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Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Today is a momentous day, of course. As the winter solstice, it marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. It also might be an important date in the Maya Long Count (although opinions differ). It’s not the end of the world, which should be apparent by now. In recognition of the Maya date and my general practice of blogging about archaeoastronomy on significant celestial events, I thought I’d write about a couple of papers focusing on a Mesoamerican symbol with apparent astronomic significance and a thought-provoking connection to the Southwest.

The first paper, published in 1978 in Science, was written by Anthony Aveni and two co-authors (one of whom appears to have been one of his students). Aveni is a prominent figure in archaeoastronomy, especially of Mesoamerica, and was one of the first researchers to do careful measurements of astronomical alignments at ancient sites. In this paper he and his co-authors discuss a symbol found at several Mesoamerican sites consisting of a cross concentric with one or more circles, with the arms of the cross usually extending beyond the circle(s). These symbols were usually made by pecking a series of dots into either a rock face or the floor of a room, and their alignments appear to have often been significant. They are most common at Teotihuacan, where they were generally oriented with the arms of the cross aligned with the city’s street grid. This orientation had led some earlier authors to interpret them as surveying marks used in laying out the streets. The authors of this paper consider that interpretation a possibility, but not necessarily the only one. There are other examples of these symbols in sites near Teotihuacan that have other orientations, some of which seem to align with prominent landmarks on the horizon that may have been used in astronomical observations.

Aveni et al. also make a big deal out of the number of dots from which these figures are made, which is quite consistent in many cases with the total often tantalizingly close to 260, the number of days in the pan-Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There may be something to this, but as is often the case with these numerological theories there’s a question of how close is close enough. (This also applies to alleged astronomical alignments.) They kind of throw a whole slew of interpretations at the numbers of dots in various parts of various examples; some of these may be meaningful, but it seems doubtful that all of them are at the same time.

A more interesting pattern is the geographical distribution of these apparently rare symbols. While they are most numerous in and around Teotihuacan, they are also present surprisingly far afield: as far south as the Maya cities of Uaxactun and as far north as the area of Alta Vista near the Tropic of Cancer. While widespread, these are all areas known to have been influenced by Teotihuacan during its period of greatest power, and the authors make the reasonable suggestion that the pecked cross symbol was associated with this influence. In trying to interpret its meaning, they note similarities to diagrams of Mesoamerican calendars (which are indeed intriguing), as well as the previously mentioned idea that they were orientational devices for surveying, and even the resemblance to descriptions of the holes pecked into house floors as boards for the game patolli in Conquest-era sources. It’s quite possible that they were all of these, of course, or that different examples had different functions. The main conclusion the authors come to is that they are associated strongly with Teotihuacan in some fashion.

An article in American Antiquity two years later made an effort to flesh out what that connection might have been. Written by the Mayanist Clemency Coggins, this article interprets the cross-in-circle motif in Mesoamerica as an example of a larger class of “four-part  figures” that are associated primarily with the sun, especially with its daily cycle through the sky as well as its yearly cycle. Coggins notes various examples of Maya hieroglyphs and other symbols that have the form of quartered circles or crosses and pushes back against earlier interpretations of them as referring to the cardinal directions. Indeed, she argues that the Maya didn’t even really have a concept of “cardinal directions” comparable to the European one: instead, they had two directions that mattered, east and west, where the sun rises and sets, with accompanying symbolism. The areas in between sometimes had symbolism associated with them, but they usually functioned as stand-ins for “up” (north) and “down” (south), which were much more symbolically charged. Coggins sees the quartered circle as representing the daily movement of the sun and as properly interpreted vertically rather than horizontally. Thus, the four points stand for sunrise, zenith, sunset, and nadir, not east, north, west, and south. The position of the sun at zenith (directly overhead) was an important phenomenon for the Maya and probably other Mesoamericans; it only happens in the Tropics and is a foreign concept to societies in temperate zones.

Coggins interprets an early structure at Uaxactun, a pyramidal platform with four stairways, as a symbol of this four-part idea. She argues that its function was likely as a solar observatory, as the three small temples to the east line up with the positions of the sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes viewed from it. This same group of buildings is also noteworthy in that three stelae erected there commemorate the endings of twenty-year periods known as k’atuns, and two of them are the earliest known examples of stelae marking this sort of calendrical event. (Or at least they were at the time Coggins was writing; I don’t know if this is still the case, but if earlier k’atun-marking stelae have been found since then that would undermine her argument somewhat, as explained below.) The event we are (maybe) observing today is the ending of a much longer cycle known as a bak’tun, but is conceptually similar. Coggins distinguishes these “calendric” celebrations and monuments from “historic” ones tied to important events in the lives of kings. She argues that the latter were the focus of all previous monuments and indicate a focus on royal dynasties and the private rituals of the nobility in Maya political life, whereas the celebration of the end of a k’atun and the erection of a monument commemorating it is a more public, popular, universal sort of ritual less focused on the glory of particular lineages and kings.

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

But what does all this have to do with quartered circles? Well, Coggins notes that shortly after these two stelae were erected in Uaxactun (in AD 357), another stela at Uaxactun shows an individual with non-Maya costume and weapons more associated with central Mexico, which at this time would have been dominated by Teotihuacan. This stela also refers to the nearby city of Tikal, which is well known to have seen extensive central Mexican influence at this time, including a king named Curl Snout who was apparently at least partly Mexican himself. This is also the period when the pecked cross at Uaxactun discussed by Aveni et al. was likely made, and here we see some supporting evidence for their theory that the pecked crosses are associated with the expansion of Teotihuacano influence. The first k’atun ending stela at Tikal was erected by Curl Snout and marks the first k’atun ending of his reign (in AD 396). Coggins concludes from this association between Mexican influence and the celebration of k’atun endings that the latter practice was introduce as part of the former phenomenon.

She supports this idea in part with the clear evidence that the god Tlaloc was of considerable importance to these Mexicans in the Maya country, which is unsurprising since he was probably the most important god at Teotihuacan itself. Tlaloc is a god of rain, which was very important to agricultural people in the Valley of Mexico, which is high and relatively dry (at least compared to the lush Maya Lowlands). He was associated as well with the celebration of the solar year, the cycles of which are closely connected to seasonal changes in rainfall patterns among many agricultural societies. This may account for the prevalence of the pecked cross/quartered circle motif at Teotihuacan, if as Coggins implies it symbolized not just the solar day but the solar year as well. Apparently some of the Tlaloc images in Curl Snout’s tomb at Tikal had similar symbols on their headdresses, so the association between the god and the symbol seems well-supported regardless of its origin. Coggins interprets Curl Snout as having introduced a Tlaloc cult to Tikal, presumably from Tenochtitlan, which involved the celebration of the solar year and the sidelining of the old rituals of the established noble lineages that had previously been the focus of Maya official religion. This cult apparently also included the celebration of the twenty-year k’atuns, though Coggins never gives a good explanation for why this would have been the case.

Over time the Mexican kings apparently became assimilated to Maya culture, and Tlaloc was similarly conflated with the Maya rain god Chac, but the celebration of k’atuns continued and by Late Classic times it involved special complexes of paired pyramids with four stairways each, much like the early structure at Uaxactun but on a much grander scale. These were paired on the east and west sides of a plaza and apparently used primarily for the celebration of k’atun endings. The north and south sides often had smaller structures with celestial and underworld symbolism respectively, consistent with the idea that they represented zenith and nadir. All of this is best known from Tikal, but Coggins notes that there are some indications from other sites such as Uaxactun and Yaxha that similar processes of Mexican influence and a shift to k’atun celebration occurred similarly.

