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cliffpalacesuntemple

Cliff Palace and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

In addition to reports of potential astronomical features at prehistoric sites and speculations on the role of astronomy in ancient societies, Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited contains some chapters giving guidance on methodology for archaeoastronomical research, particularly aimed at developing increased rigor that can make the results of this research more useful for archaeologists. One of these chapters, by Gregory Munson, focuses on archaeoastronomy at Mesa Verde National Park and how it can be supported or challenged by using a methodology he calls architectural documentation or “ArcDoc.”

Munson spends much of the paper laying out the details of how to do ArcDoc, which basically amounts to a standardized set of recording procedures for sites and a commitment to fully research historical archives for materials relating to site excavation and restoration. The formal procedures are apparently those used by park management at Mesa Verde, but the basic ideas here are standard pretty much anywhere archaeologists have put in place a rigorous site documentation program (e.g., on most public lands in the US).

Munson then turns to specific examples of how ArcDoc has helped clarify findings from archaeoastronomy, focusing on three sites at Mesa Verde: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Sun Temple. In each case, archival research has either significantly challenged findings from initial archaeoastronomical research or otherwise improved understanding of the sites.

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Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

With Cliff Palace, Munson focuses on two features in the well-known “Tower” part of the site, both of which have been proposed to have associations with lunar standstill observations. One is a vent in the wall of the tower that has been demonstrated to align with moonset over Sun Temple during the southern major lunar maximum. The other is a nearby pictograph of four vertical lines with horizontal “ticks” that has been proposed to be a record of four 18.6-year lunar standstill cycles.

The vent alignment turns out to be very questionable after looking back at records of excavation and reconstruction of the site beginning with the work of Gustav Nordenskiöld in the 1890s and Jesse Walter Fewkes in the 1900s. Photographs from before the partial reconstruction of the site by Fewkes in 1909 show that this whole portion of the tower had largely collapsed, and the original size and shape of the vent in question is impossible to determine. Furthermore, the current vent that has the documented alignment isn’t even the result of Fewkes’s reconstruction, but of a later one by Earl Morris and Al Lancaster in the 1930s that replaced it. Munson claims that there is another opening in the wall that is more original and seems to display the same alignment, but this is an important cautionary tale for archaeoastronomers who, like many visitors, all too often assume that what they see at a site today is exactly what was there when it was originally occupied.

A similar problem affects the pictograph. The current version turns out to be a partial reconstruction by Lancaster in 1934 after two of the vertical lines had severely deteriorated, and the number of ticks on these lines does not match what appears to have been the original pictograph based on a photo taken in 1902, which Lancaster appears to not have had access to when doing his reconstruction. The numbers are still fairly close and Munson argues they could still be a record of lunar standstill cycles given the level of precision that might be expected for these observations, but still, another cautionary tale. Especially at a well-known, heavily visited, and actively managed site like Cliff Palace, you can’t assume that everything you’re seeing is original. (I used to make this point frequently to visitors at Chaco, and toward the beginning of my tours of Pueblo Bonito I would explain which parts of the masonry are and are not original.)

At Balcony House, Munson explains that proposed summer solstice and equinox alignments are thrown into question, in one case because an editing error resulted in results from observations at a different site being attributed to this one in publication, and in another case because archival research showed that a wall opening with a purported alignment had been partially sealed before impacts from recent visitation. These issues aren’t as major as those with Cliff Palace mentioned above, but they are noteworthy because they affect Munson’s own previous research, and he deserves a lot of credit for being straightforward and transparent about them.

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Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Finally, a happier story from Sun Temple. Fewkes excavated here in 1915, and a 1916 publication of his illustrates two prayer sticks found in these excavations. However, the collections from this work, housed at the park, do not include any prayer sticks. Where did they go?

Through some archival sleuthing in Fewkes’s papers at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, it turned out that he had also excavated at Oak Tree House in 1915, and the collections from this work are now held at the Smithsonian. And sure enough, this collection turned up two prayer sticks that could be matched to those in the illustration through their shapes and distinctive cracks. The fact that these actually appear to have come from Sun Temple rather than Oak Tree House helps to better understand the history and use of both sites.

