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Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona

Today is the summer solstice, so I figured I would take a break from my (slowly) ongoing series of posts on the Pueblo I period in the northern Southwest to take a look at evidence for ancient astronomical knowledge in a different part of the Southwest. This is in part an outgrowth of my recent thoughts on the role of astronomy in the rise of Chaco Canyon to regional prominence, which in turn was spurred in part by the realization that Chaco appears to show the earliest evidence for complex astronomical knowledge in the northern Southwest. The idea, which I explored exactly one year ago in this post, is that by the eleventh century AD the Chacoans developed a knowledge of astronomy that they were able to use as esoteric ritual knowledge to enhance the canyon’s role as a political and economic power throughout the region.

This idea led me to wonder, however, about the history of astronomical knowledge in the southern Southwest, which was culturally quite different from the northern areas influence by Chaco. In particular, the Hohokam of the southern Arizona deserts show both a longer history of intensive agriculture and a closer connection to Mesoamerican societies further south, both attributes that could be relevant to their knowledge and use of astronomy. If evidence for that knowledge among the Hohokam long predates that evidence at Chaco, this leads to interesting questions about the origins of Chacoan astronomy. If it doesn’t, that leads to other interesting questions about both societies.

Luckily, the same special issue of the journal Archaeoastronomy that contains an article on Chacoan astronomy that I discussed in a previous post also contains one on Hohokam astronomy. This article, written by Todd Bostwick, discusses evidence for astronomical alignments in Hohokam monumental architecture and rock art, as well as the astronomical and calendrical practices of the modern O’odham people who inhabit the same area (and whose relationship to the Hohokam is unclear and controversial, although Bostwick doesn’t discuss this). Bostwick’s focus is on the Phoenix area, which is considered the Hohokam heartland.

Bostwick documents a wide range of possible alignments in Hohokam architecture and petroglyphs, primarily solstice-oriented. These include a large number of rock-art sites in and around the mountains that show clear alignments to the solstice sunrises, particularly associated with a distinctive dot-in-circle motif that may be a sun symbol. There are also some rock art sites with complex patterns of light and shadow interacting with the petroglyphs on the solstices, similar to the famous “Sun Dagger” petroglyph on Fajada Butte at Chaco. In architecture, perhaps the most intriguing alignments are a series of holes in the upper walls of the “Big House” at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument which show possible alignments primarily to the equinox sunrise, and perhaps to some of the lunar standstill moonsets as well. There are also astronomical alignments associated with platform mounds at the villages of Mesa Grande and Pueblo Grande.

The rock art alignments are notoriously difficult to date, of course, and the aforementioned architectural features all date to relatively late in the Hohokam sequence and are therefore not very useful to understanding the origins of Hohokam astronomical knowledge. There are, however, features at the earlier village of Snaketown that may have had an astronomical purpose, although it is less straightforward than the others.

Snaketown was the preeminent village of the Hohokam during the Sedentary period, which is roughly contemporaneous with the florescence of Chaco (ca. AD 900 to 1150), although its history extends back several hundred years earlier. It was not occupied into the following Classic Period, when the other villages mentioned above reached their peaks. There is an alignment between the central plaza of Snaketown and Gila Butte, a geological formation to the southeast that is considered sacred by the O’odham. On the winter solstice, the sun rises between the two peaks of the butte when viewed from the plaza, and Bostwick suggests that the siting of Snaketown may be related to this alignment. If so, this would imply knowledge at least of solstice alignments was much earlier in the Hohokam area than further north, but without clear evidence from earlier periods this must remain speculative.

Another intriguing but ambiguous feature at Snaketown is the platform mound known as Mound 16, at the northeast edge of the plaza. This circular mound is surrounded by a series of 52 postholes, placed fairly regularly but with gaps on the northeastern, southern, and southwestern sides of the mound. There are no structures or postholes on top of the mound, but there is one hearth at the southern end associated with one of the gaps in the ring of postholes. This clearly seems to indicate some sort of ceremonial or symbolic use for the mound, although it’s not clear what that would have been. Bostwick notes that some of the posts seem to align with the solstice and equinox sunrise positions as viewed from atop the mound, and he suggests that Mound 16 may have served as a “ritual sundial” of some sort. In this respect it is very reminiscent of the “Woodhenge” ring of posts next to Monk’s Mound at Cahokia, which has also been interpreted as an astronomical marker. Still, this interpretation is rather speculative at this point and Bostwick concludes his discussion of the mound with a call for further research on its possible astronomical alignments.

Reconstructed "Woodhenge" at Cahokia

Reconstructed “Woodhenge” at Cahokia

The upshot of all this from my perspective is that the history of astronomical knowledge in the southern Southwest actually seems to be just as murky as that further north. In both cases the most apparent astronomical alignments in architecture seem to date quite late, although this doesn’t say much about the time depth of the knowledge behind them. There are a few intriguing hints in more general aspects of Hohokam society that may provide some insight, however.

