Draft Position Paper for
The Interagency Management Group
for the Chaco Protection Site System
The case for expanding the system spatially to encompass all sites meeting the identification criteria for Chacoan outliers but restricting the system temporally to sites that were at least in part contemporaneous with the great houses of Chaco Canyon.
Archaeologists have been aware since at least the 1920s that there were sites morphologically similar to the great houses of Chaco Canyon as far north as Lowry Ruin northwest of Mesa Verde in Colorado and as far south and west as Village of the Great Kivas near Zuni. With the two major outlier surveys (Marshall et al. 1979; Powers et al. 1983), we began to document the numbers and distributions of such sites and to analyze the settlement pattern of which these big sites were a part. We discovered that most (but not all) of these outliers were surrounded by communities of small sites, and that in many cases these communities predated the construction of the outlier itself. And we discovered that there was a great prehistoric road system connecting numbers of these sites to Chaco Canyon.
The architectural uniformity of the outliers and the clear evidence for interconnection in the form of roads gave rise to the concept of a larger cultural system encompassing all of these sites and centered, it would appear from the evidence of the roads, in Chaco Canyon. The unique complexity attributed by many researchers to the Chaco system, the far-flung distribution of the sites, and the multiple land owners and land-managing agencies involved led the National Park Service to propose legislation creating a unified management and protection approach for Chacoan outliers.
Since the passage of the Chaco Protection Site System legislation, Chacoan researchers have become increasingly aware of sites beyond the spatial boundaries defined for the system that are morphologically indistinguishable from the protected outliers. These sites can be found in west central New Mexico, eastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and southwestern Colorado. As the extent of the distribution of the outlier-like sites became clear, some Chaco researchers began to question the concept of a "Chaco System." Given the technology and communications capabilities of the Anasazi World, how could the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon have administered, managed, or integrated a cultural system spread over most of the Four Corners region? The most frequently offered alternative is that the architectural phenomena that we have identified as "Chacoan"--great houses and their accompanying small sites, roads, earth-works, and great kivas--constituted the basic Pueblo II period settlement pattern and are not an indicator of a cultural system centered in Chaco Canyon.
From an archaeological standpoint there are at least three arguments against this position. First, the Chacoan architectural pattern is not coextensive with Pueblo II period Anasazi settlement. The great house pattern does not occur in the Kayenta region or in the upper Rio Grande. The basic Pueblo II settlement pattern was one of loosely aggregated communities of small sites.
Second, the architectural pattern that we have identified as Chacoan has clear temporal priority in Chaco Canyon; this pattern spread outward from Chaco to more and more distant areas of the Four Corners Region during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries as existing communities adopted an overlay of Chacoan architectural traits, while maintaining an otherwise local architectural and material culture. This pattern of change through time is consistent with the outward spread of influence from a primate center and supports to some extent a "Chaco-centric" view of the great house pattern.
The third and most important argument against the position that there is no Chaco, however, is the roads. The known road systems do center on Chaco Canyon. There are also road segments associated with some of the most distant of the outlier-like sites now known, although no evidence has yet been found to indicate that these distant "outliers" are linked by roads to the canyon. It is equally true, however, that no other sites have been found that appear to have formed the central nexus of other road systems like that centered at Chaco. No studies have been carried out to address either of these issues, and until they have, a Chaco-centered model for the origins and functioning of the system of great houses is the most defensible interpretation.
From a management perspective, the argument that these recently recognized distant great house sites were not connected to Chaco poses a problem. These sites meet the identification criteria for outliers set forth in the Joint Management Plan (JMP); indeed if most of them were magically transported to a location within the San Juan Basin, no one would have the slightest compunction about adding them to the protection site system. If the only objection to adding them to the system is that they are "too far" from Chaco Canyon, we are forced to ask, "How far is too far?" Where do we decide to draw the line between morphologically identical sites and say that one is "in" because it is close enough and one is "out" because it is too far? And how do we warrant that decision?
