Archive for the ‘Research’ Category


Tijeras Pueblo Overlook

I’ve written some posts before on the interesting recent research being done on the analysis of DNA and stable isotopes to study the genetics and subsistence of the turkeys of the prehistoric Southwest. A recent short paper adds an interesting dimension to this research, by looking at these issues in a sample of turkey remains from a site on the fringe of the Pueblo world, near its interface with the Plains.

The site in question is Tijeras Pueblo, in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The researchers were interested primarily in looking at the stable isotope chemistry of these turkeys to determine whether they primarily ate maize or wild plants, to try to determine how they were raised. In addition, they looked at the DNA of a subset of them to see if they belonging to a previously identified genetic line of domestic turkeys identified in the prehistoric Southwest, or to a separate line associated with modern wild turkeys. In theory, one might expect that turkeys that ate maize belonged to the domesticated line and ones that ate wild foods belonged to the wild one.

In fact, however, what they found was more complicated and interesting. The turkeys fell into two groups which were quite distinct in their chemistry: one that seemed to have eaten maize and another one that seemed to have eaten wild plants. However, the latter group did not have chemistry quite the same as that of the modern wild turkey specimens they compared it to, and was instead somewhat “intermediate” between the maize-fed ones and the wild ones. This suggested to the authors that these turkeys may have been free-ranged, eating a mix wild plants, some maize, and perhaps also insects, and that some of this free ranging may have been in the cornfields for pest control. Similar husbandry practices are documented in the modern Pueblos but had not previously been identified prehistorically.

Even more interesting, however, was the genetic data. Despite the sharp distinction between subsistence strategies implied by the chemical evidence, almost all of the tested specimens belonged to the domesticated ancient Southwestern lineage, and not the wild one. This suggests that the difference in husbandry practices did not correlate to separate origins of the turkeys, but to something different.

Comparisons to specimens from other areas shed some light on possible reasons for this pattern. The researchers compared these turkeys to some from the Albuquerque area, from the Gallina area, and from Arroyo Hondo Pueblo to the north in the Northern Rio Grande area. Since Tijeras Pueblo is at a relatively high elevation where maize agriculture is somewhat marginal, it might be expected that this environment explains part of the difference in turkey husbandry. And when compared with the nearby but much lower Albuquerque samples and the more distant but comparably high-elevation Gallina ones, there is some evidence for this: the Albuquerque samples grouped with the maize-fed Tijeras ones, and most of the Gallina samples grouped with the free-range Tijeras ones. However, the Arroyo Hondo samples, though also high-elevation, showed a much more maize-based pattern, so there is something more than environmental difference going on here.

The authors suggest that the position of Tijeras Pueblo on the eastern fringe of the Pueblo world, at its interface with the very different cultural world of the Plains, may account for the diversity of the turkey husbandry types shown in their data. Conversely, Arroyo Hondo was further within the Pueblo world, while the Gallina region was culturally distinct in ways that are still poorly understood. The authors recognize, however, that further research will be necessary to flesh out the context of these results. In any case, this is a very interesting paper that adds another little bit to our knowledge of the past.

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Park Map Sign, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Today is the summer solstice, on which I traditionally post about archaeoastronomy, which is a major topic of interest in studying Chaco Canyon. Lately, however, I’ve been very busy and have not been keeping up on recent developments in Chaco studies (not helped by the fact that I don’t currently have access to the academic databases where recent research can be found), so this time I thought I would talk about the archaeoastronomy of a fascinating and unjustly obscure site in a different part of North America, the Pinson Mounds site in western Tennessee.

I visited Pinson a few years back more or less on a whim; I was driving across the country after finishing grad school, taking a meandering route and hitting a variety of archaeological and historical sites as I went. Pinson was not originally on my list of sites to visit, but for some reason that I no longer remember I decided to go there as I made my way through the Mid-South. It was a good decision.


Sauls Mound, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

There are a lot of prehistoric mound sites in the Southeast, and at first glance Pinson doesn’t seem particularly distinctive among them except that one of its mounds, known as Sauls Mound or Mound 9, is unusually large. And indeed, although the site was first documented in 1823 it was not until the 1970s when it became a Tennessee state park that extensive archaeological work was done there and its true nature became apparent. There are various types of mounds at Pinson, but the most prominent, including Sauls, are of the type known as “platform mounds” which are square or rectangular, often with buildings of presumed ritual function at the top, and are generally associated with the Mississippian period of circa AD 900 to 1600. Earlier Woodland period mound sites are more known for burial mounds, which are typically rounded or conical without buildings on top, with the Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio being the most prominent examples.