One is the adoption here of the Mesoamerican ballgame, played in distinctive courts that are primarily associated with the Sedentary period and the florescence of Snaketown (which has two). As Bostwick notes, in Mesoamerica the ballgame was often associated with astronomical symbolism and particularly with the sun and the calendar. Its introduction among the Hohokam around the beginning of the Sedentary period may therefore indicate the introduction of certain religious motifs or practices from the south that emphasized celestial, and especially solar, patterns.

Bostwick also notes one admittedly speculative but very interesting theory regarding this introduction which associates it with a solar eclipse in AD 797 which would have been visible to the Hohokam, and which was followed a few years later by a series of disastrous floods. It’s possible that the Hohokam perceived the eclipse as an omen predicting the floods, and that they adopted new religious practices associated with the sky to prevent further disasters like this. Another eclipse in AD 1076 may have been associated with the abandonment of Snaketown and other major Sedentary period villages and the reorganization of Hohokam society into a new form during the Classic period. Notably, this change included the decline of the ballcourt system and the rise of new forms of ritual associated with platform mounds. A subsequent solar eclipse in AD 1379 was again followed a few years later by catastrophic floods that many scholars consider important factors in the ultimate collapse of Hohokam society.

This eclipse theory is fascinating, although it’s obviously very speculative and probably impossible to prove or disprove conclusively. There was a lot of other stuff going on at the same time as each of these societal transformations, of course, and it’s likely there were multiple factors involved in each case.

It’s still not clear what role Hohokam astronomical knowledge might have played in the development of similar knowledge at Chaco. The Chacoans may have noticed alignments in their local environment basically independently of anything similar going on further south, they might have heard rumors about Hohokam astronomy that spurred them to develop their own, or they might have had detailed knowledge of Hohokam practices that they used to implement similar practices themselves. The extent to which the Chacoans and Hohokam were aware of each other and the extent to which they interacted either directly or indirectly are important questions for understanding Southwestern prehistory, and they have not received very much attention from scholars who specialize in either society (although some of Steve Lekson’s recent work has been an important exception). The murky history of astronomical knowledge in both areas doesn’t seem to shed much light on these questions at this point, but with further research it may become more illuminating. Happy solstice.
ResearchBlogging.org
Bostwick TW (2010). Exploring the Frontiers of Hohokam Astronomy: Tracking Seasons and Orienting Ritual Space in the Sonoran Desert Archaeoastronomy, 23, 166-189

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Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s also the sixth anniversary of this  blog. On these anniversaries I like to write about archaeoastronomy, which is a very interesting topic and an important one for understanding Chaco and Southwestern prehistory in general. Last year I wrote about some research indicating that in the Rio Grande valley, an area generally thought to be outside the Chaco system but that was certainly occupied at the same time as Chaco, there was a long and very consistent tradition of orienting pit structures to the east-southeast, which is the direction of winter solstice sunrise. The winter solstice is very important in the cosmology and rituals of the modern Pueblos, so it makes a lot of sense that at least some Pueblo groups would orient their dwellings based on it.

As I noted at the time, this orientation is very different from that in the San Juan region to the west, including Chaco and Mesa Verde. In this area there is an equally long tradition of orienting pit structures to either due south or south-southeast. I’ve long wondered why this might be, and an article I read recently discusses the issue and proposes some interesting potential answers.

The article is by Kim Malville and Andrew Munro and was published in the journal Archaeoastronomy in 2010 as part of a special issue on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest. Malville is an astronomer who has done a lot of research on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest and identified many potential astronomical alignments, but this article is actually largely about debunking many of the alleged alignments claimed by others, particularly Anna Sofaer and her Solstice Project. Sofaer, an artist who turned her attention to archaeoastronomy after discovering the “Sun Dagger” effect involving a spiral petroglyph on Fajada Butte that on the summer solstice appears (or appeared) to be bisected by a “dagger” of light coming through a slit between large boulders in front of it. Sofaer went on to organize surveys of the major great house sites in Chaco Canyon to identify any celestial alignments in the orientation of their walls, and her team found that virtually all of them did show alignments to the positions of the sun or moon on solstices, equinoxes, or lunar standstills.

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Sofaer and her collaborators went on to publish these findings widely, and to make a well-known documentary that has often been shown on television and inspired a lot of interest in Chaco. As Malville and Munro show in this paper, however, the evidence for these alignments is very thin. There is little to no justification in Pueblo ethnography for the idea of celestial building alignments, and the alignments themselves are identified with a substantial margin for error that makes spurious positive identifications likely, especially when so many potential alignments are tested for. Particularly concerning is how many of the alignments are to the minor lunar standstill, which is not a very impressive or noticeable event. (The major lunar standstill is a different story, and there is strong evidence at Chimney Rock in Colorado that the Chacoans were familiar with it and considered it important.) Malville and Munro also argue that the fact that most of the alignments are based on the rear walls of sites is also questionable, since there is no evidence that rear wall alignments were or are important culturally to Puebloans.

