Archive for the ‘Elsewhere’ Category


Park Map Sign, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Today is the summer solstice, on which I traditionally post about archaeoastronomy, which is a major topic of interest in studying Chaco Canyon. Lately, however, I’ve been very busy and have not been keeping up on recent developments in Chaco studies (not helped by the fact that I don’t currently have access to the academic databases where recent research can be found), so this time I thought I would talk about the archaeoastronomy of a fascinating and unjustly obscure site in a different part of North America, the Pinson Mounds site in western Tennessee.

I visited Pinson a few years back more or less on a whim; I was driving across the country after finishing grad school, taking a meandering route and hitting a variety of archaeological and historical sites as I went. Pinson was not originally on my list of sites to visit, but for some reason that I no longer remember I decided to go there as I made my way through the Mid-South. It was a good decision.


Sauls Mound, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

There are a lot of prehistoric mound sites in the Southeast, and at first glance Pinson doesn’t seem particularly distinctive among them except that one of its mounds, known as Sauls Mound or Mound 9, is unusually large. And indeed, although the site was first documented in 1823 it was not until the 1970s when it became a Tennessee state park that extensive archaeological work was done there and its true nature became apparent. There are various types of mounds at Pinson, but the most prominent, including Sauls, are of the type known as “platform mounds” which are square or rectangular, often with buildings of presumed ritual function at the top, and are generally associated with the Mississippian period of circa AD 900 to 1600. Earlier Woodland period mound sites are more known for burial mounds, which are typically rounded or conical without buildings on top, with the Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio being the most prominent examples.

The platform mounds at Pinson, along with a single house of Mississippian “wall-trench” form excavated back in the 1960s, led most archaeologists to assume that this was a relatively minor Mississippian site until the excavations of the 1970s and the resulting radiocarbon dates showed that it actually dated to the Middle Woodland period in the early centuries AD, contemporaneous with Hopewell. And some of these dates were directly associated with the platform mounds, demonstrating clearly that they too dated to this early period! This led to a major reëvaluation of the Middle Woodland period in the Midsouth, which is in some ways still ongoing. It also led to the reëvaluation of some other platform-mound sites in the same general area which also ended up dating to the Middle Woodland. It remains unclear what the exact nature was of the relationship between these precocious southern platform-mound sites and the contemporaneous Hopewell sites to the north, and the same is true of their relationship to the later Mississippian sites.


Stairs to the top of Sauls Mound, Pison Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

One thing that does appear to be true of these sites, however, as well as of the Hopewell ones, is that they were primarily ritual or ceremonial centers without substantial residential components. They appear to have served dispersed communities of small hamlets, who were likely small-scale farmers growing indigenous plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. This is in contrast to Mississippian mound centers, which are now considered to have been large residential settlements of farmers growing crops of Mesoamerican origins (especially maize). Also unlike the strongly hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, Middle Woodland communities are also generally thought to have been relatively egalitarian in structure.

Some of these ideas may seem familiar to those familiar with Chaco. A similarly egalitarian structure has been proposed by some archaeologists to explain Chacoan great-house communities, based on models proposed by earlier generations of archaeologists to explain the Classic Maya polities. These models are now falling out of fashion for Chaco, much as they eventually did for the Maya, based on new research that makes them less tenable. It might seem odd that they have remained so tenacious for the Hopewell and other Middle Woodland societies in the east, but they have, which to me suggests that they really might be on to something here. I know a lot of people find these explanations of Chaco as an empty ceremonial center for a dispersed society of small-scale egalitarian farmers inspiring as a vision of what a society can be; as Chacoan research makes this a less plausible reconstruction they may wish to turn their eyes eastward, and further back in time, for a better example.

Anyway, on to the astronomy. The arrangement of the mounds at Pinson, as at many other Hopewell/Middle Woodland sites, has suggested to archaeologists for a while that there might be astronomical aspects to the site. One extensive, though admittedly speculative, exploration of this idea was published by Charles H. McNutt in a 2005 paper, which I will focus on here. McNutt proposed that Sauls Mound was the central focus of a set of astronomical alignments with other mounds at the site, and he compared the angles of these various inter-mound alignments to rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars.