The platform mounds at Pinson, along with a single house of Mississippian “wall-trench” form excavated back in the 1960s, led most archaeologists to assume that this was a relatively minor Mississippian site until the excavations of the 1970s and the resulting radiocarbon dates showed that it actually dated to the Middle Woodland period in the early centuries AD, contemporaneous with Hopewell. And some of these dates were directly associated with the platform mounds, demonstrating clearly that they too dated to this early period! This led to a major reëvaluation of the Middle Woodland period in the Midsouth, which is in some ways still ongoing. It also led to the reëvaluation of some other platform-mound sites in the same general area which also ended up dating to the Middle Woodland. It remains unclear what the exact nature was of the relationship between these precocious southern platform-mound sites and the contemporaneous Hopewell sites to the north, and the same is true of their relationship to the later Mississippian sites.


Stairs to the top of Sauls Mound, Pison Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

One thing that does appear to be true of these sites, however, as well as of the Hopewell ones, is that they were primarily ritual or ceremonial centers without substantial residential components. They appear to have served dispersed communities of small hamlets, who were likely small-scale farmers growing indigenous plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. This is in contrast to Mississippian mound centers, which are now considered to have been large residential settlements of farmers growing crops of Mesoamerican origins (especially maize). Also unlike the strongly hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, Middle Woodland communities are also generally thought to have been relatively egalitarian in structure.

Some of these ideas may seem familiar to those familiar with Chaco. A similarly egalitarian structure has been proposed by some archaeologists to explain Chacoan great-house communities, based on models proposed by earlier generations of archaeologists to explain the Classic Maya polities. These models are now falling out of fashion for Chaco, much as they eventually did for the Maya, based on new research that makes them less tenable. It might seem odd that they have remained so tenacious for the Hopewell and other Middle Woodland societies in the east, but they have, which to me suggests that they really might be on to something here. I know a lot of people find these explanations of Chaco as an empty ceremonial center for a dispersed society of small-scale egalitarian farmers inspiring as a vision of what a society can be; as Chacoan research makes this a less plausible reconstruction they may wish to turn their eyes eastward, and further back in time, for a better example.

Anyway, on to the astronomy. The arrangement of the mounds at Pinson, as at many other Hopewell/Middle Woodland sites, has suggested to archaeologists for a while that there might be astronomical aspects to the site. One extensive, though admittedly speculative, exploration of this idea was published by Charles H. McNutt in a 2005 paper, which I will focus on here. McNutt proposed that Sauls Mound was the central focus of a set of astronomical alignments with other mounds at the site, and he compared the angles of these various inter-mound alignments to rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars.


Sign at Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

The most straightforward of the alignments he found were to solar events, i.e., the solstices and equinoxes. Mound 29 is due east of Sauls Mound within a circular feature known as the Eastern Citadel (which may have its own internal astronomical features), and it appears that this relationship may represent an equinox sunrise marker. Mound 28, northeast of Sauls Mound at a similar distance to Mound 29, has been proposed as a summer solstice sunrise marker (as indicated by a sign posted at the site, even), but McNutt found that it is not really close enough to the solstice alignment for this to be plausible. However, another mound indicated on early maps of the site, but not visible today, does appear at the proper angle on those maps to have been a solstice marker.

McNutt describes other possible alignments, to the lunar standstills as well as various stars, but he is rightly cautious about these and notes that the stellar alignments in particular are dubious because there are so many stars that alignments can easily arise due to chance. He then goes on to look at other contemporaneous mound sites in the same general area to determine if they have similar possible alignments, and finds that they do, although the quality of the data is not great for all of them and these too need to be treated with caution.


Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Finally, McNutt ties the existence of these celestial alignments back to the presumed reliance of the Middle Woodland people on agriculture, specifically of the crops of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. Farming peoples do rely on accurate calendars, it is true, and this may well have been the impetus for the astronomical observations that appear to be encoded at Pinson and other sites. I would note, however, that the immense effort required to build these mounds, especially for a dispersed and relatively egalitarian society, suggests that something more than utilitarian timekeeping needs led to their construction. But this may ultimately be a matter of perspective and emphasis more than anything else.

I may have more to say about Pinson in the future; it really is a fascinating place, well worth visiting. But for now I just want to draw some attention to it on this solstice day. Happy solstice!


Turtle at Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

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Holy Wars Again


Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

I recently finished reading God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman (it’s a long book so it took a while). As I’ve mentioned before, the florescence of Chaco Canyon in what is now the southwestern US was contemporary with the earlier part of the Crusade era in the Middle East, and I try to learn as much as I can about events elsewhere in the world contemporary with Chaco to gain a fuller understanding of the context in which it arose. As part of that ongoing tradition, therefore, this post is a brief review of Tyerman’s book.