Instead, they argue that the alignments of rear walls are epiphenomenal, and that they mostly result from the more solidly established concern with the orientation of the front of a site. The bulk of the article is devoting to tracing these frontal orientations across time and space, with a primary focus on Chaco itself and on the earlier Pueblo I villages in the area of Dolores, Colorado that are often seen as being partly ancestral to the Chaco system.

As I noted above, there are two main orientations that persist through time in the San Juan region. One is to due south, and the other is to the south-southeast (SSE). With pit structures these axes are typically defined by a straight line of sipapu (if present), hearth, deflector, and vent shaft. There is often also a measure of bilateral symmetry between features on either side of this line, such as support posts. When there are surface rooms behind a pit structure, they often (but not always) conform to the same alignment, and when the back of a row of surface rooms is straight, it is typically perpendicular to the main orientation. Malville and Munro argue that these perpendicular back walls on many Chacoan great houses, which Sofaer has identified as having alignments to various astronomical phenomena, are really subsidiary effects of the main emphasis on frontal orientation.

The authors start their survey of orientations with the Basketmaker III pithouse village of Shabik’eschee at Chaco. Of 15 pithouses for which they could find adequate information on orientation, 11 faced SSE with an average azimuth of 153.7 degrees and 4 faced south with an average azimuth of 185 degrees. Strikingly, none of the pithouses showed any other orientation.

The north-south orientation isn’t difficult to understand, and Malville and Munro attribute it to use of the night sky for navigation (which would have been easy enough at this time even though there wasn’t actually a north star), and they also mention the widespread presence of Pueblo traditions mentioning origins in the north. While the exact reasons for adoption of this orientation may not be clear, its consistency isn’t unexpected since it’s pretty obvious and easy to replicate.

The SSE orientation, on the other hand, is a different matter. Note that at Shabik’eschee this was much more common than the southern orientation, from which it is offset by about 20 to 30 degrees in individual cases. There is more variation in this orientation than with the southern one (standard deviation of 7.7 degrees versus 2.4), but it’s sufficiently consistent and common that it seems like there must be some specific reason for it. Unlike the southern orientation, however, it’s not at all clear what that might be. Malville and Munro, sticking to their interpretation of orientations as references to places of origin, suggest that in the case of Shabik’eschee it might reflect the fact that some people might have migrated to Chaco from an area that was more to the north-northwest than due north, which seems implausible to me but then I don’t have a better explanation myself.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

In any case, this pattern continues through time. The next set of orientations Malville and Munro look at are those of the pit structures at the Pueblo I Dolores villages. What they find is that SSE orientations are dominant here too, even more so than at Shabik’eschee. In fact, all of the pit structures they looked at had SSE orientations except those at Grass Mesa Village, which mostly faced faced south (although even here there were a few SSE orientations). This is in keeping with other evidence for differences in architecture among different villages at Dolores; Grass Mesa is known for having long, straight room blocks, as opposed to the smaller and often crescent-shaped roomblocks at McPhee Village, which with it is most often compared.

The Duckfoot site, to the west of the Dolores villages but contemporaneous with them, also had a SSE orientation. Further west, however, southern orientations become more common, including at the important village sites of Yellow Jacket and Alkali Ridge, plus some of the earlier Basketmaker II sites on Cedar Mesa in Utah.

There was one more orientation used during the Pueblo I period in the Northern San Juan region, however. At Sacred Ridge, in Ridges Basin near modern Durango, Colorado, the average azimuth of the pit structures is 120 degrees, the same east-southeast orientation corresponding to winter solstice sunrise so common in the Rio Grande. Malville and Munro remark on the similarity to the Rio Grande pattern and consider it “puzzling,” positing some potential ways that it could have come about. They argue, however, that wherever this pattern came from it didn’t last in the north, and they point to the extremely violent end to the occupation of Sacred Ridge as the end of this orientation tradition in the San Juan region (although this may not be strictly true, as discussed below).

From here Malville and Munro turn back to Chaco. Specifically, they look at the great houses at Chaco during its heyday from about AD 850 to 1150. Rather than pit structures, they focus on roomblocks, and they interpret the orientation of a roomblock to be the perpendicular to its long axis (in the case of rectangular roomblocks) or the perpendicular to the ends of the crescent of roomblocks with that shape. They find that most of the great houses have a SSE orientation, in keeping with the general trend throughout the region, as do the three northern outlier great houses of Chimney Rock, Salmon, and Aztec. Since this orientation is very close to the perpendicular of the minor lunar standstill moonrise alignment that Sofaer has proposed for many of these buildings, Malville and Munro argue that this widespread orientation explains the pattern much better than the lunar alignment. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletzin have north-south orientations, which is unsurprising since they lie on a north-south line with each other.

