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New Histories of Ancient Chaco--
The Chaco Synthesis

Chaco Canyon was one of the most important sites in Pueblo prehistory, and the National Park Service's (NPS) Chaco Project was one of the largest non-CRM archaeological projects ever undertaken in the United States. More than a decade of fieldwork resulted in the excavation of more than 25 sites, culminating in extensive testing at Pueblo Alto, one of the largest Chacoan "Great Houses." A long list of technical reports was produced, but no final synthesis.

Over the past three years, collaborative efforts by the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) and NPS have begun to create that long-missing synthesis. Steve Lekson (CU) proposed a plan to not only synthesize the Chaco Project (and other Chaco research), but to inject new ideas into the mix, through a series of working conferences on various aspects of Chacoan archaeology. Each working conference consists of three or four Chaco researchers (mostly, but not exclusively, from the old NPS Chaco Project) who focus on one theme or data-set, and three or four prominent archaeologists interested in the same theme outside the Southwest.

To date, five of seven planned conferences have met. These include: "Organization of Production" (Catherine Cameron and H. Wolcott Toll, organizers, at University of Colorado); "Society and Polity" (Linda Cordell and W. James Judge, organizers, at Fort Lewis College); "The Chaco World" (Nancy Mahoney, John Kantner, and Keith Kintigh, organizers, at Arizona State University); "Ecology and Economy" (R. Gwinn Vivian, Jeffery Dean, and Carla Van West, organizers, at the University of Arizona); and "Chaco, Mesa Verde, and the Confrontation with Time" (Patricia Limerick and Stephen Lekson, organizers, at the University of Colorado). Two conferences on Chacoan Architecture will be held in fall 2000 at the University of New Mexico. Several additional "capstone" events are being developed for 2001­2002. A parallel effort by Frances Joan Mathien (NPS) will summarize the work, results, and original conclusions of the Chaco Project, in a companion volume to the Chaco Synthesis project.

An "interim report" on the project has been published as an issue of Archaeology Southwest, published by the Center for Desert Archaeology, Tucson. Contact lpierce@desert.com for ordering information.·


The Chaco Society and Polity Working Conference

Linda Cordell and W. James Judge

The Chaco Society and Polity Conference was held May 3­7, 1999, at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado. This was the second in the series of Chaco Synthesis working conferences that bring together small groups of scholars to assemble, discuss, and synthesize the current understanding of broad themes related to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Catherine M. Cameron and H. Wolcott Toll reported a brief summary of the first working conference in the SAA Bulletin [1999, 17(4): 24].

W. James Judge (Fort Lewis College), former director of the NPS Chaco Project, and Linda S. Cordell (University of Colorado Museum) organized the working conference on Chaco Society and Polity. Chaco experts attending the conference were Thomas C. Windes (NPS), Frances Joan Mathien (NPS), and Steve Lekson (University of Colorado Museum). The "outside" specialists attending the conference were Nancy Mahoney (Arizona State University), Mark Varien (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center), John A. Ware (SWCA, Inc., Environmental Consultants), Henry T. Wright (Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan), and Norman Yoffee (Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan). Logistical support was arranged by Karin Burd (University of Colorado) and Susan Bryan (Fort Lewis College). Two field tripsa mid-conference half-day trip to Chaco Canyon and a concluding trip to Lowry Pueblowere key features of this working conference. The trips were invaluable, not only in providing a shared empirical base for discussion of the issues raised in the workshop, but as a means of demonstrating the scope of recent discoveries that postdate the Chaco Project effort.

While discussion throughout the conference was wide-ranging, a few themes were recurrent. The first concerned the relative uniqueness of Chaco in the Southwest and among non-state societies in general. Mahoney and others pointed out that the refinement of chronology has been among the most valuable contributions of the NPS work in Chaco. Despite maps that commonly include all the Great Houses in the canyon with ubiquitous small sites, "Downtown Chaco" (within the National Park boundaries) consisted of a series of Great Houses and surrounding communities that are just like these constellations outside the canyon, as demonstrated by Windes' recent work in the vicinity of Pueblo Pintado, an outlying area east of Chaco Canyon. It is at least possible that some of these Great Houses and their associated settlements, especially those south of Chaco, either pre-date or are contemporary with the earliest Great Houses and settlements within the canyon proper. Further, components of Chaco that include all the known road segments and outliers, as we see in visitor guides and maps, did not all exist contemporaneously. As Varien noted, Chacoan Great Houses and roads north of the San Juan were largely constructed after A.D. 1080. Not only are they morphologically different from Great Houses in the canyon but also their likely models may have been sites such as Salmon or Aztec Pueblos, rather than anything in the canyon.

Varien and others suggested that the communities in the canyon may not only have had different origins (an idea previously stated by R. Gwinn Vivian), but may have been linked to specific communities outside the canyon over time. All participants noted the special case of ties between Chaco Canyon and the Chuska mountains to the west, and wondered whether this particular arrangement was reflected in Great Houses other than Pueblo Alto. While Chaco Canyon remains unique in regard to the density of Great Houses, Great Kivas, and associated communities, it shared variations of these with different regions outside the canyon over time.

Ware proposed examining questions about the uniqueness of Chaco in the context of Pueblo history, specifically the history of social organization among the Eastern Pueblos. He suggested that the physical structures at Chaco are easier to interpret within the context of an Eastern Pueblo model that emphasizes ranked non-kin sodalities than on models of kinship-based, Western Pueblo organization. Ware noted that Eastern Pueblo society is organized around initiated elite leaders and commoners, and that inter-village ties among the religious leaders link villages in ways that might resemble the organization of multiple Chacoan communities. Yoffee found Ware's analysis compatible with aspects of his own notion of Chaco as a "rituality." The theme of ritual as an organizing principle was discussed in several ways.

Mahoney contrasted the notions of "display" vs. "conspicuous consumption," noting aspects of both in construction of Chacoan Great Houses. Yoffee provided insight from the Near East in which archaeological norms, such as Sumeria, in fact referred to people in different polities with different leaders and speaking different languages but linked through a common belief system. He argued for the power of ritual and belief to serve as primary organizing principles. The participants acknowledged that while elites may have achieved such status on the basis of their ritual knowledge, there were economic consequences. Wright noted Nancy Akin's previous observations that the "Old Bonitian" skeletal population recovered at Pueblo Bonito demonstrated greater stature in all age categories compared to skeletal remains recovered elsewhere in the canyon. The participants also acknowledged that the labor investment in Chaco, especially the Great Houses, was truly enormous given the likely resident population. In all, the conference participants would not be comfortable with use of the term "polity" to describe Chaco society, nor would they be at ease with one of the common pigeonholes of neoevolutionist schemes. Rather, the ways in which Chaco is not unique either in Pueblo history or among other ancient non-state societies allow a more comprehensible view of what that society was probably like. Additional research questions were raised regarding the timing of events inside and outside the canyon, the nature of ties between specific communities in the canyon and specific areas and settlements outside the canyon, and the nature of the Chacoan Great Houses in terms of their various functions through time. ·

Linda S. Cordell is director of the University Museum, University of Colorado-Boulder. W. James Judge, former director of the NPS Chaco Project, is a professor at the Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado.

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