In all these cases, the understanding of potential astronomical or ritual use of specific sites has been improved by carefully examining the archival history of their excavation and reconstruction. Archaeologists are increasingly aware of the importance of looking at this history when trying to understand sites like this, but this awareness is only beginning among archaeoastronomers, and Munson’s contribution here is a welcome illustration of its value.

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Vent at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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Salmon Ruins Sign

One of the most interesting chapters in Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited reports on archaeoastronomical research at Salmon Pueblo (also known as Salmon Ruins), a large Chacoan “outlier” great house near modern Bloomfield, New Mexico. The paper is by Brooks Marshall and Larry Baker of the San Juan County Museum Association, which manages the site, and it argues that one particular room at Salmon was likely used as an observation station for both solar and lunar events.

The room, known as Room 82, is in the southeast corner of the central room block on the north side of the plaza, just southeast of the elevated “tower kiva” in the center of the block. When it was excavated in the 1970s, the excavators found that it had several unusual features that suggested it was used for specialized non-domestic purposes, though it was not clear to them at the time what those might be. In addition to the commonly found hearths, milling bins, and T-shaped doorways, there was an unusual opening in the east wall which Marshall and Baker call a “window” (unfortunately they don’t explain why they use this term, which is generally not used in describing Chacoan architecture), an adobe platform in the northwest corner that had two shallow pits at its north end, and a dividing wall in between of uncertain original height. The platform and wall were destroyed in the course of excavation, while the window has deteriorated a bit over time but is still there.

The unusual nature of these features and their east-west alignment made Marshall and Baker suspect an astronomical role, so in 2008 they created a replica of the adobe platform out of plywood and positioned it where they calculated it would be hit by light through the window at equivalent times to the original, taking into consideration the higher floor level due to backfilling of the room. In 2009, a stabilization project removed the backfill and allowed them to place the replica in the original location of the platform to verify their results. Further testing in 2010 and 2011 involved simulating the original size and shape of the window opening. Throughout these tests they placed two rocks on the platform to simulate the two pits at the north end of the original, known as Features 71 and 72.

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Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

Their results were striking. They found that the northernmost pit, Feature 72, was lit by sunlight coming through the window only on the summer solstice, and when the original window opening was simulated the light was quite narrowly focused on this feature. Feature 71, despite being only a few centimeters away, was never lit up by the sun at all. It was, however, lit by moonlight during the major lunar standstill, when the moon rises at its most extreme position relative to the sun for a few years. It’s long been known that the first major period of construction at Salmon in AD 1089 and 1090 corresponds to the lead-up to a major lunar standstill, and indeed Marshall and Baker’s calculations showed that it was in these years that moonlight would have first illuminated the features at the north end of the platform. By the standstill itself, which lasted from AD 1093 to 1095, moonlight would have hit about three quarters of the platform. Marshall and Baker propose that the south end, which is never nit by moonlight, may have served as an observation point where someone could sit and observe the moonlight move across the platform over time, possibly allowing the prediction of the standstill.

Obviously the wall in between the window and the platform adds a complication to all this, as it would have blocked at least some light from coming through. There’s no way to tell how high it initially was, so Marshall and Baker ran some calculations based on different heights to see how they effected the illumination patterns they documented. They found that at a certain height the wall would have prevented the beam of light coming through the window from moving beyond the platform onto the floor, which may have been intentional. At higher heights it would have blocked the beam entirely, but the base of the wall was fairly thin and probably couldn’t have supported a full-height wall.

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Excavated Rooms at Salmon Ruin

This is exciting research for several reasons. It’s always interesting to see a careful study of architectural alignments to celestial phenomena that takes into consideration excavation history and possible confounding factors. It’s particularly interesting that this study seems to have shown strong evidence for alignments even taking those other factors into consideration. The solstice alignment seems like the best established to me, which is unsurprising since solstice alignments in general are the best documented phenomena in ancient Pueblo archaeoastronomy. What I find most intriguing, however, is the possible lunar alignment and its relation to the construction dates at Salmon, since despite a lot of talk about lunar alignments at Chacoan sites very few have been securely documented, and unlike solar alignments there is no support for them in modern Pueblo ethnography. If this lunar alignment really does hold up, it helps strengthen the argument that the Chacoans really did observe and care about these subtle lunar cycles.

