Kevin Dempsey Peterson
Ling 155 Final Paper

Ancient and Modern Pueblo Construction

by Kevin Dempsey Peterson

The Southwest has been inhabited by Indians who have left permanent marks on the landscape for thousands of years. Beginning in the first millennium AD, the Anasazi, the ancestors of the modern Hopi, built dwellings out of first adobe, then later stone, building the cliff houses that dot the canyons of the four-corners area and draw admirers from around the world. Even as the pueblos shed their old ways, their influence lives on in the uniquely American Southwestern architectural style.

The earliest Anasazi are known as the Basketmakers, from their use of tightly woven baskets rather than pottery. At this time they lived in stone-lined pit houses, most commonly on mesa tops, less commonly in recesses in the canyons. About 750 C.E., they moved on to above-ground buildings made of mud spread directly over a stick frame, known as jacal. A village would have several connected above-ground jacal rooms, and one or more pit houses. ( They also used above-ground storage basins made by planting stone slabs in the ground on edge.

By 1000 C.E., the Anasazi had advanced to stone construction. They still lived primarily on the mesa tops or the canyon floor, but those sites that have been best preserved were those built in alcoves in the canyon walls. These are also the most attention grabbing, so in popular culture, the Anasazi may be referred to as "Cliff Dwellers" even though only about 10% of their sites were actually on the cliffs.

The average room in an Anasazi village was about 8 square meters. (Lowell, p 22) Sites range from only a handful of rooms, especially for early sites, to over a thousand rooms. The average number varies depending on what region and what period. Anywhere from 20 to 200 would not be atypical. A site would be expected to have one kiva (see below) for every 5-20 rooms, but this number is even more variable. (Lowell, pp 257-272)

A room would be constructed by stacking the cut stones in mud mortar until a roof height was reached. Pine logs would be laid across the room to support the roof, spaced perhaps two feet apart. The walls would be continued for about a foot above the roof logs. Bohn describes the roof of Three Turkey House as next having a layer of split juniper poles, perpendicular to the pine logs, then a layer of juniper bark, which is covered with mud plaster. (p 15) The exact details of the materials likely vary with the location, but the general method of large logs covered with smaller sticks, covered with hardened mud, remains the same. The entire building would then be plastered with mud. The roof beams would be left extending some distance from the wall, and would be used to hang drying food on, or as support for walls made of jacal. Cliff dwellings were generally only one story tall, but on the mesa tops, the pueblos would sometimes reach up to four stories. Double, rubble-filled walls would occasionally be used when extra strength was needed.

The entrance to a room may be either through a doorway or through the roof. The doorways at some sites are described as "T-shaped", but it is really only a slight widening of the upper half of the doorway. The windows, if any, were generally small. If the entrance was through the roof, there would be a ladder made by lashing the rungs to the rails with sinew or fiber. (Roberts p 188) In larger sites, the initial entrance into a complex would be through a roof hatch into a room used for domestic activities (as opposed to a storage room) and doorways would provide access among rooms in the same complex. In some cliff dwellings, the overhanging rock is so low that the walls are built up to the ceiling, rather than having a roof.

In addition to the above-ground rooms, a site would have one or more kivas, underground chambers, which are assumed, by parallel with kivas in modern pueblos, to be of ritual use. The kiva would be a circular pit, with walls of the same construction as the above ground rooms, extending a short distance above ground. The floor would be paved in stone slabs, and entrance would be through the roof. The area directly around the entrance would frequently be finished in stone as well, possibly to reduce the amount of wear on the entrance. There would be a hearth inside, with an altar on the other side of the hearth facing the wall. The wall nearest the hearth would have a ventilation opening near the bottom. With an opening at the ground and in the roof, the fire would set up air currents which would provide good ventilation. There would be a bench running around the perimeter of the kiva.

When building in cliff alcoves, there are certain difficulties that must be addressed. The first is that the ground being built on will rarely be level. The Anasazi dealt with this by cutting a level foundation in the stone where the wall is to stand, then, once the lower wall had been built up to the height of the back of the room, it would be filled in so that the room had a level floor. Additionally, they would sometimes build a retaining wall at the front of the entire complex, filled in to be level. The trails from the canyon floor to the ledge and from the ledge to the edge of the canyon were frequently improved by cutting hand and toe holds in the face.