A few of the great houses have a more complicated situation. Peñasco Blanco appears to face east-southeast at an azimuth of approximately 115 degrees. This is intriguingly close to the Rio Grande/Sacred Ridge winter solstice orientation, which Malville and Munro do note. Although the unexcavated nature of the site makes it hard to tell for sure, it is possible that this is in fact an example of this orientation surviving much later in the San Juan region than the destruction of Sacred Ridge, although what, if any, connection there might be between the two sites is unclear.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

And then there’s Pueblo Bonito. While the very precise north-south and east-west cardinal alignments of some of the key walls at this site are well known, it has also long been noted that there is evidence for different alignments and change over time here. Malville and Munro interpret the early crescent shape of the building as having a SSE orientation, and like many others they relate it to the similar size, shape, and orientation of McPhee Pueblo at McPhee Village. They then describe multiple stages of drift away from this orientation toward the cardinal orientation. There is surely something to this interpretation, but a careful look at the stages of construction of the site shows that the picture is probably more complicated. The very first construction at Bonito appears to have been straight and oriented to the south, and to have been incorporated later into the SSE-facing crescent. Subsequent building stages show evidence of both orientations having been present throughout the history of the building.

The complicated situation at Pueblo Bonito provides a convenient segue to the key issue here: what was driving this long-term but consistent variation? Why were two different orientations for buildings present in close proximity for hundreds of years, even as populations moved long distances and adjusted their cultures in profound ways? Malville and Munro suggest that these orientations may reflect longstanding cultural and ethnic diversity in the prehistoric Southwest. Given how long-lived and consistent these patterns are, they propose that they were related to deep-seated cultural identities. This is an intriguing idea that may allow tracking of specific cultural groups across the Southwest over centuries. It also provides another piece of evidence that Chaco Canyon was a multicultural community, and implies that even Pueblo Bonito itself contained groups with diverse backgrounds.

The picture is probably even more complicated than Malville and Munro suggest. They tend to implicitly assume that the orientations of pit structures are the same as those of the room blocks with which they are associated, but at least at Chaco this is not necessary true, particularly for small-house sites, which they also don’t address at all in this study. There are many examples of small houses where the room blocks are oriented to the east but the pit structures are oriented to the south (and possibly also SSE, although I haven’t checked this). This eastern orientation may reflect connections to the south, which have gotten a lot less attention in the literature than connections to the north although they appear to have been pretty important in the origins of Chaco.

In any case, I think this is fascinating stuff. It may not be archaeoastronomy per se, but it seems like a fitting way to mark the solstice.
ResearchBlogging.org
Malville JM, & Munro AM (2010). Cultural Identity, Continuity, and Astronomy in Chaco Canyon Archaeoastronomy, 23, 62-81

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Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Today is the summer solstice, on which I typically make posts about archaeoastronomy, so I’m going to take a break from my very gradual series of posts on tracing the connections between ancient and modern Pueblos to speculate a bit about the role of astronomy at Chaco. Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

I don’t have any specific research papers to discuss on this topic because as far as I know no one has really looked at it quite this way. It’s similar in some respects to the theories of the Solstice Project, although I don’t buy that astronomical alignments were quite as important in the Chacoan system as they propose. There is also some overlap with the theories of various archaeologists, but none of them have put the pieces together in quite this way. This may be because it’s demonstrably wrong, but if it is I haven’t seen the evidence that disproves it yet (but would be very interesting in doing so).

This theory first occurred to me when I was reading about Tiwanaku in Bolivia, which was a prehistoric society that, like Chaco, left very impressive physical remains in a very isolated location with few obvious economic advantages. As I noted in my post on Tiwanaku, the similarities actually go well beyond that, extending also to the shifting interpretations by archaeologists and the evidence for astronomical alignments. Most relevant in this context is the theory of John Janusek at Vanderbilt, whose theory of Tiwanaku is the model for the theory I’m suggesting here for Chaco. As he wrote in one paper, which I also quoted in the earlier post:

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.

Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the altiplano to develop the level of astronomical skill which allowed it to develop such a “powerfully predictive” religion, and my application of a similar theory to Chaco relies on it also being the first place that developed a comparable knowledge of astronomy in the Southwest. I hadn’t really thought about this before reading Janusek’s work, but as far as I can tell it does in fact seem to be the case. Ray Williamson’s somewhat dated but still very useful book on Native North American astronomy (which I reviewed here) doesn’t mention any evidence of Southwestern astronomical knowledge predating Chaco, and I haven’t seen any other publications that do either. Granted, some of the evidence for astronomical evidence comes from rock art which is difficult or impossible to date, but at least when it comes to building alignments, which are more securely datable, the Chacoan great houses seem to be the earliest manifestation of detailed astronomical knowledge. Some earlier sites do show general alignments to cardinal directions and so forth, but the precise alignments to solstices and lunar standstills that are characteristic of Chacoan buildings do really seem to be innovative. I’m not totally certain that there aren’t counterexamples out there, though, so if anyone knows of any I’m very interested in hearing about them.

If this is in fact the case, it opens up several additional lines of inquiry. First, if Chaco was in fact the first place in the (northern?) Southwest to attain detailed astronomical knowledge, where did that knowledge come from? Many discussions of Chacoan astronomy have assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the answer is “Mexico,” but I’m not so sure. There is definitely extensive evidence of contact with Mesoamerica at Chaco, but it’s all fairly indirect and there are lots of important aspects of Mesoamerican culture that are noticeably lacking. Mesoamerican astronomical knowledge was certainly impressive, and certainly predates the rise of Chaco, but given the general context I think it’s still an open question whether the Chacoans got their knowledge from contacts to the south (either directly or via the Hohokam and/or Mogollon) or developed it independently. This is an area that would definitely benefit from further study.

