A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By ANDREW CURRY
Monday, February 13, 2017
The oft-told tale of the Roman Empire’s expansion is one of violent conquest—its ever-widening borders pushed forward at sword point by Roman legions. Some of the bloodiest military engagements pitted Rome against the inhabitants of Germania, who are described by contemporary sources of the time as a loose confederation of uncivilized, quarrelsome, warlike, ferocious tribes to the north. The conventional wisdom goes that after a decades-long attempt to conquer the region east of the Rhine River finally failed in A.D. 9, Rome gave up on the Germans entirely. But what if there’s more to it than that?
In the 1980s, the chance discovery of sherds of Roman-style pottery on a farm in the Lahn Valley near Frankfurt led archaeologists and historians at the German Archaeological Institute’s Romano-Germanic Commission to begin excavations. What they uncovered was a Roman site they call Waldgirmes, after a nearby modern town. The ancient name is unknown. When German Archaeological Institute archaeologist Gabriele Rasbach started working at the site in 1993, she and her colleagues assumed they had found a military installation. Ground-penetrating radar surveys revealed carefully planned streets, the foundations of wooden buildings, and postholes that are evidence of 10-foot-tall timber walls. “It was clearly just like a Roman military camp,” says archaeologist Siegmar von Schnurbein, who was the director of the commission during the Waldgirmes excavation.
Although the discoveries were exciting, they were not necessarily surprising. The Roman army, fresh from its conquest of Gaul and bent on further dominion, had been active all across Germany, and the distinctive straight lines of Roman military camps are familiar to German archaeologists. “The military interpretation here is so strong that at first we didn’t think it could be anything else,” Rasbach says. As the Waldgirmes excavations progressed, though, archaeologists began to question their initial assumptions. “We found buildings that had nothing to do with the military,” says von Schnurbein, “and we still haven’t found anything resembling a barracks.”
The excavators began to realize that the site might be something else entirely. As they dug over the course of nearly 15 years, they uncovered specialty workshops for ceramics and smithing, and administrative buildings made of local stone and timber from the thick forests nearby. They found evidence of some Roman-style residences with open porticos in front, unlike the longhouse-style buildings preferred by the locals, as well as other hallmarks of a typical Roman town, including a central public space, or forum, and a large administrative building called a basilica. “There’s actually not a single military building inside the walls,” says Rasbach. What they had uncovered was a carefully planned civilian settlement.
Artifacts from the site further reinforced the identification of Waldgirmes as a town. Of the hundreds of objects archaeologists have excavated, just five are military in nature, including a few broken spear points and shield nails that could be associated with the army. When taken together, the artifacts and structures persuaded researchers that they were dealing with an entirely novel phenomenon: a new Roman city established from scratch in the middle of a potential province. From the forum to workshops, houses, and water and sewage systems—from which sections of lead pipe have been recovered—to its sturdy outer walls enclosing 20 acres, Waldgirmes had everything a provincial capital needed. “It’s the first time we can see how Rome founded a city,” says von Schnurbein. “You can’t see that anywhere else.”
Because the site was built predominantly of wood, archaeologists have been able to establish precise dates using dendrochronology, which uses tree rings as a time stamp. They determined that construction at Waldgirmes began around 4 B.C., not long after Roman troops reached the Elbe River, pushing the empire’s range deep into Germany. Waldgirmes’ architecture and the absence of a military presence suggest a relationship between Romans and Germans that runs against both the ancient and modern versions of the accepted story. “The fact that a city was founded in the Lahn Valley without a major military presence means there was a different political situation in the region,” von Schnurbein says—that is, different from what most historians have assumed. He concludes, “The Romans thought the Germans were loyal enough that they could build a civilian settlement here.”
The Romans’ motivation in establishing Waldgirmes, at least at first, may have been trade. Ample pottery fragments provide evidence of relationships with provinces of the Roman Empire. The majority of the pottery is turned on potter’s wheels in the Roman style, and was probably imported from Gaul or Roman settlements north of the Alps. But 18 percent of the broken pots were local German ware, suggesting that Waldgirmes’ residents also traded with their barbarian neighbors. Ordinarily, at Roman military sites in Germany, local pottery makes up a mere tenth of a percent of the total. In addition to ceramics, silver pins and glass beads uncovered at the site might have been sold by Roman merchants who brought them from home. But von Schnurbein believes relations might have encompassed more than trade. “There’s plenty of evidence Germans might have lived in Waldgirmes,” he says, citing typical German jewelry found there and variations in house foundation styles at the site, reflecting both Roman and German styles. “It’s not just trade goods and ceramics, but signs the locals were at home there, or lived right nearby and had intensive contact.”
