Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category


Fajada Butte at Sunset

Today is the winter solstice, which makes this the ninth anniversary of this blog. It’s a particularly appropriate date for the paper I’m going to discuss in this post, another chapter from Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited. It’s by prominent archaeoastronomer J. McKim Malville, and entitled “The Enigmas of Fajada Butte.”

Fajada Butte is plenty enigmatic. Though it’s one of the most prominent landmarks within Chaco Canyon, and the “Sun Dagger” petroglyph on top of it is one of the most famous pieces of astronomically aligned rock art in the world, there has been surprisingly little detailed archaeological study of the butte itself. While there has been considerable more study of other ancient sites in the general area, that work has not really been well-integrated with what is known about the butte, which makes Malville’s integrative work in this paper extremely interesting, tentative though it is.

Much of Malville’s paper discusses cross-cultural examples of sacred mountains and stairways, as support for the idea that Fajada played this role in ancient Chacoan culture. This is plausible enough, though of course speculative, and I don’t have much more to say about it. More interesting to me is his discussion of the archaeology of the butte itself and the nearby Fajada Gap community, which contains three great kivas dating to the tenth century AD along with many small-house residential sites, some possibly dating as early as the eight century but most apparently from the tenth and early eleventh. Several of these small houses were excavated by the Chaco Project in the 1970s and are among the best-documented sites in the whole canyon. The great kivas, two of which are part of great houses (Una Vida and Kin Nahasbas), are largely unexcavated and much less thoroughly understood.

The third, isolated, great kiva (site 29SJ1253) is of particular interest to Malville, as it appears to have a winter solstice alignment with the butte. Malville presents documentation that on the winter solstice as viewed from the great kiva the sun rises over the summit of Fajada Butte. Malville suggests that the great kiva was positioned where it was in order to set up this alignment, which would have been an important ritual event for the people in the Fajada Gap community. Based on ceramic evidence, the great kiva appears to have been built in the tenth century, which makes it one of the earliest in the canyon. It is also one of the largest, with a diameter of 20 meters. Both of these characteristics suggest that it was a particularly important site from a very early point in the development of Chaco into a regional center, especially in the tenth century when the Fajada Gap community may have been particularly important, even more so than the South Gap community which may have become more prominent later.

Evidence for this importance also comes from some of the excavated small houses. 29SJ1360, the closest site to the butte, is known especially for one of its pithouses containing the remains of several people who apparently died accidentally there in the early eleventh century. One of the women was found with a necklace containing an exceptional number of beads, suggesting relatively high status in life. These are the remains, furthermore, that Nancy Akins in her biometric analysis found showed the greatest similarity to the extremely high-status burials in the north rooms of Pueblo Bonito, some of which we now know were quite early themselves (as are the rooms). 29SJ1360 contained the only macaw remains found outside of a great house context at Chaco, along with evidence that macaws may have been raised there, and it also had a cylinder jar, a high-status pottery form, perhaps used for consumption of chocolate, that is also very closely associated with the north part of Pueblo Bonito.

Overall, then, there are many indications that the people living at 29SJ1360 were of relatively high status and had connections, possibly familial, to some of the people associated with the earliest part of Pueblo Bonito. Malville documents a winter solstice alignment here as well: viewed from about 100 meters upslope, around noon on the solstice, the sun briefly disappears behind the butte then reappears. This is a less rigorous alignment than the one from the great house, obviously, but it is still suggestive, and combined with the other evidence reinforces the sense that this is an important site despite its small size.

Another small house in this community, 29SJ629 or the Spadefoot Toad site, had evidence for a workshop for the manufacture of turquoise beads, which Malville suggests indicates connections to trade routes coming up from the south. Turquoise at Chaco actually came from all over the place, but it’s true that the Fajada Gap community seems to have connections to the south, which makes sense given that the gap itself is an entrance to the canyon from that direction. As I’ve mentioned before, earlier sites to the south of Chaco are much less well understood than those to the north, but there are indications that these connections were very important in the early development of the canyon, and Malville’s argument that the spiritual status of Fajada Butte played an important role in this development is quite plausible.


Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So much for the community; what about the butte itself? Malville discusses two main items of interest: the ramp leading up the butte from its base, and the rooms at its top. The ramp, which appears to take advantage of some natural ridgelines but is definitely at least partly artificial especially in its upper parts, has received oddly little attention in the literature despite being an impressive accomplishment that, judging from the pottery found on it, apparently dates to the tenth century just like the nearby community sites. There are fire pits at the base and top of the ramp, which Malville suggests may have been used in winter solstice ceremonies that ritual procession up the ramp. Again, this seems pretty likely to me and may well have played an important role in Chaco’s rise to preeminence regionally.

The rooms at the top, on the other hand, appear to date much later than the ramp and to have had a quite different purpose. The pottery on them is overwhelmingly late, mostly thirteenth-century, and the construction of the rooms is rather slapdash by Chacoan standards. Extensive remains of the debris of daily life indicate that they were occupied residentially. Based on these characteristics, Malville suggests that these rooms were used as refuges by the thirteenth-century residents of canyon floor sites like the Gallo Cliff Dwelling during times of upheaval and violence. He associates them with the widespread pattern of “pinnacle” refuge sites throughout the northern Southwest during this period, which is very different from the residential patterns of the much more peaceful Chacoan heyday in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. He notes that most of the rock art on the butte was clearly accessed from these rooms, which suggests strongly that it dates to this late period rather than earlier.

This mention of rock art brings us to what might be considered the punch line of the paper: a reevaluation of the famous Sun Dagger spiral petroglyph with its alignment to the winter solstice. Malville proposes that the “sun dagger” alignment around noon on the solstice at the site with three rock slabs was discovered serendipitously by the thirteenth-century residents of the upper butte, who pecked the spiral petroglyph to mark it. This is quite different from the interpretation that others have made, that it was a primary focus of ritual during the height of the Chacoan era, but it does explain some odd things about it pretty well. The spiral could not have easily served a direct calendrical role in calculating the date of the solstice, which some other petroglyphs with astronomical alignments elsewhere in the canyon could have done, and its noon alignment is both not particularly precise and not documented to be of particular importance in modern Pueblo religion.