The floor of rooms other than the kiva would generally be plastered rather than covered with stone slabs. The interior of the walls would be plastered as well, and frequently painted with designs. If the room was not a storeroom, one would likely find a hearth made of stone slabs, a fire pit made of plaster, and one or more metates, or grinding stones, set in plaster on a ledge. One feature that is missing from the pueblos is any evidence of kilns. For reasons unknown, these were located far from any villages. The kilns took the form of a trench with sandstone slabs resting on top of a bed of coals. The pots would be placed on the slabs, covered with small protective shards, which would then have a fire built on top of them. The trenches were dug perpendicular to a long slope, presumably to ensure even airflow. (Roberts pp 82-84)

It should be noted that although the pueblos were made of stone, they were not permanent, unchanging structures. It would not be unusual for the types of mortar used in one room to be different from the mortar used in another adjoining room. Windows may be filled in and fire pits may be covered over with a new plaster floor. Most surprisingly, pueblos were sometimes abandoned after only a short period of use. For example, by tree-ring dating, it is known that construction began on the 100 room site of Betatakin in 1267, and no further activity occurred after 1286, suggesting it was abandoned shortly thereafter, a span of little more then twenty years.

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Anasazi is their abrupt disappearance from certain areas at the end of the thirteenth century. At one time, it had been assumed that outside invaders had entered the region around this time and that the Anasazi were eventually driven out. Although current explanations give a higher prominence to environmental changes and cultural changes to the south, such as the new Kachina religion, it is clear from some aspects of Anasazi villages that raids were a significant concern. Some cliff dwellings are nestled half way up a 400-foot-high vertical canyon wall. There are late-thirteenth-century sites with as many as 400 rooms on the tops of mesas with near vertical sides and no water anywhere nearby. At one site, a notch has been cut out of a ridge to provide a line of sight between two such sites. Sand Canyon pueblo was surrounded by a defensive wall. (Roberts pp 139-150)

For whatever reason, around the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Colorado Plateau was deserted, with the Anasazi moving south and joining the other tribes of what we now call the Pueblo Indians. The pueblos are a diverse group. There are four different language families represented: Uto-aztecan (Hopi), Keresan (Eastern and Western), Tanoan (Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa), and Zuni (Language Isolate, possibly Penutian). There are cultural differences among the pueblos, but the differences are fewer than the similarities. The Hopi are believed to be the descendents of the Anasazi. The Zuni may be in part composed of descendents of the Mogollon, who were contemporary with the Anasazi, with a similar culture, but rectangular, rather than circular, kivas. This link is less definite than the Anasazi connection to the pueblos.

The construction being used when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century was very similar to that described above. Stone construction had been replaced to a large degree by adobe bricks, which means that it is important to keep the buildings plastered to keep moisture from weakening the adobe bricks, so this is done on a regular basis. Changes in the locations and overall layout of the villages appear more significant than changes in the methods used to build them. In general, the historical pueblos were more spread out than the pre-historic sites. When Coronado reached what is now San Felipe in 1540, he found two thriving pueblos linked by a bridge across the Rio Grande. It is difficult to determine the details of the layout of the pueblos at the time of Spanish arrival because one of the changes imposed by the Spanish was a new layout designed to give prominence to the church and other missionary buildings. The kivas were rebuilt in the new central courtyard and continued their function as the core of social and ceremonial life, but this disruption makes it difficult to separate the Pueblo layout from the Spanish influences.

The Spanish did not introduce much significant improvement in farming techniques, though they did bring many new crops and animals. The Pueblos already had irrigation, though the canals required regular maintenance to keep clear. There was no significant change in the overall architecture and techniques used in building the pueblos from the Spanish arrival, although the Spanish adopted aspects of the Pueblo design for their own settlements. (Dozier, p 65)

A striking feature of pueblos that is not conveyed well by a description of the archeological remains is the prevalence of various wooden constructions through the villages. The roof logs frequently extend from a building, providing a place to hang things from. If this were not enough, additional hangers would sometimes be inserted in the walls at convenient places. Before adopting mechanized techniques, the Pueblo Indians would winnow their wheat in a circular area surrounded by wood fences to keep out livestock. In some cases, there are platforms of wood supported only by posts in the corners, creating a covered outdoor area, the purpose of which is not apparent. Indoors, the Indians would suspend long poles from the ceiling or the walls to store things. For all their permanence, an inhabited pueblo has a certain haphazard look to it. (Houlihan and Houlihan)

The bridge at San Felipe has already been mentioned. As of 1900 (as it probably must be rebuilt periodically), the bridge consists of five wooden platforms looking more like birds' nests than what an American would first think of as a support for a bridge. Like the trade-off between building with stone and building with adobe, the bridge illustrates the conflict between the most long-lasting solution, and another solution that may be so much simpler that in the long run it is better to just continue rebuilding (as the Pueblo Indians do with their villages) than make the enormous investment for a "permanent structure".

