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Archive for the ‘Origins’ Category

McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde Escarpment from McPhee Campground

McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde Escarpment

The second chapter of Crucible of Pueblos discusses the Central Mesa Verde region, which is defined as basically the southwestern corner of Colorado, bounded on the west and south by the modern borders with Utah and New Mexico, on the east by the La Plata River valley, and on the north by the highlands north of the Dolores River. This is the region where Pueblo I period villages have been most extensively studied, primarily by the Dolores Project during the construction of McPhee Reservoir in the 1980s and in subsequent research by archaeologists building on that work. As a result, there’s not a whole lot that’s new in this chapter for someone who has been following the literature on this topic, although it does make a good introduction to the subject for someone who hasn’t. It also discusses some parts of the area, especially the northern and eastern fringes, that have seen much less research than the well-studied Great Sage Plain (including the Dolores sites) and Mesa Verde proper. Overall, the data assembled here is among the most detailed and reliable available to analyze demographic trends and population movements during the Pueblo I period in the northern Southwest.

Among the key factors that the authors discuss are the inherent attractiveness of this region to early farmers because of its good soil and relatively favorable climatic conditions compared to other nearby areas. Indeed, this is the only part of the northern Southwest that has seen extensive dry farming in modern times, and it is still primarily agricultural in use. This makes it unsurprising that early farmers would have concentrated here, as indeed they did, starting in the Basketmaker III period ca. AD 600 and increasing steadily in population through about 725. These early sites generally consisted of scattered hamlets presumably housing individual families. Villages, which in this context means clusters of multiple residential roomblocks in close proximity, began to appear around 750, often in association with great kivas, which had previously been rare in this region for reasons that are unclear.

Villages to both the west and east, discussed in subsequent chapters, date to the same period as these early ones in the Central Mesa Verde villages, and there was a striking variety in community organization and layout across the broader region. The dissolution of the eastern and western villages seems to have contributed to an influx of population into the Central Mesa Verde area in the early ninth century, resulting in the largest and densest concentration of population seen to that date. Village layout also became more standardized, with two main patterns dominating, one associated with great kivas and another including U-shaped roomblocks that were likely ancestral to later “great houses.” These villages, most extensively documented at Dolores, were however short-lived, and by the early tenth century the area was almost completely depopulated, with the former inhabitants apparently moving primarily to the south, into the southern part of the San Juan Basin, where they seem to have played a key role in the developments that led to the rise of Chaco Canyon as a major regional center in the eleventh century.

As I said before, none of this is groundbreaking information at this point, and I’ve discussed some of the implications of the Dolores data before. It is however useful to have a synthesis of this region during this important period to refer to, and this chapter works well for that purpose.

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McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

A few years ago I did a series of posts called “Aftermath” that consisted of short commentaries on the chapters in The Prehistoric Pueblo World, a volume edited by Michael Adler that synthesized information on the archaeology of the Pueblo III period (AD 1150 to 1350) in various regions of the Southwest. This period postdated the decline of Chaco Canyon as a major regional center, and understanding it is important for understanding the relationship between Chaco and the modern Pueblos, as well as for understanding some aspects of Chaco itself.

Another period that is of perhaps even greater interest for understanding Chaco is the Pueblo I period (generally defined as AD 750 to 900, but see below), which immediately predates Chaco’s rise to regional dominance. I was therefore pleased to see the publication in 2o12 of Crucible of Pueblos: The Early Pueblo Period in the Northern Southwest, a volume synthesizing information on the Pueblo I period along the same lines as Adler’s effort for Pueblo III. It’s edited by Rich Wilshusen, Gregson Schachner, and James Allison, all of whom have made important recent contributions to understanding of this under-researched period. I’m just now getting around to reading it, and I decided to do a similar series of posts commenting on the chapters as I read them. I’m entitling the series “Foreshadow” to indicate the way developments during this period seem to, well, foreshadow later developments at and involving Chaco.