Most importantly, however, this theory explains something that has always puzzled me about the Sun Dagger: it no longer works. That is, the alignment of the slabs no longer results in a dagger going through the center of the spiral. This is generally thought to be the result of the ground underneath shifting as a result of too many interested people going to look at it in the period between its (re)discovery in 1978 and its closure to general visitation in the 1980s. If this really was a key site visited by at least some Chacoan ritual specialists for hundreds of years, after which it remained intact for several hundred more years until its rediscovery, why did it only take a few years for modern visitors to impact it enough to ruin the alignment? One possible answer was that it was so important in antiquity that it was only visited by very few people with particularly important roles, and may not even have been widely known about among the general population. Malville’s theory provides what I find a more plausible answer, that it was discovered late in the prehistoric occupation of Chaco by the small population who occasionally retreated to the top of the butte for refuge, and it may not even have been particularly important to them. There is extensive evidence in modern Pueblo ethnography for individual people marking astronomical alignments and keeping solar calendars, apart from the formal roles of Sun Priests and so forth to do so for the community. (Indeed, there is evidence that some people did this because they didn’t trust the Sun Priest to get it right.) I think it makes sense to interpret the Sun Dagger as part of this tradition. (Malville also notes that recent reevaluation of the supposed secondary alignments to lunar standstills and other astronomical events hasn’t confirmed that they are real and deliberate.)

Malville’s conclusions about the Sun Dagger are controversial in some circles, I’m sure, but for the more interesting part of this paper is the part about the early alignments between the butte and sites in the Fajada Gap community. This provides nice support for the theory I’ve suggested that the rise of Chaco was due in part to it being the place where certain kinds of astronomical knowledge were first developed or introduced within the (northern?) Southwest, which gave the canyon and its residents a kind of spiritual power that they were able to translate into considerable economic and/or political power, as manifested in the monumental architecture, exotic trade goods, and other things that make Chaco such an impressive place even today.


Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation


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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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Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

I often read articles on the archaeology of other parts of the world to gain a better understanding of the context for Chaco. The areas I focus on for this are primarily those that had interesting things going on contemporaneous with the Chacoan era, but I also look to some extent on archaeological phenomena in other places that are comparable to the Chaco Phenomenon itself to see if there are any lessons for understanding Chaco to be drawn from them.

Recently I’ve been reading a bit about the archaeology of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, which falls into both categories. The period of Tiwanaku’s florescence overlaps with Chaco’s to some extent, although it falls most earlier, but more importantly the history of research there has some intriguing parallels to the history of Chacoan studies and may hold some useful lessons. My account of Tiwanaku here is drawn mainly from John Janusek’s 2004 review article, as well as some other papers by Janusek and others who seem to share his general perspective.

Tiwanaku itself is a major site located on the Bolivian altiplano near Lake Titicaca. It is in a very stark and desolate-seeming location, which makes its monumental architecture seem incongruous (sound familiar?). Early explorers noted that the site pre-dated the Inka empire, and some considered it the oldest site in the whole Andean region. Archaeological investigations in the early twentieth century showed that the latter characterization was definitely not accurate, but they also found little evidence of domestic occupation, and the idea arose that Tiwanaku was a vacant ceremonial center and pilgrimage destination, which some interpreted as the center for a religious movement that was spread by the expansionary state centered at the site of Wari further north in Peru.

Starting in the 1950s, however, a new archaeological program sponsored by the nationalist government of Bolivia and led by Carlos Ponce Sanginés conducted extensive excavations at the site and concluded instead that Tiwanaku was the urban capital of an expansionist state, which rivaled Wari and eventually even conquered it. By the 1980s researchers from the US were invited to work in the area as well, and their research has generally supported this reconstruction of Tiwanaku rather than the “vacant ceremonial center” hypothesis, although the idea that Tiwanaku actually conquered Wari didn’t hold up. Janusek is part of this research tradition, which is why the fact that my information on the site comes mainly from him is important. There are apparently still other archaeologists who still hold to the older interpretation, but there don’t seem to be many.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of research at Chaco should see the similarities here. One important difference, of course, is that the early research at Chaco assumed that it was a residential rather than a ceremonial center. It was not until the work of the Chaco Project in the 1970s that it began to seem like the great houses in the canyon were something other than “pueblos” in the traditional sense. While the idea of Chaco as a vacant ceremonial center was never universal, and it arose rather recently in the history of Chacoan research, it has been quite influential in recent years. Recent research, such as that of Chip Wills, Steve Plog, and Steve Lekson, has been moving away from this idea, however, and back to the idea of a substantial population in the canyon. In parallel with Tiwanaku, however, many of these recent interpretations have seen Chaco as more of a complex, hierarchical society than a set of autonomous, egalitarian villages. This makes the monumental architecture that is a hallmark of the Chaco Phenomenon seem like more of an expression of hierarchical than spiritual ideals.

One important lesson of Tiwanaku, however, is that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The monumental architecture and art at the main site and other sites considered to be regional centers of the same polity (“outliers” in Chacoan terminology?) is generally interpreted as reflecting a religious ideology that supported the hierarchical structure of the Tiwanaku state. This is hardly unusual in early states, of course, but the fact that Tiwanaku was not originally considered to be such a state makes it more relevant to the case of Chaco, which is in the same situation.

Another important similarity between the two systems is in the presence of astronomical alignments in the monumental buildings, and the resultant implication that astronomical observation and the maintenance of a calendar were important elements in the societal system. Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the region to show this astronomical focus, and Janusek, in a paper on Tiwanaku religion, links this explicitly to its success as a state. In that paper he argues that the changes in monumental construction at Tiwanaku proper were linked to changes in the religious ideology of the site, which over time came to incorporate diverse regional traditions as well as cosmic cycles into a complex, syncretic religion that supported and justified the spiritual and material power of the Tiwanaku elites. As Janusek concludes:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

I haven’t seen this same argument applied explicitly to Chaco, but I think it may apply there as well. The part about incorporating diverse cultural traditions seems to match pretty closely with the well-known diversity of material culture at Chaco, with different sites within the canyon, and even different parts of some of the larger sites, showing ties to different parts of the region. I don’t know of any pre-Chacoan sites in the Southwest that show obvious astronomical alignments the way Chaco does, so it seems probable that the Chacoans were the first to figure out these alignments, and they may have also been the first to develop the rigorous calendrical knowledge that such mastery of astronomy implies. I hadn’t really thought about that as a source of Chacoan power before reading about Tiwanaku, but it certainly makes sense. This is a good example of the way reading about these far-flung places has practical advantages for understanding Chaco.
Janusek, John W. (2004). Tiwanaku and Its Precursors: Recent Research and Emerging Perspectives Journal of Archaeological Research, 12 (2), 121-183 DOI: 10.1023/B:JARE.0000023711.96664.1b

Janusek, John W. (2006). The Changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku Religion and the Rise of an Andean State World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Today is a momentous day, of course. As the winter solstice, it marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. It also might be an important date in the Maya Long Count (although opinions differ). It’s not the end of the world, which should be apparent by now. In recognition of the Maya date and my general practice of blogging about archaeoastronomy on significant celestial events, I thought I’d write about a couple of papers focusing on a Mesoamerican symbol with apparent astronomic significance and a thought-provoking connection to the Southwest.