The strongest evidence so far for Chacoan observance of lunar standstill cycles comes from Chimney Rock Pueblo, further north in Colorado. The evidence here is quite strong indeed, as the full moon rises between twin spires of rock as seen from the great house only during the major lunar standstill, and this accounts for the otherwise very puzzling location of the great house atop a high, steep mesa. There is also some evidence from the dates of construction at Chimney Rock that some building periods were related to specific lunar cycles. The lack of support from other Chacoan sites, however, has made the seemingly solid evidence fr,om Chimney Rock hard to integrate into the picture as a whole. If people at Salmon, which is fairly close to Chimney Rock and is connected to it by an easy travel corridor along the San Juan River, were also marking the lunar standstill cycle, the picture begins to fill out a bit.

That said, this research is still fairly preliminary and I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the lunar alignment proposed here has been definitely established. More research is certainly necessary to confirm and interpret the patterns documented here. It is certainly suggestive, however, and very interesting.

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Backfilled Rooms at Salmon Ruin

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Bears Ears from Natural Bridges National Monument

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order requiring the Secretary of the Interior to review all presidential designations of national monuments under the Antiquities Act since 1996 where the size of the designated monument exceeds 100,000 acres or where “the Secretary determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders,” and to provide a report within 120 days evaluating the extent to which any monument designations did not conform to the requirements of the Act and recommending actions the president or Congress might take to remedy these problems. This order has widely been interpreted and reported as an attempt by Trump to abolish controversial national monuments designated by his predecessors, especially Barack Obama, who designated more monuments than any other president. This certainly seems like a fair reading of Trump’s intent in signing the order, or at least of the impression he sought to make with it.

It’s not clear that he can actually do this, though. It’s noteworthy that the Executive Order itself only orders a review and report on whether there are problems with the designations and what might be done about them if so. It doesn’t directly have any substantive impact on anything. While this is a common pattern with Trump’s executive actions so far, in this case there is a very clear reason for it, which is that it’s not at all clear that a president actually has the authority to abolish a national monument or to revoke a designation made by one of his predecessors.

Much of the discussion of this order has centered on Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, which President Obama designated on December 28, 2016. Local officials in Utah were furious about this particular designation and have been trying to overturn it since it was made. Bears Ears is the only specific monument designation mentioned by name in the Executive Order, in a section that requires an interim report within 45 days on it and any other designations the Secretary sees fit to include. Bears Ears is also potentially of interest to readers of this blog as the location of numerous ancient Pueblo (and other) archaeological sites, including the Mule Canyon and Butler Wash Ruins, which are easily accessible Utah Highway 95 and developed for visitation. It surrounds Natural Bridges National Monument, which also contains many archaeological sites in addition to the geological structures for which it is named.

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Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling near Blanding, Utah

To understand why it is unclear whether the president has the authority to abolish a national monument designated under the Antiquities Act, it is necessary to go back and look at the Act itself. Passed in 1906 under president Theodore Roosevelt, who went on to use it to establish many monuments including Chaco Canyon in 1907, the Antiquities Act is noteworthy these days for being both remarkably short and remarkably ambiguous. It states:

That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected

Presidents since Roosevelt have interpreted this authority broadly, and have used it to designate monuments of up to millions of acres to protect the “objects of historic and scientific interest” therein. (Bears Ears alone is about 1.35 million acres.) This seems inconsistent with the colloquial meaning of the term “monument,” which to many people implies something much smaller than, say, a national park, but in fact the broad interpretation goes back to the very beginning and even Roosevelt himself designated 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument (which, like many monuments, was later changed by Congress into a national park). Furthermore, the courts have generally agreed with this broad interpretation of the president’s power under the Act, including in an important Supreme Court case in 1920 regarding Grand Canyon. Thus, opponents of particular monuments, such as the Utah politicians upset about Bears Ears, have sometimes been inclined to try to get a subsequent president to revoke a monument designation.