That’s the story Coggins tells, anyway. It’s an interesting one, and somewhat convincing at least in some of its broad strokes, but I can’t help thinking that Maya archaeology has come a long way since 1980, especially with a better ability to understand the writing system, and I wonder if Coggins’s historical interpretations, based on essentially art-historical methods, still hold up. In any case, the association between Teotihuacan, Tlaloc, and the quartered circle is the key thing I take away from this paper, and that probably holds up better than the political history. The association is important because there’s another place that is known for its quartered circles, one which is not mentioned at all in either of these papers. That’s probably because it’s very far away from both Teotihuacan and Tikal.

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers in southern New Mexico is one of the most spectacular petroglyph sites in the whole Southwest. It’s one of the most important locations for rock art of the Jornada Style, associated with the Jornada Mogollon culture that existed in south-central New Mexico and adjacent West Texas from about AD 1050 to 1400. Unlike the rock art of the Anasazi area further north, including Chaco, which was highly stylized and repetitive, Jornada Style rock art is astonishingly naturalistic and elaborate. It is full of lifelike human faces and masks, animals with fully realized eyes and teeth, and imagery that is often remarkably Mesoamerican. The examples of parallels to Mexican art are numerous and fairly obvious, and not very surprising given the Jornada’s southerly location and proximity to the very Mesoamerican-seeming center of Casas Grandes, which flourished during this same period. What’s more surprising is the similarity between the Jornada Style and the later Rio Grande Style further north, which contains many of the same symbols and stylistic conventions. This implies that the Jornada served as a conduit for Mesoamerican ideas to the later Pueblos. Polly and Curtis Schaafsma have argued, convincingly in my view, that the kachina cult that is so important among the modern Pueblos originated among the Jornada, citing the masks and other symbols in Jornada rock art as their main line of evidence.

Kachinas are rain spirits, and as Polly Schaafsma notes in her book on Southwestern rock art, the kachina cult bears many notable similarities to the Tlaloc cult in Mexico. And, indeed, one of the most common motifs in Jornada rock art is the goggle eyes that are among Tlaloc’s standard attributes further south. Other Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl appear to be present in the Jornada petroglyphs as well, and Tlaloc is surely not the only deity who was transmitted in altered form to the Pueblos, but given the importance of rain in the arid Southwest the appeal of a rain cult is obvious.

What about the quartered circle? As we saw from the first two papers, this symbol was certainly associated strongly with Teotihuacan, where Tlaloc was the most important god, and it was probably associated to at least some degree with Tlaloc himself, whose popularity in Mexico lasted much longer than Teotihuacan’s political power and cultural influence. And yet, the quartered circle is virtually absent from the Southwest. Simple crosses, often outlined, are common, but they are generally interpreted as stars and typically associated with the Feathered Serpent, which is probably a version of Quetzalcoatl. The cross and circle, however, is almost never seen in the Southwest, except in one place: Three Rivers.

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Schaafsma says in her book that what she calls the “circle-dot motif” is actually the most common element at the site, citing an obscure unpublished manuscript. It’s not clear how she defines this motif, as there are many petroglyphs at Three Rivers that consist of circles surrounded by dots, with the inside of the circle sometimes blank, sometimes filled with a larger dot, sometimes filled with a series of concentric circles, but often filled with a cross. (The illustration in Schaafsma’s book for this motif shows one of the crosses.) These quartered circles, usually but not always surrounded by dots, are very prominent at the site. What’s striking about this is how unique they are to this one site, especially given the importance of similar symbols in Mesoamerica as documented by Aveni et al. and Coggins. Aveni et al. actually mention some similar symbols in the rock art of California and Nevada, but they seem to have been unaware of the Three Rivers examples. The dots are especially interesting, given that the Teotihuacan examples are made of dots. That isn’t the case here, but the dots are clearly important. They give a solar feel to many of the symbols, especially those with concentric circles, which ties in to Coggins’s interpretation of the symbol as reflecting the passage of the sun. And remember those Tlalocs with their goggle eyes, present at Three Rivers as well as at virtually every other Jornada Style site. They clearly show not only that Mesoamerican religious symbols could and did travel this far north, but that the specific god associated with the quartered circle elsewhere was among the most prominent examples.

So what’s the explanation here? I confess that I don’t have one except to suppose that this symbol was of particular importance to the people who made the petroglyphs at Three Rivers, probably primarily people who lived at the contemporaneous village site nearby. I think it’s quite likely that this was a symbol particularly associated with that community, or perhaps with a specific social group within it, and that it is ultimately connected in some way to the symbols further south. Note that some of the pecked crosses described by Aveni et al. were quite far north in Mexico, some near the Tropic of Cancer and one described in a nineteenth-century source as being near the US border (though its exact location is unknown). The latter in particular would probably more or less close the geographic gap between the others and Three Rivers, while the examples near the Tropic of Cancer may have been associated with the nearby site of Alta Vista, which was occupied at a time that would fill much of the temporal gap between Teotihuacan and Three Rivers as well. It’s certainly hard to come to firm conclusions about things like this, of course, and the fact that the quartered circle doesn’t appear to have spread from Three Rivers to any other Jornada Mogollon groups or to the later Pueblos is problematic. Still, it’s a fascinating little glimpse into the complexity of the past and the possibilities that emerge from careful study and an open mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgAveni, A., Hartung, H., & Buckingham, B. (1978). The Pecked Cross Symbol in Ancient Mesoamerica Science, 202 (4365), 267-286 DOI: 10.1126/science.202.4365.267

Coggins, C. (1980). The Shape of Time: Some Political Implications of a Four-Part Figure American Antiquity, 45 (4) DOI: 10.2307/280144

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Core Samples Taken for Tree-Ring Dating, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Despite their impressive preservation, the Gila Cliff Dwellings have gotten surprisingly little attention in the archaeological literature.  This is apparently because they were so thoroughly ransacked by pothunters early on that there wasn’t much left intact for archaeologists to study, and possibly also because the early establishment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 has led most subsequent research to be done by the National Park Service, which has often had a tendency to keep findings in internal reports for management purposes rather than publishing them in peer-reviewed journals or books.  The surviving structural timbers have clearly been sampled for tree-ring dating, and the interpretive material put out by the monument discusses the results of this analysis.  The museum at the visitor center also displays some artifact that were apparently found in the cliff dwellings, although it’s not always clear if they were excavated by the NPS or recovered from private collections after having been looted and sold.  The NPS does have an online administrative history of the monument; I haven’t read it yet, but from a casual look through the section on archaeological research it seems to confirm that there has been some excavation by the Park Service, mostly in the 1960s, but that the data have not been thoroughly analyzed or reported.

The only substantial discussion of the cliff dwellings that I have found in the published literature is a short article published by Editha Watson in 1929.  She discusses several cave sites in the Upper Gila River area, but gives the most detailed description (which is still not very detailed) of the caves in the monument.  She discusses the highly looted state of the sites and some of the things found in them, although she does not make it very clear who found them or how:

Corncobs are plentiful in this ruin. They are very small, and the dry atmosphere has preserved them so beautifully that they may be indented with the fingernail. Black-and-white pottery and corrugated ware blackened on the inside are the only sorts noticed among the sherds. Turquoise beads have been found here. As this is a national monument, excavation is forbidden, but vandals have torn up the floor in search of treasure.