The first paper, published in 1978 in Science, was written by Anthony Aveni and two co-authors (one of whom appears to have been one of his students). Aveni is a prominent figure in archaeoastronomy, especially of Mesoamerica, and was one of the first researchers to do careful measurements of astronomical alignments at ancient sites. In this paper he and his co-authors discuss a symbol found at several Mesoamerican sites consisting of a cross concentric with one or more circles, with the arms of the cross usually extending beyond the circle(s). These symbols were usually made by pecking a series of dots into either a rock face or the floor of a room, and their alignments appear to have often been significant. They are most common at Teotihuacan, where they were generally oriented with the arms of the cross aligned with the city’s street grid. This orientation had led some earlier authors to interpret them as surveying marks used in laying out the streets. The authors of this paper consider that interpretation a possibility, but not necessarily the only one. There are other examples of these symbols in sites near Teotihuacan that have other orientations, some of which seem to align with prominent landmarks on the horizon that may have been used in astronomical observations.

Aveni et al. also make a big deal out of the number of dots from which these figures are made, which is quite consistent in many cases with the total often tantalizingly close to 260, the number of days in the pan-Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There may be something to this, but as is often the case with these numerological theories there’s a question of how close is close enough. (This also applies to alleged astronomical alignments.) They kind of throw a whole slew of interpretations at the numbers of dots in various parts of various examples; some of these may be meaningful, but it seems doubtful that all of them are at the same time.

A more interesting pattern is the geographical distribution of these apparently rare symbols. While they are most numerous in and around Teotihuacan, they are also present surprisingly far afield: as far south as the Maya cities of Uaxactun and as far north as the area of Alta Vista near the Tropic of Cancer. While widespread, these are all areas known to have been influenced by Teotihuacan during its period of greatest power, and the authors make the reasonable suggestion that the pecked cross symbol was associated with this influence. In trying to interpret its meaning, they note similarities to diagrams of Mesoamerican calendars (which are indeed intriguing), as well as the previously mentioned idea that they were orientational devices for surveying, and even the resemblance to descriptions of the holes pecked into house floors as boards for the game patolli in Conquest-era sources. It’s quite possible that they were all of these, of course, or that different examples had different functions. The main conclusion the authors come to is that they are associated strongly with Teotihuacan in some fashion.

An article in American Antiquity two years later made an effort to flesh out what that connection might have been. Written by the Mayanist Clemency Coggins, this article interprets the cross-in-circle motif in Mesoamerica as an example of a larger class of “four-part  figures” that are associated primarily with the sun, especially with its daily cycle through the sky as well as its yearly cycle. Coggins notes various examples of Maya hieroglyphs and other symbols that have the form of quartered circles or crosses and pushes back against earlier interpretations of them as referring to the cardinal directions. Indeed, she argues that the Maya didn’t even really have a concept of “cardinal directions” comparable to the European one: instead, they had two directions that mattered, east and west, where the sun rises and sets, with accompanying symbolism. The areas in between sometimes had symbolism associated with them, but they usually functioned as stand-ins for “up” (north) and “down” (south), which were much more symbolically charged. Coggins sees the quartered circle as representing the daily movement of the sun and as properly interpreted vertically rather than horizontally. Thus, the four points stand for sunrise, zenith, sunset, and nadir, not east, north, west, and south. The position of the sun at zenith (directly overhead) was an important phenomenon for the Maya and probably other Mesoamericans; it only happens in the Tropics and is a foreign concept to societies in temperate zones.

Coggins interprets an early structure at Uaxactun, a pyramidal platform with four stairways, as a symbol of this four-part idea. She argues that its function was likely as a solar observatory, as the three small temples to the east line up with the positions of the sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes viewed from it. This same group of buildings is also noteworthy in that three stelae erected there commemorate the endings of twenty-year periods known as k’atuns, and two of them are the earliest known examples of stelae marking this sort of calendrical event. (Or at least they were at the time Coggins was writing; I don’t know if this is still the case, but if earlier k’atun-marking stelae have been found since then that would undermine her argument somewhat, as explained below.) The event we are (maybe) observing today is the ending of a much longer cycle known as a bak’tun, but is conceptually similar. Coggins distinguishes these “calendric” celebrations and monuments from “historic” ones tied to important events in the lives of kings. She argues that the latter were the focus of all previous monuments and indicate a focus on royal dynasties and the private rituals of the nobility in Maya political life, whereas the celebration of the end of a k’atun and the erection of a monument commemorating it is a more public, popular, universal sort of ritual less focused on the glory of particular lineages and kings.

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

But what does all this have to do with quartered circles? Well, Coggins notes that shortly after these two stelae were erected in Uaxactun (in AD 357), another stela at Uaxactun shows an individual with non-Maya costume and weapons more associated with central Mexico, which at this time would have been dominated by Teotihuacan. This stela also refers to the nearby city of Tikal, which is well known to have seen extensive central Mexican influence at this time, including a king named Curl Snout who was apparently at least partly Mexican himself. This is also the period when the pecked cross at Uaxactun discussed by Aveni et al. was likely made, and here we see some supporting evidence for their theory that the pecked crosses are associated with the expansion of Teotihuacano influence. The first k’atun ending stela at Tikal was erected by Curl Snout and marks the first k’atun ending of his reign (in AD 396). Coggins concludes from this association between Mexican influence and the celebration of k’atun endings that the latter practice was introduce as part of the former phenomenon.