Sign at Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

The most straightforward of the alignments he found were to solar events, i.e., the solstices and equinoxes. Mound 29 is due east of Sauls Mound within a circular feature known as the Eastern Citadel (which may have its own internal astronomical features), and it appears that this relationship may represent an equinox sunrise marker. Mound 28, northeast of Sauls Mound at a similar distance to Mound 29, has been proposed as a summer solstice sunrise marker (as indicated by a sign posted at the site, even), but McNutt found that it is not really close enough to the solstice alignment for this to be plausible. However, another mound indicated on early maps of the site, but not visible today, does appear at the proper angle on those maps to have been a solstice marker.

McNutt describes other possible alignments, to the lunar standstills as well as various stars, but he is rightly cautious about these and notes that the stellar alignments in particular are dubious because there are so many stars that alignments can easily arise due to chance. He then goes on to look at other contemporaneous mound sites in the same general area to determine if they have similar possible alignments, and finds that they do, although the quality of the data is not great for all of them and these too need to be treated with caution.


Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Finally, McNutt ties the existence of these celestial alignments back to the presumed reliance of the Middle Woodland people on agriculture, specifically of the crops of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. Farming peoples do rely on accurate calendars, it is true, and this may well have been the impetus for the astronomical observations that appear to be encoded at Pinson and other sites. I would note, however, that the immense effort required to build these mounds, especially for a dispersed and relatively egalitarian society, suggests that something more than utilitarian timekeeping needs led to their construction. But this may ultimately be a matter of perspective and emphasis more than anything else.

I may have more to say about Pinson in the future; it really is a fascinating place, well worth visiting. But for now I just want to draw some attention to it on this solstice day. Happy solstice!


Turtle at Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

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Holy Wars Again


Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

I recently finished reading God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman (it’s a long book so it took a while). As I’ve mentioned before, the florescence of Chaco Canyon in what is now the southwestern US was contemporary with the earlier part of the Crusade era in the Middle East, and I try to learn as much as I can about events elsewhere in the world contemporary with Chaco to gain a fuller understanding of the context in which it arose. As part of that ongoing tradition, therefore, this post is a brief review of Tyerman’s book.

It’s a good book, and provides a comprehensive overview of this long-lived and complicated phenomenon in world history. Tyerman starts with the intellectual origins of the ideology of Christian holy war that underlay the crusading effort, which is a very interesting topic given how difficult it is to fit such an ideology into Christianity as expressed in the New Testament. The solution that developed over the course of the early middle ages, on which the popes who launched the early crusades relied, depended heavily on a mix of emphasizing the Old Testament rather than the New and interpreting some of the writings of the church fathers in a highly tendentious manner. As much of an ideological kludge as this may have been, it fit well with the martial spirit of the Germanic warrior aristocracy that consolidated its power over secular affairs in this era, and in this light it is not all that surprising to see the crusades arising from this time and place.

Another interesting factor in crusade ideology that Tyerman draws out is its connection with the efforts of medieval popes to elevate their authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs over the secular rulers, particular the Holy Roman Emperors, of the era, as exemplified in the long-running “investiture controversy” of the eleventh century. Crusading offered an opportunity both for popes to consolidate their position and for secular aristocrats (and, increasingly, kings) to cast their warlike pursuits as holy Christian efforts. Over time, these tendencies led both popes and kings to try to cast their secular wars as crusades, with the accompanying spiritual privileges. As Tyerman notes, these attempts to co-opt the crusade for secular ends never attracted the same level of popular enthusiasm as the more “classic” crusades aimed at liberating the Holy Land from infidels.