She also mentions a “desiccated body of an infant” found in one of the caves.  According to the administrative history four such mummies were allegedly found in the cliff dwellings at various points in the late nineteenth century and sent to the Smithsonian, which apparently never received any of them.  It’s not clear which of these Watson refers to, or where she got her information.

Pictographs on Cave Wall behind Room, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Watson also mentions the red pictographs found in the caves, which she says are “supposed to be the work of later tribes.”  As the administrative history notes, it’s not clear who is supposing this or why.  More recently, Polly Schaafsma has classified these pictographs as belonging to the Mogollon Red style, which is also found to the northwest in the area around Reserve, New Mexico.  She also thinks the pictographs in the caves were made by residents of the cliff dwellings standing on rooftops, which makes sense given their positions and firmly dates them to the late thirteenth century AD.  There are other pictograph locations in and around the monument, including one in Lower Scorpion Campground that is quite impressive in its number and variety of designs.

Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground

The Mogollon Red style is very different from most other Southwestern rock art styles, at least the ones I’ve seen examples of.  It includes a lot of abstract geometrical designs and stick-figure humans, and is always in the form of pictographs rather than petroglyphs.  It is particularly different from the Jornada style found to the east in the Mimbres and Jornada Mogollon regions, which consists mainly of petroglyphs and has a lot of naturalistic animals and human faces or masks.  Schaafsma has proposed that the Jornada style represents an ideological system that later developed into the kachina cult of the modern Pueblos.  The Mogollon Red style forms another link between the Gila Cliff Dwellings and areas to the north and west, reinforcing the impression from pottery styles that link them to the Tularosa area.  This is interesting given their geographical proximity to the Mimbres area, with its very different iconographic traditions, and strongly supports the idea that the builders of the cliff dwellings were immigrants from somewhere to the north.

That’s about all I’ve found in the published literature about the cliff dwellings.  Clearly they have a lot of potential to shed light on a number of issues important in the study of Southwestern prehistory, especially interregional relationships and migration, but so far they have not been widely incorporated into discussion of those issues.
ResearchBlogging.org
Watson, E. (1929). Caves of the Upper Gila River, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 31 (2), 299-306 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1929.31.2.02a00070

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Cliff Dwellings from Trail, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Over Labor Day Weekend my mom and I went down to southwestern New Mexico to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  We had been wanting to go there for a long time, but it’s pretty far from Albuquerque (about a six-hour drive) and not really on the way to anywhere else, so we hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  With me going away to Alaska soon, this was a good opportunity.  We camped at Lower Scorpion Campground, which turned out to be a fortuitously good location since there are some pictographs and a cliff dwelling right in the campground.  The main attraction, of course, was the cliff dwellings themselves, and they were quite spectacular.  They’re not particularly easy to get to.  They are accessible by paved road, unlike Chaco, but it’s a very long winding road through the mountains, so it takes quite a bit of effort.  The sites are definitely worth the effort, though.

Labor Day is apparently the busiest time for visitation there, so it was quite crowded, and there were a lot of volunteers around answering questions and so forth.  Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the less-visited Park Service units, so it relies almost entirely on volunteers.  At the visitor center they told us that the monument only has two paid employees; I had heard once that they only had one (the superintendent), but I guess they’re up to two.  Part of the reason they can get by like this is that they’re surrounded by the Gila National Forest, so the Forest Service can pick up a lot of the slack and do the things that the monument doesn’t have the staffing for.  The monument itself is tiny, and basically consists only of the cliff dwellings themselves and a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, which is apparently not open to the public.  The visitor center and the campgrounds are on Forest Service land, and the visitor center is shared by both the Forest Service and the Park Service.

Gila Visitor Center, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

I hadn’t known very much about the Gila Cliff Dwellings before going there.  I knew that they were built by the Mogollon culture, and that they were the only Mogollon sites managed by the Park Service, but aside from that I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect.  Luckily, the visitor center has a nice museum and a very informative and up-to-date video explaining a lot of the background.  The cliff dwellings are really quite unusual for Mogollon sites, which were usually either pithouse villages or above-ground pueblos in open areas like the Mimbres villages.  Cliff dwellings are more typical of the Anasazi to the north at places like Mesa Verde, of course, and these were very reminiscent of sites like that architecturally.  They’re quite close to the Mimbres Valley, so I had thought there might be some connection between them and the Mimbres, probably the best-known division of the Mogollon, but apparently the current archaeological thinking is that the cliff dwellings were not built by the Mimbres but by the Tularosa Mogollon, who mostly lived a bit further north but apparently migrated to the south and built the cliff dwellings in the late thirteenth century AD.  This seems to be established by the pottery found at the cliff dwellings, as Tularosa pottery is very distinctive and different from other Mogollon pottery traditions.  I believe it’s more similar to some Anasazi styles, which would fit well with the Anasazi-like architecture.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907, the same year as Chaco, but apparently the sites had already been very significantly pothunted by then, and there was very little left for archaeologists to find once the sites were protected.  Interestingly, one of the volunteers answering questions at the sites when I was there mentioned that the pothunters mostly left behind things like corncobs, so we have a pretty good idea of the subsistence system of the people who occupied the sites even though we don’t know a whole lot about their tools or other aspects of material culture.  I guess there must have been a bit of Tularosa-style pottery left behind and/or in private collections originating from the early pothunting.  Anyway, the upshot of all this is that there has been essentially no professional excavation of the cliff dwellings, and they are rarely mentioned in the archaeological literature as a result, which is really unfortunate because they’re fascinating sites.

Corncobs at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Like most cliff dwellings, these ones preserved a lot of perishable materials that rarely survive in open sites.  I mentioned the corncobs before, and there are also a lot of wooden beams in situ.  These have been sampled for tree-ring dating, which found that all construction of the sites took place between AD 1270 and 1300, mostly in the 1280s.  The sites were probably only occupied for one generation at most.   This seems like a short period, but it’s actually pretty typical for cliff dwellings.  Many of the much larger sites at Mesa Verde were occupied for almost exactly the same interval.  The late thirteenth century seems to have been the main period for cliff-dwelling construction throughout most of the Southwest.

This is of course the period of the “Great Drought,” and the obviously highly defensible nature of cliff dwellings has led to much speculation that their florescence at this time was due to defensive considerations.  This has been a somewhat controversial proposal further north, and Park Service sites tend to downplay it, but at the Gila sites the interpretive material states outright that defense was probably a major factor in the occupation of the cliff dwellings.  I find this interesting.  It may have to do with the relative distance of the modern Pueblos from this area, and resultingly lower political controversy over discuss of prehistoric warfare, but it may also have to do with the nature of Mogollon archaeology, which developed somewhat differently from Anasazi archaeology.  Steven LeBlanc, who is probably the most prominent archaeologist to argue for a major role for warfare in the prehistoric Southwest, has his particular expertise in the Mimbres area.  This is all just speculation on my part, of course.

