Saturday, November 16, 2013

More on The Ruins

While rummaging through my collection of National Geographics after writing the previous post on "Ruins", I came across the September 1925 issue which featured  reporting on the NatGeo's archeological dig at Pueblo Bonito, and there was a rather startling color photo of the ruins as they were during the 1923 season, after quite a bit of archeology had gone on but before there had been much or any restoration.

This is a picture taken around 1940 (or as late as 1960; the caption wasn't clear) taken from approximately the same viewpoint. The picture below it was taken recently:

The comparison is interesting. There are plenty of similarities, but many differences, particularly with regard to the plazas and the room blocks. Also, note that in the 1923 image, there is standing water against the berm just to the left of the ruins. I don't know whether that berm was contemporaneous with the hey day of Pueblo Bonito, but traces of it still exists today, and some reconstruction plans of Pueblo Bonito show a large enclosed area to the left of the main building that is assumed to have been a garden plot for crops.

I've seen some pictures of Pueblo Bonito taken in the 1880's or 1890's from approximately the same viewpoint (but I can't find them now) before excavations started but long after the abandonment of the site by the legendary Anasazi and after the periodic informal excavations of pot hunters and grave robbers, and in those pictures, the whole site consisted of softly rounded mounds, almost no walls visible, and with room blocks completely hidden under debris. It hardly even resembled the 1923 picture, in which one can at least trace the outlines of the site's shape. Prior to excavation, even that was unclear.

Chetro Ketl, close to the east, is partially excavated, but those parts which have not been excavated remain as low mounds, barely perceptible at ground level, and there are other sites in Chaco Canyon that were unexcavated or were partially excavated and backfilled so that the sites appear today essentially as they were found by explorers and archaeologists.

Of course the Puebloan and Navajo peoples say they've always been coming to Chaco Canyon, and they know it well from the time of their ancestors. It's never been a "mystery" to them, at least not nearly the "mystery" it has been made to be by archeologists and anthropologists who even today have a nearly impossible task trying to decipher the ruins and whose theories change with the seasons, sometimes aligned with the memories of the Indians and sometimes not. Of course, the Indians' memories are not always accurate, either.

The 1925 National Geographic article, titled "Everyday Life at Pueblo Bonito" draws heavily on extrapolations from everyday contemporary life among the Puebloans on the assumption that the culture and the lifestyle at Chaco during its heyday was essentially similar and in some ways identical to Puebloan life at the time of writing. It would not and could not be identical to Puebloan life today, almost a hundred years later, due to the fact that the lifestyles of modern Indians are quite different from those of the past, and are much more similar to lifestyles of the dominant culture. This homogenization means that it is not possible to come to conclusions about Chacoan life based on present day Puebloan lifestyles. In the early part of the 20th century, however, coming to those conclusions -- or at least hypothesizing based on early 20th Century Puebloan practices -- was commonplace.

This led to the long held premise, for example, that Pueblo Bonito had a large resident population, something like Taos Pueblo but on a much vaster scale. Even at the time the large resident population idea was considered correct, there were many signs that it wasn't. Few hearths or remains of cooking fires were found in the ruins of Pueblo Bonito, for example, which suggested a rather smaller resident population, or even none. The theory that Pueblo Bonito and some of the other Great Houses in Chaco Canyon were "apartment houses" like Taos Pueblo was promoted for decades and not really questioned until the 1970's and 1980's when the lack of cooking fires and hearths was emphasized. The resident population of the Canyon was dropped from 20,000 to 2,000 to maybe a few hundred based on the absence of cooking fires. Nor were there signs of the fires connected with pottery making, though there were abundant supplies of ceramic pots and jars and pitchers and mugs and bowls found in the ruins. They had to have been brought from somewhere else because there was no evidence they were made on site (as would be the case at any contemporary Pueblo, even now, despite all the lifestyle changes and homogenization.)