She supports this idea in part with the clear evidence that the god Tlaloc was of considerable importance to these Mexicans in the Maya country, which is unsurprising since he was probably the most important god at Teotihuacan itself. Tlaloc is a god of rain, which was very important to agricultural people in the Valley of Mexico, which is high and relatively dry (at least compared to the lush Maya Lowlands). He was associated as well with the celebration of the solar year, the cycles of which are closely connected to seasonal changes in rainfall patterns among many agricultural societies. This may account for the prevalence of the pecked cross/quartered circle motif at Teotihuacan, if as Coggins implies it symbolized not just the solar day but the solar year as well. Apparently some of the Tlaloc images in Curl Snout’s tomb at Tikal had similar symbols on their headdresses, so the association between the god and the symbol seems well-supported regardless of its origin. Coggins interprets Curl Snout as having introduced a Tlaloc cult to Tikal, presumably from Tenochtitlan, which involved the celebration of the solar year and the sidelining of the old rituals of the established noble lineages that had previously been the focus of Maya official religion. This cult apparently also included the celebration of the twenty-year k’atuns, though Coggins never gives a good explanation for why this would have been the case.

Over time the Mexican kings apparently became assimilated to Maya culture, and Tlaloc was similarly conflated with the Maya rain god Chac, but the celebration of k’atuns continued and by Late Classic times it involved special complexes of paired pyramids with four stairways each, much like the early structure at Uaxactun but on a much grander scale. These were paired on the east and west sides of a plaza and apparently used primarily for the celebration of k’atun endings. The north and south sides often had smaller structures with celestial and underworld symbolism respectively, consistent with the idea that they represented zenith and nadir. All of this is best known from Tikal, but Coggins notes that there are some indications from other sites such as Uaxactun and Yaxha that similar processes of Mexican influence and a shift to k’atun celebration occurred similarly.

That’s the story Coggins tells, anyway. It’s an interesting one, and somewhat convincing at least in some of its broad strokes, but I can’t help thinking that Maya archaeology has come a long way since 1980, especially with a better ability to understand the writing system, and I wonder if Coggins’s historical interpretations, based on essentially art-historical methods, still hold up. In any case, the association between Teotihuacan, Tlaloc, and the quartered circle is the key thing I take away from this paper, and that probably holds up better than the political history. The association is important because there’s another place that is known for its quartered circles, one which is not mentioned at all in either of these papers. That’s probably because it’s very far away from both Teotihuacan and Tikal.

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers in southern New Mexico is one of the most spectacular petroglyph sites in the whole Southwest. It’s one of the most important locations for rock art of the Jornada Style, associated with the Jornada Mogollon culture that existed in south-central New Mexico and adjacent West Texas from about AD 1050 to 1400. Unlike the rock art of the Anasazi area further north, including Chaco, which was highly stylized and repetitive, Jornada Style rock art is astonishingly naturalistic and elaborate. It is full of lifelike human faces and masks, animals with fully realized eyes and teeth, and imagery that is often remarkably Mesoamerican. The examples of parallels to Mexican art are numerous and fairly obvious, and not very surprising given the Jornada’s southerly location and proximity to the very Mesoamerican-seeming center of Casas Grandes, which flourished during this same period. What’s more surprising is the similarity between the Jornada Style and the later Rio Grande Style further north, which contains many of the same symbols and stylistic conventions. This implies that the Jornada served as a conduit for Mesoamerican ideas to the later Pueblos. Polly and Curtis Schaafsma have argued, convincingly in my view, that the kachina cult that is so important among the modern Pueblos originated among the Jornada, citing the masks and other symbols in Jornada rock art as their main line of evidence.

Kachinas are rain spirits, and as Polly Schaafsma notes in her book on Southwestern rock art, the kachina cult bears many notable similarities to the Tlaloc cult in Mexico. And, indeed, one of the most common motifs in Jornada rock art is the goggle eyes that are among Tlaloc’s standard attributes further south. Other Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl appear to be present in the Jornada petroglyphs as well, and Tlaloc is surely not the only deity who was transmitted in altered form to the Pueblos, but given the importance of rain in the arid Southwest the appeal of a rain cult is obvious.

What about the quartered circle? As we saw from the first two papers, this symbol was certainly associated strongly with Teotihuacan, where Tlaloc was the most important god, and it was probably associated to at least some degree with Tlaloc himself, whose popularity in Mexico lasted much longer than Teotihuacan’s political power and cultural influence. And yet, the quartered circle is virtually absent from the Southwest. Simple crosses, often outlined, are common, but they are generally interpreted as stars and typically associated with the Feathered Serpent, which is probably a version of Quetzalcoatl. The cross and circle, however, is almost never seen in the Southwest, except in one place: Three Rivers.

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Schaafsma says in her book that what she calls the “circle-dot motif” is actually the most common element at the site, citing an obscure unpublished manuscript. It’s not clear how she defines this motif, as there are many petroglyphs at Three Rivers that consist of circles surrounded by dots, with the inside of the circle sometimes blank, sometimes filled with a larger dot, sometimes filled with a series of concentric circles, but often filled with a cross. (The illustration in Schaafsma’s book for this motif shows one of the crosses.) These quartered circles, usually but not always surrounded by dots, are very prominent at the site. What’s striking about this is how unique they are to this one site, especially given the importance of similar symbols in Mesoamerica as documented by Aveni et al. and Coggins. Aveni et al. actually mention some similar symbols in the rock art of California and Nevada, but they seem to have been unaware of the Three Rivers examples. The dots are especially interesting, given that the Teotihuacan examples are made of dots. That isn’t the case here, but the dots are clearly important. They give a solar feel to many of the symbols, especially those with concentric circles, which ties in to Coggins’s interpretation of the symbol as reflecting the passage of the sun. And remember those Tlalocs with their goggle eyes, present at Three Rivers as well as at virtually every other Jornada Style site. They clearly show not only that Mesoamerican religious symbols could and did travel this far north, but that the specific god associated with the quartered circle elsewhere was among the most prominent examples.