T-Shaped Doorway, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

One of the cliff dwellings has a t-shaped door.  This is a type of architectural feature that is common at Chaco (and Mesa Verde) as well as at Casas Grandes to the south.  Many people have argued that this represents some sort of Mesoamerican influence on those sites, and Steve Lekson has argued that it is one of the signs of continuity between Chaco and Casas Grandes.  Its presence here, between the two, and in association with a very Anasazi-like type of architecture deep in Mogollon territory, is certainly intriguing.  Macaw feathers were also found at the cliff dwellings.  The importance of the macaw at Chaco and Casas Grandes (where they were bred on a huge scale), as well as in the Mimbres area, is well known, and of course they would have to have come from further south initially.

Anyway, these are some really fascinating sites that raise the possibility of a lot of intriguing connections to other parts of the Southwest and beyond.  I highly recommend a visit to them for anyone.  Unlike a lot of the sites in the Southwest, these are very impressive even to people without much particular interest in archaeology, on account of their fantastic preservation and stunning location.

Labor Day Weekend Crowds at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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Sign at State of New Mexico Archives Building, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Several months ago Steve Lekson sent me a review copy of his latest book, A History of the Ancient Southwest.  I recently got around to reading it, and it’s very good.  The importance as well as the idiosyncratic nature of this book begins with its title.  While the title sounds generic, it’s actually carefully chosen and worded, and in a subtle way it expresses the unusual approach Lekson takes to Southwestern archaeology, not just in this book but in many of his other recent publications.

The crucial thing about the title, and about the book, is the word “history.”  This book is both an attempt to tell the story of what happened in the ancient Southwest, and thus a “history” of the Southwest in ancient times of the sort an historian might write, and a parallel attempt to tell the story of the development of Southwestern archaeology as a (sub)discipline, i.e., a history of “the ancient Southwest” as an idea and of the ways that idea has been studied and interpreted over time.  The title also refers, quite deliberately, to a book with the same title that Harold Gladwin published in 1957.  Gladwin’s a fascinating character, as is Lekson himself in his own way, but in this context the most important thing about him is his fondness for synthesizing archaeological data and presenting it as an accessible narrative.  Lekson is seeking to do the same thing in this book, and he mostly succeeds.  This is a more impressive accomplishment than it sounds, because summarizing the entire prehistory of the Southwest in narrative form is an astonishingly ambitious project, and there’s a reason no one else has tried to do it since Gladwin.  Furthermore, Lekson adds on top of this enormously difficult task the additional task of adding a parallel intellectual history of Southwestern archaeology.  And yet, like I say, he mostly succeeds in this near-impossible task.

How does he do it?  Partly by limiting his narrative to the highlights of both stories, which admittedly makes it seem a bit thin at times.  This is largely countered by his the very extensive notes, where he relegates most of the in-depth argumentation over scholarly minutiae that would get in the way of the overall story.  And when I say “extensive,” I mean it; this is a book with 250 pages of text followed by 100 pages of notes.  I haven’t read through all the notes in detail, but they’re a mix of perfunctory citations for statements in the text and really long and detailed discussions of various archaeological points of contention and Lekson’s positions on them.

Part of the reason for this shoving of so much into the notes is to make the text more accessible.  The book is aimed both at professional Southwestern archaeologists and at popular audiences, and this dual purpose sometimes leads to some tension but mostly works.  Lekson is a very good and engaging writer.  He has a very idiosyncratic style, which some may not find appealing, but I like it, and it definitely contrasts with the turgid prose that is more typical of archaeological publications.  The story he tells here will probably appeal to the two audiences somewhat differently; other archaeologists are likely to look through the text and notes for questionable statements to contest (and there are plenty), while lay readers are probably more likely to just take in the story without thinking too much about it.  Neither of these approaches is ideal, perhaps, but the book does adequately provide for both in an innovative way.

The structure of the book involves parallel stories: each chapter includes both one period in the history of Southwestern archaeology and one period in the actual history of the ancient Southwest as determined (primarily) by that archaeology.  Lekson tries to unify the two parts of each chapter with a common theme, which works better for some than for others but often seems a bit forced.  In general, the intellectual history portions of the chapters are a bit weaker than the archaeological portions, which makes sense since Lekson is an archaeologist rather than an intellectual historian.  Still, he does make a serious effort to evaluate the research of his predecessors and colleagues in the context of their times and the prevailing intellectual currents both within the discipline and within society as a whole.  This is more than most archaeologists are willing to attempt, and it helps put the archaeological data he uses to reconstruct the “history” of the prehistoric societies he discusses into its own appropriate context.

Building with Pro-Book Sign, Carrizozo, New Mexico

That “history” really is history, too.  This is a story focused on events, rather than adaptations, and part of the importance of Lekson’s discussion of the history of archaeology is to situate himself within that history and, in general, to distinguish what he’s doing here from what archaeologists typically do.  Basically, he’s seeking to write history rather than science, whereas most archaeological research in the US since the 1970s or s0, as he demonstrates, has sought to be science.  (Longtime readers will know that I have my own opinions on this question, and that they’re mostly in line with Lekson’s approach here.)  His version of “history” will probably seem a little over-simplistic to many actual historians, just as his account of the history of archaeology will doubtless seem simplistic to actual intellectual historians and historians of science, but for the general reader and for most Southwestern archaeologists the general point should come across loud and clear.

In general, Lekson gives the general outlines for the story of the ancient Southwest as he sees it, but he downplays some of his own more controversial ideas.  The Chaco Meridian is confined to the notes and occasional brief allusions in the text.  There are plenty of quibbles I have with some of his specific interpretations, especially about Chaco, but the overall picture he presents is probably broadly acceptable to a relatively large number of other archaeologists.  He definitely comes down on the side of hierarchy and extensive Mesoamerican influence, but local origin, for Chaco, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s read any of his other recent Chaco stuff.  He also tries to tie everything together into a larger story, emphasizing the likely connections between developments at Chaco and among the Hohokam in Arizona, the Mimbres in southwestern New Mexico, and other Southwestern groups, as well as contemporaneous developments in Mexico and in the Mississippi Valley.  These broad-scale connections are controversial among archaeologists, but I think Lekson’s right on track in emphasizing them.

I’m not sure how well this book will work as an introduction to Southwestern archaeology for people who know literally nothing about it.  For those who know nothing about the ancient Southwest and have no intention of learning about it in great depth, this would be an entertaining and informative read.  Moving on from this to anything else written on the ancient Southwest (with the possible exception of some of Lekson’s other stuff) would be a pretty severe shock, however.  The difference in both tone and content is huge.  For people who are interested in the subject and have read one or two other books on it, however, this would be a very useful introduction to a very different way of thinking about these issues.  All professional Southwestern archaeologists should absolutely read it, not so much because they’ll learn much from it, although they might, but because it outlines a very different way of thinking and writing about the ancient Southwest that they should really be familiar with, even if they don’t want to do it themselves.

Personally, while I don’t agree with all of Lekson’s interpretations, I find this book inspiring.  Lekson is really pioneering a new way of writing the story of the ancient Southwest, and reading his version really makes me want to follow in his tracks and write my own version of the story, using his guidelines but reaching my own conclusions.  I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to follow through and write my own book, but it’s something I’ve been considering for a while now and reading Lekson’s attempt has made me more tempted than ever to actually do it.  After all, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands these days.