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Tower at Mule Canyon, Utah

However, as a recent Congressional Research Service report explains, no president has ever tried to do this, and while this means there has been no test in court of a president’s authority in this area, there are other indications that it is unlikely to hold up. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to abolish a monument and consulted with his Attorney General to determine if this was possible. The AG determined that the text of the Act did not explicitly give the president the power to abolish a monument, and that there was no precedent for that power being given implicitly either. Roosevelt elected not to put this to the test.

It may seem odd that the president would have authority to take an action but not to revoke it, especially since Executive Orders are often described in exactly these terms (i.e., that they are weaker than Acts of Congress because a future president can unilaterally revoke them). A designation under the Antiquities Act isn’t quite a regular Executive Order, however. This is not an inherent power of the executive, but a Congressional power delegated explicitly to the president through the Act. Congress can also designate national monuments, and only it can establish national parks. The power to establish parks is an authority that Congress has not delegated to the president. The authority to abolish national monuments, including those designated by a president under the Antiquities Act, appears to be another such undelegated authority retained by Congress alone, and Congress has in fact abolished a few presidentially designated monuments by statute.

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Sun Marker at Edge of the Cedars with Bears Ears in Background

So it seems that if Trump were to unilaterally try to revoke Obama’s proclamation and abolish Bears Ears or another monument covered by this Executive Order, the move would probably (but not necessarily) be overturned by the courts. This doesn’t mean these monuments are totally safe, however. There has been precedent for a president to add or subtract land from an existing national monument, and while the addition of land appears to be legally valid under the same theory underlying the power to create new monuments, the authority to remove land is more questionable. While this is also untested by the courts, presidents who have removed land from monuments have claimed to  have authority to do so under the provision of the Antiquities Act requiring that monuments be confined to the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” In theory this means Trump could reduce the size of a monument like Bears Ears to a tiny area, perhaps the immediate surroundings of the eponymous buttes, and claim to be within the law. Obama’s proclamation, however, in this case referred to “numerous objects of historic and of scientific interest” within the monument boundaries, without being very specific about what those objects are, which might make it difficult for a reduction in size to pass muster with the courts. As with so much else on this topic, however, this theory remains untested in an actual court case.

Finally, setting aside all of these questions about the president’s authority, there’s Congress. Note that Trump’s order asks the Secretary for recommendations on congressional as well as presidential action to address any problems he identifies with the monument designations. Here, there is no legal ambiguity: Congress has the authority to modify or abolish a national monument in any way it wants. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and Trump in the White House, it might seem like the obvious approach for the anti-monument forces would be for Congress to pass a law abolishing Bears Ears and whichever other monuments the Secretary recommends getting rid of. In theory this would indeed be possible, but in practice the current Congress and president have had a lot of trouble passing even their highest-profile priorities, so it’s by no means a sure thing that they would be able to get a bill like this through. Public lands are quite popular with the country as a whole, if not with Utah politicians, and it’s likely that any attempt to roll back monuments would stoke extensive public opposition that would make it a hard lift for a Congress with plenty of problems already. Similarly, while Congress could effectively neuter the management of new monuments by withholding funding for them from spending bills, the current state of budget negotiations suggests that they would have trouble doing that as well.

Does all this mean Bears Ears and the other monuments are definitely safe from the machinations of Trump and his congressional allies? By no means; if they’re committed enough there are definitely things they can do to harm them, such as through budgeting decisions within the executive branch departments tasked with managing them. But like so much else in our system of government, once a monument is in place it’s no easy feat to get rid of it.

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Entrance Sign for Natural Bridges National Monument, Est. 1908

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Entrance Sign at Hovenweep National Monument

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

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

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Hovenweep Castle

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

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

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Unit Type House, Hovenweep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Small House across from Pueblo Bonito

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

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

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Winter Solstice Sunset

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Explanatory Plaque at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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

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

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Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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

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

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

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Third-Story Walls with Type I Masonry at Una Vida

The final chapter in Crucible of Pueblos offers, in the words of its title, “a synthesis of sorts.” Authored by the noted Chaco specialist John Kantner, it gives a brief chronological overview of the period covered by this book, combining the information from the other chapters to create a picture as complete as possible given current evidence. As Kantner notes several times, current evidence is very sparse for certain regions and periods, and the resulting synthesis is therefore tentative on many issues.