Secondly, why Chaco rather than somewhere else in the region? This is sort of the key question hanging over everything about Chaco, and so far no one has come up with a broadly convincing answer. I don’t have one either; the astronomy theory I’m proposing here answers the “how” of Chaco but not the “why.” It could be that, as some archaeologists have proposed, the physical setting of the canyon had unique attributes within the region that contributed to its ritual importance from an early period, which from my perspective would have provided the impetus for the development and/or integration of new astronomical knowledge into existing belief systems. Alternatively, as other archaeologists have argued, there could have been economic advantages to the location, which are not obvious to modern eyes but were sufficient to give Chaco an important role in the region, which may have made it a promising place for new ideas to develop or be introduced. And finally, maybe it’s all just a matter of historical contingency: this was where people happened to figure this stuff out, and that’s what made it attractive to others for both religious and economic reasons.

Another question is when this would have happened. Chaco was occupied for hundreds of years, but its florescence as a regional center was relatively brief, lasting roughly a century from AD 1030 to 1130 or so. One natural conclusion would be that the development of new astronomical knowledge happened at the start of this period, but I suspect it actually began earlier, probably during the period (roughly the late ninth and tenth centuries, or the late Pueblo I period) when Chaco was just one of several “proto-great-house” communities in the San Juan Basin that were more or less equal in size and influence. Over time, the advantages of the Chacoan rituals over the others would have become apparent, perhaps through fortuitous stretches of good weather and/or military successes by Chacoan warriors. This would have set the stage for Chacoan influence to expand on a vast scale during the eleventh century.

As the reference to military success in the previous paragraph suggests, I don’t see the expansion of Chacoan religious influence fueled by astronomical knowledge as having necessarily been entirely peaceful. Here again, the parallel to Tiwanaku is instructive. Note Janusek’s reference to Tiwanaku’s “very worldly imperial mission” in the quote above. I suspect what we would today see as “religious” and “secular” impulses were much more intertwined at Chaco, as indeed they have been shown to be in many societies.

All that said, I’m not totally convinced by this theory myself, and there are many strands of the Chacoan record that it doesn’t really seem to account for in an obvious way. I figured this was a good opportunity to toss it out there, though, to see whether it’s worth pursuing further.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janusek, J. (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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Rio Grande from Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Rio Grande from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Today is the winter solstice, which also makes it the fifth anniversary of this blog. I tend to like to post about archaeoastronomy on these occasions, and as I mentioned in the previous post I’m currently in Albuquerque and have been reading up on the archaeology of the Rio Grande Valley. Luckily, a recent article I read has a very interesting archaeoastronomical proposal specific to this region, which makes everything come together nicely. Getting to that point requires some explanation of the context first, however.

Today the northern Rio Grande Valley is one of the main centers of Pueblo population, and this was also true at the time the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. It’s been clear to archaeologists since the late nineteenth century that the modern eastern or Rio Grande Pueblos belong to the same overall cultural tradition as both the modern western Pueblos (Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi) and the prehistoric Pueblo sites found all over the northern Southwest. Within this overall cultural tradition, however, there are noticeable differences in certain aspects of culture between the Rio Grande Pueblos and those further west, as well as between both groups and the prehistoric sites. The long and complicated history of interaction between the Rio Grande Pueblos and the Spanish has both led to cultural changes in this region and made the modern Pueblo residents very reluctant to reveal information about their cultures to anthropologists. Both of these phenomena make understanding the background of Pueblo diversity exceptionally difficult.

As a result, archaeological research in the northern Rio Grande area has proceeded along a somewhat different course from research further west. While extensive early research at well-preserved abandoned sites at places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde led to the formulation of a robust and well-supported relative chronological scheme by the late 1920s that was soon anchored by the absolute dates provided by tree-ring dating, fitting the Rio Grande sites into this sequence proved to be a challenge. Alfred Vincent Kidder’s extensive excavations at Pecos provided clear evidence of continuity between prehistoric and historic Pueblo culture, which allowed the historic Pueblos to be easily placed at the end of the sequence, aligning earlier developments in the east and west proved to be a challenge. Pecos itself was founded quite late in prehistory, and very few other prehistoric sites had been excavated in the Rio Grande area. The so-called “Pecos System” of chronology and culture history was actually based primarily on western sites, and over time it became clear that it didn’t fit the emerging picture of Rio Grande prehistory pretty well. That picture, based primarily on survey and excavation work done by the Laboratory of Anthropology at the Museum of New Mexico starting in the 1930s, by the 1950s resulted in a new framework for eastern Pueblo prehistory.