According to Rasbach, the most intriguing finds were fragments of bronze that turned up as excavators dug deeper into the field. The first, just half an inch long, was discovered in 1994. Over the years, dozens more followed—some tiny and some big enough to be recognizable as belonging to a large sculpture. “At first, we thought it was bronze recycled from somewhere else,” Rasbach says, “but we kept finding parts of a statue—a fragment of a human foot, and then a section of horse armor.” Eventually they had more than 160 pieces of metal, weighing 48.5 pounds in all. Most were tiny splinters, but the largest was the size of a small paperback book. As the team excavated the settlement’s forum, where the majority of the bronze was recovered, the truth behind the fragments began to become clearer. In the middle of this public square, they found the shattered remnants of five limestone pediments in corresponding nine-by-six-foot pits. The pediments’ dimensions made them large enough to showcase life-size statues of mounted riders, and the stone had been prepared with the holes and sockets Romans sculptors usually used to mount such statuary. The pediments were a logistical accomplishment in and of themselves. “The limestone was from France, brought to Wald-girmes by river,” Rasbach says. Rasbach and her team thought the chances of recovering one of the statues intact were extremely slim. In the ancient world, metal was an especially valuable commodity. A large bronze statue would most likely have been smashed and recycled into weapons or armor.
In 2009, the team decided to excavate a well that had been discovered in the center of the settlement. It was to be the project’s last major phase. The well’s shaft was an estimated 20 feet deep, and, in order to prevent it from collapsing as they dug, they came at the structure from the side by creating a downward-slanting pit. When they reached what they thought was the bottom, it turned out the well was significantly deeper than they had envisaged. Working far into autumn, the team kept digging until, finally, nearly 33 feet below the surface, they found a 265-gallon, 63-by-39-inch wooden wine cask, placed there two millennia ago to hold the bottom of the well open. The barrel’s wooden slats had been preserved by the cold, wet, anaerobic conditions below the surface. The cask was packed like a junk shop, its contents a reflection of the settlement’s last days. At the top was a bronze shoe, apparently a fragment of one of the mounted statues. Fence posts, a shovel, an ox yoke, a well cover, wooden buckets, tool handles, and sticks had also been tossed into the well, along with eight heavy millstones. They, like the limestone pediments, had been imported from hundreds of miles away, this time from near modern-day Aachen to the northwest. “The millstones were virtually unused,” says Rasbach, evidence of the settlement’s short lifespan.
Rasbach and her team were astounded to find a life-size bronze horse’s head wedged underneath the millstones. As excavators worked, the copper salts in the bronze reacted with air for the first time in nearly 2,000 years and briefly turned the metal purple. The head was barely dented, despite the millstones that had sat on top of it. “The well must have had water in it that let the millstones float down gently,” Rasbach says. The head had probably been part of a life-size sculpture of a mounted emperor that stood as the centerpiece of the settlement’s forum on top of one of the five limestone pedestals.
Based on the horse head’s weight, archaeologists estimate the complete statue weighed nearly 900 pounds. Subsequent restoration work revealed that it was entirely covered in gold leaf, which must have made a tremendous impression on anyone who saw it. According to von Schnurbein, the presence of such imposing statues is another clue to the settlement’s intended role as a provincial capital. To the Romans, images, particularly imperial ones, were more than symbols. “A picture or image of the emperor meant something very different than it would today. It meant he was actually there, actually present,” says von Schnurbein. “It shows Rome was willing to go all out to demonstrate that Rome rules here. Augustus, who was emperor at the time, rules here.”
The situation in Waldgirmes must have seemed quite stable, says archaeologist Salvatore Ortisi of the University of Osnabrück. “You can see the area was on its way to becoming a regular Roman province,” he says. “The Romans must have felt in control of the area to build something like this settlement.” Cooperation and diplomacy must have seemed the right road to take.
Whatever sense of security and first steps toward peaceful relations with the German tribes the Romans may have felt they achieved when they settled Waldgirmes, that state of affairs was short-lived, their sense of control badly misplaced. Evidence suggests that something significant happened at Waldgirmes in the fall or winter of A.D. 9, a date that coincides with a German battle fought 155 miles to the north. Now known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the clash was the Roman Empire’s most humiliating defeat. In response to raids by rebellious German tribes, the ambitious and arrogant Roman general Quintilius Varus, fresh from crushing a rebellion in Judea, led three legions north to the forests of Germany. An ambush by well-organized German warriors resulted in the total annihilation of Varus’ forces in a swamp near the modern city of Osnabrück. The 15,000-strong army’s shocking defeat at the hands of barbarians threw the empire into a crisis of confidence. It also seems to have marked the beginning of the end for Waldgirmes. Tree-ring analysis of a ladder found tossed in the well, for example, shows that it was made in the fall or winter of A.D. 9. Says Rasbach, “That we can discuss, almost to the month, when all this happened is amazing.”