Kantner starts with the period AD 600 to 725, which some but not all of the regional chapters cover. He focuses on the idea that this period was marked by a “Neolithic Demographic Transition” of the sort seen in other parts of the world following the adoption of agriculture. In this case he sees the catalyst for the transition not being the initial introduction of domesticated plants to the northern Southwest, which an increasing body of evidence has shown was actually much earlier, but on the idea that new varieties of maize that were introduced at this time caused a widespread shift to a farming-based lifestyle, whereas earlier cultigens had just been added into a hunting and gathering system as a minor component. This theory has been advanced by several archaeologists in recent years, and it is certainly plausible, but I think the data is still not quite there to establish it firmly. In any case, Kantner sees the immediate result of the shift to intensive agriculture being a sharp increase in population, which led at least in some areas to increases in site size (but only to slightly larger hamlets in most cases), as well as possibly to violence and warfare, as evidenced by an increasing number of stockaded hamlets. Sites were still generally quite small and loosely clustered around a variety of types of public architecture. He claims not to see much evidence of migration between regions during this period, which sounds dubious to me given how much we see later. As he acknowledges, though, the data for this early period is particularly limited, especially for less-researched areas, and it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions.

His next period, AD 725 to 825, definitely does show a lot of migration, and Kantner sees that and increasing settlement aggregation as being the two major processes evidence in the archaeological record. Data gaps are an issue here as well, however, and the details of these processes are much clearer in some regions (especially the Northern San Juan/Mesa Verde area) than others. All this migration and aggregation seems to have led to increasingly ethnically diverse communities, although identifying “ethnicity” in this sort of context is tricky as material culture traits that might be used to identify groups don’t always cluster neatly. Despite this diversity, Kantner sees less evidence in this period for violence than in the previous one, at least until the very end of it when there are some spectacular examples like the apparent massacre at Sacred Ridge, which may have been ethnically motivated. Less spectacularly, the presence of defensive sites in Southeast Utah also seems to increase at the end of this period, again suggesting conflict. Interestingly, though, there seems to be little or no evidence for this sort of conflict further south, although again it’s important to note that southern regions have seen much less research. This period saw possibly the earliest examples of settlements aggregated enough to call “villages,” although Kantner notes that a large portion of the population was still living in dispersed hamlets. The question of why some but not all people chose to begin living in greater proximity is an important one that remains largely unanswered.

The trends of migration and aggregation continue into Kantner’s next period, AD 825 to 880. This is especially apparent in the well-studied Central Mesa Verde region, but it appears to have continued in other areas as well, with a general trend toward settlement in well-watered areas, which may signify another episode of agricultural intensification. This is also suggested by the increased storage capacity of the new villages, some of which might indicate community-level storage of grain. Kantner notes that larger villages might also have been able to mobilize more people for hunting and therefore increased hunting success, a reminder that even a heavily emphasis on agriculture doesn’t necessarily replace all other subsistence pursuits. There also is some evidence for changes in gendered labor at this time, again likely tied to subsistence changes: greater emphasis on stored food, presumably largely in the form of cornmeal/flour, would require more time spent on particular types of processing work. This would potentially include both grinding itself and other tasks required by new ways of preparing food, especially making more pots in which the ground meal would need to be cooked. These are presumed to have been primarily female tasks, so the increased time investment in them may have affected gender roles and relations between the sexes. This is an interesting idea that I think could use more elaboration.

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Great Kivas A and Q, Pueblo Bonito

Public architecture continues to be diverse but there are some interesting patterns in what types occur in the new villages, especially between great kivas and what Kantner (among others) calls “oversized pit structures.” He makes some suggestions about correlations between these architectural forms and other factors, such as the idea that great kivas may be associated with periods of social instability and the idea that oversized pit structures were more exclusive than great kivas but the ritual in them may have been more ostentatious, judging by the unusual deposits left behind, such as exotic animal remains and redware pottery. He notes the theory that oversized pit structures and their accompanying U-shaped roomblocks may have been associated with emerging ritual leaders, who may have competed with each other for status and power based on their increased storage capacity, access to game meat, and possibly capacity to control craft activities as well. I think there’s a lot of merit to this idea, although it does still rely quite heavily on data from the well-studied Central Mesa Verde area and new research elsewhere might complicate it.