It’s a good book, and provides a comprehensive overview of this long-lived and complicated phenomenon in world history. Tyerman starts with the intellectual origins of the ideology of Christian holy war that underlay the crusading effort, which is a very interesting topic given how difficult it is to fit such an ideology into Christianity as expressed in the New Testament. The solution that developed over the course of the early middle ages, on which the popes who launched the early crusades relied, depended heavily on a mix of emphasizing the Old Testament rather than the New and interpreting some of the writings of the church fathers in a highly tendentious manner. As much of an ideological kludge as this may have been, it fit well with the martial spirit of the Germanic warrior aristocracy that consolidated its power over secular affairs in this era, and in this light it is not all that surprising to see the crusades arising from this time and place.

Another interesting factor in crusade ideology that Tyerman draws out is its connection with the efforts of medieval popes to elevate their authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs over the secular rulers, particular the Holy Roman Emperors, of the era, as exemplified in the long-running “investiture controversy” of the eleventh century. Crusading offered an opportunity both for popes to consolidate their position and for secular aristocrats (and, increasingly, kings) to cast their warlike pursuits as holy Christian efforts. Over time, these tendencies led both popes and kings to try to cast their secular wars as crusades, with the accompanying spiritual privileges. As Tyerman notes, these attempts to co-opt the crusade for secular ends never attracted the same level of popular enthusiasm as the more “classic” crusades aimed at liberating the Holy Land from infidels.

I’m not going to try to summarize the long and complex history that Tyerman narrates, but a few notes about his perspective are worth making. This is clearly intended to be a magisterial work that will serve as a standard account for many years to come, and I’m sure it will do so. As befits such an ambition, Tyerman’s general approach is sober and measured, and in many places he seems to be intent on debunking sensationalistic interpretations of the crusades and simplistic narratives, including those that have become very common in recent years as religious conflict in the Middle East has made the crusades seem more relevant than ever to current events. Tyerman has a decidedly dim view of such interpretations. At times this makes him seem surprisingly sympathetic to the crusaders compared to other writers, as with the Fourth Crusade, which has been widely viewed as a debacle that weakened Christendom for centuries through its capture of Constatinople. More ambiguously, his account of the Third Crusade pushes back hard against the romanticization of both Richard I and Saladin, and here as elsewhere he tries to put the characters he describes in the context of the very brutal, warlike environment in which they lived and acted. His account of Louis IX, on the other hand, comes across as a brutal takedown of a remarkably unsuccessful crusader who was able to nevertheless parlay that record into a reputation as an exceptionally pious monarch and eventual saint.

Overall, then, this is a good book, but it’s not a breezy read. In addition to its length and heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to have been edited very well, and there are a surprising number of typos and other obvious editing errors. The prose style is also rather leaden and inartful, though admittedly this is a more subjective judgment. These quibbles aside, however, this is a magisterial effort and an excellent introduction to an important though complicated and ambiguous topic.

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Fish-Weighing Station, Seward, Alaska

150 years ago today, US Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard de Stoeckl signed the treaty known as the Alaska Purchase, under which Russia sold Alaska to the US for $7.2 million. The agreement was controversial at the time, and remains so in some circles, but for better or for worse it shaped the destiny of this far corner of the world from that point on.


Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

There are a few events both in Alaska and in Washington DC commemorating the anniversary this year, and “Seward’s Day” is an Alaska state holiday that state employees get off annually (it was actually on Monday this year), but otherwise this isn’t a widely celebrated or noted date even within Alaska. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it either, actually, but I figured I’d at least point it out and share some pictures of the charming town in Alaska that bears Seward’s name.


Sea Otters in Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

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Entrance to Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

A fascinating and important article about Chaco was published last week in Nature Communications, an open-access offshoot of the venerable journal Nature (already a good sign). Since it’s open-access, the full text of the article is available free online here.

The researchers behind the article, based mainly at Penn State and Harvard but also including Steve Plog at the University of Virginia and a couple of people at the American Museum of Natural History, sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of several of the people buried in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito in an attempt to determine if they were related. This addresses a number of outstanding issues in the interpretation of the Chaco Phenomenon, particularly those revolving around the political economy of Chaco and the degree to which it was a hierarchical society. They also radiocarbon-dated the remains and did some additional genetic analysis to confirm the sexes of the people and try to determine any close genetic relationships among them.