This post addresses the introduction, which is by the three editors of the volume along with Kellam Throgmorton, who is not otherwise a familiar name (at least to me) but who is thanked in the acknowledgments for his work “reimagining” this chapter. He was apparently a graduate student at the University of Colorado at the time, and has since graduated and is now “doing contract archaeology work in New Mexico.” The introduction as it stands is very engaging and readable, so if that was Throgmorton’s doing I can see why the volume editors took care to thank him specifically.

This introductory chapter is primarily a history of archaeological research on the Pueblo I period in the Southwest, but it also situates that history in the context of archaeological understanding of that period and how it relates to others, which has changed markedly over time. It also explains the reasoning for this volume’s use of “Early Pueblo” rather than “Pueblo I” to describe the period of interest, which is defined more broadly than Pueblo I has traditionally been. As with so much else in Southwestern archaeology, the issues here go back to the classification developed at the first Pecos Conference in 1927. As this chapter makes clear, this was initially primarily a developmental sequence rather than a chronological one, and the Pueblo I period in particular has been misunderstood on this account. This volume therefore uses a more general “Early Pueblo” period of circa AD 650 to 950 to frame the developments in the regions it discusses, which covers the various definitions that have been used for Pueblo I in different areas, as well as parts of Basketmaker III in some because of the importance of immediately preceding events for understanding Pueblo I.

The bulk of this chapter relates the history of understanding of the Pueblo I period by archaeologists. This history follows the familiar sequence of culture history/classification followed by processualism/environmental determinism followed by post-processualism/neohistoricism, but with an emphasis on how the Pueblo I period tended to be subsumed by larger theoretical constructs until the rise of large cultural resource management projects in the 1970s and 1980s massively increased the data available and forced a reevaluation of the period. The most influential of these efforts was the Dolores Project, which happened to occur in an area that was one of the most important centers of Pueblo I village development. The massive scale of this project, the largest ever in the US at the time, led to a much more detailed understanding of the Pueblo I period and the recognition that, rather than a brief interlude in the sequence of development from small hamlets to large pueblos, this was a time of rapid formation of the first major agricultural villages in the northern Southwest, followed by their equally rapid dissolution and a massive outmigration of people from the region. The precision of tree-ring dating allowed for very fine-grained understanding of the chronology, and the results of the project showed a level of dynamism in population movement and culture change that was totally unexpected and hard to fit in the gradual progression paradigm underlying the traditional Pecos classification.

Furthermore, certain aspects of the short-lived Dolores villages were strikingly reminiscent of the well-known Chacoan communities that emerged to the south shortly afterward, which led to the increasingly accepted idea that the formation and dissolution of villages during Pueblo I in the Dolores area were events that directly influenced the rise of Chaco. Indeed, it is now considered quite likely that many of the people who were involved in the development of early great houses at Chaco had moved there from Dolores.

So that’s the main message in this chapter, which also serves as an introduction to the volume itself and the other chapters in it. The next few chapters cover the specifics of settlement patterns in several parts of the northern Southwest, including not just the Mesa Verde region (the focus of most Pueblo I research so far) but also Chaco and its surroundings as well as areas further south and east. The latter two areas are often not addressed very well in research on this period, so I’m very interested in seeing the information on them presented here. The next few chapters cover a few broad thematic issues of interest for understanding this period across all the regions, then there are concluding chapters by Steve Lekson and John Kantner putting all this in a larger perspective. Overall this seems like a well-designed and desperately needed synthesis of an important but poorly understood period in Southwestern prehistory, and I’m eager to dive into the details.

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Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

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

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

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

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

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

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

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

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

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

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

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

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

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

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

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

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Utah Welcome Sign

Utah Welcome Sign

The initial discovery of chemical markers for chocolate on potsherds from Chaco Canyon in 2009 was a hugely significant development in understanding Chaco. The evidence for the presence of chocolate, a Mesoamerican product that couldn’t possibly have been locally grown and is very unlikely to have been gradually traded northward through a series of intermediaries, gave a huge boost to the “Mexicanist” school of thought about Chaco, which holds that many of the unusual aspects of the Chaco system are due to influence from Mesoamerica.