It’s worth noting again, however, that despite the many very visible and interesting changes resulting from increased aggregation a large portion of the population was still living outside of villages. How these people would have interacted with the villages and how their lives might have differed are under-studied but important questions.

Kantner refers to his next and last period, starting in AD 880, as “the Dawn of Chaco,” which seems reasonable given the emerging picture. The key change at this time is the abandonment of the villages that arose in the previous period and the almost complete abandonment of the Central and Eastern Mesa Verde regions, with their residents apparently moving both west into Utah and south into New Mexico, where some of them very likely contributed to the early development of the regional center at Chaco Canyon. This may have been associated with a period of favorable rainfall in the Chaco area compared to a difficult time in the north, but the climatic details are not yet clear. Kantner notes that recent evidence has suggested that the prior population in the Chaco area was a lot smaller than had once been thought, but he also notes that there definitely was an existing population in and around Chaco, and that some sites like Pueblo Bonito were already established before this migration. This population seems to have had ties to the south and was likely different ethnically from the people moving in from the north. There is some evidence for violence that might have accompanied the initial stages of the migration, but it appears that the groups reached an accommodation of some sort over time that led to the development and florescence of the Chaco Phenomenon over the next three centuries. Kantner suggests that the instability of the early period, and possible inequities between the groups, may have contributed to this process of “social elaboration,” which is another interesting idea meriting further study. There are some clear continuities in architecture between the earlier villages and the communities that developed at Chaco, but the question of what had changed to make Chaco so much more successful and long-lived than the northern villages remains open.

In closing, Kantner reiterates some of the caveats he has mentioned before about interpreting this emerging picture. Why didn’t everyone join villages? This seems like a particularly important question to me, and one that has not received enough attention in the development of aggregation models. It’s a particular problem for models that emphasis “push” factors like the need for defense in an increasingly crowded landscape, though Kantner suggests that this may have been a bigger factor for immigrant groups entering a potentially hostile new area than for the indigenous groups they encountered. He has more discussion of “pull” factors, such as economies of scale for intensified work on activities like farming, hunting, and craft production, but ultimately suggests that a complex combination of pushes and pulls may account for the notable variation in village forms that we see throughout this period. Another important question is why these early villages failed. Kantner suggests changes in the above-mentioned balance of push/pull factors, as well as the possibility that aggregation created its own new problems and stresses on the emerging social systems. Whatever the details, it seems increasingly clear that the lessons from the complicated processes covered by this book formed the basis for the later emergence of Chaco and the immense changes in the Pueblo world that it would entail.

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

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Chaco Petroglyph Panel Showing Abstract “Blanket” Designs

Chapter 11 of Crucible of Pueblos, by Rich Wilshusen, Scott Ortman, and Ann Phillips, is called “Processions, Leaders, and Gathering Places,” but I think a more concise description of its main concern is ideology. Specifically, this chapter looks at changes in the ideology of leadership, power, and community organization during the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods, as seen through the archaeology of public architecture, the portrayal of processions in rock art, and the reconstruction of related vocabulary through comparative linguistics. Due to this innovative interdisciplinary approach, I found this one of the most interesting chapters in the book. Some of the argumentation and conclusions strike me as either weak or overly speculative, but overall this is a fascinating example of how approaches from very different disciplines can be skillfully combined to produce a more complete picture of the past.

The overall argument in the chapter is fairly straightforward. The authors argue that there were a series of shifts in Pueblo society from the Basketmaker III to Pueblo I periods:

  • The overall settlement pattern shifted from dispersed hamlets to aggregated villages.
  • The locations for occasional ritual gatherings shifted from symbolically important central locations with public architecture to specific locations within villages that in some cases were likely residences of village leaders who exerted control over rituals they hosted.
  • The social ties that sustained communities shifted from personal relationships between individuals to symbolic relationships between abstract corporate entities to which individuals belonged.

