there are usually about 30 of them, especially in later great kivas.  Sometimes there is more than one series of niches at different levels, as at Casa Rinconada.  The purpose of the niches is unclear; some of them had offerings sealed into them, but these may have been construction offerings rather than indicating anything about post-construction use.
  4. Entrance is from a staircase leading down from an antechamber.  There would probably have been a smokehole in the roof as well, but it is unclear whether there would have been a ladder providing entrance through the roof as was the case in smaller round rooms.  An intact great kiva roof has never been found, which is unsurprising since the roofs would have been enormously heavy and very likely to cave in once the structure was no longer maintained.  The antechamber is on the north side in most cases.  Kiva Q at Pueblo Bonito has an apparent staircase and antechamber on the south side instead, but Van Dyke suggests that this may have been an error of reconstruction.  She doesn’t go into any more detail about this, however, and it’s unclear what the implications are if the room on the south side of Kiva Q is not an antechamber.  Casa Rinconada has antechambers with staircases on both the north and south sides.
  5. Along the central north-south axis, slightly offset to the south from the center point, is a firebox.  This is usually a masonry cube with a circular or oval firepit in it.
  6. Just south of the firepit there is a deflector.  This is a common feature in small kivas, which usually have a ventilation shaft on the south side, but since great kivas don’t have ventilation shafts and usually have their entrances on the north side it is unclear how useful this deflector would have been in practice.  Assuming there was a smokehole, a great kiva was big enough that it’s unlikely ventilation would have been a major concern.
  7. Attached to the two southern postholes on the north side, and sometimes running all the way to the northern postholes, there are two rectangular masonry “vaults.”  They are usually but not always subterranean.  The function of these is unclear.  Some have claimed that they are “foot-drums,” which would have had boards on top of them and people dancing on them, but not everyone accepts this interpretation and I don’t find it very convincing.  Small kivas sometimes have a single subfloor vault on one side of the firepit, but it is unclear if there is any connection between that type of feature and the much more formal vaults of great kivas.

These are the basic features that are repeated again and again at Chacoan great kivas.  Relatively few have been excavated, but all of those that have show these same features with minor variations.  Van Dyke provides a comprehensive list of the known great kivas at Chaco.  There are 21 of them, of which 11 have been excavated.  Ten of these are associated with the great houses Pueblo Bonito (4 great kivas), Chetro Ketl (3), and Kin Nahasbas (3).  (Note that Van Dyke is counting remodeled versions of earlier great kivas separately here.)  The only “isolated” great kiva to be excavated is Casa Rinconada.  It is also the largest excavated great kiva in the canyon at 19.5 meters in diameter, although it is not the largest excavated great kiva (the one at Village of the Great Kivas, a Chacoan outlier on the Zuni Reservation, is 23.7 meters in diameter), nor is it the largest great kiva in the canyon (the unexcavated northwest great kiva at Peñasco Blanco is 23 meters in diameter).

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

Van Dyke explicitly cautions her readers to be careful about the possibility of overemphasizing the importance of Rinconada just because it is so well known, and this is an important warning.  It does appear that Rinconada is unusual among all known great kivas in several ways, including the two antechambers and the “secret tunnel” leading from a back room of the north antechamber to a subsurface round enclosure around the northwest posthole.  It is also positioned in a very significant location, across from Pueblo Bonito, and there may be astronomical alignments encoded into it.  However, it is important to note that like the other great kivas at Chaco that are visible today, Rinconada has been substantially reconstructed.  In general Chaco has had a much lighter touch with reconstruction than many other parks, but great kivas, which are typically found in a substantially reduced state with large v-shaped breaches in the upper walls, are an exception.  Kivas A and Q at Pueblo Bonito as well as Casa Rinconada have all been built up to what their excavators considered a reasonable approximation of their original condition.  The great kiva at Aztec, of course, has been completely reconstructed to give an impression of what it might have looked like, and while there was apparently once talk of doing something similar at Casa Rinconada nothing ultimately came of it.