The main architect of the new system was Fred Wendorf, an archaeologist at the Museum of New Mexico who had done a lot of the work of documenting sites in the region. He published a paper in American Anthropologist in 1954 describing his proposed system, which consisted of five periods:

  • Preceramic: Before AD 600
  • Developmental: AD 600 to 1200
  • Coalition: AD 1200 to 1325
  • Classic: AD 1325 to 1600
  • Historic: AD 1600 to present

Contrast this to the Pecos System, as presented by Joe Ben Wheat in a paper published in the same journal in the same year:

  • Basketmaker II: Before AD 400
  • Basketmaker III: AD 400 to 700
  • Pueblo I: AD 700 to 900
  • Pueblo II: AD 900 to 1100
  • Pueblo III: AD 1100 to 1300
  • Pueblo IV: AD 1300 to 1600

The most obvious difference between the two systems is that the Pecos System contains more periods. A more subtle difference is that in the Pecos System all of the periods are associated with agriculture, which appeared quite early in the Four Corners area. Exactly how early was not quite clear in 1954; Wheat says it was “about the time of Christ.” In the Rio Grande, on the other hand, the Developmental was the earliest agricultural period in Wendorf’s scheme as well as the first ceramic one, preceded by a Preceramic period that was totally undated at the time but that Wendorf suggested may have lasted quite late, even after the beginning of the Developmental.

This pattern of delayed appearance of typical “Anasazi” cultural phenomena in the Rio Grande persisted throughout Wendorf’s scheme. He defined the beginning of the Coalition period by the switch from mineral to organic pigment in pottery decoration, a trend which had been gradually diffusing east from Arizona over the past few hundred years. Similarly, the beginning of the Classic was defined by the appearance of glaze-decorated ceramics, which had appeared a few decades earlier in the Zuni area. The Historic period began with the onset of Spanish colonization. In general Wendorf’s period definitions depended heavily on trends in pottery decoration, in contrast to the Pecos periods which were defined by a broad suite of material culture changes, with architecture especially important. One reason for this was that architecture and other cultural traits were bewilderingly diverse within each of these periods, especially the Developmental, and this diversity was apparent even with the very small number of excavated sites at that time.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Wendorf’s scheme was in conflict on various points with a different scheme for Pueblo culture history as a whole developed by Erik Reed of the National Park Service. After Wendorf’s paper was published, discussions between the two led to an updated version of it published under both their names the next year in El Palacio. This paper has been extremely influential and the framework it established has been used by most archaeologists in the Rio Grande area since. The basic outlines of the framework are the same as those in Wendorf’s 1954 paper, with the changes involving the correction of the numerous typos in that paper, the addition of data from more recent excavations, and a somewhat different discussion of attempts to correlate archaeological phenomena with the complex distribution of modern linguistic groups. The latter was a particular interest of Reed, whose theories on it had been criticized by Wendorf in the earlier paper. I find it interesting as well, but I won’t get into it here.

Instead my focus here is on Wendorf and Reed’s Developmental period. Wendorf originally defined this period based on extremely limited information as a time of low population, diverse architectural styles and settlement patterns, and evidence of cultural influence from the San Juan Anasazi to the west. Population was extremely limited until about AD 900, when many more sites appear to have been inhabited and sites began to appear in the northern part of the region for the first time. This is the time of the rise of Chaco, and local Rio Grande ceramics show clear similarities to Chacoan types. Some archaeologists, including Reed, had argued that this rise in population came from an actual immigration of people from the Chaco area, but Wendorf doubted this, pointing out that other cultural traits showed considerable differences from Chacoan patterns. He suggested that while there could well have been some immigration from the west at this time, it was more likely from somewhere like the Mt. Taylor area that was part of the general Chacoan sphere of influence but closer to the Rio Grande, and that the number of people was likely small.

Architecture during the Developmental period was varied, with site sizes ranging from ten to 100 rooms and one to four kivas. The kivas were round and lacked most of the typical Chaco/San Juan features such as benches, pilasters, and wall recesses. They also usually faced east, in strong contrast to Chaco kivas, which usually faced south or southeast, even when they were associated with east-facing surface roomblocks (a common pattern for small houses at Chaco).

While the Wendorf and Reed system has remained in general use among Rio Grande archaeologists, the Developmental period in particular has seen much more data emerge from subsequent research, much of it associated with cultural resource management salvage projects. Cherie Scheick argued in a 2007 article that the period was much more diverse and complex than Wendorf and Reed had portrayed it as, illustrated by two nearby and contemporaneous sites in what is now Santa Fe that nevertheless had quite different ceramic assemblages which would place on in the Developmental period and the other in the Coalition period based on the Wendorf and Reed system. (This sort of thing is a major flaw with chronologies based mainly on ceramic styles, since time is by no means the only factor affecting differences in pottery.) Basically there seems to have been a long transitional period between the Developmental and Coalition in which communities with a variety of ceramic styles existed in close proximity. In particular, the introduction of carbon pigments seems to have been more variable than Wendorf and Reed realized, and they coexisted with mineral pigments for a substantial period. Scheick also points out that, contrary to what some earlier researchers had thought, there are no particular patterns over time in the architecture, such as larger villages developing later in the Developmental period.

