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Animas River, Durango, Colorado

Animas River, Durango, Colorado

The fourth chapter of Crucible of Pueblos discusses the eastern portion of the Mesa Verde region, essentially the northern portion of the watershed of the San Juan River from the La Plata drainage east to the San Juan headwaters. This area has seen less research than some other parts of the Southwest, but several major salvage projects in recent decades have added a lot of data on Pueblo I period settlement in particular. The most important of these has been the Animas-La Plata Project associated with the inundation of Ridges Basin to create Lake Nighthorse south of Durango. These projects haven’t revolutionized our understanding of the Pueblo I period the way the Dolores Project did in the Central Mesa Verde region in the 1980s, but they have added large bodies of systematically collected data to broaden our understanding of the period.

The picture that emerges from this evidence shows the Pueblo I period to have been a dynamic, complex time in this region. Indeed, in some respects “chaotic” might be an appropriate descriptor. Population movement, both within the region and between it and other regions nearby, was frequent, sites were short-lived, and evidence for violence is abundant. The population fluctuated wildly but was never very large compared to other areas, but even this small population seems to have been culturally and perhaps ethnically diverse, which may have contributed to the instability and violence. Some of the earliest aggregated villages in the northern Southwest arose in this region during the eighth century AD, but they all appear to have been highly unstable: none lasted more than a few decades, and most appear to have met violent ends. Perhaps relatedly, these villages never held more than a small portion of the overall regional population, in contrast to early villages in some other regions. By the end of the Pueblo I period around AD 900 most parts of the region were largely depopulated, with the residents apparently moving primarily to the south, where many of them likely ended up at Chaco Canyon and were involved in the rise of the Chaco Phenomenon over the course of the tenth and early eleventh centuries.

The authors of this chapter divide their region into four “districts”: La Plata, Durango, Piedra, and Navajo Reservoir/Fruitland. While showing similarities in material culture suggesting connections with each other, the districts have markedly different demographic trajectories, and it seems clear that there was significant population movement among them over the course of the Pueblo I period.

Despite an earlier Basketmaker II occupation, Basketmaker III period settlement was limited to nonexistent in most of the districts, implying that the Pueblo I occupation was primarily the result of migration into the region. Only the La Plata district shows clear evidence for a small BMIII occupation, and even this is probably too small to account on its own for the larger population in the district during Pueblo I. It appears, then, that beginning in the AD 720s there was a migration of people into the La Plata and Durango districts, probably from the south. Site densities increased markedly around 750, especially around Durango, suggesting a further wave of migration, again from the south. It was at this time that the earliest villages began to develop in these areas, although most of the population continued to live in widely scattered hamlets and individual residences. These villages were short-lived and seem to have collapsed in the early 800s, in some cases with evidence for intense violence including, at Sacred Ridge in Ridges Basin, the earliest evidence for the sort of “extreme processing” (probably including cannibalism) of human remains that would recur periodically in later periods of Pueblo prehistory.

The collapse of the early villages in the Durango district appears to have coincided with a general depopulation of that district, with residents emigrating in multiple directions. Some went west and appear to have contributed to the rise of large villages in the Central Mesa Verde region, particularly in the Dolores area, where one large and well-documented community, Grass Mesa Village, shows evidence in its material culture for strong ties to the east. Other Durango people may have gone south into the Frances Mesa area in the lower Animas River valley, possibly mixing with other groups migrating north at the same time. This occupation was short-lived and may have ended with the people moving north into the Dolores area to join the villages there. Some Durango people may also have gone east to form the first Pueblo I occupation in the Piedra district, although this area has seen less research than others and the picture isn’t as clear. Recent surveys do suggest that the Piedra was somewhat marginal to developments elsewhere in the region during Pueblo I, and that its population was both smaller than had been thought and mostly limited to the late Pueblo I period. The fate of the La Plata population is less clear, but there is a definite decline in site numbers after AD 800 coinciding with an increased number of sites in the Mancos River drainage to the west, suggesting emigration to the west there as well.

