As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the ongoing debates in Chacoan architectural studies concerns the function of the round rooms that are very noticeable and numerous at the excavated great houses in the canyon. The standard interpretation for many years, which is still fairly common among archaeologists and nearly universal among the general public, is that these are “kivas,” a type of structure that is assumed to be primarily ritual or ceremonial in function and analogous to similar structures at modern pueblos. Some archaeologists, however, led by Steve Lekson, have argued that the small round rooms found at virtually all archaeological sites in the northern Southwest up to about AD 1300 are not in fact cermonial “kivas” but rather residential spaces, integral parts of residential “suites” of rooms used for habitation purposes. The idea here is that in function these round rooms are not the forerunners of kivas at modern pueblos but the descendants of pithouses from earlier periods. Lekson has been making this case since the 1980s; it was put forth at some length in his Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico and reiterated in his recent reworking of one of the chapters in that book for the recently published edited volume The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. As I will discuss more fully before, other archaeologists seem to increasingly be coming around to this position.
There are a number of other issues surrounding this debate that rarely enter into it, however. Many of these stem from the rather tenuous and superficial grasp many archaeologists seem to have of the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record. Basically, the way I see it much of the debate over whether these “round rooms” are “kivas” and whether they were “ceremonial” in function (which are actually separate questions, although they are usually conflated) is based on a whole host of problematic assumptions.
Lekson has been in favor of getting rid of the term “kiva” entirely for small round rooms in the San Juan region before AD 1300 (the qualifications are important, but let’s set them aside for right now). Instead he calls them simply “round rooms.” This is somewhat ungainly, but it has the advantage of being unambiguous, accurate, and straightforward. It also does not presuppose anything about the function of the rooms, which is helpful to tour guides and others who must explain what these structures are without necessarily taking sides on their functions or significance. On the other hand, however, the term “kiva” is well-established in the literature, and it may be possible to reinterpret it as merely a formal description for a certain type of structure, which would preserve continuity with past scholarship and lead to less confusion for visitors. Visitors to Chaco when I was working there would often see the round rooms at Pueblo Bonito as ask “Are those kivas?” This was a tricky question to answer, because in one sense they certainly are what archaeologists have called “kivas,” and it would be confusing to answer “no,” but on the other hand visitors typically have a certain set idea of what a “kiva” is, and answering “yes” tends to reinforce that even if it isn’t necessarily an accurate or useful way to interpret the structures is also problematic.
But what is a “kiva,” anyway? Where does the word come from, and what does it mean?
The short answer is that the term is Hopi, and that its meaning is obscure. Ki is the Hopi word for “house,” but va cannot be easily interpreted within Hopi (although there have been various attempts to make sense of it), and the word kiva may be a loanword. Regardless of its ultimate origin, however, in modern Hopi the word kiva refers to a specific type of structure that is subterranean, square (!), and largely, though not exclusively, ceremonial in function. All the modern pueblos have structures of equivalent function, but they differ in form. The biggest difference is that the western pueblos (Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna) have square or rectangular “kivas,” while the eastern pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley have round ones. Different pueblos have different terms for these chambers, which is unsurprising because they speak different languages. It’s interesting that the distinction between square and round forms is geographic rather than linguistic; Laguna and Acoma speak Keres, the same language as the eastern pueblos of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Zia, but they have square kivas like those of Hopi and Zuni whereas the eastern Keres pueblos have round ones like their neighbors who speak various languages of the Tanoan family, unrelated to Keres. Also, whether round or square, these “kivas” are sometimes, but not always, subterranean. Among the eastern pueblos, only Taos has subterranean kivas. The kivas at the other eastern pueblos are entered from the roof, which simulates in some sense a subterranean structure, but they are built above grade. Similarly, Hopi kivas are generally subterranean or semi-subterranean, but kivas at the other western pueblos are above-ground. All these structures do have certain formal and functional similarities, however; they all have firepits and entrances by a ladder through the smokehole above the fire, and they were used historically as both ceremonial spaces and something like clubhouses for men. At most pueblos women are not allowed in the kivas at all, although at Hopi the women’s societies are allowed to conduct certain ceremonies in them. They are not residential spaces at any modern pueblos.