There is evidence of jewelry making, weaving, corn grinding and some of the other domestic pursuits on site, but the findings could indicate that finished products were brought to Chaco from elsewhere and stored there to be distributed from there along with the materials and equipment for doing these tasks. One of the things that startled me on one of our explorations of Chaco was the fact that there seemed to be a number of "retail" counters in Pueblo Bonito especially, where it seemed to me that goods and wares could easily have been displayed and distributions made. There were what were obviously store rooms backing these "retail" spaces, so it seemed to me fairly straightforward that the purpose of these spaces was to have supplies of goods on hand for trade and distribution among those who came to Chaco. At least that portion of Pubeblo Bonito had been functioning something like a shopping mall. Nothing was made there, but things were brought and stored there, and then distributed by trade or freely among those who had come perhaps long distances to obtain these wares and goods.

Pueblo Bonito and other sites in Chaco Canyon made more sense to me as storage and trading centers rather than residential complexes. However, it has long been recognized that crops were grown under irrigation in the Canyon and on dry farms above it, and from time to time, the food supplies that could be grown there were probably quite abundant. Sites of garden plots are found all over the canyon floor. But when the rains failed, the crops would too, which meant that despite occasional abundance, dearth of food stuffs may have been more common.

At one time, it was assumed that the Canyon floor was forested when the building of Pueblo Bonito and the other Great Houses was begun, and that gradually the construction of these buildings -- which required large amounts of wood as well as stone and plaster -- deforested the Canyon floor. As more and more construction went on, the mesa tops were also deforested, and more construction ultimately required obtaining wood from up to forty miles away and laboriously transporting it to the building sites in Chaco Canyon.

More recently, that initial assumption has been discarded. According to more recent theories, there was no forest either on the floor of the Canyon or on the mesa tops; all the wood used in construction came from tens of miles away; none was cut nearby because there was none to cut, just as is the case now. Yet strangely, many reconstructed depictions of Pueblo Bonito show a single standing Ponderosa pine in the western plaza.

Apparently, the root system for this tree was found intact at the site. Was it the last remaining Ponderosa pine in the Canyon, the sole remnant of the forest that once was and thus given a place of honor? Hard to say, but most archaeologists today maintain that there was never a forest in Chaco Canyon or on the mesa tops during the time of Chaco Canyon's greatest construction and utilization. According to them, the dusty scrub and cottonwood we see there now was what was there then. Could be, but then again, the most rigidly held theories can become matters of head-scratching ridicule in the by and bye.

(Back to the original purpose of this post before I got diverted...) The Park Service will claim that there has been very little reconstruction at Pueblo Bonito and other Chaco Canyon sites, a claim that is belied by the 1925 article from which the opening image is drawn. Conveniently, the issue is available online, and you can see for yourself that the National Geographic expedition was quite enthusiastically engaged in repair and restoration even as they dug the remains of Pueblo Bonito out of the dust and debris of centuries. What they found as they dug was quite different in appearance than the site appears today, much of which is reconstructed to look like the archeologists' determination of what the ruins would look like if they'd been maintained over the centuries the way the Park Service has maintained them.

This is not unlike the reconstructed ruins in Mexico and Central America, made to look like they would look like if they had been maintained all through the centuries rather than allowed to fall to pieces after they were abandoned.

According to the Hopi, who claim direct descent from the builders of the many Anasazi sites (though that, too, is a matter of dispute we won't get into here) when it was time to leave, the people left Chaco Canyon and the other sites with the intention of allowing the buildings to return to the earth from which they had come; there was no intent to preserve them intact or as ruins, though they would continue to be visited from time to time by the descendants of their builders and they would continue to be honored as places of repute (I resist the tendency to call them Sacred Places for Indians see "sacredness" quite differently than Anglos do) even as the structures -- intentionally -- melted back into the ground.

What's been dug up and restored for our viewing pleasure is an evocation of some of what used to be or what might have been. If we were to see it before excavation began, however, we would see something very different.

The illustration at the top of the post shows Pueblo Bonito at an early stage of excavation. The remains are still largely rounded mounds of debris. The structure that eventually emerged, parts of which were reconstructed, bears a resemblance to the structure as it might have appeared while under construction, but it has little resemblance to the ruins that remained when archeology commenced at the site.

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