Lurking in the background of all this research is the question of the abandonment of the Mesa Verde region and whether any of the apparent increases in population in the Rio Grande correspond to an influx of people from that area. Wendorf and Reed placed this migration in the middle of their Coalition period, with the appearance of a ceramic type, Galisteo Black-on-white, that is very similar to late Mesa Verde Black-on-white, and various other changes in material culture in the region that accompanied a population increase. However, recent research in the Mesa Verde region itself has suggested that the depopulation was a longer-term process beginning much earlier than previously thought, so some of the changes in the early Coalition period, could also be due to immigration. The basic problem is that while there are plenty of individual examples of similarity between San Juan/Mesa Verde culture and Rio Grande culture over a long period of time, there are no sites showing a complete package of San Juan cultural traits. There seems to be an emerging consensus that this is because the migration was primarily not of entire communities moving as units but of smaller units (families or lineages) that joined existing communities in the target region, perhaps ones that they had had earlier contact with through trade or other activities.

Round Kiva at Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument

Round Kiva at Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

An additional piece of evidence for this idea comes from the paper I mentioned at the beginning of this post, published by Steven Lakatos in 2007. Lakatos did an analysis of features in Rio Grande pit structures (kivas) during the Developmental period. He looked at size, orientation, and presence or absence of a hearth, an ash pit, a deflector, and a ventilator in a total of 131 excavated pit structures in the Rio Grande Valley dating to AD 600 to 1200. He looked at specific types of each of these features and came up with a wide variety of statistical comparisons. The sample sizes for most of the subsamples he looked at are so small, however, that I doubt many of these comparisons are meaningful. His overall conclusions, however, are probably reliable.

Lakatos found that there is a consistent pattern of features in pit structures throughout the Developmental period: hearth, ash pit, deflector, and ventilator, sometimes accompanied by sipapu and/or ash grinding stone, in a row aligned to the east-southeast (average azimuth from true north of 118 degrees for the Early Developmental period and 123 degrees for the late developmental). This is in strong contrast to the San Juan (Chaco/Mesa Verde) kiva pattern, where ash pits are rare, other features like benches and pilasters are common, and orientation is usually to the south or south-southeast. Lakatos notes that this Rio Grande kiva pattern continues into the Coalition period and later, as kivas become more formalized community-scale integrative structures, and while all the features in the complex potentially had originally mundane uses, the formalization of the pattern and its persistence over time suggest that at some point it acquired ritual significance. He notes the ritual importance of ash to modern Rio Grande Pueblos as a way of explaining the ash pit and ash-grinding stone as ritual features. The persistence of the pattern into the Coalition period and beyond suggests to Lakatos that immigrants to the Rio Grande from Mesa Verde and elsewhere not only joined existing communities, but largely assimilated to existing religious and cultural practices in an area that had developed a distinctive identity already. Thus, the reason it is so hard to pinpoint continuity between San Juan and Rio Grande archaeological sites is that the San Juan immigrants changed their culture to conform to Rio Grande practices.

I’m not sure I buy that there was quite as much continuity in the Rio Grande as Lakatos and other Rio Grande archaeologists tend to think. Looking at it from the outside, the ceramic evidence certainly seems to imply at least some continuity with Mesa Verde culture, and a close examination of what little ethnographic information is available on the Rio Grande Pueblos may reveal other traits of western or northern origin. Still, Lakatos’s evidence for continuity in kiva form looks convincing to me, and the patterns he identifies are certainly quite different from those of Chaco and Mesa Verde. The fact that his interpretation meshes well with other research suggesting migration by small groups into established communities is also encouraging.

So what does all this have to do with the winter solstice? Well, Lakatos also calculated the azimuth of winter solstice sunrise for the Albuquerque area in AD 1000, and it was 119 degrees east of north. This is strikingly similar to the average azimuths of the kiva alignments he analyzed, which have small standard deviations indicating strong clustering around the average values. The variation that does exist could easily correspond to local horizon variation in this rugged, mountainous region. Lakatos expresses surprise at this finding, but it makes perfect sense to me. The winter solstice is an enormously important event for the modern Pueblos, as Lakatos discusses, and pointing their kivas toward it would be a natural response to that importance. And with that in mind, I wish all my readers a happy solstice.

ResearchBlogging.org
Lakatos, SA (2007). Cultural Continuity and the Development of Integrative Architecture in the Northern Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, A.D. 600-1200 Kiva, 73 (1), 31-66

Wendorf, F (1954). A Reconstruction of Northern Rio Grande Prehistory American Anthropologist, 56 (2), 200-227 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1954.56.2.02a00050

Wendorf, F, & Reed, EK (1955). An Alternative Reconstruction of Northern Rio Grande Prehistory El Palacio, 62 (5-6), 131-173

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"Supernova" Pictograph

“Supernova” Pictograph

I recently finished reading Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian by Ray Williamson. This is a classic work on the archaeoastronomy of North America, and it’s the best introduction to the subject I’ve found. (Granted, there aren’t many out there.) Although it was written in the 1980s, the research it discusses is still quite relevant, and Williamson does a good job of giving a pretty comprehensive overview of research in most parts of the US. The 1970s and 1980s were kind of the heyday of archaeoastronomy in the US, and while there has been continuing research since then, it’s striking how few major discoveries have been made since Williamson’s book was published. Virtually all of the major discoveries I knew about before reading the book are included, plus many others I didn’t know about.