The initial study only involved a few sherds, though, and understanding the exact role of chocolate at Chaco and its implications for Mexican contact needs a much deeper understanding of where and when cacao was present in the ancient Southwest. Thus, soon after the initial discovery further research by a different set of researchers (using somewhat different methods) began to test other pots from Chaco and elsewhere. They did find further evidence that at least some of the famous cylinder jars from Chaco were used in the consumption of chocolate, but they also found traces of cacao in vessels of similar form from the later Classic Hohokam period in southern Arizona, and, most surprisingly, also in vessels from the “small-house sites” at Chaco and elsewhere that are thought to have housed the lower classes of Chacoan society. The previous evidence for chocolate came from distinctive vessels at the “great houses” that are the hallmark of the Chaco system and seem to have been used by elites (though exactly what they used them for remains unclear and controversial). This is exactly the kind of setting where it would be unsurprising to find unusual, exotic things, and indeed the great houses clearly contained many such things in addition to the chocolate. Finding this sort of exotic foodstuff in more mundane pots at the small houses implies that it may have been more widely accessible than previously thought, which has important implications for understanding the nature of the Chaco system.

Well, now things have become even more complicated. The same researchers who did that follow-up study have done another, this time looking at a much earlier period and a different part of the Southwest. They used their same techniques to test for the presence of chocolate in pottery at Alkali Ridge Site 13 in southeastern Utah, a very important early village site dating to the eighth century AD. Site 13 was one of the earliest large villages established in the northern Southwest during the Pueblo I period, and its architecture shows some striking parallels to later Pueblo I villages such as McPhee Village in the Dolores, Colorado area, as well as to some of the early great houses at Chaco and elsewhere that developed even later. The early Pueblo I period in southern Utah is also associated with the introduction of a new type of pottery, San Juan Red Ware, which was widely traded from an apparently rather restricted production area and probably used for ceremonial purposes of some sort. In addition to being a different color from the more common gray and white pottery of the area, San Juan Red Ware also featured a distinctive design system in its decoration, one without obvious local antecedents. Combined with the distinctive architecture, this has led some archaeologists to posit that there was a migration into southern Utah during early Pueblo I from somewhere to the south, bringing these distinctive traits.

In that context, looking for cacao makes sense, as that would be a clear sign of ties to the south and cultural distinctiveness. Dorothy Washburn, who was the lead author on both this and the previous study,  has actually written mainly on design style in ceramics and other handicrafts, focusing on symmetry patterns. Based on the changes she has found in these patterns, she has argued for a very strong Mexicanist interpretation of Chaco, involving actual migration of people from far to the south bringing a distinctive pottery decoration style. She seems to have a similar view about Alkali Ridge, for similar reasons.

In any case, the study found that there was in fact evidence for cacao on several of the vessels found at Site 13, including some (but not all) of the redware ones. The conclusions, understandably, focus on the association between the new ceramic design system and the use of chocolate, but in fact the redware vessels don’t seem to be much more likely to have evidence of chocolate use than the other ones that were tested. It’s quite possible that San Juan Red Ware was associated with consumption of chocolate specifically, but it seems that other types of pottery were also used for chocolate-related purposes.

This is all very interesting, but it’s also confusing and hard to interpret, in a way that the authors of this paper don’t really address. Back when it seemed like chocolate was limited to cylinder vessels at Chaco great houses, that was easy to interpret: chocolate, like many other exotic goods found at these sites, was part of an extensive trading systems for elite goods, probably used for ritual purposes, which the elites of Chaco participated in (and perhaps dominated and directed). Finding it in the Hohokam vessels implied a similar system operating among elites at Classic Hohokam sites, which is consistent with some interpretations of Classic Hohokam society, plus the Hohokam in general show lots of evidence of contact with Mesoamerica in general so the presence of chocolate is much less surprising there than it was at Chaco. Finding it in the small houses at Chaco complicated the story somewhat and implied that the chocolate imported to Chaco wasn’t as restricted as had been thought, but since it was already known to be present at the great houses it’s not too surprising that the contemporaneous small houses had it too.