So what’s the explanation here? I confess that I don’t have one except to suppose that this symbol was of particular importance to the people who made the petroglyphs at Three Rivers, probably primarily people who lived at the contemporaneous village site nearby. I think it’s quite likely that this was a symbol particularly associated with that community, or perhaps with a specific social group within it, and that it is ultimately connected in some way to the symbols further south. Note that some of the pecked crosses described by Aveni et al. were quite far north in Mexico, some near the Tropic of Cancer and one described in a nineteenth-century source as being near the US border (though its exact location is unknown). The latter in particular would probably more or less close the geographic gap between the others and Three Rivers, while the examples near the Tropic of Cancer may have been associated with the nearby site of Alta Vista, which was occupied at a time that would fill much of the temporal gap between Teotihuacan and Three Rivers as well. It’s certainly hard to come to firm conclusions about things like this, of course, and the fact that the quartered circle doesn’t appear to have spread from Three Rivers to any other Jornada Mogollon groups or to the later Pueblos is problematic. Still, it’s a fascinating little glimpse into the complexity of the past and the possibilities that emerge from careful study and an open mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgAveni, A., Hartung, H., & Buckingham, B. (1978). The Pecked Cross Symbol in Ancient Mesoamerica Science, 202 (4365), 267-286 DOI: 10.1126/science.202.4365.267

Coggins, C. (1980). The Shape of Time: Some Political Implications of a Four-Part Figure American Antiquity, 45 (4) DOI: 10.2307/280144

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The Twin Mounds from Monks Mound, Cahokia

One of the major areas of interest for the “New Archaeologists” who came to dominate American archaeology in the late twentieth century was mortuary analysis. In keeping with the arguments of Lewis Binford and other leaders of the movement that archaeology as a discipline should be “problem-oriented” and focused on reconstruction prehistoric societies as fully as possible using archaeological evidence, the patterning evident in the way those societies disposed of their dead was held to reveal important information about social structure and the positions held by the deceased in life. Many important studied of mortuary behavior in various cultures were published in this period, including a 1984 article by George Milner on the burial patterns of Mississippian sites in the American Bottom of southwestern Illinois.

Milner’s article is a classic example of the New Archaeology as applied to mortuary patterns, hampered only slightly by the immense complexity of Mississippian mortuary behavior and the scanty evidence from the many burials excavated in the nineteenth century and poorly documented. Noting that most Mississippian burials in this area were placed in dedicated cemetery areas, he divides these cemeteries into three broad categories, reflecting two dimensions of variation in social structure. The categories are elite burials at major centers such as Cahokia, non-elite burials at those same centers, and non-elite burials at peripheral sites (which do not appear to contain elite burials).

By far the most and best information available to Milner was from the third category, and this is the one he focuses the most attention on. There is quite a bit of diversity even within this category of cemetery, but some general patterns do emerge. Cemetery sites are typically either on prominent bluffs above the Mississippi River floodplain or on low ridges within the floodplain, with a trend apparent over time of a shift from the former to the latter. The bluff-top cemeteries tend to be quite large, and they probably represent the dead of multiple rural communities in the general area. This inference is backed up by the diversity of mortuary treatments even within these cemeteries. Some burials are intact, articulated skeletons, often laid out in one or more rows, sometimes with the heads pointing toward a nearby mound center. Others are disarticulated jumbles or bones, often containing the remains of multiple individuals. There is considerable evidence of complicated mortuary treatment involving exposure of the bodies for some period after death, perhaps in the “charnel structures” that accompany some of the cemeteries, followed by secondary burial. Grave goods are rare and usually relatively mundane items such as pottery, although shell beads and certain exotic minerals are found in some cases.

Ironically, burials at the major mound sites are generally poorly documented compared to those in the rural hinterland. This is in part because the former were often excavated haphazardly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with little or no detailed documentation, while the latter have been largely excavated by systematic cultural resource management salvage projects more recently and extensively documented. Nevertheless, Milner combed through the available data on the mound center burials in the American Bottom, and he comes to a few tentative conclusions about them.

For one thing, there is definitely a big difference between the elite and non-elite burials. The non-elite burials are similar to the ones at outlying sites in many ways, including linear arrangements of graves and modest assemblages of grave goods, but there is also more substantial variation in mortuary treatment, which Milner plausibly attributes to greater diversity within the more populous mound communities, perhaps including more subtle gradations of status than are accounted for by his crude “elite”/”non-elite” dichotomy.

Sign Describing the Twin Mounds at Cahokia

The elite burials, however, are quite different. They are generally in mounds, specifically in conical mounds as opposed to the flat-topped ones that served as platforms for buildings. A common pattern seen at Cahokia and other sites, is for mounds to be paired, with a conical mound accompanying a platform mound. The Fox and Roundtop mounds (the so-called “Twin Mounds”), south of Monks Mound on the opposite side of the Grand Plaza, are the best-known of these paired mounds, but since they are largely unexcavated relatively little is known of their contents. Much of the Cahokia data Milner uses comes instead from Mound 72, which was excavated relatively recently and extensively documented. The very complicated mortuary deposits in this mound include two burials associated with numerous shell beads, as well as various other groups of both articulated and disarticulated remains. One group of articulated skeletons was missing skulls and hands, apparently indicating some sort of human sacrifice.

One of the most striking ways the elite burials differ from the non-elite ones is in the sorts of grave goods. Mundane items such as pottery are generally rare, while very elaborate, labor-intensive artifacts are numerous. The shell beads from Mound 72, also common in several of the other mounds Milner discusses, are one example. Mound 72 also contained various other items, including a cache of finely made chert projectile points, and other exotic materials including copper items were found in other mound burials.

Another interesting characteristic of the elite burials Milner describes is that they are quite communal in nature. Individual burials are not present, and even the most elaborate assemblages of grave goods seem to be associated with large groups of burials within the mounds. This may have important implications for the nature of political power in Mississippian society, although Milner doesn’t go into the implications in any detail in this paper.

Some of Milner’s conclusions in this paper have been superseded in part by newer discoveries and refinements to the chronology of the American Bottom since the time he wrote, but this is still an important paper, not least because of the way it draws on what information is available on the early excavations. The tentative nature of Milner’s conclusions is due in part to those data limitations, but also to the fact that what becomes glaringly obvious from this work is that Mississippian burial practices were extremely complicated and shaped by a wide variety of possible factors, not all of them easily discernible from this type of study.
Milner, G. (1984). Social and Temporal Implications of Variation among American Bottom Mississippian Cemeteries American Antiquity, 49 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280355

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Welcome Plaque, Spiro Mounds

Among the rarest and most fascinating artifacts associated with Mississippian sites are figurines made of carved stone. These are most numerous in the Cahokia area, although they have also been found in various other parts of the Mississippian world, most notably at the Spiro site in Oklahoma. Regardless of where they are found, however, many of these figurines show striking similarities in raw material and iconography, and they have accordingly been the subject of considerable study.