Rasbach thinks the settlement’s final days might have gone something like this: After word of the Teutoburg slaughter reached Waldgirmes, the hundreds of Romans there, who were mostly craftsmen, traders, and administrators, rather than armed legionaries, realized Germany was no longer friendly territory.
What happened next is murky and a number of interpretations are possible. One thing, however, is quite clear—the forum’s magnificent statues were pulled from their pedestals and violently dismantled, the emperor’s image smashed, and the horse’s head tossed into the well. Rasbach and her collaborators think, because bits of bronze statue were found underneath later construction, that the destruction of the statues might have been a dramatic effort to placate Wald-girmes’ German neighbors and allow the settlement to survive deep in suddenly hostile territory. Von Schnurbein, on the other hand, thinks that the horse head may have been spared because of its symbolic importance to the locals. “In Germanic areas, there’s evidence for horse sacrifices, especially in bogs,” he says. “The destruction was a major symbolic act—30 pounds of valuable bronze was tossed in the water, and then covered with millstones.” The golden horse, in other words, may have stood in for a real horse in a ritual water sacrifice.
The Teutoburg slaughter sealed the settlement’s fate. Archaeologists have found no coins dated after A.D. 9, and within a few years after the battle, Waldgirmes’ Roman residents seem to have packed up and left, abandoning the city, its forum, and its shattered statues. “There are no mass graves or signs of fighting in the streets,” says Ortisi. “From what we can tell, the evacuation was planned.”
Ultimately, Waldgirmes was put to the torch. Rasbach thinks the departing Romans incinerated the settlement in order to leave nothing behind for vengeful German tribesmen. “In the final fire, everything was wiped out, ground down to the earth,” Rasbach says. “You can see burning along the entire wall.”
The German victory over Varus ended Roman expansion east of the Rhine for good. After the battle, the Romans abandoned the region, pulling troops back to the Rhine and Danube Rivers. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and its aftermath are amply documented. Even the reaction of the emperor Augustus, said to have cried “Varus, give me back my legions!” when he received news of the defeat, is recorded in the ancient Roman historian Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars. Yet there are no direct mentions of Waldgirmes in Roman histories. Perhaps the failure to make Germania a new province was such a political embarrassment that all mention of the settlement was wiped from the history books. Or maybe written records of the outpost were lost, leaving historians a far more martial impression of Rome’s attitude toward its barbarian neighbors to the north.
Von Schnurbein, however, says careful readers of the classics might see a hint of Waldgirmes’ existence in the works of Cassius Dio, a Greek chronicler who wrote around A.D. 200: “The Romans were holding portions of [Germania]...and soldiers of theirs were wintering there and cities were being founded. The barbarians were adapting themselves to Roman ways, were becoming accustomed to hold markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblages.”
As German archaeologists excavated military camp after military camp in the twentieth century, Cassius Dio’s version of events—particularly the idea that cities were being founded—was dismissed as wishful thinking or anti-Varus propaganda designed to place all the blame for the loss of a once-promising province at the general’s feet. “Everyone assumed Cassius Dio was exaggerating,” von Schnurbein says, “but Waldgirmes shows that, despite what the historical sources say, the Romans were building cities in Germania.”
Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By LIZZIE WADE
Monday, March 13, 2017
On a sweltering day in 1862 at the foot of the Tuxtla Mountains in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a farmworker was clearing a cornfield when he hit something hard and smooth lodged in the earth. He thought it was the rounded base of an iron cauldron buried upside down, and, it being the 1860s, he reported the find to the owner of the hacienda where he worked. The farmworker’s boss told him to dig up the cauldron immediately and bring it to him. As the farmworker labored to uncover the object, he realized he had found not a large iron bowl, but a gargantuan stone sculpture with a pair of glaring eyes, a broad nose, and a downturned mouth. What had appeared to be the base of a cauldron was actually the top of a helmet worn by the glowering figure. What the farmworker had unearthed was a colossal Olmec head, one of the first clues to the existence of that ancient culture.
Over the next century and a half, archaeologists would uncover many more of these heads along the Mexican Gulf Coast and discover the ancient cities where they were carved. The site of that first fateful discovery became known as Tres Zapotes, after a type of fruit tree common in the area. Along with the sites of San Lorenzo and La Venta, Tres Zapotes was one of the great capitals of the Olmec culture, which emerged by 1200 B.C. as one of the first societies in Mesoamerica organized into a complex social and political hierarchy.
The key to the Olmecs’ rise appears to have been a strong, centralized monarchy. The colossal heads, each one depicting a particular individual, are likely portraits of the Olmec kings who ruled from ornate palaces at San Lorenzo and La Venta. Even though Tres Zapotes yielded the earliest evidence for Olmec kingship, 20 years of survey and excavations there suggest that, at its height, the city adopted a very different form of government, one in which power was shared among multiple factions. Further, while other Olmec capitals lasted between 300 and 500 years, Tres Zapotes managed to survive for nearly two millennia. The city, therefore, may have weathered intense cultural and political shifts not by doubling down on traditional Olmec monarchy, but by distributing power among several groups that learned to work together. According to University of Kentucky archaeologist Christopher Pool, who has spent his career excavating the city, that cooperative rule may have helped Tres Zapotes endure for centuries after the rest of Olmec society collapsed.