The authors see all of these shifts as being ultimately driven by the rapid increase in population from an intensification of agriculture (the so-called “Neolithic Demographic Transition”). The actual evidence for this transition, and its relationship to agriculture, seems a bit thin to me, but at least on a theoretical level it makes sense, and there’s certainly no question that populations were increasing rapidly in the Mesa Verde region (to which this chapter, like several others, essentially confines itself due to the scarcity of comparable data for other areas) during the period they discuss.

From archaeology, the most important shift the authors discuss is the well-known change from dispersed settlements during Basketmaker III to aggregated villages in Pueblo I. (Again, we’re essentially just looking at the greater Mesa Verde area here, without any discussion of the possible Basketmaker III villages at Chaco Canyon.) One aspect of the Basketmaker III settlement pattern that is particularly important is the presence of “isolated” public architecture of presumed ritual function, which in some cases took the form of “great kivas” and in other cases took the form of “dance circles,” the main distinction being whether the structure appears to have had a roof. These structures are generally thought to have hosted occasional rituals that brought in people from throughout the surrounding area and helped to integrate them as a social “community.” In addition to the actual rituals performed, about which we know little to nothing, these events would have provided opportunities to trade, share information, and find marriage partners, all important activities to ensuring the success of the community and its members.

As people began to gather in aggregated villages during the Pueblo I period, the nature of public architecture begins to change. Great kivas are still being used in some villages, but less and less over time, and some villages don’t have them at all. Instead, it appears that some of the integrative functions of the great kivas are being taken over by U-shaped roomblocks with associated “oversized pit structures” that have features suggesting ritual use but, importantly, not in the same way as great kivas. The U-shaped roomblocks appear to have been at least partly residential in function, and they may have served as the residences of emerging village leaders who used the plazas they partly enclosed, as well as the oversized pit structures, to host community rituals that served many of the same functions previously served by great kivas. Unlike the great kivas, however, which appear to have been communal sites not associated with any particular members of the community, these structures would have been under the direct control of the families or kin-groups that owned them, who would therefore have the opportunity to amass ever more status, power, and wealth. There have been suggestions, repeated here, that these structures were the forerunners of the later “great houses” at Chaco and its outlier communities, which seems increasingly plausible as more is known about them. (It’s worth noting, however, that great kivas reappear at Chaco as well.)

So far so good, and this is about as far as the archaeology can take us. These ideas are plausible, but they’re not new. Where this chapter goes further than others, however, is in incorporating evidence from rock art as well. The specific focus is on rock art depicting what appear to be ritual processions. The authors analyze two specific panels in detail. One, from Comb Ridge in southern Utah, is thought to date to the Basketmaker III period and to depict the sort of gathering of dispersed communities at a central ritual site that was argued above to have been typical of this period. The other panel is from near Waterflow in northwestern New Mexico, and it is argued to date to later, after the collapse of the Pueblo I villages in the Central Mesa Verde region but before the rise of Chaco to the south. This site is at a key point along what may have been one of the main routes between those two areas, which may be important.

I won’t go into much detail about the analyses of the two panels, interesting though they are. The main points are that the Comb Ridge appears to depict at least two groups approaching a round great kiva or dance circle site from different directions, possibly reflecting the joining of two previously separate communities into one. The focus is on long lines of human figures, some of which have elaborate regalia or carry possible ritual objects, which may indicate that they represent specific individuals. Referring to an earlier study, the authors suggest that the focus on these rituals in Basketmaker III rock art represents a shift in ideology from earlier Basketmaker II art that focused on life-cycle rituals and individualistic shamanism to a more communal type of ritual associated with the central sites.