Chimney Rock Great House

Chimney Rock Great House

As it turned out, the Dolores villages weren’t very stable either, and after their collapse in the mid- to late ninth century people seem to have migrated back into the eastern Mesa Verde region. A surge of immigration into the Fruitland/Navajo Reservoir district after about 880 contributed to the highest regional population of the whole Pueblo I period, although it still wasn’t very high (3,000 people at most regionwide, and likely more like 2,000). The Piedra district also saw a considerable increase in population at this time. The Fruitland/Navajo Reservoir occupation was short-lived, with more evidence of violent ends for some village sites, and it seems that most or all of the people moved south, with at least some of them joining the growing communities in and around Chaco Canyon. There may have been some migration south from the Piedra district as well, but it continued to be occupied into the Pueblo II period after 900. The Piedra people seem to have been somewhat isolated from developments elsewhere in the Pueblo world during early Pueblo II, which is unsurprising given that they were left quite isolated geographically by the depopulation of the Animas drainage and Navajo Reservoir area. They don’t seem to have been completely cut off, however, and ongoing contact with Chaco in particular is suggested by the development of the Chimney Rock great house with its remarkable astronomical alignments in the eleventh century.

There are several noteworthy characteristics of this pattern of settlement and migration, which the authors of this chapter point out. One is the obvious importance of population movement, versus natural increase or decrease, in explaining the wild demographic swings both in the region as a whole and among its individual districts during this period. It was a very dynamic period, when people rarely lived in the same place for more than two or three generations. It’s not clear entirely why, but one reason is likely linked to one of the other noteworthy characteristics: widespread violence, including some of the most extreme violent incidents in the whole archaeological record of the Southwest. Interestingly, much of this violence, including the “extreme processing” incident at Sacred Ridge, appears to have been linked to internal conflicts within communities, especially the early villages. This may in turn explain why relatively few people in this region lived in villages, although it still leaves open the question of why anyone did. The authors suggest that one factor may have been the perception of safety in numbers in a chaotic era, although this ultimately proved to be illusory. It’s not clear to what extent warfare between communities was actually occurring, however, and the widespread popularity of a scattered settlement pattern suggests it may not have been that major a concern for most people. On the other hand, palisades around individual residents units are fairly common in the region, so it may be primarily a matter of different strategies for dealing with violence.

One other noteworthy thing about the violence is that the “extreme processing” phenomenon appears to have been exclusive to the eastern Mesa Verde region during this period. This is interesting because in later periods it occurs in other regions, most notably in the Central Mesa Verde region during the mid-twelfth century, where it is possibly associated with the collapse of the Chaco system. There has been much dispute and discussion about the occurrence of cannibalism as part of at least some of these assemblages, which I’ve discussed at length before. The fact that it appears earliest in the eastern Mesa Verde region during Pueblo I, when it appears to be limited to that region, adds an important piece of context for understanding the phenomenon. While the occurrence of ritual cannibalism in Mesoamerica has led some to look there for the roots of cannibalism in the Southwest, there are some important differences in the apparent practices behind the assemblages that make a Mesoamerican source difficult to document, and if the eastern Mesa Verde region was in fact the part of the Southwest where these practices originated that makes the Mesoamerican connection even more tenuous. While the exact connections between specific Basketmaker and Pueblo populations in different areas are hard to pin down, it’s generally thought that the eastern Basketmakers were both ancestral to later Pueblo populations in the same areas and descended from earlier Archaic populations. Importantly, these eastern groups generally show much less evidence for Mesoamerican influence than western groups, among whom “extreme processing” events are both much rarer and, when they do occur, much later than in the east. Obviously it’s not that there was no Mesoamerican influence among eastern groups, since they did have maize agriculture and so forth, but there’s much less evidence for specific, direct influence than in the west. This implies that “extreme processing,” including cannibalism, may actually have been a practice that developed indigenously in the eastern Mesa Verde region and spread to other parts of the northern Southwest as part of the widespread population movements following Pueblo I.