If this latter point is an argument for classifying all great house sites as eligible for inclusion in the protection site system regardless of distance from Chaco, wouldn't the same argument support eligibility for all great house sites regardless of date of occupation? No, not really. The difference between the temporal expansion argument and the spatial expansion argument is that in the temporal dimension we have a very clear and easily defensible point at which to draw the line: construction and major occupation ended in Chaco Canyon in the 1130s. If the point of the Chaco Protection Site System is to preserve and protect sites "associated with the prehistoric Chacoan culture," do we feel comfortable including sites that were built when the great houses of Chaco Canyon had already begun falling into ruins?
It is true that there are great house sites and roads and other trappings of the Chacoan architectural style that were built in the late 1100s and early 1200s. And it is true that some of the Chaco era outliers were remodeled and re-occupied during this period as well. Clearly these post-Chacoan developments harked back to the Chacoan era events in some sense. They exhibit architectural and settlement similarities, probably involved descendents of the Chacoan people, and may well represent efforts to reconstitute the old Chaco system after the collapse of the canyon-centered system.
There is considerable variability in these post-Chacoan developments. In the southwestern portions of what had been the Chaco system, the pattern seems to be that the Chaco era great houses were abandoned and new great houses were built, often nearby and often connected to the old house by a road segment. In the northern portions of the old system the Chaco era great houses seem to have been largely abandoned in the mid 1100s, then some building were remodeled and re-occupied while others may have served as mausoleums for post-Chaco era burials.
Clearly the post-Chacoan developments were related by cultural (and even biological) ancestral links to "the prehistoric Chaco culture." But if we accept this linkage as an argument for including post-Chacoan great houses in the protection sites system, then we are faced with another of those difficult line-drawing problems. If great houses of the late 1100s and early 1200s are to be included among the protection sites because of their ancestral link to the Chaco system where does that ancestral link become too tenuous to warrant inclusion?
The post-Chaco great houses are similar architecturally to the Chaco era great houses, but there are differences. And these architectural differences become greater through the Pueblo III period. Over a period of 100 years or so, the settlement pattern evolves into one dominated by the large plaza pueblos that are typical of all subsequent Puebloan occupation of the Southwest. Many of these sites are clearly linked to ancestral post-Chaco era great houses. Should they be included in the system of Chacoan outliers? If so, where do we stop?
From a management perspective, the collapse of Chaco Canyon provides an unambiguous stopping point, one that can be easily linked to the language of the legislation; in order to be "associated with the prehistoric Chaco culture," sites must have been at least partially contemporaneous with the great house sites of Chaco Canyon. This cut-off point also alleviates the problem of trying to explain to congressmen and other civilians how something built 80 or 100 years after Chaco Canyon was abandoned can be a "Chacoan outlier."
If this alternative is selected:
- The JMP would need to be revised to widen the focus from the San Juan Basin to the whole area where great houses are found.
- The identification criteria could remain largely as they are with some narrowing of the temporal range and a deemphasis on direct road connections to Chaco Canyon. We need to search for these connections, but it will be a long time before we know enough about the roads in this wider area to use direct road connections rather than simply presence of road features as a criterion.
- The selection criteria would need to be re-evaluated to be certain that they reflect the variability of the expanded Chaco system. This is necessary if we are to select a representative sample of the sites eligible for inclusion in that system for actual protection site status.
- Marshall et al. 1979
- Michael P. Marshall, John R. Stein, Richard W. Loose, and Judith E Novotny. Anasazi Communities of the San Juan Basin. Public Service Company of New Mexico and the State Historic Preservation Division, Santa Fe.
- Powers et al. 1983
- Robert P. Powers, William B Gillespie, and Stephen H. Lekson. ``The Outlier Survey: A Regional View of Settlement in the San Juan Basin.'' Reports of the Chaco Center Number 3. National Park Service, Albuquerque.