Shabik'eschee Village

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Temporal Period(s) PERIOD

Summary Details

  • Location: Chacra Mesa, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, U.S.A. (Approx. 36° 0' 32" N, 107° 53' 28" W)
  • Period: Basketmaker III
  • Date Range: circa 500 AD to 900 AD

Site Overview

Shabik’eschee Village is a Basketmaker III site located in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The site dates to between 500 and around 700 AD, and holds some evidence of later Pueblo occupations occurring as late as 900 AD. Shabik’eschee is notable for its impressive size and extensive architectural remains, including a rare Kiva structure more typical of later Pueblo sites. The site provides a pivotal example of the shift from hunting and gathering to the sedentary maize agriculture characteristic of the Basketmaker III and Puebloan periods, and establishes many attributes and cultural practices seen in later Chacoan and modern Anasazi cultures. Shabik’eschee’s settlement pattern and social structure has been hotly debated since its initial discovery by Frank H.H Roberts in 1929. Some researchers, including Roberts, have characterized it as a full-fledged village site, while others such as W.H. Wills and Thomas C. Windes argue that Shabik’eschee was a place of intermittent population aggregation based on the presence of favorable conditions for maize agriculture.

Cultural Background

Researchers agree that the residents of Shabik’eschee primarily belonged to the Basketmaker III culture, ancestral to both later Puebloan groups and the modern Anasazi peoples. Basketmaker III peoples existed from approximately 450 to 750 AD and lived throughout the American Southwest, with dense populations residing in Northern New Mexico’s San Juan area and Chaco Canyon (Van Dyke, 2007; Roberts, 1929). Basketmaker III peoples expanded and intensified their Basketmaker II ancestors’ practices of maize agriculture, turning maize into a dietary staple and developing several new varieties, but also relied on small game hunting and gathering of wild edibles including pinyon seeds (Wills and Windes, 1989; Roberts, 1929). In terms of technology, Basktemaker III peoples were expert textile makers, weaving intricate baskets, bags, rope, and sandals. Technological innovation during the period included the initial adoption of fired, painted ceramics, (with styles likely borrowed from the neighbouring Mogollon culture) the bow and arrow, enlarged belowground storage units, and the first appearance of long lasting, durable built architecture (Mathien, 2005; Roberts, 1929). These structures were typically small semi-subterranean pithouses constructed of stone, poles, brush, earth and plaster, and likely housed individual nuclear family units (Wills and Windes, 1989; Roberts, 1929). Large communal structures, although rare, appear during the Basketmaker III period and are known as “Kivas”. These circular structures were also semi-subterranean and included impressive domed roofs starting at ground level. Kivas were likely used for large community-based or ritual activities (Mathien, 2005; Altschul and Huber, 2000). Finally, the Basketmaker III period also saw increased interaction between inhabitants of the San Juan basin through the intensified exchange of exotic decorative items such as turquoise, azurite, quartz crystals, and soapstone. It is clear that by the end of the period, peoples living in the Basket Maker III world were integrated into extensive, long-distance trade networks (Roberts, 1929).