Most of the known examples of these figurines were excavated a long time ago under conditions that are poorly documented. This is most notoriously the case at Spiro (on which more later), but it is also true of many of the Cahokia-area specimens. A reevaluation of all these early finds was spurred largely by the discovery of new examples through carefully controlled excavations as part of the FAI-270 highway salvage excavations in the 1970s by the University of Illinois. Probably the most famous of these new finds was the Birger Figurine, found at the BBB Motor site northeast of Cahokia in 1979. The context of this and other figurines discovered during this project indicated that they dated to the Stirling Phase (AD 1050 to 1150). During this period the BBB Motor site appears to have functioned as a rural ceremonial center devoted primarily to the processing of human remains for burial, so the presence of figurines there at this time may have some relevance for interpreting their function.

A few years after the discovery of the Birger Figurine Guy Prentice published an article analyzing its iconography in relation to the mythology of various Native groups of the Eastern Woodlands. The figurine depicts a woman using a hoe on the body of a snake that encircles her, the tail of which bifurcates into two vines bearing what appear to be gourds or squashes. As Prentice notes, this seems to pretty clearly symbolize agricultural fertility, and the woman may therefore represent some sort of “Earth-Mother” figure. Various Native groups in the East did in fact worship such a goddess, and the more specific attributes of these deities shed further light on the symbolism of the figurine. They typically had strong associations with serpents, hence the snake, as well as agriculture and fertility more generally. Additionally, and not at all obvious from the figurine itself, they tend to have associations with the moon and with death (with which snakes are also associated). There is typically a sort of “circle of life” motif tying together the Earth-Mother, fertility, agriculture, death, and rebirth. Prentice makes a convincing case that the Birger Figurine fits well into this motif.

One of the issues Prentice has to deal with in his article, however, is which groups are most relevant for interpreting these figurines. Recall that they are found both in the Cahokia area and at Spiro. It was long assumed that they were manufactured at or near Spiro, since they are made of a type of stone that resembles a bauxite known to occur in Arkansas. However, as Prentice points out, similar types of stone are found in various other areas, including the Ozark Highlands of southeast Missouri, near St. Louis (and therefore quite close to Cahokia). He deals with this issue by analyzing myths from throughout the Eastern Woodlands along with those of the Caddoan tribes of the Spiro area.

Plaque at Brown Mound Showing Figurine, Spiro Mounds

A research program led by Thomas Emerson of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey has sought to address this issue more directly, by chemically sourcing the figurines to determine where they were made. They began by analyzing figurines from the Cahokia area, including the Birger Figurine, and determined that they were in fact made of flint clay from the Ozarks and not from Arkansas bauxite. They followed this up by analyzing figurines from other areas to the south and southeast of Cahokia, including Spiro. This involved developing a new, non-destructive method for analyzing figurines, as these specimens were mostly museum pieces that were not available for any sort of destructive testing. The results of this study indicated that all of these examples also came from the Missouri Ozarks. Basically, all of the tested figurines appear to have come from the same source area (possibly even the same quarry), which was in the Cahokia area, and it is most plausible to think that most or all of them were also sculpted in or around Cahokia regardless of where they ended up.

There are several implications of this finding. For one, there is a striking difference in subject matter between the figurines found in the Cahokia area and those found in areas to the south, especially at Spiro. The former largely depict female figures and themes related to agriculture and fertility, while the latter more often depict male figures and themes related to warfare, violence, and the chunkey game. It was once thought that this might reflect a difference between Cahokian and Caddoan worldviews, but since all the figurines now seem to be Cahokian in origin it seems more likely that all of these themes were important in Cahokia but that only the more masculine, warlike figures ended up traveling to the southern centers, which may indicate something about the nature of Caddoan societies in the relevant period.

Another issue is just when that relevant period was. As noted above, the recent finds of figurines at the BBB Motor site and others in the Cahokia area indicate a time frame of AD 1050 to 1150 for most examples, and it is very unlikely that any were being made in the American Bottom after around 1200. This is around the time Cahokia starts to decline in influence, though it wasn’t totally abandoned until a while later, and it seems likely that some major changes made figurine-making a much less important activity than before. Outside of the Cahokia area, however, figurines don’t start to appear until even later, after around 1250, and mostly in burial contexts. This suggests to Emerson and his colleagues that it was only after the decline of Cahokian power that figurines began to be exported in significant numbers to the Caddoan and other southern centers, which were increasing in power and influence at that time.

Craig Mound, Spiro Mounds

When the Caddoans and other rising stars in the Southeast began to acquire Cahokian figurines, it appears that they strongly preferred the masculine warrior styles rather than the feminine Earth-Mother ones, although it is also quite possible that the Cahokians themselves refused to part with the latter, which tended to be ritually broken and buried at religious sites like BBB Motor. In any case, it was mostly the warrior figures that ended up moving south, and once they arrived (probably), many were drilled to be used as pipes rather than as static figures. The Cahokians seem to have made some figurine pipes, with the pipe mouthpiece and bowl incorporated into the design, but these Caddoan examples were clearly made secondarily out of non-pipe figurines, since the drill-holes interfere with the original design. This change is significant; as Emerson and colleagues put it in their 2003 paper:

This was a critical transition (i.e., from figurine to pipe) from an object of elite or religious sacra that was “observed” and to which obeisance was due to an instrument with which an individual “interacted.” There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one. For this transition to have occurred it seems reasonable to assume that either fundamental changes occurred in local religious or social practices or that the figurine had moved into a different cultural context where its original meaning was not comprehended or was irrelevant. We have no evidence for this type of transformation of a figurine into a pipe in the American Bottom. Conversely, at present, we have no large undrilled figurines in areas outside of Cahokia. The production of large flint clay icons or idols was a uniquely Cahokian phenomenon. The conversion of such figurines to pipes seems to have been a uniquely Caddoan practice.

