'Leaving More Than Footprints': Modern Votive Offerings at Chaco Canyon Prehistoric Site

By Finn, Christine | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

'Leaving More Than Footprints': Modern Votive Offerings at Chaco Canyon Prehistoric Site


Finn, Christine, Antiquity


A 'heritage manager' who wishes a quiet and an orderly life may hope their heritage place is culturally dead; whatever meaning it once had, now it is an archaeological site, an ancient monument, a tourist attraction. But many sites are not dead. Chaco Canyon, the celebrated complex in the desert of the US Southwest, is of continuing value to Native Americans of its region; and the place has become a focus for New Age ceremony - itself in part inspired by Native American knowledge.

The title of this paper is inspired by the British Countryside Code's appeal to 'leave nothing but footprints' at a site of historical or environmental importance, and by a sign beside Casa Rinconada, a prehistoric structure within the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico, Southwestern USA, which states: 'Kivas are sacred places. Leave nothing behind.' Phil LoPiccolo, curator of the Chaco Collection at the National Park Service, has amassed a large number of recent artefacts which the site's managers have found there. For the purposes of this argument, the artefacts may be termed 'modern' in that they are anachronistic to the 'prehistoric' setting in which they are found. They range from crystals, burnt string and shells, to feather and wood constructions imitative of native American ritual objects. They continue to be curated and accessioned under LoPiccolo's initiative. A number were left by followers of New Age beliefs - in particular from the Harmonic Convergence gathering of August 1987. Are they 'junk' or archaeological objects of meaning and value? Frederick Baker's discussion of the Berlin Wall in ANTIQUITY (1993) shows how the meanings of that 20th-century edifice range from security system to sculpture, art canvas to historical monument: 'The Berlin Wall, in its construction, consumption and preservation, has been all of these things . . . fragments of the Wall will be heirlooms passed down through family genealogies, an unofficial personal alternative to public museums.' (Baker 1993: 731).

In New Mexico, LoPiccolo held that these items of contemporary life found by, or handed in to, Park Rangers, were of value as signifiers of continued use of the Chaco Canyon site. And while extrapolation from 20th-century to prehistoric behaviour is problematic, there is resemblance between the 'modern' and the artefacts gathered from traditional archaeological excavation.

The site

The prehistoric archaeological sites of southwest North America - notably in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah - draw visitors in the hundreds of thousands each year. The American novelist Willa Cather described the distinctive landscape through the eyes of a 19th-century European in Death comes for the Archbishop (1927: 82):

From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas . . . resembling vast cathedrals . . . the desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-coloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light.

In the extensive literature concerning the Anasazi - prehistoric pueblo - remains at Chaco Canyon, theories about the building boom from c. AD 900 to the pueblo's abandonment around AD 1140 move between trade and ritual (Judge et al. 1991) with the sacred kivas - the pit-like structures common to Anasazi sites - playing a major role. Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva at Chaco Canyon, is the focus for present-day ritual activity in a new use that most concerns the managers of the site, the US National Park Service (NPS) and the Native American Indians.

Chaco Canyon was brought to broad notice by the explorations of Lieutenant James Simpson, an American military surveyor, in 1849, and of Richard Wetherill, a trader who excavated with George Pepper on the Hyde Exploring Expedition from 1896 to 1899. It was taken into Federal care in 1907; the National Park Service officially established in 1916. …

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