In addition to the excavated great kivas, there are ten unexcavated ones at Chaco.  It is hard to tell much about these, since they are basically just big recessed circles in the ground, but they are generally at least in the same size range as the excavated examples and can probably be assumed to be similar.  There may well be additional unknown ones, either associated with great houses or isolated.  It is particularly likely that early great kivas would not be apparent on the ground, since they are generally smaller than later ones and the excavated examples (or possible examples) all come from within early great houses where they are often overlain by later construction.

Northwest Great Kiva at Peñasco Blanco

The known unexcavated great kivas associated with great houses include two at Una Vida, one at Hungo Pavi, and four at Peñasco Blanco.  There are also three “isolated” great kivas, all of them at the east end of the canyon: one in Fajada gap, one on the south side of the canyon across from Wijiji, and one in a side canyon at the foot of Chacra Mesa below the Basketmaker III village known as Shabik’eshchee.  As noted above, the northwest one at Peñasco Blanco is huge, probably the largest at Chaco.  The one in Fajada gap appears to be about 20 meters in diameter, which puts it in the same size range as Casa Rinconada, although the difficulty of measuring diameter precisely with unexcavated great kivas makes it impossible to say if it is actually bigger than Rinconada or not.  One interesting thing about these isolated great kivas is that they are all on the south side of the canyon, as is Casa Rinconada.  This contrasts with the tendency of great houses to be on the north side and provides some support for the idea that the great kiva is conceptually separate from the great house and has its own history as a form.  It’s hard to say how to interpret this in the context of the postulated attempt by great-house elites to incorporate great kivas into their great houses as a way to legitimize their authority, which Van Dyke proposes as an explanation for why most great kiva construction at great houses didn’t take place until the mid-1000s.

And, indeed, early great house construction does seem to be notably bereft of great kivas.  Or does it?  Tenth-century “great kivas” are in fact postulated at Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Kin Nahasbas, and Van Dyke includes them on her list, but it is unclear whether they really “count” as great kivas.  They are smaller than the later versions, which may just be because they are older.  They are also poorly documented, however; the ones at Pueblo Bonito and Kin Nahasbas have been excavated, but records about them are scarce and scanty.  The one at Pueblo Bonito is about 10 meters in diameter, which Van Dyke considers “within the range known for domestic pitstructures,” and furthermore it lacks postholes for roof support beams but does appear to have pilasters on its bench, which implies a roofing system like that of small kivas.  Since the roofing system is one of the most consistent features of classic Chacoan great kivas, this is a major strike against great kiva status for this one.  However, it’s possible that the specialized roofing system for later great kivas was an innovation to handle the large size of the ones built from the mid-1000s on, and that earlier structures with “regular” kiva roofs may have had “great kiva” functions in the 900s.  (This reminds me that I should do a post on small-kiva roofing, which is an interesting and surprisingly contentious issue.)

Kin Nahasbas from Una Vida

Evidence that the specialized roofing system for great kivas was already in place in the 900s comes from the early “great kiva” at Kin Nahasbas, which was more thoroughly excavated than the one at Pueblo Bonito.  It underlies the two later great kivas, which had classic great kiva features.  Its own features were largely obscured by the later construction, but it does appear to have postholes.  It couldn’t be dated directly, but the excavators concluded that it was probably associated with the tenth-century greathouse behind it.  This implies that there was at least one great kiva this early, but that the one at Pueblo Bonito was not one.  Interestingly, the diameter of this great kiva was only 7 meters, making it smaller than the Pueblo Bonito example and suggesting that size isn’t everything when it comes to great kivas.

The early great kiva at Una Vida is very poorly known and may not exist at all.  There is certainly another, later great kiva at the site.  Van Dyke refers to William Gillespie’s account of Una Vida’s architecture in Steve Lekson’s Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico as the source for the idea that there is a great kiva associated with the early-tenth-century construction there, but Gillespie is very vague about the basis for his speculation that such a great kiva existed, and says only that “surface evidence is inconclusive.”  Van Dyke lists the diameter of this postulated great kiva as 17 meters, which is remarkably large for such an early structure and only slightly smaller than the later great kiva, which is much more obvious and has a diameter of about 18 meters.  Una Vida is a very confusing and poorly understood site, so the lack of clarity regarding its great kiva(s) is not really surprising.