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Recent Housing Development, Kayenta, Arizona

I’ve written quite a bit here about warfare in the prehistoric Southwest, but I’ve only said a little about one of the areas where it has been most carefully documented and studied: the Kayenta area of northeastern Arizona.  This is partly because this area seems to have had very little contact with or influence from Chaco Canyon (although obviously that criterion hasn’t stopped me from talking about all kinds of other places with no connection at all to Chaco), but mostly because I just haven’t read much of the voluminous literature on Kayenta archaeology.  Dan Bailey has an interesting guest post at Scientific American on the research of Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum on settlement dynamics in Long House Valley, west of modern Kayenta, pointing to the same processes that have been documented elsewhere in the Southwest by Steven LeBlanc and others.

In the eleventh century AD, contemporaneous with the rise of Chaco, Long House Valley was occupied by scattered communities of small houses.  At this time environmental conditions were good, agriculture was productive, and there is no evidence of warfare.  Starting around AD 1150, however, things took a turn for the worse (sound familiar?).  The droughts that ravaged the Southwest during this time began to impact agricultural productivity in Long House Valley, and at the same time the small-house residents began to band together into five aggregated villages in defensible locations and connected to each other by line-of-sight, which in one case required digging a notch out of a hill.  This transition was complete by AD 1260.  It appears that the most likely adversaries of the Long House Valley people were the people of the Klethla Valley to the south, due to a “no man’s land” between the two clusters of settlements and the fact that the southern portion of Long House Valley was abandoned in the early thirteenth century, with its inhabitants presumably joining the people who were aggregating into large villages in the northern part of the valley.  Again, this is all in line with LeBlanc’s arguments about clustering of settlements and development of buffer zones in response to warfare.  By 1300, the whole Kayenta area was abandoned, along with most of the Colorado Plateau.

Black Mesa from Kayenta, Arizona

Bailey mentions there being “some dispute” over who the descendants of the Kayenta people are, and it’s likely that they ended up joining a variety of other Pueblo groups, but I don’t think there’s much reason to question the obvious conclusion that most of them probably ended up joining the Hopis, who lived on the mesas on the other side of Black Mesa from the Kayenta area and live there still.  Their route may have been rather circuitous, however, even if most did end up at Hopi; there is abundant evidence of at least some Kayenta groups migrating to southeastern Arizona, as far south as the Tucson area, at this time, and there may have been substantial Kayenta populations moving into the mountains of east-central Arizona in the late thirteenth century.  These immigrant settlements didn’t persist, however, and in one famous case a roomblock with Kayenta-style architecture at Point of Pines was occupied alongside other roomblocks of local style from about AD 1265 until it was suddenly destroyed around 1300 and not rebuilt, even though the rest of the site in question continued to be occupied for another 150 years.  It appears that the Kayenta immigrants were initially tolerated without having to assimilate, perhaps because the process of aggregation in the local area was leading to widespread changes in social relations as reflected in community organization.  Later on, however, the locals apparently turned on them, or at least didn’t interfere when someone else in the area did, and the survivors either moved on (Kayenta sites further south dating to a slightly later period are known) or went back north to try their luck with the Hopis.  This seems to be a very probable case of ethnic violence, which is starting to get some attention as an explanation for certain events in the ancient Southwest but which is in most cases going to be extraordinarily difficult to see in the archaeological record.  In this case, however, apparently because of the very recent immigration and lack of assimilation, a difference in ethnicity is visible in an unusually clear-cut way.

Anyway, Bailey’s discussion of Haas’s research is interesting, although I’m not really convinced by his conclusion that the lesson of Long House Valley is that people got along peacefully for centuries before special circumstances forced them to fight, and that this “challenges the conventional wisdom that warfare has been a constant throughout human history.”  LeBlanc’s argument is that it is instead the period of peace and abundance during the eleventh century that was anomalous, and that there is plenty of evidence for warfare before this, though admittedly much less than for the period afterward.  LeBlanc concludes from this that warfare has indeed been a “constant throughout human history” and that it is peace, rather than war, that needs explaining when it occurs.  Of course, the early evidence is pretty limited, due in part just to the fact that less information has survived for early periods in general, so the extent to which LeBlanc’s conclusion is better supported than Bailey’s (which also appears to be Haas’s) is highly debatable.  Also, Bailey very kindly linked to me in his post at his own blog pointing to the guest post (apparently in response to a tongue-lashing from Bill Lipe in the comments about giving Haas’s research more context), for which I thank him.
ResearchBlogging.org
Stone, T. (2000). Prehistoric Community Integration in the Point of Pines Region of Arizona Journal of Field Archaeology, 27 (2) DOI: 10.2307/530593

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Mix of Covered and Backfilled Rooms in Old Bonito

My main area of expertise when it comes to archaeology is the Southwest, but I currently live in New Jersey, and while I don’t know a whole lot about the archaeology of this part of the country I feel like I should probably weigh in on those rare occasions when an archaeological issue makes it into the news.  We seem to be in the midst of one of those occasions now, with the State Capitol Joint Management Commission having recently approved an order by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno to rebury the Petty’s Run archaeological site, which is immediately adjacent to the Statehouse in Trenton.  This site, which was uncovered in 2008, contains a variety of buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that shed considerable light on the early history of Trenton.  The site lies right between the Statehouse and the Old Barracks Museum, and the administration of then-governor John Corzine planned to make it a key part of a new state park.  The plan for establishing the park called for the site to be enclosed in glass, presumably to protect it while leaving it visible.

Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

When Chris Christie defeated Corzine last year, however, plans for the new park came to a halt and the site has just been sitting there, exposed but visible behind a fence.  Indeed, Guadagno’s problem appears to have been that the site is all too visible.  She can see it from her office in the Statehouse and she apparently considers it an “eyesore,” which is why she wants it reburied.  Many people, including political opponents of the Christie administration and Old Barracks Museum director Richard Patterson, are outraged by this move.  (The archaeologist who excavated the site, Richard Hunter, has declined to comment on the issue.)  Guadagno’s apparent motivation in having the site reburied does seem rather petty, but a lot of the outrage seems to be directed at the very idea of reburying the site.  I think this outrage is misplaced.  This may be a silly reason to rebury a site, but reburying (or “backfilling”) sites is a standard and very effective way of preserving them.

Chaco Preservation Crew at Work on the Fort Site

One of the major problems with excavation, and one of the reasons it is often avoided when possible, is that once a site is excavated it is no longer protected by the dirt that covered and preserved whatever was in it.  If left open a site will rapidly begin to deteriorate, so whatever organization is responsible for the site has a choice.  It can leave the site open and let it fall apart (not a popular option), or it can do something to preserve it.  In places like Chaco Canyon, where the visual impact of sites is considered a high priority, preservation involves an elaborate and very expensive effort at stabilizing standing walls and preventing further deterioration.  Since the main sources of impacts are weather and visitation, and these are ongoing year after year, preservation through stabilization means continual work.

Structure Covering Megalithic House, Mesa Verde

Another option is to build some sort of structure over the site to protect it from impacts while still leaving it visible to visitors.  In the Southwest this is rarely done for major sites because it makes them look “inauthentic,” with some exceptions such as Casa Grande and some of the especially well-preserved rooms at Pueblo Bonito.  For smaller sites and particularly fragile ones, however, this is a popular option, as it is much cheaper and less labor-intensive than constantly struggling to prop up the walls and generally provides better protection as well.  Many of the mesa-top sites at Mesa Verde and other parts of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah have this kind of protection.  It sounds like this is the kind of thing the Corzine administration was planning to do with Petty’s Run, although it’s not totally clear to me exactly how the glass enclosure concept would have worked.

