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Archive for the ‘Basketry’ Category

chacomuseumsandals

Plaited Sandals at Chaco Museum

Chapter nine of Crucible of Pueblos looks at perishable artifacts (i.e., those made of materials that are often not preserved in the archaeological record, such as yucca fiber, animal hair, and cotton) during the Pueblo I period. Written by Laurie Webster, one of the most prominent experts on prehistoric Southwestern perishables, this chapter functions partly as an inventory and description of all known perishables from Pueblo I sites, and as such it is highly technical in nature and not very accessible for a casual reader. For this summary, therefore, I will focus on the high-level conclusions that can be made about Pueblo I cultural dynamics and relationships from the perishable evidence, rather than the evidence itself.

Those conclusions are quite interesting, as it turns out, especially when it comes to the patterning of different types of artifacts. Webster covers several different types of artifact, but I will focus on two with the most interesting cultural implications: sandals and textiles.

First, however, a note about the data. As Webster notes, the Pueblo I period has historically been poorly represented in the perishable data compared to earlier and later period that are known for extraordinary preservation from caves and rock shelters, especially the Basketmaker II and Pueblo III periods. People made much less use of caves and rock shelters during Pueblo I, and as a result many more of their perishable artifacts have, well, perished, and those that do survive are mostly in poor condition. Indeed, most of the best-preserved Pueblo I perishables are from areas like Tsegi Canyon and Canyon del Muerto in northeastern Arizona where caves did continue to be used in Pueblo I, although the Pueblo I occupation in these areas is poorly understood and it is not always clear that artifacts assigned to Pueblo I by early excavators really do date to this period. Luckily, however, the nature of perishable artifacts means that they can be directly radiocarbon-dated, and Webster mentions several examples that have been and many more that could be.

With that caveat out of the way, sandals. These were generally made out of yucca fiber and appear to have been a key way people at the time signaled their cultural identity, based on the geographic patterning of different types, and they likely had symbolic importance as well at least for some groups, based on the elaboration of some examples, implying an immense amount of labor, as well as the depiction of sandals in rock art and the creation of clay effigies (often called “sandal lasts” although that doesn’t appear to have been their actual function). In particular, highly elaborate twined sandals were common in western areas during Pueblo I, a continuation of a tradition from Basketmaker times. Pueblo I examples are known from northeastern Arizona, the eastern slope of the Chuska Mountains in New Mexico, the Dolores area in Colorado, and Chaco Canyon. In contrast, only one example is known from the Animas River Valley, and none from further east, despite the large recent excavations in this area in conjunction with large development projects.

durangoanimas

Animas River, Durango, Colorado

A different type of sandal dominates in these eastern areas, a twill-plaited design that appears to date back to the Basketmaker II sites near Durango, Colorado. This type dominates in the Ridges Basin and Blue Mesa area of the Eastern Mesa Verde region and is also found in the Navajo Reservoir area further south, as well as at Grass Mesa Village in the Dolores area. The last is particularly interesting given that there is other evidence that Grass Mesa was settled by people from areas further east. It is also interesting that McPhee Village, also in the Dolores area, shows mainly twined sandals, again supporting other evidence suggesting western connections for this site. Similarly, the one site in the Animas Valley showing evidence for twined sandals also has other evidence of western connections.

A third type of sandal, plain weave with a rounded or pointed toe, appears to also have a western distribution extending from southern Nevada to northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah but not into Colorado or New Mexico. Less is known about this type than the other two and its cultural significance is not clear.

While in general Webster concludes that Pueblo I perishables mostly continue Basketmaker III patterns without major innovations, she does note one major innovation by late Pueblo I: the increasing use of cotton. While many of the cotton textiles from northeastern Arizona attributed to Pueblo I have questions about their dating and associations, there is one example of a sash from Obelisk Cave in the Prayer Rock District (extreme northeastern Arizona) that has been directly dated to the AD 700s (early Pueblo I). One particularly interesting thing about this sash is that it actually consists of a mixture of cotton and dog hair, clearly showing the transition from animal hair and cotton for textiles. While the form of this item and the use of mixed materials strongly implies that it was made locally, it is not clear if the cotton was in fact grown locally or imported from the Hohokam in southern Arizona, who had a well-established tradition of cotton agriculture by this time.