The only other early great house, in addition to these three, at Chaco is Peñasco Blanco.  It apparently has four great kivas, none of which has been dated.  It’s quite possible that one or both of the two great kivas in the plaza dates to the 900s, but neither has been excavated.  It is also possible that there are additional early great kivas either underlying the later ones or elsewhere in the site.  The number of apparent great kivas is one of the many reasons I think this site is likely much more important to Chaco than is usually appreciated.  It is both one of the earliest sites at Chaco and one of the largest, and it may have served as an important connection to the communities downstream on the Chaco River, where many of the early great houses were, as well as with the Chuska Mountains beyond.  Van Dyke has little to say about it in this chapter, which is understandable since the great kivas are unexcavated (as is the rest of the site).

Snow at Kiva A, Pueblo Bonito

The upshot of all this is that there probably was at least one great kiva built at Chaco in the 900s, and there may have been more, but it does seem to be true that great kiva construction increased dramatically after around 1030.  This is the same time that a lot of other changes were happening in the canyon, including massive construction projects of various sorts at several great houses, and it is probably the time when Chaco first became the regional center for the San Juan Basin (though it had likely been an important center for a long time).   Van Dyke argues that part of this was the appropriation of the great kiva form, which in previous times had been particularly common in communities to the south, by emergent local elites attempting to legitimate their increasingly hierarchical authority and control over periodic regional gatherings in the canyon that were beginning to draw pilgrims from throughout the Basin (and perhaps beyond).  In another article she argues that this process was part of a “tipping point” or “qualitative social transformation” that changed a predominantly egalitarian society into a more hierarchical one.  In this context, the use of great kivas may have been an attempt to establish links with the past by incorporating an old, traditional architectural form into the new and potentially threatening form represented by the great house.  I’m not sure I buy this entire story, but I think at least parts of it are likely true and it’s certainly thought-provoking.

Great Kiva at Lowry Pueblo, Colorado

Wherever they came from and whenever they became part of the Chacoan architectural repertoire, by the height of the Chacoan era great kivas were among the most standardized parts of the highly standardized Chacoan “system,” whatever it was.  There are plenty of puzzles remaining about them, as is true with most everything associated with Chaco, but regardless of whether we are ever able to answer all the questions they pose they are still among the most impressive achievements of this very impressive society.
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Van Dyke, R. (2008). Temporal Scale and Qualitative Social Transformation at Chaco Canyon Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000073

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Peñasco Blanco

Near the very end of his report on the excavations at Pueblo Bonito by the Hyde Expedition in the 1890s, George Pepper wrote the following:

The finding of cracked and calcined bones in some of the rooms brings up the question of the eating of human flesh by the people of this pueblo.  There was no evidence of human bodies having been buried in rooms above the first floor and only portions of skeletons were in evidence in Rooms 61 and 80 which contained broken and charred bones.  During the period of our work in Pueblo Bonito some of our Navajo workmen cleaned out a number of rooms in Penasco Blanco and in one of these a great many human bones were found.  Some of these including portions of the skull, were charred, and the majority of the long bones had been cracked open and presented the same appearance as do the animal bones that have been treated in a similar way for the extraction of the marrow.  It would therefore seem that these Pueblo Indians, either through stress of hunger or for religious reasons, had occasionally resorted to the eating of human flesh.

The report was published in 1920, and ever since then the question of cannibalism has hung over Chaco Canyon like a giant question mark.  In the 1920s Frank Roberts found some additional bones at another site at Chaco that were in a similar condition, but these and the ones mentioned by Pepper constitute the entire sample of bones from Chaco itself that have been proposed as evidence for cannibalism.  On its own, this is pretty weak stuff, especially since it comes only from sites that were excavated early in the history of archaeological research at Chaco and information on the context of these bones is very limited.  Most archaeologists have therefore generally been content to conclude that whatever these bones represent, they don’t have much relevance to explaining Chaco as a whole.