Backfilling Using Tarps at Homol'ovi I

The final option, which is generally both cheaper and more protective than the other two, is backfilling.  This takes most or all of the site out of public view, of course, which makes it problematic for sites that are intended to be developed as tourist attractions.  For sites that are not publicly accessible, however, this is the standard means of preservation.  It can be done in a way that makes it relatively easy to open up the site again later for further excavation, and in many cases archaeologists will refill sites at the end of each excavation season with the intent of returning to them later.  This can be done with tarps, for example, as the Arizona State Museum has done in its multi-year research project at the now-closed Homol’ovi Ruins State Park in Winslow.  In some cases responsible organizations start out trying to stabilize excavated sites and end up backfilling them when they can no longer afford to.  This is what has happened at Casa Malpais, which is owned by the town of Springerville, Arizona.  Some rooms that had been left open after excavation were recently backfilled because the town could no longer afford to stabilize them.

Preparations for Backfilling a Room, Casa Malpais, Springerville, Arizona

Now, this is all based on my experience of preservation techniques at sites in the Southwest, and it’s certainly possible that archaeologists in the Northeast don’t do things the same way.  For one thing, Northeastern archaeology seems to be much more focused on the historic than the prehistoric period, presumably because there has been so much historic development overlying whatever prehistoric sites remain.  Since historic sites are often built of sturdier materials than those that were available to prehistoric people, it might not be as problematic to leave a typical historic site exposed as it would be to do the same with a typical prehistoric site.  On the other hand, preservation conditions are much worse in this humid environment than in the arid Southwest.  Water is one of the biggest threats to preservation of exposed sites, and with the amount of precipitation that is typical of this area I’m sure even the best-constructed historic sites are at considerable risk.  The fact that the Corzine administration’s park plan called for enclosing the Petty’s Run site in glass makes me think this is indeed a major concern in Northeastern archaeology.

Structure Covering Coombs Village, Anasazi State Park, Boulder, Utah

The upshot of all this is that to the extent that the Christie administration is showing a lack of respect for the state’s heritage in its treatment of the Petty’s Run site, that’s being manifested in the decision not to pursue the park plan rather than the decision to backfill the site.  Guadagno may be motivated by superficial aesthetic considerations in wanting the site reburied, but whether or not the site is an eyesore leaving it exposed is not the way to preserve it.

Highly Deteriorated Vertical Intramural Beams at Pueblo Bonito

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Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

In 1527 an expedition led by the Spanish nobleman Pánfilo de Narváez left Spain with the intention of conquering and colonizing Florida.  Accompanying the expedition as treasurer was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who ended up being one of a handful of survivors of the disastrous expedition.  Cabeza de Vaca later wrote an account of the expedition and the years it took for him and the other survivors to make their way from Galveston Island, where they had been shipwrecked after a series of disasters in Florida itself, to Culiacán in what is now the state of Sinaloa in western Mexico, where in 1536 they finally encountered other Spaniards who were busy conquering that area.  This account has become a classic of the ethnohistoric literature, both because Cabeza de Vaca was an unusually perceptive observer of the various native peoples he encountered during his travels and because very little other information is available about those peoples, whose numbers and cultures were later devastated by permanent European settlement so quickly and thoroughly that few observations about them were published.

One of the interesting episodes described by Cabeza de Vaca occurred when the small group of Spaniards arrived at a village where the inhabitants gave one of his companions a large copper bell decorated with a face.  When the Spanish, who were always very interested in any metals they could find, asked where it had come from the people told them they had acquired it from a neighboring group and that it had come originally from the north, where there was abundant copper.  At the next village the group visited they showed the people the bell, and were told that there was indeed much more copper where it had come from, in the form of both bells and plates, and that there were permanent dwellings in that area.  Cabeza de Vaca apparently concluded that the copper had come from the Pacific coast, which was indeed a major area of copper production in Mesoamerica.  This particular bell, however, and the other copper objects mentioned by the people he spoke to in the villages he visited probably did not come from West Mexico.

Macaw Feathers and Copper Bell on Display at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

This episode has been of considerable interest to archaeologists, as copper bells were among the most important items of trade between Mesoamerica, especially West Mexico, and the Greater Southwest.  They have been found in considerable numbers at Chaco Canyon, as well as at Hohokam and Sinagua sites in Arizona and various other parts of the Southwest.  One archaeologist, Jeremiah Epstein of the University of Texas, published an article in 1991 looking carefully at Cabeza de Vaca’s account and correlating it with known archaeological evidence and other ethnohistorical sources from later Spanish expeditions.  He concluded that it the likely source of the bell mentioned by Cabeza de Vaca, as well as other copper objects mentioned by the Ibarra expedition in 1565 and the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition in 1581, was the well-known site of Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua.

The exact route of Cabeza de Vaca’s travels has been a matter of considerable debate.  Epstein’s article relied on a reconstruction of the route that placed the copper bell episode near the modern city of Monclova, in the state of Coahuila in northeastern Mexico.  This is about 500 miles southeast of Casas Grandes, which fits well with the claim that the bell Cabeza de Vaca mentions came from the north.  In addition, the Ibarra expedition visited the immediate area of Casas Grandes and reported copper ornaments among the local population there, and the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition encountered copper objects among groups in the Rio Grande valley east of Casas Grandes who reported that they came from the west.  Epstein concluded from these reports that Casas Grandes is the most likely source for the copper objects of the archaeological sites in the Greater Southwest known to have had large numbers of copper bells.  Furthermore, Epstein noted that while many Southwestern archaeological sites had copper bells, very few had bells in decorated with human faces, which Cabeza de Vaca clearly stated to be a characteristic of the bell he described.  Casas Grandes did have this type of bell, and it also had a variety of flat copper artifacts that could be plausibly described as the “plates” mentioned by the second village Cabeza de Vaca described.  (Interestingly, such “plates” seem to be virtually restricted to Casas Grandes in the Southwest, although copper bells are pretty common.  The only possible example of a flat copper artifact like this at another site was found in Room 2 of Pueblo Bonito.)  I find his specific reasoning about each line of evidence a bit less solid than he did, but all together I think he was probably right to point to Casas Grandes as the most likely source for the copper artifacts described by the sixteenth-century Spanish sources.

Doorway into Room 2 from Room 36, Pueblo Bonito

The most interesting thing about this, as Epstein noted in his article, is that Casas Grandes had been abandoned for about a century when Cabeza de Vaca came through the area and saw the bell that apparently came from there.  When it was occupied, Casas Grandes was one of the largest and most important sites in the whole region, and excavations there have shown that it was a major center for a variety of Mesoamerican-derived activities, including macaw breeding and copper working.  The bells and other copper artifacts found there were apparently made there, in contrast to those found at Chaco, which was occupied significantly earlier and imported its copper bells from West Mexico, which at that time was the only part of Mesoamerica to practice copper working.  By the late Postclassic period, however, when Casas Grandes flourished, copper metallurgy had become a standard practice at major centers throughout the Mesoamerican culture area.