The discovery that these figurines were apparently all manufactured in the Cahokia area in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is a very important piece of evidence for untangling the importance of Cahokia for the development of Mississippian iconography and other cultural features. Interpreting that evidence is of course difficult, but this research shows the importance of archaeometric techniques for providing a baseline from which rich cultural interpretations can proceed.
Emerson, T., & Hughes, R. (2000). Figurines, Flint Clay Sourcing, the Ozark Highlands, and Cahokian Acquisition American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694809

Emerson, T., Hughes, R., Hynes, M., & Wisseman, S. (2003). The Sourcing and Interpretation of Cahokia-Style Figurines in the Trans-Mississippi South and Southeast American Antiquity, 68 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3557081

Prentice, G. (1986). An Analysis of the Symbolism Expressed by the Birger Figurine American Antiquity, 51 (2) DOI: 10.2307/279939

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Trash Mound from Pueblo Alto

Many recent interpretations of Chaco Canyon see it as a site of pilgrimage, and this is often specifically seen as taking the form of regular region-wide ritual events involving communal feasting, construction work on the massive buildings in the canyon, trade involving various mundane and exotic items, and ritual breakage of pottery and deposition of it in the mounds accompanying most great houses.  This idea, which has been incorporated into a wide range of models of Chacoan society both hierarchical and egalitarian (although it is especially important to egalitarian models), is heavily dependent on data gathered in the excavation of Pueblo Alto by the Chaco Project in the 1970s.  In addition to excavating about 10% of the great house itself, Project personnel excavated a trench and several stratigraphic columns in the large trash mound to the southeast.  What they found was a series of well-defined layers.  Some of these, toward the bottom, seemed to consist mostly of construction debris, and others, toward the top, consisted mostly of windblown sand and redeposited artifacts, but the ones in between seemed to show a pattern of large, well-defined deposits.  This was interpreted as being quite different from the expected pattern from the regular deposition of domestic trash from a residential site, and the theory developed, particularly by Wolky Toll, explained it as the result of occasional massive depositional events in which large amounts of pottery and other artifacts were deposited all at once.  Toll estimated that the number of layers approximately matched the number of years during which Pueblo Alto was occupied, and that they therefore accumulated as the result of annual events in which numerous people came from throughout the region to attend events at Pueblo Alto (and presumably at other great houses too).  As part of these events, pilgrims would probably have brought offerings of items from their home areas, thus explaining the huge amount of imported goods at Chaco as well as the lack of apparent exports.  These items would have included mundane items like wood, corn, and pottery, as well as more exotic things like turquoise and Narbona Pass chert.  People may have also worked on constructing the great houses as part of some sort of ritual offering of labor, which would explain the massive scale of these buildings despite the small permanent population of the canyon itself.  While there is a certain amount of evidence for residential use at Pueblo Alto and other great houses, it indicates a pretty small population relative to the size of the buildings, and Toll’s model interprets this as a small “caretaker” population of what were primarily non-residential, public structures with large plazas that could serve as the sites of ritual feasting and other activities during these festivals.

Furthermore, the composition of the artifact assemblage found during the excavations of the Pueblo Alto mound seemed to offer an interesting possibility for another ritual activity.  Basically, there was a huge amount of pottery in it, especially gray utility ware, much of it imported from the Chuska Mountains to the west.  Based on the number of rim sherds in the excavated portion and an estimate of the size of the whole mound, Toll calculated that 150,000 vessels were used during the 60-year period (AD 1040 to 1100) during which Gallup Black-on-white was the predominant decorated type, a period that roughly corresponds to the height of the Chaco system.  This works out to 2500 vessels a year, or 125 for each of the 20 households estimated to have lived at Pueblo Alto at any one time.  This is a huge number compared to ethnographically documented rates of pottery usage and breakage or ratios seen at small sites, and to Toll it suggested that the pottery deposited in the mound was probably not broken in the course of everyday life at Pueblo Alto but was instead broken deliberately in rituals associated with the annual pilgrimage fairs.  Ritual breakage and deposition of pottery is a known Pueblo practice, but this would be on a scale not seen at any other known site.  Nevertheless, this is the model of the formation of the Pueblo Alto mound that has been widely accepted and incorporated into a wide variety of interpretations of the Chaco system that differ wildly in many respects but all have some sort of pilgrimage function for the canyon as part of its regional role.  It’s important to note that this is the only direct evidence for a pilgrimage function known from excavations at Chaco.

Niche at Pueblo Alto

I think it’s pretty plausible that pilgrimage and communal feasting took place at Chaco, but I’ve increasingly come to think that the evidence from the Pueblo Alto mound is extremely weak.  There are a few different reasons I don’t buy it, and a couple of the most important ones are well illustrated by two articles published in American Antiquity in 2001.

One of these, by Toll himself, is part of the same special issue on the organization of production at Chaco that included Colin Renfrew‘s model of Chaco as a “Location of High Devotional Expression” or pilgrimage center.  Toll likes this idea, obviously, and his article, in addition to summarizing the known data on the production and use of pottery at Chaco, attempts to take a closer look at the Alto data to evaluate Renfrew’s model.  This basically involves looking at each of the “event layers” (as distinguished from the construction and post-occupational layers) and calculating the proportions of local and non-local ceramics and lithics (as well as the different types of pottery forms and wares) in each.  These were then compared to the proportions in the mound as a whole, other Chaco Project excavations dating from the same period, and excavations dating earlier and later.  If Renfrew’s theory works, the event layers should show higher proportions of imported ceramics and lithics, as well as possibly higher proportions of ceramic types likely to have been used in feasting, compared to these other data sets.