When the Spanish first settled in the Rio Grande Valley starting in 1598, they noticed the round chambers in which the local pueblos conducted many of their ceremonies and called them estufas (“stoves”), presumably from the heat of the fires in them. This term persisted as a generic term for centuries, and the early Anglo archaeologists who began exploring the ancient ruins in the area in the late nineteenth century generally called the round, subterranean chambers they found “estufas”; this is the term George Pepper used in his descriptions of the excavations at Pueblo Bonito in the 1890s. Use of the term “kiva” rather than “estufa” is probably due largely to the influence of Jesse Walter Fewkes, a towering figure in early Southwestern archaeology and ethnography, who did extensive ethnographic fieldwork among the Hopis as well as excavations of prehistoric sites in the Hopi country and at Mesa Verde. In one important article on the kivas at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde, Fewkes even said:
The special chamber set apart by Pueblo Indians for ceremonial purposes was called by the early Spanish discoverers an estufa, or stove, a name no doubt suggested by the great heat of the room when occupied. An estufa is commonly designated by the Hopi Indians a kiva, which term is rapidly replacing the older name. It is found that prehistoric ruins as well as modern pueblos have kivas and that specialized rooms of this kind likewise exist in cliff-dwellings.
There is a lot of other interesting stuff in this article on kiva form at Mesa Verde, which is useful as a comparison for kivas at Chaco. In this context, however, the most important thing is just to note that the archaeological assumption that kivas were ceremonial is already here in 1908, as is the belief that the small round rooms of the San Juan region are equivalent in function to modern Hopi kivas despite their different shapes, sizes, and features. In the course of justifying his argument that the vertical shafts associated with these chambers were for ventilation, Fewkes says:
Modern Hopi kivas, which like those of Spruce-tree House are subterranean, but unlike them in being quadrilateral, have no air vent except the kiva hatchway. As a rule quadrilateral kivas are much larger and their roofs higher than those of circular kivas, so that the ventilation, which is also facilitated by a more capacious hatchway, is not a matter of great concern.
Note that the assumption that the “kivas” at Spruce Tree House are identical in function with those at Hopi even though they are round rather than square, small rather than large, and equipped with ventilation shafts. This assumption became virtually universal among archaeologists working in the Mesa Verde and San Juan Basin regions over the course of the twentieth century, until Lekson came along to challenge it in the 1980s.
When Lekson did begin to challenge this conventional wisdom, he did so on several grounds. For one thing, whereas a modern pueblo typically has between one and six kivas for the entire community, and this ratio holds true for most late prehistoric sites as well, pre-1300 sites in the San Juan region tend to have many more. Indeed, as early as Fewkes’s day T. Mitchell Prudden was exploring southwestern Colorado and finding numerous small, modular sites with a few rectangular rooms, a kiva, and a trash mound, which he proposed were basic units of architecture in the region. To this day these small sites are often called “Prudden units,” and it is generally accepted that even larger sites in the region are composed of large numbers of them aggregated together. And yet, for many decades the assumption was that these small kivas may have been associated with individual households or extended families but that they were still identical in function with modern kivas, which serve whole villages or large subsets of them, and the additional simplifying assumption crept in that those functions were more or less exclusively ceremonial.
Obviously, however, these “kivas” had developed out of the earlier pithouses, which were clearly residential structures. So the story came to be that in Basketmaker times everyone lived in pithouses, sometimes with adjacent surface storage rooms, then at some point around AD 800 or so came the “pithouse to pueblo transition” when everyone suddenly moved out of the pithouses and into larger versions of the storage rooms, instantaneously converting the pithouses to exclusively ceremonial use. Then nothing happened for a thousand years, and when Anglo anthropologists showed up in the nineteenth century they encountered a simple, communal way of life that had been unchanged for centuries.