Williamson did quite a bit of research himself on astronomical phenomena at Chaco, which gets lots of coverage in the book. There is some discussion of the Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte, as well as of alignments at Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada and the alleged “supernova petroglyph” near Peñasco Blanco. Williamson gives the latter a lot more credence than others, and actually has a whole chapter on alleged representations of the 1054 supernova in rock art, including several other sites I had not heard about. I’m pretty skeptical about the supernova stuff, but it’s interesting to hear about these other sites.

Reconstructed "Woodhenge" at Cahokia

Reconstructed “Woodhenge” at Cahokia

While the Chaco stuff is interesting, I already knew most of it and Williamson’s account doesn’t add a whole lot to anyone who is reasonably well-versed in it. Where this book really stands out for me is in its discussion of archaeoastronomy in other areas that get less attention, especially the Plains and California, which have a lot of archaeoastronomical phenomena despite their lack of impressive well-preserved architectural sites like those in the Southwest. The chapter on the East is also interesting, with discussion of the famous “Woodhenge” at Cahokia and the “SunWatch” site in Dayton, Ohio as well as other lesser-known sites. Even within the Southwest, Williamson devotes space to research at more obscure places like Hovenweep (which turns out to have a lot of interesting potential alignments) as well as major centers like Chaco.

Williamson also does a good job of connecting the archaeological data to ethnographic reports about astronomical practices among modern groups. There has historically been a tendency for archaeoastronomers, many of whom are astronomers or surveyors by training, to focus on identifying alignments without giving much consideration to the cultural context in which they may have existed. Williamson avoids this pitfall by giving extensive attention to ethnographic practices and their potential connections to the evidence from ancestral sites. He does a particularly good job with respect to the Pueblos, for which both the ethnographic and archaeological data are extensive, but he also includes extensive discussion of the Navajo, Pawnee, and Chumash, and some attention to various other groups. His interpretations of the ethnography at times show a tendency toward oversimplification, and some of his general comments about Native American societies are, well, overly general and imply more widespread commonalities among very different societies than is really reasonable, but he’s not an anthropologist and as such I think these flaws are quite forgivable given all the interesting data he presents in accessible form.

Hovenweep Castle, Utah

Hovenweep Castle, Utah

I also read a 2003 review article on archaeoastronomy in the Americas, written by prominent archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni, to get a sense of research since the 1980s, but it didn’t add much. For one thing, as mentioned above, the pace of archaeoastronomy seems to have leveled off a lot since then, and it’s striking how many of the references in Aveni’s article are to publications from the 1970s and 1980s. Also, while the article does cover North America as one of its three main sections, it spends much more space on the other two sections, Mesoamerica and South America. This is unsurprising, since the major civilizations in these areas have written records (mostly from the contact period but in the case of the Maya precontact as well) to which archaeological data can be compared. In addition, they have just received more attention in general from archaeoastronomers than cultures further north. Aveni himself studies Mesoamerica, so he has a lot to say about research there.

That said, however, Aveni’s account of North American archaeoastronomy is also surprisingly sloppy and riddled with obvious errors. He refers to Cahokia as “part of the Adena-Hopewell culture,” which is just laughably wrong; Cahokia is the preeminent site of the Mississippian culture, which arose centuries after the decline of Hopewell. He also attributes the Poverty Point site in Louisiana to the Adena, whereas it is actually significantly earlier. His discussion of the Southwest doesn’t contain any obvious errors of that magnitude, but it is very brief and superficial, as is the whole North American section of the paper.

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Overall, then, I guess I would say that Williamson’s book is a much better introduction to North American archaeoastronomy than Aveni’s article, but that is kind of a trivial conclusion since it’s also much easier to find for the general reader. Even academics who have access to the Aveni paper, though, probably won’t get much out of it on this topic.
ResearchBlogging.org
Aveni AF (2003). Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas Journal of Archaeological Research, 11 (2), 149-191 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022971730558

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University of New Mexico Observatory, Albuquerque, New Mexico

University of New Mexico Observatory, Albuquerque, New Mexico

I’m currently in Albuquerque visiting my mom and helping her out with some things. I usually try to mark the solstices on this blog, but in this case I’ve been too busy to put together a real post. (The solstice was technically yesterday in this time zone anyway.) I know the blog has been pretty quiet lately; I’ve been busy with various things, but I have been getting back into reading stuff about the Southwest and will have some substantive posts soon. Anyway, happy solstice and so forth.

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Sign with Summer Solstice Sunrise and Sunset Times, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).

Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.

Whalebone Arch with Umiak Frames, Barrow, Alaska

The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.

One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.

Umiak on Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.

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