In the sixteenth century, however, Casas Grandes was very clearly no longer occupied.  The Ibarra expedition, which came through the area in 1565, found the site already a ruin, and the only local people were hunter-gatherers living in simple, impermanent dwellings quite different from the imposing multi-story adobe edifices at Casas Grandes.  These hunter-gatherers, however, did have some copper “plates” which parallel the ones reported by Cabeza de Vaca’s sources.  The expedition also noted evidence of metalworking at the ruins of Casas Grandes, but did not mention any evidence that the current inhabitants had made their copper plates themselves.

So how did the hunter-gatherers who lived around Casas Grandes in 1565 get their copper plates, and how did the people in Coahuila in the 1530s and the people living along the Rio Grande in 1581 get their copper bells?  Epstein’s answer, which I find quite convincing, is that the local hunter-gatherers dug into the ruins to get the copper artifacts in them, then traded them to various other groups in northern Mexico.  That is to say, they “looted” the site for economic gain much the way modern pothunters in the Southwest and elsewhere do.  Indeed, according to Epstein, the extensive excavations at Casas Grandes conducted by Charles Di Peso for the Amerind Foundation in the 1970s uncovered “evidence of Precolumbian vandalism” (in Epstein’s words) in some areas of the site.  So it seems looting of archaeological sites has a long history in the Southwest.

Jerome, Arizona from Tuzigoot National Monument

What I find most interesting about this is the parallel to the situation in modern cities, which now contain such huge amounts of certain materials, especially copper, that they are becoming a major source for materials that have traditionally been mined from nonrenewable natural deposits such as those that spurred the settlement of Western mining towns like Jerome, ArizonaJohn Fernandez of MIT discusses this issue, drawing on the work of Tom Graedel at Yale, in this video from 2007 (starting at about 21:29).

Fernandez quotes Jane Jacobs as saying that “our cities are the mines of the future.”  And, at least as Fernandez presents it, that does indeed seem like a prescient statement.  Epstein’s article, however, demonstrates that digging for copper in abandoned homes is hardly a new phenomenon.  Like so much else that humans do today, it has a very long history.  The cities of today may be the mines of the future, but the cities of yesterday have already become the mines of the past.
ResearchBlogging.org
Epstein, J. (1991). Cabeza de Vaca and the Sixteenth-Century Copper Trade in Northern Mexico American Antiquity, 56 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280896

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Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

Yesterday the water level in Lake Mead hit its lowest point since the lake was originally filled in the 1930s.  John Fleck was there to mark the occasion, and he has some interesting thoughts on this historic event.  The importance of this milestone is more symbolic than practical; the lake level has not yet become low enough to trigger an actual shortage of water.  Nevertheless, this is an important reminder of the importance of water in the Southwest and the brave new world it is entering as the climate changes and conditions become both drier and less predictable.

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Wupatki Pueblo

One of the many similarities between Chaco and Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, in addition to the similar types of effigy vessels, is the presence of significant numbers of scarlet macaw skeletons at both sites.  As with most of these parallels, the evidence at Casas Grandes is more impressive in scale, with hundreds of macaws found as compared to dozens at Chaco.  It has long been argued that Casas Grandes may have been breeding the macaws, rather than importing them all directly from areas to the south, and that it may have even been the source of most of the macaws found elsewhere in the Southwest.  When it was thought that Casas Grandes was contemporaneous with Chaco, it seemed like an obvious source of the macaws found there and in the Mimbres area in between, but it is now known that the rise of Casas Grandes came well after the decline of Chaco, so wherever the macaws at Chaco came from, it wasn’t Casas Grandes.

So, leaving the question of Chaco and other early sites with macaws aside, what was going on with the macaws at Casas Grandes.  Were they indeed being bred and traded to other Southwestern sites, such as Wupatki in northern Arizona?  Or were they being imported directly from somewhere in Mesoamerica, either for trade or for local use?  A recent paper sets out to look at this question using stable isotope ratios, a type of analysis we have been seeing a lot of lately in Southwestern archaeology.  Specifically, the paper looks at the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, widely used to determine the diet of an animal and specifically whether it was dependent on maize, and the ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16, which reflects the chemical makeup of the water the animal drank and can be used as a rough proxy for the environment in which it was raised.  We’ve seen carbon isotope analysis recently used to show that Anasazi turkeys subsisted mainly on maize.  Oxygen isotope analysis is used less in the Southwest, but it is particularly useful here because the ratio varies with elevation, humidity, and proximity to the ocean, all of which are major differences between the high, dry Casas Grandes area and the humid coastal lowlands to the south where the scarlet macaw has its natural range.  The ratio thus gives a good sense of whether the birds were brought up from the south or raised right at Casas Grandes.  Strontium isotope ratios can pinpoint places of origin with more precision, but to be useful they have to be accompanied by a major sampling effort to determine the ratios in the various possible source areas.  The conclusion of this paper suggests that strontium analysis may be in the works, but as a first pass oxygen isotope analysis is a good way to go.

The carbon isotope analysis found that the macaws subsisted almost entirely on maize, although the very youngest nestlings seem to have been fed a more varied diet.  Clearly, then, these were not wild macaws captured in their natural habitat and brought north.  In addition, the oxygen isotope analysis found that all but one of the macaws had spent its life in the Casas Grandes area.  The exceptional macaw had an oxygen isotope ratio suggesting a more humid, low-lying environment, so it was likely traded up from somewhere in Mesoamerica.  This suggests that the macaws were indeed being bred at Casas Grandes, although trade relationships with Mesoamerican communities did involve the acquisition at least occasionally of additional birds.

This is all very interesting for understanding Casas Grandes, but what I find most intriguing about the paper is the possibility of using the same techniques on macaw bones from other parts of the Southwest, especially Chaco and other sites pre-dating Casas Grandes.  This paper seems to show pretty conclusively that macaw breeding was going on at Casas Grandes, but it’s still a very open question whether that was an innovation or the continuation of an earlier Southwestern tradition.  I think the Mimbres area is the best place to look for earlier macaw breeding, although obviously Chaco is a possibility as well.  The exact techniques used in this paper would really only be useful for determining if macaws were bred in captivity and if they came from Mesoamerica or somewhere in the Southwest, but the addition of strontium analysis would allow more precise identification of breeding areas within the Southwest, if indeed there were any earlier than Casas Grandes.
ResearchBlogging.org
Somerville, A., Nelson, B., & Knudson, K. (2010). Isotopic investigation of pre-Hispanic macaw breeding in Northwest Mexico Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (1), 125-135 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2009.09.003

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Effigy Vessels and Figurines at Chaco Museum

Okay, I said I would say more about George Pepper’s description of the effigy vessels from Chaco, so here goes.  One interesting thing that he notes is that these are the northernmost examples of human effigy vessels found in the Southwest.  I believe this is still the case over a hundred years later; in general, effigy vessels are very rare among the Anasazi, and human effigy vessels are vanishingly rare.  It’s important to distinguish here between effigy vessels, which is to say pots in the form of humans or animals, and figurines, a very different type of artifact.  At least in the Southwest, figurines are generally small and they portray humans or animals in a somewhat abstracted manner.  They are usually made of clay, but often unfired, and they generally bear little resemblance to “ordinary” pottery.  The Fremont culture in Utah and environs is particularly known for its elaborate anthropomorphic figurines which often resemble rock art figures, but the figurine tradition is very widespread throughout the Southwest, and is known in Mesoamerica as well.  The functions of figurines are very poorly understood, but it seems pretty clear that they had quite different functions from standard pottery regardless of its form.