Alkali Ridge, though, is much earlier and much further north than any of these other sites. Getting chocolate there in significant quantities would have required a pretty elaborate and robust supply chain over a very long distance, much of which was inhabited by societies that are not generally considered to have been capable of this kind of long-distance coordination. Checking some of those intermediate areas (especially the Hohokam region) to see if they too had chocolate this early is necessary to understand the logistics of this.

There’s also the question of time. We now have evidence of chocolate from Utah in the eighth century, New Mexico (and to a lesser extent Colorado and Arizona) in the eleventh, and Arizona in the fourteenth. There are some big gaps there that need to be filled in to determine if these are three snapshots of a long-term and continuous tradition of chocolate consumption in the Southwest (which would have important implications about trade networks and relations with Mexico) or three separate episodes of chocolate being introduced from the south, possibly through population movement (which would have important implications for regional culture history in general). I think the most important place to look for evidence of continuity between Alkali Ridge and Chaco is in the large late Pueblo I villages in southwestern Colorado, especially the Dolores-area ones like McPhee Village. These sites have apparent connections to both earlier villages like Site 13 and later developments at Chaco. If they also reveal evidence for chocolate use, that would be a strong indication of continuity. The most important places to check for continuity between Chaco and the Classic Hohokam would probably be the Pueblo III communities in east-central Arizona, which again show connections in both directions. Both of these sets of sites are among the best-studied in the Southwest and there should be plenty of pots available for these analyses.

Finally, there is a methodological issue here. It’s possible that these tests aren’t actually detecting chocolate at all, but something else. The authors of the recent paper noted this possibility and looked into whether there are any plants native to the Southwest that might have chemical profiles similar to cacao that would throw off the analysis. They didn’t find any, but they note that many plants have not been analyzed in this way and it’s possible there is a different plant that is showing up in these analyses instead. Another possibility is that there is something about their method itself that is leading to false positives. It’s noteworthy that they have been finding much more extensive evidence of chocolate than the team, led by Patricia Crown and Jeffrey Hurst, that did the initial Chaco study found. That team hasn’t published any more about chocolate at Chaco since then, but I hear Crown was able to do some re-excavation in Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito this summer so there may be more from her on this in the future. Ideally I’d like to see a test of both methods on the same vessels to see how they match up.

The ultimate message here is that even important discoveries, like chocolate at Chaco, require many further studies and refinements to interpret properly. We’re nowhere near a full understanding of the true role of chocolate at Chaco or any other site in the prehistoric Southwest, but every study gets us closer.
ResearchBlogging.org
Washburn DK, Washburn WN, & Shipkova PA (2013). Cacao consumption during the 8th century at Alkali Ridge, southeastern Utah Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 2007-2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.017

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Junction of Alaska State Highways 1 and 2, Tok, Alaska

I’ve been reading about Alaska a lot mostly, trying to get a handle on this very complicated place where I now live.  Archaeologically, it’s fantastically complicated and not very well understood.  I’ve been meaning to do some blogging about Alaskan archaeology, but I feel like I still don’t have a very good grasp of it except at an extremely superficial level.  Unlike with the Southwest, however, that’s probably still more than virtually anyone else knows about it, so I’ll probably be doing some posts on it in the near future.  I still haven’t fully settled on whether to start a new blog or just use this one, but any near-term stuff I’ll probably just stick here.

One of the things I’m realizing is that there’s a major disconnect between the archaeological evidence known from Alaska and the role Alaska plays in a number of larger archaeological questions.  Alaska is the presumed starting point for (at least) three very important migrations that defined the cultural history of the entire Western Hemisphere, but so far the archaeological record within the state has shed virtually no light on two of them, and relatively little on the third.  Indeed, it has even been proposed that archaeological research in Alaska has been overly driven by these bigger questions, and that it would be better to try to understand it in its own terms first before trying to tackle them.