I’m not going to try to summarize the long and complex history that Tyerman narrates, but a few notes about his perspective are worth making. This is clearly intended to be a magisterial work that will serve as a standard account for many years to come, and I’m sure it will do so. As befits such an ambition, Tyerman’s general approach is sober and measured, and in many places he seems to be intent on debunking sensationalistic interpretations of the crusades and simplistic narratives, including those that have become very common in recent years as religious conflict in the Middle East has made the crusades seem more relevant than ever to current events. Tyerman has a decidedly dim view of such interpretations. At times this makes him seem surprisingly sympathetic to the crusaders compared to other writers, as with the Fourth Crusade, which has been widely viewed as a debacle that weakened Christendom for centuries through its capture of Constatinople. More ambiguously, his account of the Third Crusade pushes back hard against the romanticization of both Richard I and Saladin, and here as elsewhere he tries to put the characters he describes in the context of the very brutal, warlike environment in which they lived and acted. His account of Louis IX, on the other hand, comes across as a brutal takedown of a remarkably unsuccessful crusader who was able to nevertheless parlay that record into a reputation as an exceptionally pious monarch and eventual saint.

Overall, then, this is a good book, but it’s not a breezy read. In addition to its length and heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to have been edited very well, and there are a surprising number of typos and other obvious editing errors. The prose style is also rather leaden and inartful, though admittedly this is a more subjective judgment. These quibbles aside, however, this is a magisterial effort and an excellent introduction to an important though complicated and ambiguous topic.

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Fish-Weighing Station, Seward, Alaska

150 years ago today, US Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard de Stoeckl signed the treaty known as the Alaska Purchase, under which Russia sold Alaska to the US for $7.2 million. The agreement was controversial at the time, and remains so in some circles, but for better or for worse it shaped the destiny of this far corner of the world from that point on.


Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

There are a few events both in Alaska and in Washington DC commemorating the anniversary this year, and “Seward’s Day” is an Alaska state holiday that state employees get off annually (it was actually on Monday this year), but otherwise this isn’t a widely celebrated or noted date even within Alaska. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it either, actually, but I figured I’d at least point it out and share some pictures of the charming town in Alaska that bears Seward’s name.


Sea Otters in Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

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Entrance Sign at Hovenweep National Monument

Today is the winter solstice, which also makes it the eighth anniversary of this blog. I like to mark these astronomical occasions with posts about archaeoastronomy, which is one of the most interesting fields of study relating to Chaco Canyon and other prehistoric sites of the Southwest. Today I just have a brief and fairly speculative post connecting some other suggestions I’ve made about how astronomy related to the larger cultural systems of these societies.

In Ray Williamson’s book Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian, which as I’ve noted is still a very good introduction to the subject despite being more than 30 years old now, he opens the chapter on the ancient Pueblos with fieldwork he had personally done at Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep is one of the more obscure Park Service units in the Southwest, consisting of several different clusters of ruins scattered on both sides of the Colorado-Utah state line just north of the Four Corners. The sites themselves are quite impressive, however, and well worth visiting. The most prominent and striking are the “towers” that tend to be placed along the edges of canyons near their heads, which are generally quite well preserved. These have not been extensively studied by archaeologists, and this area is not very well understood compared to many other parts of the Colorado Plateau


Hovenweep Castle

From what little we do know, the towers and related sites seem to be post-Chaco in age, and they don’t show much evidence of Chacoan influence. Williamson mentions tree-ring dates at Hovenweep Castle, the largest tower site in the Little Ruin Canyon/Square Tower group near the monument’s visitor center, of AD 1166 and 1277, which is after the main florescence of Chaco and contemporary with the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. The towers do have some architectural similarities to the cliff dwellings, and overall seem to fit into the Mesa Verde or Northern San Juan tradition. They don’t show any particular resemblance to Chacoan “great houses” in either size or form.

Williamson measured potential alignments to the solstices and equinoxes at Hovenweep Castle and a smaller site nearby called Unit Type House, as well as at another group of sites within the monument. These alignments generally involved small “ports” or holes in the exterior walls through which sunlight shines on or near the days in question. The beams coming through these ports tend to fall on opposite corners, suggesting that they were being used as calendars to track the progress of the sun, presumably to schedule rituals and/or agricultural activities. There is ample evidence in the modern ethnographic record that the modern Pueblo “Sun Priests” and other officials used solar observations similarly.