When Pool arrived at Tres Zapotes in 1996, he was the first archaeologist in over 40 years to take a serious interest in the site. Tres Zapotes had been recognized as an important Olmec center since shortly after the discovery of the colossal head, and in the decades to follow it had yielded a plethora of intricate figurines and stone monuments, including another colossal head. But important details of the site’s history remained unknown, including its size and how long it had been occupied. Pool set out to map the full extent of the ancient city, survey the ceramics he found scattered across the ground, and excavate the most compelling areas.
Battling dense fields of sugarcane, swarms of mosquitoes, and the occasional poisonous snake, Pool painstakingly reconstructed the layout of Tres Zapotes and how it had changed over time, and began to be able to compare it to the other great Olmec capitals. Between 1000 and 400 B.C., in a period called the Middle Formative, Tres Zapotes was a minor regional center covering around 200 acres. At the time, La Venta and its all-powerful king dominated the Olmec heartland. Like its predecessor San Lorenzo, which flourished between 1200 and 900 B.C., La Venta was organized around a single dominant plaza featuring administrative buildings, elaborate monuments, and elite residences. The kings whose likenesses are memorialized by the colossal heads lived in palaces that brimmed with precious exotic goods, such as greenstone imported from Guatemala and polished iron-ore mirrors from Oaxaca and Chiapas. Their subjects, meanwhile, lived in modest households arrayed around the central plaza. The concentration of wealth and power in the center of the city, as well as art that glorified individual rulers, suggests that “the Olmecs had a cult of the ruler,” says Barbara Stark, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who works on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.
During La Venta’s height, Tres Zapotes operated under a similar model. As the nineteenth-century farmworker was the first to discover, it too had rulers represented by colossal stone heads. Despite being a relatively small city, it was also organized around a dominant central plaza. Elite burials discovered by Pool were filled with grave goods such as ceramic goblets and jade beads fashioned into jewelry. Another burial Pool uncovered contained no objects at all, hinting at possible social or class differences within the city’s population at that time. While Pool doubts that Tres Zapotes was under La Venta’s direct control during the Middle Formative period, it was clearly part of the same cultural and political tradition.
Around 400 B.C., La Venta abruptly collapsed. Archaeologists still aren’t sure why, but they have found evidence that traders stopped bringing luxury goods into the city. “A lot of [the Olmec rulers’] authority was supported by great displays of exotic wealth,” Pool says. When access to those goods was cut off, the resulting loss of status could have destabilized the monarchy’s control. Evidence shows that the city was quickly abandoned, and, absent any mass graves or other signs of violence, it seems that people likely poured out of the once-grand capital, looking for a new place to call home.
Researchers believe that it’s possible many of them moved to Tres Zapotes, 60 miles to the west. The city quickly expanded, covering 1,200 acres by the beginning of the Late Formative, shortly after 400 B.C. As he mapped the site’s growth, Pool discovered that the newly dominant Tres Zapotes didn’t look much like its predecessors, San Lorenzo and La Venta. They had both been organized around one outsized and opulent central plaza. In Tres Zapotes, however, Pool identified four separate plazas evenly spaced throughout the city, each about half a mile apart and ranging from about four to nine acres in size. “No one of these plaza groups is dramatically larger than the others,” Pool says. He also discovered that their layouts are nearly identical. Each has a temple pyramid on its west side, a long platform along its north edge, and a low platform set on an east-west line through its middle. According to John Clark, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University who studies the Formative period, “The site pattern is completely different from anything else I know for an Olmec site.” It’s so different, in fact, that archaeologists have dubbed the Late Formative culture at Tres Zapotes “epi-Olmec.”
Pool wondered if the seat of power in Tres Zapotes had moved from plaza to plaza over time, perhaps as the various groups jockeyed for control. But when he radiocarbon dated material from middens behind each plaza’s long mound, he discovered that they had all been occupied at the same time, from about 400 B.C. to A.D. 1. The ceramics Pool recovered from the different plazas were similar in style and technique, providing more evidence that they were occupied simultaneously—and that no one group dominated the others. Pool realized he wasn’t looking at signs of political conflict. He was looking at signs of political cooperation. “There was a change in political organization from one that was very centralized, very focused on the ruler,” he says, “to one that shared power among several factions.”