Over the decades since Pepper wrote his report, however, a growing number of other sites throughout the northern Southwest have revealed human bones that are broken, burned, and otherwise suspiciously unlike typical burials.  As archaeological techniques have improved, the amount of information about the context of these finds has increased, and as physical anthropologists have gained experienced and added new techniques more information can be gained from both these new finds and the early ones now in museums.  One physical anthropologist in particular, Christy Turner of Arizona State, has put an enormous amount of effort into analyzing evidence for cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest.  His overall interpretation of the evidence has led him most recently to propose, particularly in the 1999 book Man Corn, coauthored with his wife, that cannibalism was a core part of the Chaco system, which he sees as a militaristic state led by some sort of sociopathic Toltec leader who came up from Mexico and attempted to institute a Mesoamerican state based on tribute and human sacrifice, or something (I haven’t read the book).

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Anasazi Heritage Center

Obviously this theory depends heavily on attempts to equate the evidence for cannibalism across the Southwest with the rise of Chaco, and here it immediately runs into problems.  While there is the evidence from Chaco reported by Pepper and Roberts, most of the evidence for cannibalism in the Southwest comes from contexts that are rather distant from Chaco both spatially and temporally.  Some are earlier, particularly in the AD 800s and 900s, when the Chaco system may have been gearing up but was certainly not yet in the culturally dominant role it attained by the late 1000s.  More are later, mostly in the AD 1100s, after Chaco’s influence declined.  Spatially, most of the well-documented examples from recent examples are from southern Colorado, which was certainly under Chacoan influence at one point but probably was not at the times the events apparently occurred.  Indeed, most of these well-documented examples are from a strikingly specific time and place: around AD 1150 in the area around Sleeping Ute Mountain, west of the modern town of Cortez, Colorado.  There are other examples known from New Mexico and Arizona, but like the Chaco examples they mostly come from poorly documented early excavations and can’t be placed very well temporally.

According to one count, there are 32 sites in the Southwest that have yielded bones that may indicate cannibalism.  Of these, 18 are in the greater Mesa Verde region in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah and can be dated with some certainty.  Fully half of these sites, 9 out of 18, date to between AD 1125 and 1175.  This striking spatial and temporal patterning has led some to suggest that these may reflect a single event of some sort that occurred in the context of the multidecadal drought of that period and the social disruption caused by the decline of the Chaco system at the same time.  This idea was proposed in a talk I attended at the 2009 Pecos ConferenceSeveral names were on the talk, including Turner’s (although he didn’t seem to actually be there), but much of the actual talking was done by David Breternitz, an archaeologist with long experience with the region.  In addition to proposing that these assemblages indicating cannibalism or at least “folks treated inconsiderately” represented a single event that may have taken place over the course of mere weeks, days, or even hours, Breternitz noted the problematic connotations of using the word “cannibalism,” which has made the study of these sites a lightning rod for controversy as well as an irresistible temptation for sensationalistic treatments in the popular press.  He referred to it as the “C word” and analogized it to the “N word,” which is not appropriate to use in talking to the NAACP (or, I would add, most other audiences).

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Both the puzzling and the controversial aspects of the cannibalism issue are present in the case of one of the best-documented of these assemblages in the Cortez area.  This is that found at site 5MT10010 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Ute Mountain, which was excavated as part of a salvage operation in connection with an irrigation project of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, on whose reservation the site is located.  This site, which was described in an article in American Antiquity in 2000, was located in an area that was slated to be completely covered by a new irrigated field and was therefore completely excavated.  It consisted of three pitstructures, like kivas but of clearly residential function, with associated surface masonry rooms, which do not seem to have been used residentially, outdoor activity areas, and trash middens.  Two of these pitstructures contained assemblages of human bones that were heavily damaged and broken into hundreds of small pieces, some of which showed burning, cut marks, and other evidence of cannibalism similar to that found at other sites.  These apparently represented the remains of seven individuals: two adult males, one adult female, one adult of uncertain sex but probably male, and three youths of uncertain gender aged approximately 14, 11, and 7.  Their bones were strewn all over the two pitstructures and showed no grave goods or evidence of formal burial, in striking contrast to five individuals who had been formally buried in the trash mounds (which is a typical burial location for this area and period).