There is very little rock art associated with the Pueblo I villages, and no known procession scenes at all. The authors don’t discuss this fact in any detail, but it seems significant as evidence for a shift in ideology associated with the new ritual forms they describe as indicated by the architecture. Yet another shift appears to be indicated by the reappearance of procession scenes during the Pueblo I/Pueblo II transition as represented by the Waterflow panel. Here, the procession is primarily of animals rather than people, and they are approaching a square divided into halves and decorated with abstract designs. The whole panel has much more of an abstract feel, and it includes symbols of authority known from later Pueblo religion such as twin mountain lions who appear to be guarding the square. The authors interpret the square as representing the community, with the animals approaching it possibly being symbols of corporate groups like clans that make it up rather than known individuals. Of particular interest, the authors suggest on the basis of other rock art evidence that the symbols on the square actually represent a specific community, as there are apparently other symbols like this with various abstract symbols that may depict community in a sort of “heraldry” comparable to the city glyphs known from Mesoamerica. There are also intriguing petroglyphs of human figures with these squares as heads, possibly indicating village “heads” or chiefs. This system doesn’t appear to continue into later periods, at least in this form, though it may be worth taking another look at distinctive rock art motifs found at later sites to see if there is any continuity in the symbolism. The so-called “blanket” motifs found in rock art at Chaco are similar at least in form.

So the overall picture from the rock art evidence is of a shift from showing communities as consisting of groups of individual people who gather at a central location on certain occasions to more abstract depictions of communities as consisting of social categories, rather than individuals. This may reflect a further step in the development of community ideology after the first, apparently failed, experiments with village living during Pueblo I. The elaborate system that developed subsequently at Chaco may have been yet another step.

Turning to language, this is a particularly interesting part of the chapter for me given my linguistic background. It is based on Ortman’s dissertation, subsequently turned into a book, which considered linguistics along with other lines of evidence to understand the cultural makeup of the Mesa Verde region in the later Pueblo III period. While several languages from different families are spoken by the modern Pueblos, here the discussion is limited to the Kiowa-Tanoan language family, the only family that is both primarily spoken by Puebloan peoples and complex enough in structure to analyze historically in any detail. The analysis is based on what terms for culturally important items and technologies can be reconstructed to different stages of the language, and how the presence or absence of certain terms relates to when they were introduced in the archaeological record. So, for example, the (Puebloan) Tanoan languages share some terms related to agriculture with the (non-Puebloan) Kiowa language, but lack shared terms for such items as pottery, beans, and the bow and arrow. Since these items were introduced to the northern Southwest in the Basketmaker III period, it appears that Kiowa broke off from the other languages no later than Basketmaker II. The subsequent divisions within Tanoan look a lot shakier to me, but if they do hold up they seem to indicate that the Towa language split off during Basketmaker III, which would have left the language ancestral to Tiwa and Tewa as having been spoken during Pueblo I, possibly in some of the early villages of the Mesa Verde region. Tiwa and Tewa are said to have split after Pueblo I, which the authors of this chapter suggest indicates that it was the collapse of those villages that caused the split.

This is an interesting approach to trying to align the linguistic and archaeological records, and I’m glad people are looking at it. It doesn’t seem to add much to the other two lines of evidence in this specific case, however, and there are some potential issues that make it hard to apply in general. For one, it can be hard to tell if the inability to reconstruct a term to a given protolanguage truly indicates that the item it represents was not present during the period when that protolanguage was spoken, especially in a small language like Kiowa-Tanoan. Terms can be lost in daughter languages in many ways, with the ultimate result being the same in the present language as if it had never existed. However, this is a much more productive approach to the problem of correlating linguistics with archaeology than some others that have been tried, like glottochronology, and it’s definitely worth pursuing to see what insights it can provide.

Another problem, however, is that there are several other Pueblo languages not related to Kiowa-Tanoan, and this type of analysis doesn’t, and can’t, say anything about when and where they might have been spoken. A better approach to try to address the diversity of languages among the Pueblos is to look at loanwords, both between different Pueblo languages and between them and non-Pueblo ones, and try to see what can be inferred about when certain items were introduced to speakers of a given language based on that. There have been some studies along these lines that have given some interesting insights and more work would be useful.

Overall, this chapter is a really interesting approach to trying to correlate different types of analyses to complement each other and get a better answer to a specific question about the past than any one type of analysis individually. At the end the authors call for more work like this, and I second that call. The specific conclusions arrived at in this publication may or may not hold up under further study, but the process it demonstrates for getting them will be helpful in moving forward and getting more complete and reliable answers.

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