Unit Type House, Hovenweep

What I want to note here, however, is that Williamson found ports with solar alignments both at Hovenweep Castle, the largest site in the Little Ruin Canyon group and plausibly either a public/ritual facility or the residence of a community leader (or both), and at Unit Type House, which in keeping with its prosaic name is a smaller site that was likely a more mundane residence. This suggests that watching the sun and keeping calendars was a practice not limited to chiefs or priests at Hovenweep, but was practiced by ordinary people as well. But why?

A possible answer comes from Frank Cushing’s pioneering ethnographic work at Zuni in the late nineteenth century, which is quoted by Williamson in this connection. According to Cushing, while the Sun Priest was responsible for the official observation of the sun to set the ceremonial calendar,

many are the houses in Zuni with scores on their walls or ancient plates imbedded therein, while opposite, a convenient window or small port-hole lets in the light of the rising sun, which shines but two mornings in the three hundred and sixty five in the same place.

Cushing implies that the reason so many people had their own calendars like this was to check the accuracy of the Sun Priest’s observations, which implies that the people didn’t necessarily trust him to get it right.


Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the “Sun Dagger” Petroglyph

So far, so good, and in keeping with the general tendency toward egalitarian ideology and mistrust of hierarchical authority for which the modern Pueblos are known. But what I find interesting is the contrast here with Chaco, where many astronomical alignments are known for the great houses and other sites that were potentially ritually important (like the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph atop Fajada Butte), but none as far as I know in the small houses where most of the population would have lived. Did the Chacoans trust their sun priests more than the later people of Hovenweep and Zuni?

I think they just might have, and this brings me back to another theory I’ve proposed: that the rise of Chaco to a position of regional dominance in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD may have been associated with Chacoan elites’ control of new and ritually important astronomical practices. The astronomical alignments at Chaco appear to be the earliest known ones in at least the northern Southwest, and possibly the Southwest as a whole, and it’s possible that the development (or acquisition) of observation techniques that allowed Chaco’s leaders to demonstrate unprecedented powers of prediction fueled their rise. As long as those powers seemed to hold, they may have been able to keep close control over knowledge of their techniques, or the common people may simply have not thought to question them.

But Hovenweep, with its apparently more “democratic” distribution of astronomical knowledge, dates to only slightly later than Chaco. So what happened in between?


Small House across from Pueblo Bonito

It’s hard to say, and this is one of the enduring mysteries of Chaco, but this period (roughly the middle decades of the twelfth century) does appear to have been a time of great change throughout the northern Southwest, with the ultimate result being the loss of Chaco’s regional influence, although the canyon itself wasn’t completely abandoned until the whole region was at the end of the thirteenth century. There were some major droughts that occurred during this period, which seem to coincide with some of the cultural changes, so maybe the Chacoan elites’ esoteric calendrical knowledge no longer seemed to have the control over rain and fertility that they had claimed, and people began to trust them less and to try to do their own observations too. Or maybe there was a more general spread of astronomical knowledge that undermined Chaco’s influence even if its power didn’t appear to fail. It’s very hard to tell exactly what happened, but the patterns are intriguing.

Anyway, that’s my solstice/anniversary post for this year. Thanks to my long-time readers for sticking with me all these years.


Winter Solstice Sunset

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Kotzebue, Alaska

From time to time I like to point out interesting resources I come across, even if they’re not directly related to Southwestern archaeology. One that I just saw via an article in my local paper today is a new website with pictures and information on artifacts discovered in 2013 during construction of a fiber optic line in Kotzebue, Alaska by the Alaska-based telecom company GCI. The artifacts, mostly bone tools, date to the thirteenth century AD based on two radiocarbon dates, and are associated with the Thule culture, which is directly ancestral to the Inupiaq people who now live in Kotzebue and the surrounding region.