Finally, the violent and chaotic nature of the Pueblo I period in the eastern Mesa Verde region, whatever the underlying reasons for it, adds some context for the attractiveness of new social formations in other regions, such as the Pueblo I villages in the Dolores area and the emerging great-house communities of early Pueblo II in and around Chaco. While the Dolores villages were not ultimately able to deliver the kind of peace and stability that immigrants from the eastern Mesa Verde region may have been looking for, Chaco apparently was. Furthermore, once Chaco rose to regional prominence in the eleventh century it was able to extend that peace and stability over an unprecedentedly large area of the northern Southwest, including the eastern Mesa Verde region itself. Understanding how the system that emerged in Chaco Canyon was able to achieve this remarkable feat when no one had succeeded at anything like it before is one of the most important questions in Southwestern prehistory, and it is still very much an unanswered one. One important piece of the puzzle, however, is clearly the Pueblo I context in the Chaco area itself, and it is to this that we now turn.

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

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Utah Welcome Sign

Utah Welcome Sign

The third chapter of Crucible of Pueblos deals with the western part of the Mesa Verde or Northern San Juan region, which basically corresponds to what is now the southeastern corner of Utah. In this context the area is bounded by Cedar Mesa on the west and the Abajo Mountains on the north, as well as by the borders with Colorado and Arizona on the east and south. This is a fairly standard way to define this area archaeologically except that the western boundary is more restrictive than usual, which appears to mainly be a decision based on the near-total lack of sites dated to the Pueblo I period west of the eastern edge of Cedar Mesa. (There are actually Pueblo sites dating to this period much further west in southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, the so-called “Virgin Anasazi,” but they aren’t included in this book at all for some reason.)

The authors divide their study area into a series of physiographic sub-regions based primarily on elevation, which is a useful way to track changes in occupation patterns over the course of the period they discuss. It’s also a different approach to defining sub-regions than most of the other chapters in the book use. These sub-regions are important because the differences in precipitation and growing season length among them seem to have been important factors behind shifting settlement patterns during the period of interest. These shifts seem to have mainly taken place across the region rather than separately in spatial sub-regions such as drainages, as was the case in some other regions.

One way this region differs from others, and especially from the Central and Eastern Mesa Verde regions, is that there has been a relative lack of large-scale salvage excavation projects to provide large amounts of detailed archaeological data. Instead, most data is from surveys and small-scale excavations, and detailed chronological information in particular is missing for most sites that have been recorded. Rough dating of sites to Pecos Classification period at best based on frequencies of a few ceramic types is the norm here, which limits the comparability of data on trends in settlement over time. Nevertheless, the authors of this chapter do their best to come up with a coherent narrative of settlement during the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods in this area, which seems to have been an important one for understanding the cultural development of early farming populations and the origins of aggregated villages.

The most striking pattern in the population dynamics of this region in the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods is of apparent cycles of population growth and decline on the scale of decades and of greater magnitude than can be explain by internal demographic processes, implying migration into and out of the region multiple times. Most interestingly, these cycles appear to be largely complementary to similar cycles in other nearby regions, especially the Central Mesa Verde region just to the east. This strongly implies that one of the major factors in population changes in both these regions was movement between them.

To go into greater detail, the story told in this chapter begins in the seventh century AD with the expansion of Basketmaker III populations across the region from the narrow area of Basketmaker II settlement along the San Juan River and its major tributaries. The authors attribute this expansion in part to the introduction of beans and pottery, which freed farming populations from dependence on outcrops of limestone to cook with their corn for nitrogen-fixing purposes. Population spread especially into the upland areas with deep soils well-suited to dry farming. Over the course of the Basketmaker III period scattered hamlets began to consolidate into “proto-villages” with public architecture such as oversized pit structures surrounded by scattered households. The authors note the similarity of this pattern to the later Pueblo II great house communities, which is indeed an interesting parallel.

There appears to have been a regional population decline in the early eighth century, although this may be an artifact of the limited data set and difficulty assigning sites to precise time periods. In any case, there is evidence of a noticeable population increase after AD 750, with several villages of tightly clustered households containing public architecture appearing, along with a considerable number of smaller residential sites and a few sites in highly defensive locations, especially at the western edge of the region near Cedar Mesa. The population increase was accompanied by the introduction of a strikingly different type of pottery, Abajo Red-on-orange, which shows many similarities to pottery from the Mogollon region far to the south and likely reflects long-distance migration of some sort. There were still many continuities in architecture and other aspects of material culture, however, which suggests that these migrants combined with local populations rather than replacing them.

