Archive for the ‘Outliers’ Category


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.
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.


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.


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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RIP Bob Powers


Tower Kiva at Kin Ya’a

This news is a few weeks old and I’ve gone back and forth on whether to say something about it, but I ended up deciding I should. Bob Powers, an important but low-key Southwestern archaeologist who worked on the Chaco Project and is probably best known for leading the Outlier Survey, died on January 2 at his home in Santa Fe. Bob and his wife Willow have been close friends of my family for a long time (they were the family friends who accompanied us on my first visit to Chaco Canyon in 2003), and when I was visiting my mom in Albuquerque back in December we took a day to go up to Santa Fe to see them. Given how little time Bob turned out to have left, I’m very glad we did.

Unlike most of his Chaco Project colleagues, Bob stayed on with the National Park Service for the rest of his career. Much of his later work was in other parks such as Bandelier and Pecos, but Chaco always had a special place in his heart. Being in government rather than academia meant that he wasn’t as active as some other Chaco Project alums in publishing and participating in ongoing debates over the nature of Chaco and Southwestern prehistory in general, but he was nevertheless a key member of that group that revolutionized our understanding of these topics. He will be missed.

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Walls at Wijiji

Walls at Wijiji

Today is the winter solstice, and the seventh anniversary of this blog. I’ve traditionally posted about archaeoastronomy on these anniversaries, so I’m going to briefly interrupt my series on Crucible of Pueblos to discuss an interesting article on the evidence for astronomical observations at Chaco Canyon. There turns out to be some overlap, actually, which is interesting.

The article is by Andrew Munro and Kim Malville, who were also the authors of the article on building orientations that I talked about last year on this date, and it was published in the same special issue of the journal Archaeoastronomy in 2010. The content is rather different however. This article summarizes the evidence for specific locations in and around the canyon for which there is evidence of use as solar observation “stations,” including two sites which are newly identified here. (Worth noting here is that Munro left a detailed and interesting comment on last year’s post, in which he linked to his unpublished thesis which contains more detailed and up-to-date information on his approach to archaeoastronomy. I haven’t read it yet, so I’m focusing here on the published articles while recognizing that they don’t have the most recent information.)

Identifying viewing stations is more complex than simply demonstrating alignments, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, based on modern Pueblo ethnography, sun-watching locations were not necessarily marked physically with architecture, rock art, or anything else. This makes their archaeological identification difficult, and probably means that the stations that did happen to have physical markers are probably over-represented.

Identifying these stations also requires careful consideration of how exactly the observation process would have likely worked, what its specific purposes were, and how they could have been met. If, as Munro and Malville argue, the main role of these observations was to fix the dates of ceremonies marking key times in the year, there would have been a practical need to mark not just the date of the ceremony itself, but dates leading up to it which would have given time to prepare for it. Munro and Malville use the term “anticipatory” for stations that would allow prediction of an event in advance, and “confirmatory” for those that would allow observation of the date of the event. There would also need to be a system for communicating the information from the observation stations quickly and easily to other sites in the canyon and beyond.

There is also an important distinction between observation stations and shrines. The former were used for the practical purpose of making observations, while the latter were associated with those observations but used for ritual activities rather than observation, and often were not in locations from which accurate observations could be made. Munro and Malville use the terms “primary” and “secondary” to refer to these different types of sites; secondary stations could include both shrines, which could involve rock art and/or simple architecture, and alignments within or associated with buildings. The well-known, though not universally accepted, alignments at Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada would fall into the secondary category, as would the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph site atop Fajada Butte. In this paper Munro and Malville focus on the primary stations, which they further divide into two categories depending on whether they could be used both to predict significant dates in the solar calendar and to observe them when they occurred, or just to observe the occurrence. For practical purposes the former type would be more useful.

Despite Chaco’s reputation for astronomy, it turns out that good locations for primary observation are pretty rare in the canyon. One key requirement for such a location is a “broken” horizon with obvious landmarks that can be used to track the sun’s (or moon’s) progress along the horizon, but from most great houses the horizon is actually pretty flat and unsuitable for observation. This is presumably due to the flat mesa tops to the north and south of the canyon itself. The number of possible locations for observation stations is therefore reduced to a few areas of the canyon where the horizon is more varied. Munro and Malville list five previously documented stations and add two more based on their own research. (A few more have since been identified.) They are briefly described below.