Wind Farm, Kotzebue, Alaska

I’ve been to Kotzebue several times, and it’s an interesting place. It is located slightly north of the Arctic Circle and serves as a “hub” community for the Northwest Arctic region of Alaska, which means it’s a larger community (with a population of about 3,000) that provides services to the smaller villages in the region. Relevant to my own work, Kotzebue has also been a pioneering community for renewable energy development in Arctic environments. Like most rural Alaska communities, Kotzebue is not interconnected to a larger electric grid, so it runs its own system, which has historically been primarily based on diesel generation. However, the local electric utility has been integrating wind turbines into its diesel-based power system for about 20 years now, and wind currently provides a substantial portion of its total power production (18.5% in State Fiscal Year 2015). It doesn’t get as much attention as Kodiak, another pioneering Alaska community that has used a combination of hydro and wind power to make its electrical system virtually 100% renewable, but it’s nevertheless an impressive achievement in a very challenging environment.


Aerial View of Wind Farm, Kotzebue, Alaska

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The County of Lincoln


Fort Stanton State Historic Site

I’m in New Mexico this week visiting my mom, as I often do this time of year. As we also often do, we took a couple of days to go camping and hiking somewhere in the state. This time went to Lincoln County, where we also took in some of the sights in the area. I figured I would do a post just to discuss what we did, since I found in planning this trip that detailed information was hard to find about a lot of things.

Lincoln County is in the south-central part of the state. These days it’s relatively obscure, but it was important in the territorial period and there’s still a lot to see there that’s of historical interest. We focused primarily on Fort Stanton, which is a New Mexico State Historical Site that was an old frontier fort established in 1855. It’s still in remarkably good shape, partly because it was still in use for various purposes until quite recently, and is a bit of a hidden gem for those interested in historic architecture and frontier history. Very much worth visiting. We didn’t get to see the museum since we arrived right at 4:00 pm when it closes, but the grounds are open until 5:00 so we saw most of the other buildings.


Rio Bonito near Fort Stanton, New Mexico

Surrounding the State Historic Site is the Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We were intending to camp here, but it was quite hard to find detailed information about the two campgrounds. The main one, the Rob Jaggers Campground, turns out to be mainly oriented toward RVers and equestrians rather than tent campers like us, but the other one, the Cave Campground, was more our style. It’s a small but quite well-maintained campground that apparently gets very little visitation, probably because it’s right at Fort Stanton cave, which is now closed to public visitation because of White Nose Syndrome in bats. Highly recommended as a camping option in an area that has few. There are ramadas and picnic tables at three or four campsites, and a vault toilet that was very clean. There’s no water at the campground, so we had to fill up our jug in the nearby towns of Lincoln and Capitan.

There are a lot of trails on the NCA, and we did a small loop that went right by the Rio Bonito, which runs through this area and lives up to its name. There is also a petroglyph site at the southwestern end of the NCA which I wanted to see, but the road to it turns out to be extremely steep and rocky, and we decided it was not worth the risk to my mom’s small car to try to get there. Hiking to the site along the trails might be a better way to get there.


Old Courthouse (Murphy-Dolan Store), Lincoln, New Mexico

We also visited the town of Lincoln, which is famous for the Lincoln County War in the late 1870s which made Billy the Kid (in)famous. Many of the old buildings from that period are still very well preserved, and several of them are part of Lincoln State Historic Site. Some of them are set up as museums, although the exhibits in them get a bit repetitive at times since they all focus so much on the same short period of time. Still, it’s a very interesting place. The short video at the visitor center was quite helpful in summarizing the War and the background to it, which ultimately revolved around rival groups of ranchers and merchants trying to access government contracts to supply Fort Stanton and the nearby Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. Having seen Fort Stanton first was helpful in contextualizing this, since it was a quite large and elaborate post for the time and place and supplying it would clearly have been quite lucrative.