The largest and most famous of the villages that developed during this early Pueblo I period is Alkali Ridge Site 13, excavated by J. O. Brew in the 1940s. This site consisted of a series of long, continuous arcing roomblocks, made up of “room suites” of one “habitation” room backed by two smaller “storage” rooms. This is a pattern that would become standard for Pueblo I villages at a slightly later date, and would endure in various forms for centuries. Site 13 consists of six of these arcs, four of which were excavated by Brew. Three of the arcs excavated by Brew also had oversized pit structures with highly formalized features suggesting possible use as public architecture of some sort.

There were other village-sized sites that were established at this time, although few have been excavated. These are among the earliest sites of this size and level of organization in the northern Southwest, and continuities with later sites in other regions suggest they may have been very influential on later developments.

In addition to the early village sites, defensive sites on high, inaccessible promontories began to appear during the early Pueblo I period. These sites have not been studied in any depth, and little is known about them. Some appear to have evidence of extensive residential populations and/or public architecture, while others don’t. One intriguing pattern is an apparent line of them at the western edge of the region along the eastern margins of Cedar Mesa. This, combined with the lack of Pueblo sites to the west, has suggested to some researchers that there was a buffer area or “no-man’s-land” between the Pueblo population in southeastern Utah and early Fremont populations northwest of the Colorado River during this period. It’s worth noting, however, that there were also a few of these apparent defensive sites well within the Mesa Verdean Pueblo region, including the Fortified Spur site near the Colorado-Utah border, so tensions may have been internal as well as external at this point.

During the middle Pueblo I period from AD 825 to 880 there appears to have been a regional population decline, although again this may be due in part to data gaps. It is noteworthy, however, that this is the period of a major population increase in the Central Mesa Verde region to the east, including the formation of the well-known cluster of aggregated villages in the Dolores River Valley, some of which show some striking similarities to earlier Utah villages such as Site 13. It is reasonable to postulate that a pattern of emigration from southeast Utah into southwest Colorado led to this pattern. Southeast Utah wasn’t completely depopulated, however. In addition to scattered small sites throughout the region, there are a very few larger communities firmly dated to this period, including an intriguing site on Elk Ridge called the Pillars that has extensive evidence for middle Pueblo I residential architecture and some tentative evidence for public architecture as well. There are several other sites in the same general area that have more tentative evidence for occupation during this time, and it seems this may have been one of a handful of population clusters in the region during a time of otherwise low population.

After AD 880 population rapidly increased again, and many large villages were built between this point and AD 950. This was a period of rapid depopulation in the Central Mesa Verde region, again suggesting a complementary pattern of migration between the two regions. Many of these new village sites were in highly defensive locations, including some that were nowhere near the frontiers of the region. There is also an intriguing pattern of continuity in location between these early villages and later Pueblo II great house communities from the eleventh century. This pattern is made even more intriguing by two phenomena:

  1. Some of these sites, such as Red Knobs and Nancy Patterson Village, have evidence for masonry roomblocks similar to the “proto-great houses” known from many sites in New Mexico in and around Chaco Canyon during this same time.
  2. There seems to have been another depopulation of southeastern Utah around AD 950, implying that population at these sites was not actually continuous despite these similarities.

It has long seemed to me that southeastern Utah is a crucial area for understanding Chaco. There are several lines of evidence suggesting that at least some people living in Chaco Canyon and involved in its rise to regional dominance had strong ties to Utah, and I suspect those ties were more important in the emergence of the Chaco system than has been generally recognized. This chapter adds some much-needed context on the earlier history of Pueblo populations in Utah, and to me it strongly reinforces those ideas about the importance of Utah to Chaco. The exact nature of these relationships and their importance is still unclear, and the relatively sketchy data available make it harder to figure out, but it still definitely seems like there is something important here.

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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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