I exaggerate, but only a little. What Lekson pointed out was basically that this story sounds nice but doesn’t really match either the archaeological or the ethnographic evidence. There was a huge series of migrations and cultural changes around AD 1300 that involved the abandonment of the Mesa Verde and Chaco regions and a massive influx of people to the Rio Grande Valley as well as to the Hopi and Zuni areas, and the end result was a settlement pattern across the region that had few similarities to that obtaining in the Four Corners area in Chacoan times (ca. 1030 to 1130) or shortly thereafter. From 1300 on things look very similar to what the Spanish encountered in the 1500s, but rather different from what they looked like earlier. Suddenly there were only a few kivas in each village, and they were big. Not as big as the earlier “great kivas,” generally, but certainly bigger than a typical kiva at Pueblo Bonito or Spruce Tree House. Also, especially in the west, many of them were square or rectangular. This probably indicates influence from the south, where square “great kivas” had long been present in settlements of the Mogollon culture.
Extrapolating backward from this change, Lekson argues that the small “kivas” so common at Chacoan and Mesa Verdean sites were not the forerunners of the later kivas in the large, aggregated pueblos the Spanish found but rather the last of the pithouses, which had a long history as habitation structures in the region and were present at earlier sites in similar numbers. One implication of this is that the number of round rooms at a given site may be an index not of the importance of that site as a “ceremonial center” but of the resident population. The idea is not that these round rooms were the only space used for residence but that they were part of “suites” of square and round rooms that served as units of household residential space, basically the “Prudden unit” concept but without any assumptions about which rooms were used for which specific household functions.
This argument has been gaining increasing acceptance in recent years, especially now that careful excavations of many sites in the region are coming up with clear indications of residential use of “kivas.” Some of these excavations have demonstrated that there really wasn’t an instantaneous “pithouse-to-pueblo transition” but rather that pithouses, or structures with features intermediate between Basketmaker pithouses and “pueblo” kivas, continued to be used well into the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At site 5MT10010 on Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado, for instance, notorious for the claims of cannibalism there, the excavators reported that:
[t]he presence of domestic artifacts, storage features, and mealing bins indicate residential use of the pithouses. In contrast, the surface structures contained few interior features; hearths were small, informal constructions; and no mealing bins were identified. Consequently, the surface structures were probably used seasonally for a narrower range of activities than the residential pithouses.
This site dates to around AD 1150, shortly after the decline of Chaco. The elaborate masonry round rooms at Chaco great houses were certainly fancier than the humble earthen pithouses occupied by the unfortunate inhabitants of 5MT10010, but there is no reason to assume that they had radically different functions.
I think Lekson’s arguments are very convincing. I’m less sure about whether it makes more sense to rebrand these rooms as “round rooms” rather than “kivas” (as Lekson does) or to redefine “kiva” as a formal rather than a functional designation (as many other archaeologists who agree with Lekson’s basic argument seem to be doing). One possible way out might be to use the term for “kiva” from one of the other pueblo languages, perhaps one of the languages spoken in the eastern pueblos that have round kivas more similar to the Chaco and Mesa Verde ones, but it is quite hard to find information on those languages, partly because their speakers are very wary of outsiders studying any aspect of their culture including language.
There’s much more to say about kivas (or whatever we want to call them) at Chaco specifically, but this post is long enough. The point I want to make here is really just that interpreting these structures and understanding what they are is a much thornier problem than it seems at first glance.
Billman, B., Lambert, P., & Leonard, B. (2000). Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region during the Twelfth Century A.D. American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694812
Fewkes, J. (1908). Ventilators in Ceremonial Rooms of Pre Historic Cliff-Dwellings American Anthropologist, 10 (3), 387-398 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.3.02a00020