KIVAS, TOWERS, AND OTHER STRUCTURES: ROUND EARTH--ROUND SKY IN THE PREHISTORIC SOUTHWEST
Having just returned from an extended trip to the Southwest (which included a stop at Cahokia in Illinois) to revisit many of the important archeological sites in North America, it is a good time to make a few short observations, which might not have been possible for this writer to do only a few years earlier. The intention of acquainting myself firsthand once again with locations such as Chaco Canyon was to view them from a new perspective after nearly two decades of absence from some of these sites. Readers of this blog will no doubt have noted the author's increasing use of this series of short articles to comment on the growing importance of discoveries relating to the astronomical significance of many ancient sites around the world, as well as the recognition of the critical information regarding the movements of celestial bodies in ancient myths, legends, constructions, etc. The primary function (beyond the sheer pleasure of it all) of looking anew at these well-known ruins was an attempt to personally view them strictly from their astronomical observational potential for the first time. Recognizing that many, if not all, of these sites have already received a fair amount of re-interpretation from that astronomical perspective in recent years, it might seem presumptuous to add my own additional observations at this point. However, just as with the previous article in this blog series on the walls of Chaco Canyon, I believe it is worthwhile for interested readers to learn about these observations in order to evaluate their possible usefulness for themselves. Before beginning, it would be helpful perhaps to add a little background on my own prior interest or expertise in the specific sites that will be discussed.
Readers of The People of the Stone saga will note that the fifth book, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT is set mainly at the important mound site of Cahokia and deals in some small part with its astronomical significance in one of the plot lines of the story. Much has been made of the important location and alignments of that important central U.S. site. (See the earlier blog article in this series entitled: Stone Markers on the Horizon: Ancient Astronomers in the Americas, for more info. on this major site.) However, even though my book series is set mainly in the Ohio Valley and related areas of the eastern U.S., my graduate archeological training was predominantly in the Southwest. As a grad student at Eastern New Mexico Univ. in the early 1970's I was privileged to excavate on two important Chacoan Outliers then under the supervision of Cynthia Irwin-Williams. One of these sites was Guadaloupe Mesa an "outlier" on the southern edge of Chacoan influence on the Puerco River northwest of Alburquerque. The other site was Salmon Ruins on the San Juan River just south of the major northern outlier of Aztec Ruins in New Mexico. At that time, the major focus on these Chacoan outliers was to view them in relation to the exciting new discoveries regarding the amazing road system emanating from Chaco Canyon. These sites were seen as either defensive (Guadaloupe Mesa) or as important economic intermediate locations within the Chacoan trading sphere. While both of these suppositions may have been partially true, more recent research would tend to place both within the larger ceremonial complex centered at Chaco Canyon--a complex that was largely based upon precise astronomical measurements. This Chacoan "culture" was one which spread over a much larger area, reached partially by the amazing road system also now seen as an integral part of this complicated ceremonial system.
During the course of my recent visit, and in addition to the sites of Cahokia and Chaco Canyon with several of its major ruins, I managed to get to the classic Chacoan sites of Aztec and Salmon Ruins in New Mex., Balcony House and Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock in southern Colorado, and Little Ruin Canyon in Hovenweep near Four Corners. All of these locations are sites with primary or major affiliations with Chaco Canyon. I will try to make both some general observations as well as some specifics based on what I observed at these major sites.
ARE KIVAS REALLY VESTIGIAL PITHOUSES?
As with most students and readers of Southwest Archeology, one of the first things we are taught is that the appearance of the stone-lined, circular (mainly) Kiva in the early Pueblo Period was a carry-over from the earlier Basketmaker Period when the first permanent structures, called pithouses, were dug as shallow, ovate pits over which lattice-work roofs were built. These were primarily residential, all-purpose structures that were sunk into the earth, for what reason we cannot fully explain. Later, as multi-purpose, multi-level Pueblos with plazas were built, these included distinct, "circular" subterranean ceremonial structures that were entered through the roof called Kivas. Important Pueblos, such as those at Chaco Canyon often contained one central or "Great" Kiva, as well as many smaller ones attributed to specific kin or other ceremonial groups within the larger society. However, these kivas were all built of stone to exact interior specifications, including the off-center ceremonial pit (the sipapu), stone wall benches, wall niches, central entry point from above, fire pit, etc. Over time, each of these unique features has been given a larger meaning within the context of the kiva, often having to do with some interpretation of seeing the kiva as an intermediate space between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld within the larger ceremonial vision or world view of the cultures of the region. While all of this may well be true, it still does not explain the necessity for the circular construction or the precise manner for which the interiors are laid out over a wide area of space and time in the region. Nor does it explain why pithouses were ovals with or without stone slab lining, while kivas are stone-lined, masonry-walled, floor to ceiling circles, which are actually not always wholly or partially embedded in the earth. Sometimes they are constructed above ground and later constructions or natural features are incorporated to make them appear to be underground structures. Why then all the trouble to keep up appearances, as some might say?
While it is true that a few kivas were re-used non-ceremonially in later times, when conditions were stressful and new construction was minimal, as residential or refuge locations (some kivas at Mesa Verde sites, for example), there is virtually no evidence that kivas were ever constructed initially for anything but ceremonial purposes or as repositories for sacred or unique objects. Furthermore, we are fully aware that early agricultural peoples relying on sophisticated celestial observations for ritual cycles always view the heavens as a circular, moving sphere, or world, and often as one distinct from the earthly realm altogether. Additionally, in many instances the so-called "underworld" is not really a place beneath the earth, but is the "dark" or invisible part of the sky on the "other side" of the stationary terrestrial world, which cannot be seen at that time of the year. Hence, an entrance to this underworld--such as the Sipapu of the classic kiva--is, in reality a pathway to the stars and the dwelling place of the ancestors, which is temporarily beyond the view of the living. It is not some dark underground region and earthbound location. Even in myths where an "underground river" is seen as the passageway to the land of the dead, this is now most often interpreted as a vision of the Milky Way--the GREAT RIVER OF TIME--encircling the earth and tying it to the celestial sphere, which includes both the visible and invisible parts of that sphere at any given time.