Pool is careful to point out that Tres Zapotes wasn’t a democracy as we think of it today. “I’m not saying that everybody in this society was getting together and agreeing on things,” he says. “It may have been more like an oligarchy.” But there are signs that Tres Zapotes may have been more equitable than traditional Olmec capitals. For instance, the elites in the plazas and the commoners who lived outside of them all used similar styles of pottery. “Everyone pretty much has the same range of stuff,” says Pool. He has discovered that, unlike at La Venta and San Lorenzo, the leaders of Tres Zapotes didn’t import exotic goods, and so weren’t reliant on trade networks. Craft workshops attached to the plazas show that the people at Tres Zapotes made ceramics and obsidian tools locally. “All that,” says Pool, “suggests a more flattened kind of sociopolitical hierarchy than you see elsewhere.”
“With the declining importance of the nobility and other kinds of elites, you get more economic equality,” says Richard Blanton, an anthropologist at Purdue University who was among the first to propose that such societies may have existed in Mesoamerica. Cooperative governments also tend to produce different kinds of art than monarchies, Blanton says. Rather than monuments and tombs that glorify individual rulers, polities with shared power tend to separate the idea of authority from any particular person. That’s what Pool sees at Tres Zapotes. The most elaborate monument he’s found from the Late Formative period shows a ruler emerging out of the cleft brow of a monster to connect the underworld, the earth, and the sky. “This reasonably represents the ruler as the axis mundi, or the central axis of the earth,” says Pool. This is a common theme in Olmec iconography. But unlike earlier Olmec art, including the colossal heads, the carving is not naturalistic and doesn’t seem to represent a particular ruler. “The focus seems to be less on the person than it does on the office,” Pool says. At Tres Zapotes, the idea of rulership, rather than an actual monarch, was what mattered.
Pool can’t say exactly why the people of Tres Zapotes first decided to experiment with a shared power model. Perhaps the collapse of trade routes doomed the monarchy at La Venta and undermined that form of authority. Or maybe the mass migration into the city that researchers have posited required that the factions cooperate to build a new, stable home. But whatever the cause, Pool says, this unprecedented level of cooperation in an Olmec city helped it outlast every other outpost of its culture. “What Tres Zapotes has shown is that even though there were Olmec centers that collapsed, Olmec culture also evolved,” Pool says. Archaeologists today may define this change as epi-Olmec, but for the people living through it, the transition was smooth and continuous. “The Olmec culture didn’t just vanish overnight,” Clark agrees. At Tres Zapotes, he says, “They’re hanging on and modifying it and trying to save it.”
Even as Tres Zapotes tried out a new form of government, it made room for symbols of the past: Two colossal heads, as well as other pieces of older, more authoritarian Olmec art, occupied prominent places in plazas throughout the city’s height. “There are aspects of their culture that [the epi-Olmecs] are trying to hold onto,” Pool says. The older heads “are essentially royal ancestors that provide a legitimate claim to authority”—even though that authority was now shared among several different groups.
This system of cooperative government worked for a long time—about 700 years. “But eventually,” Pool says, “it just falls apart.” Between A.D. 1 and 300, shared power slowly gave way to individual rule again. The once-standardized plazas were built over with new architectural styles and layouts, each taking on a discrete form and asserting its individuality rather than projecting harmony and cooperation. Carved stone monuments dating to around the first century A.D. found just outside Tres Zapotes show a standing figure with another person sitting in front of him, a resurgence of the artistic themes of individual ruler and subject. Over the next several centuries, Tres Zapotes slowly declined and the Gulf Coast’s cultural center of gravity shifted toward sites in central Veracruz. Meanwhile, the monarchy-obsessed Maya rose to dominate lands farther south. After 2,000 years of adaptation and survival, Tres Zapotes slowly faded into obscurity and was eventually abandoned.
Pool still doesn’t know why the city gave up on its experiment in shared governance. He does speculate that it’s possible that Tres Zapotes’ power model splintered as its regional dominance declined. Pool is sure, however, that the transition wasn’t sudden, as with San Lorenzo or La Venta. According to Pool, when the end came for Tres Zapotes, it was “a soft landing.”
The surprising thing is not that Tres Zapotes’ era of shared power came to an end, says Blanton. It’s that it survived for as long as it did. “It is very difficult to build and sustain these more cooperative kinds of polities,” he says. “Autocracy is always an alternative.” Tres Zapotes may have ended as it began: with a king. But for nearly 700 years in between, it tried something different. Monarchy gave way to cooperation, wealth became more evenly distributed, and an entire culture, for a time, redefined what government and leadership could mean.
Lizzie Wade is a journalist based in Mexico City.