There is a great deal of variety among the social and religious organization among the different pueblos. There are several different types of organizations to which a resident of the pueblo may belong. Some include clans, kachina cults, medicine associations, and hunt associations. The important divisions differ among the different pueblos, and this affects type and number of kivas that will be present. Among the Hopi and Zuni pueblos, there are several kivas, associated with kachina and dance groups. Among the Keresan and Jemez pueblos, the residents are divided into Squash and Turquoise divisions, with one kiva for each division. The Tewa pueblos have a single large and a single small kiva, the large associated with communal activities, and the small associated with activities relating to membership in either the Summer or Winter division. Taos has Northside and Southside groups, with three kivas for each, and an additional communal kiva (seven total). Isleta has one large house, and six additional ceremonial structures. The construction of the kivas in the pueblos varies: they may be either round or rectangular, and may be sunk into the ground as the Anasazi kivas were, entirely above ground, or partially below ground. In all cases, the entrance is on the roof, and women are forbidden from entering the kivas, except to bring food. The reasons for the different types of kivas is unknown -- the Indians are unwilling to discuss these religious secrets with whites. Though some of the uses of the kivas are known, to a non-Indian, the symbolism of the kiva is still as mysterious as the symbolism of the petroglyphs painted a thousand years ago.

In many cases, it is unclear the extent of the changes brought about by contact with the Spanish. It is believed that the Spanish introduced the conical outdoor ovens now prominent among the pueblos (Hewett and Dutton, p 87), especially since it is referred to by the Spanish name horno, but Dozier cites sixteenth-century sources for the pre-existence of outdoor wood ovens, which suggests that the Spanish innovation may have merely been a specific style (p 65). It is quite clear the method of firing pottery above ground using dried cow and sheep dung that is now used is a Spanish introduction. Previously, there were no large domesticated animals to supply the dung needed for this method of firing, which has entirely replaced the older trench method, now known only from archeological evidence.

It is also unclear exactly what the Pueblo Indians were building out of at the time of the Spanish arrival. Hewett and Dutton suggest that the adobe in use was a very primitive building material:

Castañeda describes how the Tiguex built their villages, saying that they worked together to build their villages, the women making the mixture and the walls while the men brought the wood and put it into place; that they had no lime but mixed ashes, coal, dirt, and water, and of this made round balls which they used when they were dry, instead of stones. (p 130)

Dozier, on the other hand, cites both archeological evidence and another Spaniard for the use of adobe bricks in pre-Spanish times, maintaining that the Spanish influence was limited to the introduction of better molds for making the bricks (p 65). There is no clear mention of whether the bricks were made purely of dried plaster, or whether they were reinforced with straw, as is usually the case for adobe.

A particularly interesting feature of modern-day pueblos is the results of mixing Spanish and Indian styles. With the Spanish came Christianity, and with Christianity came the need for churches. The churches built follow the formula of big, impressive buildings with a single large room, but they are executed in a uniquely puebloan fashion. At Isleta, the side walls of the church are supported by enormous conical buttresses, necessary because adobe is not a very strong material, and long, tall walls without any support between the endpoints would be far to fragile. The floor at Isleta was planked in wood by 1900, but it is questionable whether this would have been the case originally. Rising above the beehive buttresses and protruding roof beams are two wooden bell towers added in 1870. The mission church at Laguna Pueblo, built early in the eighteenth century, shows a style that is instantly recognizable as Spanish Southwest: an espadaña extending up from the face of the church with two bells in it combined with the blocky, rounded edge look of adobe construction.

In the twentieth century, the Pueblo Indians have been steadily adopting outside ways of doing things. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, one sees glass-paned windows set into the adobe buildings, and hung western style doors. Dozier attributes many of these changes to the effect of gradual conversion from subsistence farming to a cash economy.

Changes wrought by the nontraditional form of economy are evident in every facet of Pueblo life. The village has not disappeared, but it has lost many of its compact characteristics. Pueblo villages are still built predominantly of adobe, but the former apartmentlike family homes are beginning to give way to isolated, single-family dwellings. Multistoried houses are still characteristic of Taos, but in other pueblos only one or two such structures stand as lone remnants from the past. The less conservative villages are beginning new settlement areas where single-family structures have been patterned after American suburban homes, with a garage, yard, lawn, trees, and shrubbery. The interior and exterior walls of an increasing number of houses are finished with hard plaster ranging in color from tans to reds. New houses have three or four spacious rooms and ceilings are of milled lumber beams instead of the traditional round logs or vigas. Floors are frequently covered with linoleum, laid either on a packed earth floor or over pine boards. Electricity, as well as running water and plumbing facilities, has been brought into the majority of the pueblos.(pp 11-12)

It seems inevitable that the Pueblo Indians will eventually be assimilated into mainstream American culture, with the pueblos becoming only a place name with an interesting history. The impressive stone villages that they left behind, however, will retain their special place in history as the only standing dwellings from before European arrival in the United States.


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