Also, the alignment of the Great Kivas that have been studied, particularly at Chaco Canyon and Aztec, indicate that these circular structures were primarily aligned as solar and lunar observatories, usually with solstice and equinox viewing as the primary function--not altogether unlike a modern planetarium in some regards. Therefore, I would maintain that the construction of circular, semi-subterranean Kivas was, and always was, a function of a circular world view based upon using them in some way to observe, mark, or otherwise emphasize and celebrate specific celestial occurrences. They were a new idea, born of early agriculturalists obsession with solar, lunar, and stellar observations within the larger sphere revolving over their heads around a central, polar fixed observation point. Any resemblance to earlier pithouses is as much coincidental as it was deliberate. There are just too many differences when compared with the slight similarities and the fact that much of the impetus for the complex ceremonial and ritual behavior that culminated at Chaco Canyon and elsewhere apparently came from far to the south and was not home grown in any event. But that's another story altogether, isn't it!
TOWER KIVAS--SQUARE AND ROUND: ARE THEY KIVAS AT ALL?
At several locations among those visited, the appearance of a so-called "Tower Kiva" is a central feature of the construction at major ruins. Among these are the impressive tower kiva at Chetro Ketl, the second largest of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon, at Salmon Ruins (It was quite an exciting discovery there in the summer of 1973 as I recall, and seen then as the first within a classic Chaco Pueblo outside of the Canyon.), and especially at Little Ruins Canyon in Hoveweep. These tower kivas are listed separately here from those given the same nomenclature at places like Mesa Verde, because the above mentioned are Round Towers. Other Square Towers, constructed within larger wall and room complexes are, I maintain, incorrectly labeled as Kivas altogether, at least in the classic interpretation that has been established for primarily ceremonial structures. These square towers may have been constructed for direct celestial observational purposes, as those in the open at Hovenweep and elsewhere appear to have been; but others may have been built as multi-purpose structures, including for defensive use, at places like Mesa Verde and sites in northern Arizona not included in this discussion.
A common feature of the circular towers I have directly observed are the inclusion of irregularly placed, small apertures, often referred to as "windows". Based on my recent observations of such similar apertures in the structures atop several major pyramid sites in the Mayan World, these apertures are, I firmly believe, placed and spaced to view specific stellar or planetary risings--as well as specific lunar positions at critical points in the 18.6 year standstill cycle as well. Round walls are more difficult to build, especially the taller they go, when compared with square-sided masonry. Why go to such trouble unless there is a specific need to place a particular viewing window on a particular azimuth, which can only be achieved by having it on a rounded as opposed to a flat surface, where the light can enter and strike a specific spot or viewing location within? Therefore, I would maintain that: ANY CIRCULAR TOWER WITH SMALL WINDOWS THAT ARE IRREGULARLY SPACED WAS CONSTRUCTED FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF ACTING AS AN OBSERVATION PLATFORM FOR LUNAR, PLANETARY, OR STELLAR RISINGS. To view these structures otherwise makes no logical sense. One need only stand at the several towers, round and square, on solitary, prominent points at Little Ruin Canyon at Hovenweep and walk around looking at the amazing sight lines they command of the horizon and the distant "chimney rock marker" to the east to get the sense of what viewing the ancient night sky at this one neglected location must have been like. The tower kiva at Salmon Ruins also commands a tremendous view of the horizon in several directions--not the least of which is back towards Chaco Canyon and the likely several fixed "calibration points" along the main north/south road leading out of the Canyon itself. Even the tower kiva at Chetro Ketl in Chaco Canyon, situated as it is, presents clear views of the critically important astronomical site of Fajada Butte and the southern sky in that direction through its several small "windows".
There are many of these solitary "windows" which have always seemed to be out of place as to why they were built where they were in many of these important ruins. Pueblo Bonito contains a couple of the better known of these, as does Aztec Ruins. New research at both these locations, as well as at Chimney Rock to the north, where the standstill point of the moon in its 18.6 year cycle is clearly marked from the mesa top ruins through the notch in the two chimneys of the monument itself, has clearly shown that these ancient people were aware of far more in the heavens than just the four key annual rising and setting points of the sun, or marking the cycles of the moon. Even in the sheltered ruins of Balcony House at Mesa Verde, where both solstices have been noted with markings on a back wall through two doorways into an oddly placed room, I observed three small apertures between these two larger viewing windows that gave a clear view of the flat horizon above the canyon wall top opposite facing the northern sky and its important stellar marking potential when I knelt down to sight through them.
Therefore, more scholars need, I believe, to divest themselves of the traditional labels and outright misconceptions that earlier excavators of these important sites passed on to us and which have too often been repeated as gospel with little regard to new, more controversial research, or even to common sense. Unfortunately, in some regards at least, these important sites as National Parks now can be most difficult to conduct new research in, especially if that research is slightly off the traditional rails or involves seeking new excavation permits. Still, this does not excuse us from taking a hard look at new ideas when they arise and from looking at these important sites within the larger framework of theoretical archeology and anthropology of which they are but one small, if quite significant, piece of a much larger puzzle--a puzzle that we are gradually coming to understand in ways we would not thought of as possible but a few short years ago.
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