By ERIC A. POWELL
Monday, February 13, 2017
An isolated volcanic outcropping, Black Mesa rises high above the floodplain of northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. The land it’s on belongs to the people of San Ildefonso Pueblo, whose ancestors have farmed near the base of the mesa since at least A.D. 1300. A natural fortress, Black Mesa was the scene of dramatic events in 1694, when Pueblo warriors encamped on its summit withstood a months-long Spanish siege. That conflict was the culmination of what is known today as the Pueblo Revolt, an indigenous uprising that began on August 10, 1680. On that date, Pueblo warriors from 19 separate villages carried out a coordinated attack on Spanish missionaries and colonists across New Mexico. Within a few days, they had driven virtually all Spaniards out of the province. For the next decade, apart from occasional Spanish military expeditions, the Native American peoples of New Mexico enjoyed total independence. “The Revolt period is still so important to Pueblo identity,” says University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Joseph Aguilar, a member of San Ildefonso Pueblo. “In many ways it shaped the world we live in today.”
Historians have relied primarily on Spanish accounts to understand the period, but recently, archaeologists have begun to uncover a richer picture of Pueblo life in the aftermath of what some scholars call the “first American revolution.” Working closely with Pueblo communities to study sites established after the Revolt, archaeologists have found evidence for tremendous change in Pueblo society as well as widespread revival of traditions that had been suppressed by the Spanish. A major focus of this recent research has been on defensive villages built on mesa tops during the 14 years of Pueblo independence. Aguilar is the latest archaeologist to explore one of these sites and is now working at Black Mesa, mapping the Revolt-era settlement there and seeking to understand the role the site played when Spanish forces eventually returned to New Mexico. “We’re finding the Spanish accounts don’t always match up with what we see on the ground,” says Aguilar. “The historical documents are an important resource, but archaeology can help give us the native perspective on what happened.”
The Pueblo Revolt came after nearly 100 years of Spanish rule in the Southwest. Spaniards first colonized New Mexico in 1591, when a group led by Governor Juan de Oñate established settlements among the Pueblo farmers living in the northern Rio Grande Valley. The Pueblo peoples shared an agricultural way of life, but were linguistically and culturally diverse. They inhabited upward of 90 villages, known as pueblos.
In New Mexico, as they did elsewhere in the New World, Spanish authorities introduced the encomienda and repartimiento systems, in which Native Americans paid heavy taxes to the government and were obligated to work for Spanish colonists. Franciscan missionaries were among those who initially settled the province, and they cracked down on traditional religious practices, ordering the Pueblo people to build churches in their villages and installing bells that became a hated symbol of colonialism. Their presence was intended to impose a Spanish and Christian conception of time. In some cases natives were also forced into new villages that were organized into European-style grids, rather than the contiguous groupings of rooms known as room blocks of a traditional pueblo.
As the colony’s European population grew, the number of indigenous people began to decline, in part because of a series of epidemics and famines. Exact figures are hard to come by, but recent estimates put the native population of the Pueblo world at the onset of Spanish rule at around 100,000. By 1680, that number was down to 30,000, and the Spanish population stood at 4,000. Discontent grew among the Pueblo, and in 1678, a group of some 70 religious practitioners from a number of native villages went to the capital of Santa Fe to petition the governor to loosen restrictions. He reacted by jailing them all and hanging the leaders. Some committed suicide while in jail, though most were eventually released. One of those was a man known to history as Popé, an important leader from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. After his release, Popé fled to Taos, the northernmost Pueblo village, where he worked with other Pueblo leaders to plot a rebellion against the Spanish.
On Popé’s orders, messengers were sent out to all the Pueblo villages carrying cords with knots in them that were meant to count down the days until the uprising. When two of those messengers were caught south of Santa Fe and executed on August 9, 1680, Pueblo leaders decided to begin the rebellion ahead of schedule. Across the Pueblo world warriors attacked Spanish missions and ranches. In all, 21 priests and 401 Spanish settlers were killed. The survivors fled south to El Paso del Norte, today the Mexican city of Juárez.
During the next 12 years, the Pueblo world changed profoundly. Popé and other leaders tried to stamp out all vestiges of Spanish life, and urged people to return to their traditional ways. Many villages were abandoned, and there was a great deal of movement among communities. According to Spanish sources, violence broke out between those who supported the rebellion and native converts who remained loyal to the Catholic Church.
When a Spanish force returned to New Mexico temporarily in 1692, it did not encounter overt hostilities. The future governor of New Mexico, Diego de Vargas, made a tour of the Pueblo villages and reclaimed the province for the king of Spain before returning south to Mexico, an episode known as the “Bloodless Reconquest.” But when Vargas came back to New Mexico in 1694 with a larger army and a group of colonists, he found that many of the Pueblo living in new villages on defensible mesas still resisted Spanish rule, and the reconquest became anything but bloodless.