Flake of Narbona Pass Chert with Ant at Pueblo Alto

Toll does his best to spin the results to be consistent with Renfrew’s model, but looking at the actual numbers in his tables, there’s just nothing there.  The event layers are virtually identical to the whole mound, which isn’t really surprising given that they comprise a large portion of it, and both are very similar to contemporary non-mound contexts in most ways.  Earlier and later contexts are different in interesting ways, but that’s neither here nor there in terms of evaluating Renfrew’s model.  Chuska ceramics are a case in point: they comprise 33.4% of the event layers, 30.8% of the whole mound, and 33.1% of the contemporary non-mound contexts.  That doesn’t look like a meaningful difference to me.  In the cases where the mound layers do differ from other contemporary contexts, they generally have fewer exotic materials.  For example ceramics from the Red Mesa Valley comprise 3.3% of the event layers, 3.8% of the whole mound, and 4.6% of the contemporary non-mound contexts.  The presence of Narbona Pass chert is something of an exception, with the proportions for the event layers, the whole mound, and other contemporary contexts being 26.1%, 26.4%, and 19.5% respectively, but stone from the Zuni Mountains has proportions of 2.2%, 2.4%, and 10.9% (!) respectively, which suggests that there’s just no pattern here in which the event layers or the mound as a whole contain higher proportions of imported material.  Basically, Chaco was awash in all sorts of imported stuff during this period, and it was not particularly concentrated in the mound more than anywhere else.  The mound has lots of imports because there were lots of imports all over the place, not because it was formed as the result of annual pilgrimage feasts.

The biggest difference between the mound and other contemporary contexts comes with the forms of pottery.  Generally, the forms of pottery found at sites in this area at this time are whiteware bowls, whiteware jars, grayware jars, and redware and brownware bowls.  Red and brown bowls were long-distance imports and are found in small numbers at most sites.  The other wares were local, at least in a general sense, and while there was surely some variation, the standard idea about functions is that gray jars were used for cooking food, white bowls were used for serving food, and white jars were used for storage.  Thus, for feasting contexts an unusually high number of white bowls, and possibly gray jars, would be expected.  Since red and brown bowls are likely to have had symbolic or ritual importance, given the distances from which they were imported, they may occur in higher frequencies in feasting or ritual contexts too.

Shell Bead at Pueblo Alto

The pattern in the Pueblo Alto mound, while distinct from other contemporary sites, didn’t really match these expectations.  The most obvious difference was a much lower proportion of white bowls: 27.0% for the event layers versus 32.7% for the whole mound and 33.4% for other contexts.  This was balanced by a higher proportion of gray jars, which Toll interprets as still giving evidence for feasting, but this is mighty weak evidence for pilgrimage and feasting, even though the high proportion of grayware that came from the Chuskas during this period means that the high proportion of gray jars in the mound contributed to a higher level of Chuskan imports.  Red and brown bowls were also much rarer in the mound (both in the event layers and in the whole thing) than in other sites.

So, despite Toll’s efforts to show the data from the Pueblo Alto mound supporting his and Renfrew’s pilgrimage theories, I don’t buy it.  That’s not to say that there was no pilgrimage or feasting at Pueblo Alto, of course, just that this evidence doesn’t show that there was any.  And, remember, this is the only evidence out there for feasting and pilgrimage at Chaco.

Plaza at Pueblo Alto

But what about those unusually large, distinct layers in the mound?  Don’t those indicate unusual depositional events consistent with annual feasting and the deliberate breaking of huge numbers of pots?

Well, no.  To understand why not, we turn to the second paper published in 2001 on this topic, written by Chip Wills.  Wills is a Chaco Project alum who worked on the Pueblo Alto mound excavations, so he knows what he’s talking about here, and what he says is that the layers in the mound aren’t at all necessarily evidence for annual feasts.  Basically, what he says is that there’s nothing special about the layers in the mound.  They’re not really bigger or richer in artifacts than deposits found elsewhere.  He has a lot of specific criticisms of Toll’s interpretations and methodology, but that’s the gist of it.  He says that the unusually well-defined nature of the layers could well be the result of natural processes on layers deposited in various ways, so that it doesn’t necessarily indicate occasional large deposits rather than steady trash accumulation.  Most importantly, he finds that there isn’t actually a clear distinction between the “construction” and “event” layers, and that it’s quite plausible that the whole mound, or at least the vast majority of it, resulted from the deposition of construction debris from the various stages of construction and remodeling at Pueblo Alto.  There would have been other “depositional streams” as well, including the dismantling of earlier architecture below the present site (which is known to have been present from the excavations).  Wills doesn’t deny that ritual may have played a role in the creation of the mound, since the construction of the great house itself may well have been a ritual act, but he does deny that there is any sign that the actual contents of the mound indicate that it resulted from occasional ritual deposits rather than a combination of construction debris and regular trash dumping.

Rim Sherd at Pueblo Alto

Okay, but what about all those smashed vessels?  Basically, Wills doesn’t find Toll’s calculations convincing.  He says that Toll calculated the number of vessels based on the number of rim sherds found, then extrapolated that number to the whole mound based on the excavated portion.  The assumptions here are that each pot is represented in the mound by a single rim sherd, and that sherd density throughout the mound is constant.  Neither of these is really reasonable, although the “one rim sherd per vessel” one is particularly problematic.  It was apparently based on the fact that few rim sherds from the same vessel were found, but what are the odds that only one rim sherd from each pot made it into the mound?  Extrapolating the number of vessels is tricky, of course, and obviously the raw sherd counts can’t be a reliable way to do it (since vessels varied in size), but this rim sherd idea is questionable at best.  The idea of uniform density is really just an example of a reasonable assumption given an unknowable reality, but it’s still not necessarily right.  Wills mentions another estimate of 30,000 vessels for the whole mound, which he also attributes to Toll, and this produces much more reasonable per year and per household numbers suggesting that the observed sherd density could easily reflect regular domestic trash.  He also notes that it was the number of households, based on architectural data, that was held constant when this seemed to conflict with the number of vessels deposited, but he doesn’t elaborate on the implications of this beyond noting the privileged place architecture tends to hold in population estimates at Chacoan sites.

I originally read both of these articles a couple years ago when I was first starting to work at Chaco, and at the time I found Toll’s more convincing.  Rereading them now, though, I find Wills more convincing, and his arguments have never really been squarely addressed by Toll or anyone else associated with the pilgrimage/feasting theory (although they are occasionally mentioned in passing).  Chaco may well have been a pilgrimage site and the location of communal feasts, but it’s important to note that the Pueblo Alto trash mound doesn’t provide evidence for this idea, and neither does anything else.
Toll, H. (2001). Making and Breaking Pots in the Chaco World American Antiquity, 66 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694318

Wills, W. (2001). Ritual and Mound Formation during the Bonito Phase in Chaco Canyon American Antiquity, 66 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694243

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