The first of these migration is, of course, the initial peopling of the Americas in the Late Pleistocene.  I’ve written before about my belief that this initial migration from Asia doesn’t matter when looking at much later developments such as those at Chaco Canyon, and I still believe that, but it is still an important issue in its own right.  Recent research in various places has increasingly indicated that the Clovis culture of around 13,000 years ago was not the direct result of the earliest migration into the Americas, but it is still the case that any migrations during the Pleistocene (and it’s increasingly looking like there were at least two) almost certainly would have had to go through Alaska.  Unfortunately, despite several decades of looking, no sites have yet been found in Alaska itself that can plausibly be taken to reflect the first immigrants into North America from Asia.  An increasing number of early sites have been identified in the past twenty years, but these are all still too late to represent a population ancestral to Clovis or any of the other early cultures found further south.  Part of the problem here is that preservation conditions for archaeological sites in most of Alaska are atrocious, and in many areas even finding early sites is extremely difficult.  The fact that the state is huge and sparsely populated also means that very little of it has even been surveyed for sites, although that is starting to change a bit with some recent efforts.  Still, we have a long way to go before archaeology within Alaska can shed much meaningful light on the issue of the peopling of the Americas.  I’ll definitely have some more in-depth discussion of this, probably fairly soon.

The second of the migrations I mentioned above is that of speakers of Athapaskan languages to the south, ultimately as far as the Southwestern US and the extreme north of Mexico.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s long been quite obvious that Navajo and the various Apache languages, as well as several languages of California and Oregon coasts, are closely related to a larger number of languages in Alaska and northwestern Canada.  The distribution of the languages, as well as some internal evidence in the southern branch, strongly suggests that the direction of the migration that led to this situation was north-to-south, and similar evidence similarly suggests that the start point was somewhere in what is now Alaska.  Despite the enormous distance over which Athapaskan languages are now spread, the greatest diversity of the languages grammatically is actually found within Alaska.  That is, some Alaskan languages are more closely related to Navajo than they are to other Athapaskan languages in Alaska.  While this is all clear linguistically, tracing the actual migration archaeologically has been enormously difficult at both ends.  Athapaskan archaeology in Alaska in particular is remarkably poorly understood compared to the archaeology of Eskimo groups, due in part to the fact that Athapaskans have mostly occupied the interior areas that are harder to investigate than the primarily Eskimo coastal areas.  I’ll definitely be writing more about this issue from both linguistic and archaeological perspectives, and given the obvious Southwestern connection a lot of that discussion will probably be on this blog even if I start another one.

The third migration, and by far the best understood, is that of so-called Thule peoples from northwestern Alaska eastward across the Arctic as far as Greenland.  The descendants of these migrants are the modern Inuit of Arctic Canada and Greenland, who have close linguistic and cultural connections to the Inupiat of northern Alaska.  While the exact time this migration took place is not totally clear, dates of around AD 1000 to 1200 are usually suggested, which makes it roughly contemporaneous with the major events at Chaco.  Unlike with the other two migrations, the starting point for this one has been fairly well established through extensive archaeological work along the Alaska coast that has defined a series of archaeological cultures leading up to the Thule culture.  Eskimo archaeology has been the main focus of most research in Alaska to date, and it shows in the level of knowledge about these cultures compared to the much more obscure Athapaskan and early cultures.  Still, however, many aspects of Alaskan Eskimo cultures are poorly understood.  (I am aware that the term “Eskimo” is generally avoided in Canada in favor of “Inuit.”  This is not the case in Alaska, where “Eskimo” is widely used and “Inuit” is not considered appropriate in most contexts.  The terms are not synonymous, and in the Alaskan context I think “Eskimo” is probably the best general term to use despite the very real problems with it.  I’ll definitely be discussing this issue further in the future.)

These are the big issues that make the archaeology of Alaska important to New World archaeology in general, and they have been the main impetus for much of the archaeological research done in Alaska to date.  The results have been stubbornly unhelpful in addressing most of them, however, while at the same time bringing to light the unexpectedly diverse and complex prehistory of Alaska itself.  It has long been much more than a corridor or starting point for people going elsewhere.  While the stories of the migrations from Alaska are definitely interesting and important, the ones that took place entirely within Alaska are interesting and important too.

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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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Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

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

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

Looking South from Peñasco Blanco toward 29SJ423

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

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

Pinyon Trees, Pipe Spring National Monument

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

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

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

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

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

Excavating the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

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

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

Whole Pot from the Lift Station Site

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

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

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