Effigy vessels such as the ones at Chaco, however, were made the same way regular pots were, were always fired, and generally differ from other pots only in form.  They are much more common in the southern Southwest than in the north, although they are not very common anywhere in the Southwest compared to West Mexico, the core area for human effigy vessels in particular, where they were very widespread and had a wide range of local variants.  Unfortunately, very little specific provenience information on West Mexican effigy vessels is available, although there are many in museum collections, because almost all of the known examples were looted.   From the few known examples from controlled excavations, however, it seems that they were often used as burial goods.  In West Mexico there are both solid and hollow types of effigy vessels; I believe all the Southwestern examples are hollow.  The terms “figurine” and “effigy vessel” seem to sometimes be used interchangeably in Mesoamerican archaeology, which makes understanding the exact nature of the artifacts a bit challenging at times.  The effigy vessel tradition does seem to have been present in at least some other parts of Mesoamerica, such as Central Mexico and the northeast, but in general the center of it seems to have been along the west coast.  This makes the appearance of similar vessels in the Southwest unsurprising, given that West Mexico is the part of Mesoamerica generally thought to have had the closest ties to the Southwest.

The main part of the Southwest known for human effigy vessels is the Casas Grandes region in northwestern Chihuahua and the surrounding area.  The Casas Grandes culture, centered on the great center at Paquimé, flourished from about AD 1200 to AD 1450, and it is noteworthy for its very obvious Mesoamerican traits, including ballcourts and macaws in addition to the effigy vessels.  The cultural background for Casas Grandes has been disputed.  Charles Di Peso, who excavated about half of Paquimé for the Amerind Foundation, thought it was a Mesoamerican outpost founded by pochteca traders to acquire turquoise and other Southwestern trade goods for the Mesoamerican market.  He also interpreted the chronology of the site differently from more recent researchers, and thought that it was at least partially contemporary with Chaco and the Classic Mimbres and a possible source of the Mesoamerican influences found in those areas.  The fact that it actually postdates those cultural florescences has led some others more recently to argue that Casas Grandes is more of an effect of them than a cause, and Stephen Lekson has argued that it was actually the third great center founded by the people who had earlier built Chaco and Aztec.  Few others have followed Lekson’s lead on that, and the main dispute today seems to be whether Casas Grandes was a totally indigenous development or tied to the disruptions of the 1100s elsewhere in the Southwest.

Among the most prominent scholars working on Casas Grandes today are the husband and wife team of Todd and Christine VanPool at the University of Missouri.  His specialty is stone tools, while hers is ceramics, and they have done some interesting work on trying to reconstruct the social structure of the society based on these remains.  Christine VanPool published an interesting article in 2003 on shamanism at Casas Grandes in which she argued from the way male figures are presented in effigy vessels and painted on other pots that the leadership at Paquimé was likely led by shaman-priests who derived their political and economic power from their ability to interact with the supernatural world.  Some of the male effigy vessels are shown smoking, which VanPool argues is a sign of the use of tobacco to induce a trance state (apparently tobacco can cause a hallucinatory and even a catatonic state if used in sufficiently massive amounts) in which the shaman would travel to the other world and interact with various deities there.  Both VanPools published a later article on gender imagery as seen in the effigy vessels, which tend to have highly exaggerated primary and secondary sexual characteristics.  They argue that the images associated with gender imply a “complementary” gender structure in the society, in which men and women have different roles that interact to support the society as a whole.  Both articles lend support to the idea of a more  Mesoamerican than Southwestern social structure at Paquimé, with a highly hierarchical society led by male shaman-priests and a set of complementary gender roles supporting that hierarchy.  This is in contrast to the (allegedly) more egalitarian Pueblo societies, where rituals were conducted by corporate groups and gender roles were often organized in parallel hierarchies involving less interaction between male and female domains.

This is all very interesting, and it at least implies that something similar could have been going on at Chaco, but there’s not much more that can be said than that in terms of the implications of this research for other areas.  One reason the VanPools can come to such strong conclusions about gender roles and other aspects of Casas Grandes society from the effigy vessels is that there are so many of them.  Their second article lists 50 male and 40 female vessels.  At Chaco, however, the two or three vessels described by Pepper are pretty much the whole corpus that is complete enough to draw any conclusions about, and that just isn’t enough data for any major conclusions at all.  One thing that is noteworthy, however, is that while there are some obvious similarities in form between the Casas Grandes and Chaco vessels, there are also some noteworthy differences.  For one thing, none of the Chaco vessels are smoking.  This could just be due to sampling issues, but the absence of this important shamanic characteristic (in the VanPool interpretation, at least) does undermine any argument that leadership at Chaco may have been based on shamanic power, at least in the absence of other evidence.  Also, the female vessel with the lovingly sculpted genitals, although incomplete, seems to be sitting with legs raised, like the complete male vessel, which at Casas Grandes is a very strongly male-identified posture.  Females there almost all have their legs stretched out in front of them.  The decorations on the Chaco vessels are also pretty different from the Casas Grandes ones, although this is probably just a reflection of the rather different decorative traditions for pottery from both places in general.

Overall, then, I think the VanPools’ research on Casas Grandes effigy vessels is of limited utility in understanding the Chaco ones.  If, as Lekson thinks, Casas Grandes is the ultimate heir to the Chaco tradition, it seems there had been quite a bit of change in the intervening period.  On the other hand, and perhaps more likely, it may be that both Chaco and Casas Grandes were influenced separately by the cultures of West Mexico, where the wide variety of effigy vessels used in different local areas may have resulted in somewhat different types being adopted in the two parts of the Southwest.  It would be good to be able to look at all the different types of West Mexican human effigy vessels to see which ones correspond most closely to both the Chaco and Casas Grandes examples, but the literature on the vessels seems to be rather scattered, and the lack of provenience information for so many, combined with the somewhat insecure dating of the archaeological sequences in many parts of the region, makes this a difficult task.  I’ll continue to wade through the literature I can find, however, and see if I can come up with anything more specific to say.

The general lack of Anasazi examples of vessels like these outside of Chaco is another line of evidence pointing toward a greater level of Mesoamerican influence at Chaco, also seen in the presence of macaws, copper bells, and chocolate, and the association of effigy vessels with West Mexico specifically is another sign that that is the place to look.  The same applies almost verbatim to Casas Grandes with the exception of the chocolate, which has not been found there (yet?).  The Casas Grandes effigy vessels have gotten a lot of attention, however, while the Chaco ones have mostly languished in obscurity, used mainly as illustrations in general-interest books and the like.  They definitely deserve more attention, however, since despite (or because of) their rarity they are enormously important in understanding the nature and context of the Chaco system.
ResearchBlogging.org
VanPool, C. (2003). The Shaman-Priests of the Casas Grandes Region, Chihuahua, Mexico American Antiquity, 68 (4), 696-717 DOI: 10.2307/3557068

VanPool, C., & VanPool, T. (2006). Gender in Middle Range Societies: A Case Study in Casas Grandes Iconography American Antiquity, 71 (1), 53-75 DOI: 10.2307/40035321

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