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Piedra del Sol is a large rock near the current Chaco visitor center that has a wide variety of rock art as well as multiple astronomical alignments. Of particular interest is an apparent viewing station for summer solstice sunrise associated with a large spiral petroglyph on the northeast face of the rock. The horizon as viewed from this spot could allow for both anticipatory and confirmatory observations for the solstice. Even more intriguing, the station has a direct line of sight to the “Sun Dagger” site on Fajada Butte, suggesting that this may have been the location from which the observations were made that allowed the spiral petroglyph at that site to be placed in exactly the right position for the “dagger” of light to pierce it on the summer solstice.

There are multiple identified observation stations in the area of the Wijiji great house at the eastern end of the canyon. One site, 29SJ931, is near a pictograph site on a ledge near the great house and allows observation of the winter solstice. There are some features at the site that are similar to the sorts of features found at post-Chacoan observation sites in the Mesa Verde area, as well as evidence for later Navajo use, so it’s not clear that this site was actually used at all during the Chacoan era. Another site near Wijiji, 29SJ1655, has many Navajo petroglyphs nearby but does also have Chacoan rock art and a possible shrine, suggesting Chacoan as well as Navajo use. This site actually consists of three siting locations, allowing observation of both solstices as well as both equinoxes.

More firmly established as a Chacoan siting station is the Wijiji great house itself. From the northwest corner of the building a notch is visible on the horizon that serves as both an anticipatory and a confirmatory marker for the winter solstice: about two weeks before the solstice the sun rises at the left edge of the notch, and on the solstice itself it rises on the east edge. Since Wijiji was one of the latest great houses to be built in the canyon, it’s possible that it was sited at a location already used as a solstice observation station. As we shall see, it is not the only great house for which this appears to be the case.

Kin Kletso

Kin Kletso

Further west in the canyon, another late great house, Kin Kletso, shows a similar alignment to the winter solstice, with both anticipatory and confirmatory observations possible but in a different way. Here, looking from the southeast corner of the building toward a nearby cliff about two weeks ahead of the solstice (the same dates as the Wijiji anticipatory alignment) shows the sun rising at the base of the cliff. Over the course of the next few weeks, the same sunrise alignment is visible by gradually moving north along the east wall of the site, until on the solstice itself the alignment is visible from the northeast corner. As with Wijiji, it is possible that Kin Kletso was built at the site of an existing observation station, perhaps associated with the large boulder at the western end of the site. (I mentioned both the Wijiji and Kin Kletso observation alignments in my very first post on this site, as it happens.)

In addition to these previously identified observation stations, Munro and Malville describe two new ones based on their own recent research. Both of these are interesting partly because of what they imply about the date at which these sorts of observations began at Chaco.

29SJ2539 is in the general area of Wijiji, and also near the important Basketmaker III village of Shabik’eschee. The site itself includes a boulder with an alignment allowing for confirmatory observation of the winter solstice sunrise through a notch at the foot of a nearby cliff, along with a wide variety of artifacts and rock art indicating both Chacoan and Navajo use. An immediately adjacent site, 29SJ2538, includes a ledge overlooking the boulder that could have been used for storage but apparently wasn’t. Another nearby site is a small-house habitation that was excavated by Frank H. H. Roberts in 1926, now known as “Roberts Small House.” This site was apparently occupied over a long span of time, from Pueblo I through the post-Chacoan “Mesa Verdean” occupation of the canyon. It contained a large number of turkey bones, giving it the alternative name of “turkey house.” It also contained human remains, including some that have been argued to show evidence of cannibalism. Christy Turner, who initially made the cannibalism claim, identified the remains as dating to early Pueblo II, but Munro and Malville cite more recent research showing that they were actually from an earlier Pueblo I context. They also argue that there is no reason to associate the cannibalism evidence with the evidence for astronomical observation or related ritual practices, but without going into detail.