The first archaeologists to work in the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concentrated on the ruins of Spanish missions. “Those early archaeologists actually excavated a number of sites important to understanding the Pueblo Revolt,” says Brown University archaeologist Robert Preucel, “but they were more interested in prehistoric sites, and the Revolt was never an explicit focus of research.” That period remained the province of historians until the early 1990s, when greater cooperation between Native Americans and archaeologists made work at sensitive sites such as the mesa-top villages possible. At Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico, University of Arizona archaeologist T.J. Ferguson was the first to apply modern archaeological techniques to a Pueblo Revolt–era site. With the permission of the Zuni, he surveyed a village on Dowa Yalanne, or “Corn Mountain,” a mesa on the Zuni reservation.
Before the Revolt, the Zuni were spread out among as many as six villages. Afterward, all the Zuni moved into newly constructed homes on Dowa Yalanne, which would have been nearly impregnable. Ferguson found that the arrangement of dwellings on the mesa top departed significantly from earlier villages. While those villages were typically made up of just a few room blocks, on Dowa Yalanne there were two large room blocks and multiple medium and small room blocks, likely to accommodate a number of groups occupying the mesa. While the different people lived in separate areas, Ferguson notes that the village was structured around open spaces that would have fostered communication among them. “This was a fundamental reorganization of their society,” says Ferguson. “They had to unify households, clans, and priesthoods, so social interaction was important.” Unlike other mesa-top villages constructed in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt, Dowa Yalanne was never besieged. Once the Spanish returned, the Zuni people moved off the mesa and occupied a single pre-Revolt village, now known as Zuni Pueblo.
Ferguson notes that each Pueblo group experienced the Revolt differently. At Zuni, the people treated the various sacred Christian objects such as chalices and bibles with respect. There is even a strong oral tradition that suggests they spared the life of the mission priest, known as Father Gray Robe. At least 18 versions of the story have been recorded, and it seems likely the priest was adopted into the tribe and lived out the rest of his days with the Zuni.
In 1996, Preucel began working with the people of Cochiti Pueblo, which is east of Zuni in the northern Rio Grande Valley. After the Revolt, their ancestors built a mesa-top village now known as Hanat Kotyiti, or “Old Cochiti.” Preucel believes the structure of the village shows they moved there not just for defensive purposes, but to help reimagine their way of life. “The Pueblo leaders were proselytizing in the aftermath of the Revolt, trying to convince people that after kicking out Spanish authority, they needed to live by the laws of the ancestors,” says Preucel. “So they left the mission villages, which were polluted, and built these mesa-top villages.” Hanat Kotyiti, with six-foot-high walls, was organized around two plazas with underground chambers known as kivas, an ancient arrangement with strong ties to the dual social structure that existed in many Pueblo societies before the arrival of the Spanish. Even today, Cochiti is organized into Pumpkin and Turquoise paternal lineages, known as moieties. Preucel believes the dual plaza arrangement at Hanat Kotyiti expressed a return to this ancient form of social organization and reflected the mythical White House, an ancestral Cochiti village where people and the spirits known as katsinam (singular katsina) lived together in harmony.
In addition to surveying the village’s architecture, Preucel and his colleagues studied pottery collected during early excavations of the site. Here, too, they found evidence of a return to ancient traditions. A double-headed key design element decorated much of the pottery collected from Hanat Kotyiti. This ancient motif, which is thought to represent harmony, may have been a strong visual signal of a return to tradition. New motifs and novel layouts of designs on other pottery may have signaled a break with the recent mission past. Preucel also found pottery made at pueblos farther north that historical sources maintain were at war with Cochiti during the Revolt era, suggesting there may have been close trading ties between the two groups, or that some of these other Pueblo may have even lived at Hanat Kotyiti. “In an extreme situation, people have to dig deep into larger social networks,” says Preucel. “You could even have people from different linguistic groups living there. We sometimes fixate on villages being discrete peoples, but in fact, especially during this period, villages were probably more diverse than we think.”
The experiment at Hanat Kotyiti came to a violent end. It was the first of the mesa-top villages to be seized by Vargas in 1694. After taking the village, Vargas set fire to stored corn, which destroyed the pueblo. “You can still see some rooms that are completely reddened by the flames,” says Preucel. A recent wildfire exposed sections of the site previously obscured by vegetation. Last summer, Preucel documented newly uncovered areas of the pueblo, including entryways that had been barricaded with stones. “That tells us they were likely trying to fortify it against the Spaniards during the final assault,” says Preucel. In addition to killing 21 warriors, the Spaniards captured 342. The fall of Hanat Kotyiti was the beginning of the bloody reconquest.
Some 30 miles west of Cochiti is today’s Jemez Pueblo, where Harvard archaeologist Matthew Liebmann has studied the remains of three Revolt-era villages. In contrast to the people of Zuni, the ancestors of today’s Jemez people not only killed their priest and destroyed the mission church, but also burned their entire village. “People often ask why they would burn their own homes,” says Liebmann. “The Jemez didn’t see it as their home; it was Spanish.” The Jemez people then built two new pueblos in the mountains west of the Rio Grande. In 2000, Liebmann began to work with the tribe to survey the sites and collect pottery from the surface.