On our way back to Albuquerque we stopped in Capitan and saw the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The “real” Smokey Bear was a cub discovered in the midst of a forest fire near Capitan in 1950 and brought to the National Zoo in DC to serve as a living embodiment of the fire-prevention mascot (who had already existed for a few years by then). The museum is mostly about forest fire safety, including a lot of discussion of how our understanding of the role of natural fire has changed over the years. There is also a garden showing various native plants of the Southwest, along with the burial place of Smokey, who died in 1976.


Sign at Smokey Bear Historical Park, Capitan, New Mexico

Since it was sort of on the way and my mom had not been there, although I had, we decided to stop at Gran Quivira on the way back as well. There is a relatively direct route to it, but we missed the (apparently quite subtle) turnoff and ended up going the long way around through Corona and Mountainair before getting to the site. It’s a really great site, I think.

So then we ended up back in Albuquerque, just as it was starting to rain yesterday evening. Yesterday was my birthday (I’m 32), and this trip was a nice way to celebrate it. I fly back to Alaska tomorrow.


“New” Church at Gran Quivira

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Explanatory Plaque at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Today is the summer solstice, on which I like to do posts about archaeoastronomy. Today I’d like to discuss a well-known site, Sun Temple at Mesa Verde, which as its name suggests has long been associated with astronomical observations. As we’ll see, however, it appears that some of the early interpretations of the site’s architecture haven’t held up under further examination. This is another good example (along with Wupatki) of the need to carefully analyze proposed archaeoastronomical alignments.

Like many sites at Mesa Verde, Sun Temple was excavated and partly reconstructed in the early twentieth century by the pioneering archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes. Fewkes named the site “Sun Temple” after finding a feature that he interpreted as a “sun shrine” aligned to the position of sunset on the fall equinox. After identifying this possible alignment, Fewkes looked at the orientation of the building to see if there were any other astronomical alignments present. Sun Temple is D-shaped, with the flat side of the “D” to the south (a shape and orientation that those familiar with Chaco may find familiar), so the straight front wall was an obvious place to check for alignments. Fewkes, presumably guided by the equinoctial alignment of the shrine, initially checked to see if the front wall aligned to the positions of sunrise/sunset on the equinoxes, which would be the same and would mean the wall was oriented due east-west. He found that it was not, but was rather aligned about 20 degrees north of due east at the east end, and 20 degrees south at the west end.


Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

In his published reports Fewkes went on to conclude from this alignment that the front wall was actually oriented to the summer solstice sunrise. This is an important event in modern Pueblo societies, and subsequent research has found evidence for alignments to it in prehistoric Pueblo sites as well, so on first glance this seems like a reasonable conclusion. When archaeoastronomer Jonathan Reyman began to research the site using modern techniques in the 1970s, however, he found that it didn’t hold up, and published a short article explaining why.

The basic gist of Reyman’s article is very simple: The front wall of Sun Temple is indeed oriented to about 20 degrees north of east, but this is not the same alignment as the summer solstice sunrise at this latitude, which is more like 30 degrees north of east. Fewkes appears to have simply made a simple mistake. It’s not clear exactly how this would have happened, but Reyman suggests he either made a mistake in his notes or his notes were unclear and he became confused when writing them up for publication. In any case, this is a pretty clear-cut case of a mistake in the literature being corrected, and Fewkes’s error does not seem to have been propagated since. (Note that the NPS link I gave above says nothing about a solstice alignment.)

Reyman did also confirm that the “sun shrine” is aligned to the equinoctial sunsets and may well have been used to observe them, so the name “Sun Temple” remains appropriate (or as appropriate as it ever was). This is an intriguing building for a lot of reasons, some of which do support the idea that it had an astronomical function, but that’s a discussion for later. Sun Temple is also one of the most accessible sites at Mesa Verde, being on a mesa top where it can be visited without a guided tour, and it is well worth visiting even though it’s quite different from the cliff dwellings for which the park is best known.
Reyman JE (1977). Solstice Misalignment at Sun Temple: Correcting Fewkes The Kiva, 42, 281-284

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