Site Significance

Why is Shabik’eschee village archaeologically significant? After all, the site is only one of 163 Basketmaker III sites in the surrounding San Juan area (Wills and Windes, 1989). What sets Shabik’eschee apart from other Basketmaker III sites is that it provides an invaluable window into the major cultural changes of the period. In fact, much of what researchers understand of the Basketmaker III period comes from research on Shabik’eschee itself, and the site is often viewed, for better or for worse, as typifying the many pivotal transformations that took place in the Basketmaker III. The majority of Basketmaker III sites remain unexcavated to this day, and as a result, most of our information about the period comes from Shabik’eschee (Wills et al, 2012).
Notable aspects of the period’s culture exemplified at Shabik’eschee include evidence of the shift from hunting and gathering to sedentary maize agriculture, increased surplus storage, the appearance of ceramics, and the adoption of long-lasting communal and domestic architecture. Amazingly, the 8ha site holds at least 67 domestic pithouse structures, making the settlement both unsurpassed in terms of size and potential population during the Basketmaker period and the first of it’s kind in Chaco Canyon (Cordell, 1997). Other Basketmaker III sites only hold, on average, about 3 domestic structures (Wills and Windes, 1989). Shabik’eschee is in close proximity to several smaller Basketmaker III sites and likely represented an important cultural hub to local Basketmaker III society. In addition, Shabik’eschee is one of the few Basketmaker III sites in which a Communal Kiva structure is present (Van Dyke, 2007). To put this in perspective, only eight Basketmaker III kivas exist in the San Juan area, and just two are found in Chaco Canyon, including the one at Shabik’eschee village (Van Dyke, 2007; Mathien, 2005). Altschul and Huber (2000) state that the appearance of long lasting and communal architecture during the period represents a growing commitment to place, and is evidence of the Basketmaker III transition from mobile hunting and gathering to a more sedentary agriculturalist way of life, a defining characteristic of subsequent Pueblo periods.
As such, in addition to acting as window into Basketmaker III culture, Shabik’eschee Village holds evidence of practices that were foundational to later Puebloan ways of life. The site’s extensive architecture is, in effect, a precursor to multi-room structures and impressive urban centres of later Pueblo periods. In addition, Van Dyke (2007) suggests that the “dualistic symmetry” formalized and expanded in later pueblo periods, including the impressive chacoan greathouses that emerged in the early 1000s, is present in the site structure of Shabik’eschee in that both of halves of the site out extend along Chacra Mesa’s ridge from the central Kiva. Other elements important to Pueblo worldview can be observed at Shabik’eschee, including the site’s visibility, defensibility, and clear view of the horizon (due to it’s mesa top location) as well as communal ritual (evidenced by the Kiva structure), and it’s proximity to both water and arable land (Van Dyke, 2007; Steward, 1937).

Site Discovery and Research History

Shabik’eschee Village was initially discovered and excavated in 1926 by archaeologist Frank H.H. Roberts Junior for the National Geographic Society’s Pueblo Bonito Expedition. While surveying Chacra Mesa he noticed several storage cysts (below-ground storage bins) and numerous potsherds (Roberts, 1929). Soon after, Roberts hired a crew of Navajo workers to unearth the archaeological site, who referred to it as “Shabik’eschee” or “Sun Picture Place”, based a Navajo sun symbol pecked into a nearby cliff face. Roberts excavated the site for two seasons in 1926 and 1927, primarily to obtain information on the house and village types of the Basket Maker III period. He uncovered 18 semi-subterranean houses of circular, oval, and rectangular shape. In addition, Roberts excavated a small courtyard area, 48 storage bins, and the site’s impressive Kiva structure (Roberts, 1929).
Excavations at the site would not start again until 1973, when, under National Parks Service’s Chaco Project Alden C. Hayes and John Thrift excavated several more houses in Shabik’eschee as well as a large portion of the site for the purpose of collecting dendrochronology and archaeometric dates (McKenna and Truell, 1986). In addition, the two researchers identified 49 previously unknown structures in the northern half of Shabik’eschee, bringing the number of houses at the site from 18 to a 67 (Mathien, 2005). Researchers W.H. Wills and Thomas C. Windes undertook research at the site in the 1980s in order to further understand the nature of human settlement at Shabik’eschee village, concluding that the site was likely not a formal village but a place of intermittent aggregation based on the presence of favourable environmental conditions (Wills and Windes, 1989).