Known as Patokwa and Boletsakwa, the Jemez pueblos show evidence of the same dual-plaza structure found at Hanat Kotyiti. “These iconic dual-plaza pueblos show they were leaving behind the Spanish forms and forging a continuity with a previous time,” says Liebmann. Under the Spanish, the Jemez were famed for their black-and-white pottery, and were commissioned to make chalices and other ecclesiastical objects. Perhaps because of this association, Liebmann found virtually no black-and-white pottery at the new sites. Instead, pottery with the double-headed key motif and other ancient designs predominated. The Jemez also began to use a simple red pottery that exploded in popularity among the Pueblo after the Revolt, perhaps signifying the formation of a pan-Pueblo identity that hadn’t existed before.
In 1693, after Vargas visited the pueblos and informed the people of the Spaniards’ imminent return, the Jemez left Patokwa and Boletsakwa and sought refuge on a higher mesa, where they built a village known as Astialakwa. Unlike its predecessors, the settlement had no overarching design. While Liebmann can discern three main units at the site, perhaps showing that the village was divided into two separate Jemez factions and a group of newcomers, the village consists of 190 haphazardly dispersed single-story rooms. “It evolved organically over an eight-month period,” says Liebmann. “What we see there is individual households building new homes. The revitalization movement had dissipated, and no single leader was directing overall construction.” By the time Vargas reached Astialakwa in 1694, there were 600 people living there.
As at Hanat Kotyiti, the village was unable to resist Spanish attack. In addition to burned plaster and charred material found throughout the site, chain mail and copper plating from Spanish armor provide physical evidence of a brutal battle that ended with 84 dead Pueblo warriors. After destroying the village, Vargas forced the Jemez to exhume the skeleton of the missionary killed during the uprising and then, perhaps most humiliating for the remaining warriors, ordered them to participate in the Spanish attack on Black Mesa, some 60 miles to the northeast.
Like all present-day members of San Ildefonso Pueblo, Aguilar grew up hearing tales of Black Mesa. According to one story, a giant lived in a cave on the mesa, and children in the pueblo are still told that if they won’t behave, the giant will come for them. Many of the stories have to do with the months-long siege endured by the warriors of San Ildefonso and several other pueblos there in 1694. The fact that there was a Revolt-era settlement on the mesa top was widely known to historians and archaeologists, but until Aguilar began working at the site in 2007, no one had studied it.
Initially, Aguilar made an exhaustive survey of the mesa top, eventually identifying at least 90 caches of rocks that the warriors used as missiles to repel Vargas’s soldiers. On the mesa top’s southern edge, he also documented the remains of defensive fortifications erected during the siege. The remains of the Revolt-era village are harder to analyze, since they are severely eroded. “It’s pretty different from the other mesa-top sites,” says Aguilar. “There you have regular architecture, but at Black Mesa, it looks like you don’t have room blocks, but shallow pits covered with some kind of temporary superstructure.” New 3-D maps of the site created during a drone survey may clarify the picture in the future, but for now Aguilar believes the settlement at Black Mesa may have been more of a temporary battlefield camp than a village. He notes that oral tradition maintains that the pueblo’s women and children didn’t take refuge at Black Mesa, but at an older site to the west of San Ildefonso known as Nake’muu. “Vargas doesn’t mention that in his journals,” says Aguilar. “But we have a strong tradition that that’s where they went.”
According to the account left by Vargas in his journals, there were as many as 2,000 warriors on Black Mesa, but, after studying the site, Aguilar thinks that may have been an exaggeration. Vargas also maintained that he reached the summit of the mesa, but according to Aguilar, his description doesn’t match the defensive alignments or the topography. “I read that and I think, ‘Come on, Vargas, there’s no way you made it to the summit.’” The Spanish governor may have had reason to exaggerate his feats, because, while he captured the other sites, he did not succeed at Black Mesa. In September of 1694, after months of protracted siege, the warriors came down from Black Mesa. “Vargas would say they surrendered, but I don’t think of it that way,” says Aguilar. “They came down on their own terms, after long negotiations.”
Today, it’s tempting to romanticize the rebellion as a noble failure, but Aguilar and others point out that the Pueblo Revolt had a tremendous impact. The threat of possible future revolts meant that the encomienda and repartimiento systems were never reinstated and the Spanish were forced to tolerate native religious practices. “I always wonder how the Pueblo would live today if there had been no Revolt,” says Aguilar. “It’s a scary thought, because if those colonial practices had played out over the course of another century, there’s no telling what the state of my pueblo would be. We are living where we are and we are the people we are thanks in part to the Revolt.”
Eric A. Powell is online editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
Following the whale diet, climate change in ancient Tanzania, domesticating turkeys, Kazakhstan’s cult complex, and kangaroo jewelry
Self-expression in the Bronze Age