A. Brockway's Ancient Southwest—Report #3

In Report #2 I used the great kiva at Chetro Ketl to illustrate the salient features of Chocoan great kivas, noting along the way that Chetro Ketl was about half a mile east of Pueblo Bonito. It occurred to me, as I began to think about Casa Rinconada, that it might be helpful to illustrate the relationship among the constructions in Chaco Canyon. (This map comes from one of the information leaflets about Chaco.) I doubt that I'll get around to writing about all, or even most, of them but...well, we'll see. In the instant, take a moment to locate Pueblo Bonito; Chetro Ketl; and Casa Rinconada, directly across Chaco Wash from Chetro Ketl. (Location in time is important, too—here's a time line for construction in Chaco Canyon.)

Casa Rinconada

Great kivas and great houses go together—generally. Casa Rinconada, however, does not appear to have a great house of its own. But Chaco Canyon, though it established the "norm" for great houses and kivas, remained, itself, one of a kind. It may be that Casa Rinconada was the "Great Kiva of Downtown Chaco," all of downtown Chaco from the end of the 11th century. The Chaco time line shows that it was constructed when Chaco culture was flourishing, the latter part of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth.

"Rinconada" is one of the Spanish words for "corner" so the kiva's name may mean something like "House in a Corner" (Frazier 1999:245). Despite its name, though, Casa Rinconada is not a house, at least not a dwelling; it is, as you can see, an immense kiva—63.5 feet in diameter. Features of a Chacoan great kiva are readily apparent: raised fire box in the center, two vaults on either side, bench around the circumference, niches in the wall, four seating pits for roof supports. The niches are particularly interesting. Twenty-eight of them—roughly a foot wide, high, and deep—are evenly spaced but six others, lower in the wall, are not symmetrically placed. Nothing was found in them and no one really knows what they were for.

Casa Rinconada
Pueblo Bonito in Center Background; Pueblo Alto on the Horizon

I take that back. At least one of the irregularly placed niches is supposed to have significance as the spot where sunlight at the solstices comes to rest through a window (if it's a window) in the northeast wall (visible at the upper far right of the picture above). There is a problem here, however. Gordon Vivian, who excavated Rinconada in the 1930s, also reconstructed parts of the wall (there may or may not have been a room behind the "window"). According to Gwinn Vivian, Gordon's son, his father was unaware of any solar alignment. (Vivian 2003).

A most unusual feature of Casa Rinconada is a subterranean passageway that leads from two antechambers on the north under the wall and masonry bench, rising through the kiva floor, a total of thirty-nine feet in all. It would have allowed ceremonial officiants to appear in the kiva's center without being seen to enter. Conversely, I suppose it would have allowed an expeditious exit. But, again, the specific usage of the passageway is unlikely ever to be known. The folks who came in to occupy Chaco Canyon in the late 12th or early 13th-centuries must have not been impressed with the possibilities of the "secret" passageway: they filled it in.

Note that the "main" entrance under which the lower entrance passes, is T-shaped, a characteristic also of the great kiva at Chetro Ketl (Report #2). Rinconada has two T-shaped entrances, opposite one another on a precise north-south alignment. Not all great kivas feature a T-shaped door (every one is different despite their many common elements) but the fact that these curious doors appear in great kivas gives weight to the supposition that they are symbolic rather than merely utilitarian. Adding to the symbolism is the precise north-south orientation of the entrances and the floor vaults at Casa Rinconada.

The only Chacoan great kiva to be totally reconstructed was initially excavated in February-March 1921 by Earl H. Morris under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History (Morris 1921). In light of the reality that far too many archeological expeditions are published long after the work is done—or not at all—the fact that Morris published his excavation of what he called "The House of the Great Kiva" in May of the same year is little short of astounding. In the introduction to his report, Morris explained that, though work at Aztec Ruins had been going on since 1916, attention to the great kiva had been avoided because of the amount of labor involved. Then "the accidental discovery of supplementary chambers concealed beneath the debris which formed the rim of the crater, completely altered the point of view, because it indicated the presence of a building markedly different from the ordinary kiva."

In a later Report I will discuss Aztec Ruins itself in some detail. But here I want to focus specifically on Chacoan great kivas as a type. No one should be surprised, however, that Aztec's great kiva has unique features (especially Morris' "supplementary chambers"), nor that their functions should be puzzling.

Both what I have come to consider normative characteristics of Chacoan great kivas and those unique to Aztec are evident in this aerial photograph made after the excavation was complete but before reconstruction had begun. The size of the building is indicated by the figure standing in the antechamber and the one standing on a bench within the kiva itself. Morris recorded the diameter at floor level as "41 feet 3½ inches, and 3 feet above the floor, 48 feet 3½ inches" (Morris 1921:5). The latter measurement was taken above the benches.

Normative Chacoan features— floor vaults, raised fire pit (Morris called it the "fire altar"), circumference benches, seating pits—leap to our attention. But so do the fifteen "supplementary chambers," which surround the submerged kiva proper but on surface level. Although the great kivas in Chaco Canyon and elsewhere have various numbers and shapes of peripheral rooms, none so far discovered are surrounded with them as is the Aztec kiva.

In 1934 Earl Morris returned to Aztec and supervised the reconstruction of the "House of the Great Kiva" based on his findings of thirteen years before. It was the kind of project that probably will not be undertaken again, not because of the cost—which in 1934 came to $12,450.76 (Lister & Lister 1990: ch. 7, tbl 7.2)—but because present archeological practice mandates study and preservation that leaves ruins as ruins that may be studied anew in later years.

Nevertheless, we can be grateful that Morris was both able and permitted to restore the Aztec great kiva, though the reconstruction is, without doubt, incorrect in particulars (for instance, the height of the roof may have been lower than Morris figured). Still and all, it provides a "feel" for these structures that can be found nowhere else.

Not all great kivas are round, even if they are Chacoan great kivas—or so it would seem if Fire Temple can be said to have been Chacoan. Certainly, apart from its rectangular shape, it has some of the singular features of Chacoan great kivas: raised firepit, floor vaults, bench, niches (not visible in the photo). Unlike Casa Rinconada (which is situated in the open) or the great kiva at Aztec Ruins (which is in a great house plaza), Fire Temple sits in a rock shelter twenty-five feet above the floor of a canyon, Fewkes Canyon at Mesa Verde National Park.

Fire Temple was excavated (and named) by Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Bureau of American Ethnology in the summer of 1920. Virtually nothing was done to or with it until 1951, when Francis Cassidy undertook to clean it and document its features (Cassidy 1965). Today it can be seen from the canyon rim but not visited by the public.

Cassidy believed that the shape of Fire Temple was determined by its position on the side of the canyon. But why would a Chacoan great house be built where it couldn't be round? Perhaps the very fact that it is at Mesa Verde is sufficient for an explanation. Dates: Casa Rinconada was built in the last part of the 11th century. The great kiva at Aztec Ruins was constructed in the first half of the 12th century. And Fire Temple dates from the middle or end of the 13th century. Aztec is Chacoan through and through. If the great kiva there were magically transported to Chaco Canyon it would be right at home. Not so Fire Temple. Not only was it built late in Anasazi history but it was built by people who could have been influenced only by the memory of Chaco. "The relationship between Chacoans and Mesa Verdeans is not clear at this time and presents a need for further research" (Vivian & Hilpert 2002:163)