The results were striking. All of the tested remains had identical mitochondrial genomes, indicating that they were all related through the maternal line, which in turn suggests strongly that Chaco was a matrilineal society in which this particular maternal lineage had an enormous amount of power and wealth that led it to have the most elaborate burials in the history of Pueblo societies. The radiocarbon dating suggests in addition that people from this lineage continued to be buried in the special crypt in Room 33 throughout the florescence of Chaco, starting in the early ninth century AD and continuing until the early twelfth century. (What exactly happened then remains obscure.) The DNA sex determinations matched those previously determined through osteological analysis 100% as well.


Old Bonito from Above

These results, which are based on carefully controlled analyses and seem very solid, are not exactly surprising, but they do provide apparent confirmation of certain models of Chaco and apparent falsification of others. Specifically, they support models involving robust social hierarchy and inequality, with some lineages having more authority than others and one at the top. Most recent evidence has pointed in this direction, but this study is a particularly strong support for it. Also, they provide support for the idea that Chacoan society was more like the ethnographic Western Pueblos, which are matrilineal and structured around kin groups known as “clans” that derive their power and status from their control of esoteric religious knowledge, than the Eastern Pueblos, which are patrilineal and structured around non-kin-based groups known as “societies” that derive their power and status from similar bases. (If this distinction seems fairly minor, that’s because it is. But in attempting to reconstruct historic societies it’s important.)

It’s important to note that while these results do provide support for a matrilineal model of Chaco, that’s very different from saying they support a matriarchal one, as some media coverage I’ve seen has either implied or stated explicitly. Reckoning descent through the mother’s line is very different from having women run things with men in a subordinate position. The former is quite common cross-culturally, while I’m not sure if the latter exists at all in the ethnographic record. The fact that several of the people buried in Room 33 appear to have been related maternally doesn’t negate the fact that the two most elaborate burials were both of men, and in general there’s no reason to think that Chacoan society wasn’t strongly patriarchal, and plenty of reason to think it was.

Finally, from a methodological perspective this is a particularly interesting paper. The authors say that it appears to be the first use of genomic analysis to determine family relationships in a prehistoric society (i.e., without the availability of written records to check the results). I’m not completely sure that’s correct, but this has certainly not been a common type of study. In discussing DNA evidence a while back, I mentioned that in the Southwest it had mostly been used so far just for determining mitochondrial haplogroups, which provide some useful information but not nearly as much as can be provided by genomic analysis, which at that time hadn’t really been used at all in the Southwest. This paper marks the first major use of this type of analysis in the region, and it shows how powerful it can be. Now that the precedent has been set, it can be used in other contexts to see where this particular matrilineage shows up elsewhere in Southwestern prehistory both before and after Chaco, as well as to address other issues of kinship and identity within Chaco.
Kennett, D., Plog, S., George, R., Culleton, B., Watson, A., Skoglund, P., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Stewardson, K., Kistler, L., LeBlanc, S., Whiteley, P., Reich, D., & Perry, G. (2017). Archaeogenomic evidence reveals prehistoric matrilineal dynasty Nature Communications, 8 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14115

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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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Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

In my post about the recent radiocarbon dating of macaw remains from Chaco Canyon, I mentioned another paper I’ve been meaning to post about. Published in 2010 by Steve Plog and Carrie Heitman of the University of Virginia, it takes a close look at burial practices at Chaco, particularly focusing on the northern burial cluster within Pueblo Bonito. Within that cluster it focuses on Room 33, the location of the most elaborate burial assemblages ever found in the Southwest.

Plog and Heitman take advantage of their Chaco Archive project, which is collecting and making available lots of archival material on excavations at Chaco that was previously very hard to access, to look back at the field notes from the excavators of Pueblo Bonito, particularly those of George Pepper, who excavated this part of the site in the 1890s as part of the Hyde Exploring Expedition. Pepper took very detailed notes, especially by the standards of the time, and particularly for the rooms in the northern burial cluster he kept track of artifact locations and the positioning of skeletal remains, which makes it possible for Plog and Heitman to plot the vertical and horizontal positions of the burials and grave goods in Room 33 to see what patterns there may be.

They find some interesting patterns in the burial and artifact locations, but the most important data they report are radiocarbon dates, directly on the bones, from ten of the burials, including the ones with the most elaborate funerary assemblages, known as Burials 13 and 14. Burials 13 and 14 had actually already been dated for a different study a few years earlier, which I have discussed before, but Plog and Heitman redated them to see if they the earlier results would be replicated. (They were.)

At this point I should back up and review some basic facts about Room 33 and its burials, as well as some assumptions that had seeped into the Chacoan literature over the years despite not being well-supported by evidence.


Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Facts: Pepper found 14 identifiable individual burials in Room 33. He numbered them in order of discovery, which roughly corresponds to vertical distance from the roof beams, so 13 and 14 were the lowest. Burials 13 and 14 had the most elaborate grave goods by far, including vast numbers of turquoise beads and other ornaments. They were intact and undisturbed, and were separated from the higher burials by a “floor” of wooden planks. The burials above this floor were accompanied by grave goods, but they were mostly disarticulated and appeared to have been disturbed at some point after burial. Pepper proposed that they had been scattered by water flowing into the room at some point.

Assumptions: At some point over the years, the idea entered the literature that these burials dated to the time of the “florescence” of Chaco starting around AD 1030 and lasting for about 100 years. Despite the fact that Room 33 is in the oldest part of Pueblo Bonito and its masonry style indicates that it dates to early in the site’s construction, many archaeologists (starting with Pepper himself) have suggested that it was not originally constructed as a mortuary chamber, and that the burials reflect a reuse of a room that originally had a different purpose. I don’t know where the idea that this reuse coincided with the rise of Chaco as a regional power, or with the advent of monumental construction in the canyon at roughly the same time, originated, but it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to see the establishment of a crypt with unusually elaborate grave goods would happen at the same time as the enormous labor effort reflected in the expansion of Pueblo Bonito and other early great houses, along with the building of many new ones. However, it’s important to note that there was never a rigorous argument made for a late dating of the burials, bringing in support from the pottery styles reflected in the grave assemblages or any other independent lines of evidence.

And, in fact, the most comprehensive study of Chaco burials to date, that of Nancy Akins as part of the Chaco Project in the 1970s, concluded that the pottery types in Room 33 covered a potentially long timespan, which could mean the burials themselves were deposited over a long period of time. On the other hand, it could also mean that certain “heirloom” vessels of styles that were no longer being produced but that had been kept around might be buried with particularly important people, so this evidence wasn’t dispositive about the late-burial theory.


Old Bonito from Above

Plog and Heitman’s radiocarbon dates, on the other hand, provide firm evidence that the burials do indeed date to a long period, more or less corresponding to the full span of Chaco’s importance as a regional center. Burials 13 and 14 both date to quite early in the history of Pueblo Bonito, with 95% confidence ranges of AD 682 to 870 and 687 to 870 respectively. When averaged with the dates from the earlier study, which were comparable but slightly later, the 95% ranges become AD 691 to 877 and 690 to 873.

That’s very early! It means that these two burials, at least, could easily have occurred at the same time as the initial construction of Room 33, which was likely in the late ninth century. One other burial above the plank floor dates to this period as well. (The bones got relabeled at some point and it’s not clear which sets correspond to which numbers assigned by Pepper, so it’s not possible to say for sure that this was one of the burials immediately above the floor, but it’s a reasonable surmise.) Despite the near-identical age determinations on Burials 13 and 14, the vertical distance between them is by far the highest in the room. This suggests strongly that the large amount of sand separating the two vertically was brought in deliberately rather than accumulating naturally, and they could well have occurred at exactly the same time, or nearly so, very early in the occupation of Pueblo Bonito.

From then on, the dates are more or less continuous up to around AD 1200. The ranges are too wide to come to very firm conclusions on exactly where these later burials fall in the Chacoan sequence, but they do suggest that Room 33 continued to be used as a high-status burial chamber throughout the Chaco Era after beginning to serve that role early on.

This is all very interesting, and Plog and Heitman draw a number of tentative conclusions from it. They argue that this shows that social hierarchy arose earlier in the canyon than often assumed, well before the beginning of construction on a monumental scale, and suggest that the concept of “house society” may be a useful way to interpret Chacoan great houses, with symbolically important spaces like Room 33 serving to legitimize the position of elites through a connection to illustrious ancestors. They also argue that the preservation of the delicate placement of burials and artifacts, as demonstrated in Pepper’s notes, makes it very implausible that the scattering of remains he mentions could have resulted from water intruding as we suggested. Instead, they suggest that some of the scattering could have resulted from disturbance of earlier burials in the course of creating new ones in this small space over the centuries. Another possibility they suggest is that some of the burials are actually secondary, and were placed in Room 33 after having been left to decompose somewhere else for a while. This practice is not documented among the historic Pueblos, but then again lots of the other aspects of the Room 33 burials don’t have obvious modern parallels either.

The evidence for unexpectedly early import of macaws starting around AD 900 in the more recent paper reinforces the evidence in this one for an early development of complexity at Chaco. It’s still not clear exactly what was going on at Chaco in the ninth century, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was very important for the subsequent history of the canyon and of the Southwest as a whole.
Plog, S., & Heitman, C. (2010). Hierarchy and social inequality in the American Southwest, A.D. 800-1200 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (46), 19619-19626 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014985107

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