By late Pueblo I, however, there is strong evidence that at least some Pueblo groups were growing their own cotton. At Antelope House in Pueblo del Muerto, cotton cloth in contexts dating to the AD 900s was found along with cotton seeds and bolls, clearly implying that cotton was being grown in this area by then, as it continued to be throughout the Pueblo period. Interestingly, there is no evidence for Pueblo I use of cotton textiles further east, again implying some sort of major cultural boundary. This is in contrast to later periods, when cotton grown in northeastern Arizona was traded to various other parts of the Pueblo world.

So anyway, those are the major points of interest about Pueblo I perishables. I find the most interesting point from the perspective of Chaco to be the fact that it patterns with the western rather than the eastern style of sandal, which reinforces other evidence for western connections for at least some of the people who came to Chaco in late Pueblo I and contributed to its rise into a dominant regional center in the northern Southwest.

penascoblancochuskas

Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

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McPhee Reservoir from McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

McPhee Reservoir from McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

Today was the first day of the 2009 Pecos Conference, which is being held at the group campground at McPhee Reservoir north of Cortez, Colorado.  This is a fitting location, since the creation of the reservoir with the construction of McPhee Dam in 1980 was the impetus for the Dolores Archaeological Project, often considered the largest salvage archaeology project in American history, which immensely increased knowledge of the archaeology of southwestern Colorado through an ambitious program of excavation and other research to gather information on the many sites at risk of being destroyed by the lake.

McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde Escarpment from McPhee Campground

McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde Escarpment from McPhee Campground

There were a lot of interesting talks.  The way the Pecos Conference works, since it’s generally held at a campground of some sort, is that talks take place in a big tent and are short (about 10 minutes each), with no audiovisual equipment available.  This keeps things from getting too dull even if a given talk isn’t the most exciting, and also allows for a lot of talks in a limited amount of time.  The morning began with a symposium on recent research on the Basketmaker II period in several parts of the southwest.  That isn’t really one of my main areas of interest, so I didn’t make it to all of the talks, but the ones I saw were pretty interesting.  There were then some miscellaneous talks in the late morning, then lunch.

Presentation Tent at 2009 Pecos Conference, McPhee Campground

Presentation Tent at 2009 Pecos Conference, McPhee Campground

After lunch there was another little symposium, this time on “Chaco Migration and Emulation Research,” focused on the Totah or Middle San Juan region around present-day Farmington, New Mexico.  This was obviously of considerable interest to me, so I stayed for all of the talks.  The focus was on the major outliers at Salmon and Aztec and the question of the extent to which their striking similarities to sites in Chaco Canyon was the result of actual immigration of people from Chaco versus emulation of Chaco by local people.  Most of the research was conducted under a grant from the National Science Foundation to Paul Reed of the Center for Desert Archaeology, who was the organizer of the symposium.  The talks looked at different lines of evidence (architecture, pottery, perishable artifacts) and concluded from them that there was a mixture of immigration and emulation at the outliers in the Totah, but that the different river valleys in the area may have had different degrees of mixture.  Since Salmon and Aztec were founded in areas of apparently low native population, the San Juan and Animas valleys respectively, direct migration of Chacoans is more apparent at those two sites than at outliers in the heavily populated La Plata valley, where any incoming Chacoans would have had to deal with a much more numerous and powerful local population, if indeed the great houses in the La Plata area had any direct Chacoan element at all rather than being entirely efforts at local emulation of Chaco.  While I’m not sure I agree with all of this, it was quite interesting and I’ll have to mull it over.

Jeff Reid Speaking in Presentation Tent at 2009 Pecos Conference

Jeff Reid Speaking in Presentation Tent at 2009 Pecos Conference

There were a bunch more talks in the afternoon, many of them with relevance to Chaco, including one by two political scientists suggesting some ways that the political science literature could be integrated into Chacoan archaeology and one by a carpenter suggesting that the famous T-shaped doorways in great kivas may have been attempts to continue the form of doorway found in Basketmaker III pithouses.  Somewhat less directly relevant to Chaco but still interesting was a report of a burial of a turkey, two dogs, and a rabbit in a kiva at a site in Colorado.  The animals were apparently all buried at once, and while individual dog or turkey burials are fairly common, rabbit burials are apparently otherwise unknown, and the combination of all the animals is certainly unique in the archaeological record.