Looking West from Peñasco Blanco

Looking West from Peñasco Blanco

Finally, Munro and Malville identify a possible observation point for winter solstice sunrise at Casa del Rio, an early great house just west of the canyon that seems to have been an important site in the Pueblo I period, with an exceptionally large trash midden suggesting possible feasting activity involving people beyond those living at the site. From this site (Munro and Malville don’t specify the exact viewing location) the solstice sunrise is aligned with West Point, the high point on the west side of West Mesa that contains a Chacoan shrine and has direct lines of sight to the Peñasco Blanco great house as well as to other shrines from which messages could be quickly sent throughout the canyon and beyond. This close association with the signaling network, in combination with the large amounts of trash (which seems to have been primarily domestic trash associated with food consumption, unlike the more complex contents of the later, more formal mounds associated with Chacoan great houses), implies that Casa del Rio may have been a location where people gathered for feasts and other ceremonies during the Pueblo I period, with at least some of the ceremonies tied to astronomical events such as the winter solstice (or the full moon nearest to it). In this scenario, inhabitants of Casa del Rio would have watched the sunrises over West Mesa to determine the dates of their festivals, then communicated those dates to others by signaling to the shrine on West Point, from which the signal could have been transmitted to many other places.

Speaking of signaling, Munro and Malville also discuss how it could have been done. Fires or smoke signals are possibilities, but another intriguing options would have been mirrors made of selenite, a mineral that can be polished to a high reflective sheen which is found in some natural outcrops in the Chaco area, including one near the observation site at 29SJ2539. Pieces of selenite were in fact found at 29SJ2539 itself, as well as at several other sites in the canyon.

Several interesting patterns emerge from the data compiled by Munro and Malville. First, the winter solstice sunrise appears to have been the most important astronomical event observed by the ancient Chacoans, at least judging from the viewing stations that have been identified so far. This is consistent with modern Pueblo ethnography, which similarly indicates the winter solstice as the most important event and sunrise observations as generally being more important than sunset ones.

Second, there is a strong association between possible viewing stations and so-called “Late Bonito” great houses, those built in the early AD 1100s toward the end of the period of Chacoan florescence, often in the so-called “McElmo” architectural style that is sometimes associated with influence from the north. The relatively standardized sizes and shapes of these great houses, as well as their short periods of construction, suggest an aggressive building program at this time that might have been associated with an attempt to reassert Chaco’s importance at a time when regional focus was starting to shift north to Aztec. Siting these buildings at locations already used as astronomical observation points, and designing them to incorporate aspects of such observation into the buildings themselves, may have been a way for Chacoan leaders to emphasize their esoteric knowledge and spiritual power at a time when it was being challenged.

Finally, and most interestingly from the perspective of the series of posts I’ve been doing lately, Munro and Malville provide tentative but intriguing evidence for astronomical observation points in and around Chaco Canyon beginning in the Pueblo I period. This would to my knowledge make this the earliest known evidence for detailed astronomical observation in the northern Southwest, and possibly in the Southwest as a whole (evidence for the Hohokam in southern Arizona is more ambiguous). That, in turn, provides further support for my theory that the rise of Chaco was enabled in part by the development of a new ideology in which astronomy played a major role.

In this regard it is interesting that one of the early centers for astronomical observation may have been Casa del Rio, which was one of the most important local centers during the late Pueblo I period when the great houses in the canyon proper were just starting to be built. As noted in my earlier post on Pueblo I in the Chaco area, it’s clear that at this time settlement was largely focused to the west of the canyon along the lower Chaco River, which may have been a conduit for migrants leaving the villages in the Dolores, Colorado area when they collapsed in the late ninth century. It may have been these migrants, bringing the lessons they had learned from their experiments in village life and adapting to a new and very different environment, who first began to pay careful attention to the sky, perhaps in an attempt to improve their prospects of survival in an area that is exceptionally arid even for the Southwest. If their initial adaptations were successful, as they appear to have been at least in some places, they may have begun to gain prestige and to attract additional migrants from various areas, who would have brought their own ideas and lessons learned. Astronomy may have been the development that united these people and allowed them to develop a new social order that would go on to underlie the spectacular achievements at Chaco that we see evidence of even today. And when that social order began to be challenged, for reasons that are still unclear, its leaders may have sought to revitalize it through a renewed emphasis on their astronomical knowledge in the form of the Late Bonito great houses.

Obviously this is all fairly speculative, but more and more evidence has been accumulating in recent years to focus and ground such speculation in solid data. Archaeoastronomical research has been a key part of this, and this article is an important contribution to the developing picture.
Munro AM, & Malville JM (2010). Calendrical Stations in Chaco Canyon Archaeoastronomy, 23, 91-106

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