From the way the bones were broken and burned the authors concluded that all of the individuals in the pitstructures had been killed in a sudden attack at the same time, after which they were cooked and eaten and the site was totally abandoned and not reoccupied.  In addition to the cut marks and burning on the bones themselves, two stone tools found in one of the pitstructures tested positive for human blood, implying that they had been used to chop up the bodies.  Evidence for the sudden nature of the attack and the resulting abandonment consisted largely of the large number of artifacts left in place in all three pitstructures; normally when a site would be abandoned the people would take most of the usable artifacts with them, but in this case they were left in place.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the third pitstructure, which didn’t contain any bones except two which were heavily weathered and appeared to have been deposited naturally from the surface at some point after abandonment, did contain something even more interesting: a coprolite, unburned, in the hearth.  Analysis revealed that the coprolite was human, apparently resulted from a meal consisting entirely of meat, and tested positive for the presence of a human muscle protein.  This is about as close to smoking gun as it is possible to get in trying to establish if cannibalism took place in a given instance.  Cut marks on bones can be and have been explained in various other ways, which are not generally very convincing but hard to disprove.  This coprolite, however, seems to establish clearly that at least in this one instance, cannibalism did take place.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Hovenweep National Monument

The authors, having established to their satisfaction that this assemblage does in fact represent an episode of cannibalism, went on to situate it in the context of both the local community and the larger region.  The regional analysis basically pointed out the rash of likely cannibalism episodes around AD 1150, which may have been associated with the drought of that period, although it also noted the earlier episodes and the likelihood that this behavior constituted a longstanding pattern that for some reason became briefly intense and then subsided.  They note that there is no evidence for cannibalism in the Mesa Verde area after AD 1200 (though this may not actually be true; more on that later) and very little evidence anywhere else in the Southwest after that date either.  Whatever this event represents, it was clearly pretty temporary.

The community analysis was particularly interesting.  This community on Cowboy Wash, which was established around AD 1125 and consisted of 10 sites, four of which have been excavated.  Strikingly, all four of the excavated sites showed the same sort of evidence of cannibalism, strongly implying that they were all attacked and destroyed at the same time around AD 1150.  This is in contrast to the earlier community at Cowboy Wash, which existed from about AD 1075 to sometime in the 1120s and was abandoned before the new one was established, probably by new people.  Another striking characteristic of the newer Cowboy Wash community was the prevalence of ceramics made in the Chuska Mountain area to the south along the Arizona-New Mexico border.  Chuska pottery was common at Chaco during its prime and has been found in various other areas as well, but it is extremely rare in the Mesa Verde region and the prevalence of it at Cowboy Wash strongly suggests that the inhabitants were either immigrants from the Chuskas themselves (pretty plausible in the light of the disruptions likely associated with the fall of the Chaco system, with which the Chuska communities were strongly associated) or maintained strong trading ties to Chuska communities rather than other local communities.  Either way, the inhabitants of this community would likely have been easily identified as “outsiders” in the area, which may explain why they were targeted by others during this time of scarce resources, extended drought, and increased violence.  The Cowboy Wash community was not in a defensive location and does not appear to have had any defensive features such as walls.  Its fate may explain why such locations and features became so common not long afterward.

Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

Of course, with something like this there will always be objections, and a critique of the claim of cannibalism by two archaeologists who have been closely identified with the interests of the modern Pueblos, Kurt Dongoske and T. J. Ferguson, along with physical anthropologist Debra Martin, accompanied this article when it was first published.  The three of them basically criticized everything they could about the presentation of data and argumentation in the article on the Cowboy Wash site.  Some of the criticisms were reasonable, including a caution about being too quick to talk about cannibalism and to keep in mind the likely effect of this in the popular press and on modern Native Americans.  Others basically amounted to nitpicking about the presentation of data, often appearing to demand a level of information more appropriate for a full site report than a journal article.  In a response, the authors gave more information on the analysis and tried to counter accusations that the blood residue and coprolite analyses in particular may have been contaminated or otherwise problematic.  They also conceded some of the points raised in the critique, especially about the importance of thinking about the effect of this kind of research and the way it is presented in public discourse.  This response seemed pretty convincing to me.  I’ve heard that the coprolite evidence in particular has been challenged, but I’m not sure if any more substantial objections than the easily defused ones in the initial critique have been raised.