Book Tent at 2009 Pecos Conference, McPhee Campground

Book Tent at 2009 Pecos Conference, McPhee Campground

After all the talks, and a break for dinner, came the keynote address, by none other than Craig Childs.  Childs is an interesting character, and I was interested to see what he would say and how he would be received by the archaeological community in this context, since he’s been rather critical of archaeologists at times in the past.  It turns out, however, that he is on good terms with archaeologists in general, and he had plenty of good things to say about them.  His talk was particularly interesting and relevant for me, since it focused on the importance of communicating archaeology to the public.  This is basically what both Childs and I do, but Childs was quite adamant (and emphasized this in his answer to a question later) that while having intermediaries translate the research is all well and good, at least some archaeologists should be doing the work themselves, because they know the research and the data to a much greater degree than even the best-informed outsider.  He therefore structured his talk as advice to archaeologists on how to write for a popular audience.  It was good advice.

Camping at McPhee Campground for 2009 Pecos Conference

Camping at McPhee Campground for 2009 Pecos Conference

His main points were these:

  1. Just get it out there.  It’s always easy to second-guess things and feel you don’t have it quite right or it’s not totally clear, but you can’t let that keep you from putting it forward anyway.  The need for the information to be out there is too important to wait for it to be perfect.
  2. Pay attention to every word and sentence you write.  Tell the story the way you’d want it to be told to you.  Make the pacing, tone, and humor of the piece work.  He specifically cited Steve Lekson as an example of an archaeologist who does this fantastically well.
  3. Omit.  It’s hard to leave anything out, but to be readable a piece has to be a reasonable length, and that means you can’t include everything.  The important thing is to know what is best to leave in and what can be taken out.
  4. Know your story.  While this is somewhat in tension with “just get it out” above, since you can never know anything perfectly enough, it’s important to know what you’re saying and why.  This is not always obvious.  Sometimes it takes real work to figure out what you want to say.
  5. It’s not your story.  Once you write something down and send it out, you no longer have control over it, and it’s important to accept that and not let it keep you from sending it out.  Childs is known for inserting himself into his books to a degree that not everyone finds appealing, but he said that even so, he has to remind himself that it’s still not his story once he sends it out into the world.  It belongs to whoever reads it.
  6. Transmit the mystery.  This was particularly interesting, as Childs has been criticized by many, myself included, for overemphasizing the “vanishing Anasazi” idea and the notion that the ancient people of the southwest mysterious disappeared when they quite clearly just became the modern native people of the southwest.  He acknowledged that, but put the mystery idea in a broader perspective.  There’s always mystery to anything we study, especially anything we’re passionate about, and he wants archaeologists to transmit that sense of mystery and fascination.  It’s not totally boring and dry; otherwise no one would devote their lives to it.  When it comes to Chaco specifically, there’s so much we don’t know that it’s pretty easy to get this across.  Chaco is, indeed, a place of majesty and a place of mystery.
Picnic Tables at McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

Picnic Tables at McPhee Campground, Site of 2009 Pecos Conference

Childs is a talented speaker; he speaks the way he writes, fluidly if at times a bit overwrought.  He certainly got his points across clearly here, and the questions afterward reflected that.  One point that came across most clearly in the question-and-answer session was that he sees communicating with the public as a moral responsibility of archaeologists.  Archaeological research involves the acquisition of an enormous amount of knowledge and information, and archaeologists need to share that information with the public as the price of doing what it takes to acquire it.  While he didn’t come out and say this squarely, it was obvious that he thinks the destructive nature of much archaeological research, particularly excavation, needs to be justified somehow in terms of its benefits to society.  Distributing the information gained is the most obvious way to do that.  It also, as David Grant Noble pointed out during the question-and-answer session, makes it easier for archaeologists to get funding and discourages looting.  The more people know about the results of archaeological research, the more likely they are to support funding it and the less likely they are to support the destruction of the archaeological record through wanton digging up of artifacts.  Neither Childs nor any of his questioners mentioned the recent Blanding arrests specifically, but they were clearly in the air.

Facilities at McPhee Campground for Campers at 2009 Pecos Conference

Facilities at McPhee Campground for Campers at 2009 Pecos Conference

I’ve been a bit skeptical in the past of efforts to have archaeologists be the ones to present archaeology to the public, but Childs made a strong case that they are useful to have out there leveraging their deep knowledge to inform the public.  Lekson aside, archaeologists are generally terrible writers, since the skills that make a good archaeologist don’t tend to have much overlap with the skills that make a good writer, and as I  learned from listening to the presentations today they’re often not very good at public speaking either.  Childs’s advice on how to write well is therefore crucial if more archaeologists are ever to engage directly with the public the way he wants them to.  Let’s hope it’s well taken.

Mesa Verde Escarpment from 2009 Pecos Conference at McPhee Campground

Mesa Verde Escarpment from 2009 Pecos Conference at McPhee Campground

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