Another interesting thing about the critique and response, to me, is the way the critique basically accuses the authors of the initial article of being insufficiently “scientific” in not rigorously testing alternative hypotheses.  This is interesting largely because it clearly falls on the “anthropology is and should be a science” side of the “is anthropology a science?” debate, even though these particular anthropologists are coming from a perspective that is usually associated with the other side in their close association with the modern Pueblos and appreciation of their viewpoints.  In this context they seem to be mostly raising the science issue as a club with which to (rather ineffectively) attack the initial article, but the use of this approach is still noteworthy.  The response basically runs with this assumption and argues that, no, the analysis really was very scientific and they didn’t include all the data and hypotheses because of the space constraints of the journal article, but it’s all in the full report.  Both seem to think of “science” mostly as a methodology, particularly associated with hypothesis testing, rather than a body of knowledge, which is also interesting.

Another thing the critique mentions is the desirability of more comprehensive approaches to the issues of violence, migration, warfare, and so on.  The critique authors say this in the context of criticizing the initial report for focusing too narrowly on cannibalism specifically, which sits oddly with their criticisms of it for not being specific enough in describing the physical evidence, but this is one of their better points.  They specifically mention the possible role of ethnicity in structuring some of these dynamics, and cite the paper on ethnicity at Wupatki by Glenn Davis Stone and Christian Downum that I recently discussed.  I know of at least one recent paper that has done just that; I’ll have more on it later.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Four Corners

So what does all of this imply for Chaco? Not much, really.  The authors of the initial Cowboy Wash paper note that to the extent that the Cortez-area spate of cannibalism episodes around AD 1150 has anything to do with Chaco, it is most likely in representing one aspect of the social chaos that may have followed the decline of the Chaco system after AD 1130 or so.  They also note that Cowboy Wash is about as far from a Chacoan outlier as it was possible to get in the region during this period.  The closest proposed outlier is Yucca House, on the other side of Sleeping Ute Mountain toward Cortez, the outlier status of which is rather questionable since it is unexcavated and also has a large later occupation that makes it difficult to identify any Chacoan parts.  And speaking of the location of Cowboy Wash, it is important to note that the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is remarkably desolate even by Southwestern standards and would have been very marginal for agriculture.  It doesn’t get enough rain for dry farming, so any farming the people at 5MT10100 would have done would have to have been floodwater farming using the wash itself, which would be very vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall and other climatic conditions.  This probably explains why the area was colonized and abandoned several times during prehistory.  The time of the attack appears to have particularly bad for the inhabitants, as there was minimal evidence of domestic plants and most of the plant remains found at the site were of wild plants that would have been gathered in the spring to compensate for a poor harvest in the fall.

And what about the bones mentioned by Pepper at Chaco itself?  Hard to say.  Turner has reexamined some of them and concluded that they do in fact represent evidence of cannibalism, but then again he would conclude that.  The fact that we don’t really have any more detailed information about their contexts within the site than the minimal information given by Pepper makes it very difficult to place them within the context of Chacoan prehistory as we know it today.  Judging from the better information we now have from Colorado, I think one possibility is that the Chaco bones represent something similar that happened around the same time.  The canyon was not totally abandoned after it declined in regional importance around 1130, and it might have participated in some way in the cannibalistic warfare that apparently took place after that, though whether as victim or perpetrator is hard to say.  Whether or not this is the actual explanation, it is important to remember that the fact at a big, complex site like Pueblo Bonito not everything found somewhere in the is necessarily closely connected to the original purposes for which the site was built.  Things change, after all.  Furthermore, Pueblo Bonito has hundreds of rooms, almost all of which have been thoroughly excavated, and possible evidence of cannibalism has been found in two.  That’s a pretty thin reed on which to hang a theory postulating that Chaco was all about cannibalism.  Some cannibalism may well have taken place at Chaco, but there is really no reason to think that it was a major part, or indeed any part, of the reason Chaco was built or became so influential.  At least, that’s the way I see it.  Merry Christmas.
ResearchBlogging.org
Billman, B., Lambert, P., & Leonard, B. (2000). Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region during the Twelfth Century A.D. American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694812

Dongoske, K., Martin, D., & Ferguson, T. (2000). Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694813

Lambert, P., Leonard, B., Billman, B., Marlar, R., Newman, M., & Reinhard, K. (2000). Response to Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash American Antiquity, 65 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2694066

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