Site Description

Location and Environment

The Shabik’eschee Village site is located in the arid plateau of northwest New Mexico’s San Juan region (Roberts, 1929). The region is characterized by mountains, high hills, and thick forest to the northeast, but far more barren, vegetation-lacking environments to the southwest, which is where Shabik’eschee is located. The climate here is defined by hot, dry summers and cold winters with varying, often unpredictable, levels of precipitation. Soils in the San Juan region have the potential to be incredibly fertile when water is present, allowing for the production of bountiful crops (Roberts, 1929). Shabik’eschee Village rests atop the ridge of Chacra Mesa in eastern Chaco Canyon, and is bordered by Steep 16m sandstone bedrock cliffs on it’s north, east, and west sides (Van Dyke, 2007). To the south, the mesa rises over 160m towards pinyon-juniper woodlands (Wills and Windes, 1989). The site offers impressive views of the surrounding canyon, which extends 4km to the east and 3km to the west (Van Dyke, 2007). The immediate environment in and around Shabik’eschee village is characterized by the narrow, dry, Chaco Canyon, which holds sparse vegetation including grasses, trees, and bushes. The area’s mesa tops are even more barren than the canyon bottom, supporting only occasional small trees and some brush (Roberts, 1929).

Occupational History

Based on both dendrochronology and archaeometric dates, the Basketmaker III occupation of Shabik’eschee began around 500 and continued until 750 AD (Wills and Windes, 1989). The site’s impressive Kiva was likely built quite early in its history, as is evidenced by dendrochronology dates taken from the structure’s timbers (Wills et al, 2012). The Kiva shows evidenced for being burned during the mid 500s and was likely rebuilt soon after, meaning it likely served an important communal purpose throughout most of the site’s existence. Domestic structures at Shabik’eschee show evidence for extensive remodelling, rebuilding, reuse, and abandonment throughout the site’s Basketmaker III occupation (Wills and Windes, 1989). Based on dendrochronology as well as ethnographic evidence from Navajo Hogan structures and earth lodges of Plains groups, domestic pithouses at Shabik’eschee were likely occupied for periods of around 15 years before rebuilding took place (Wills and Windes, 1989). Basketmaker peoples likely abandoned the site around 750 AD, and from ceramic, architectural, and dendrochronology evidence it is probable that pueblo-period groups occupied the site intermittently between 750 to as late as 900 AD, building remodelling several pithouse structures in a more Puebloan style (Wills and Windes, 1989; McKenna and Truell, 1986).

Site Structure and Architecture

Shabik’eschee village is arranged in a crescent shape following the ridge of Chacra Mesa. The site’s Kiva structure exists at the centre of the crescent and both it’s 67 domestic structures and more than 50 storage bins extend out from the Kiva in opposite directions (Van Dyke, 2007; Wills and Windes, 1989). Two large refuse mounds, or middens, sit at either end of the crescent, and a plastered, open-air court area measuring 5.8x2.7m is located in site’s the northeastern section (Van Dyke, 2007; Roberts, 1929). The site’s domestic pit structures are composed of adobe plaster, earth, poles, brush, and stone, and likely housed individual nuclear family units. Pit structures vary in size, and encompass circular, oval, and rectangular forms, with an average size of 4.1x4m and average below ground depth of 74.35cm (Roberts, 1929). Most pithouses had sloping, rectangular-roofed superstructures composed of wooden poles, brush, earth and adobe, supported by four posts arranged to the cardinal directions, usually fixed in the corners of pithouse interiors. Most interiors included a firepit, “Sipapu hole” (a mythical place of emergence among Southwestern indigenous peoples), and a large stone “deflector slab” arranged in a linear fashion extending towards an entrance passage. Many structures also incorporated low wing-like adobe walls that demarcated storage or food processing areas, and some were attached to ground-level storage antechambers (Cordell, 1997; Roberts, 1929). An example of pueblo-like architecture found onsite includes “House X”, a deeper, D-shaped dated to between 750 and 850 that was likely accessed via it’s roof (Roberts, 1929). Shabik’eschee’s central Kiva structure is circular in shape, measuring 12.2m in diameter and 1.37m in depth. The structure’s interior is composed of a low, encircling bench measuring between 39 and 61cm in height, a central rectangular firepit, and a large deflector slab in between the firepit and a ventilator opening. Inhabitants of Shabik’eschee accessed the Kiva via its roof, a large domed structure composed of timbers, brush, poles, earth, and adobe plaster. The Kiva was almost certainly a communal or ceremonial structure rather than a domestic space (Roberts, 1929).

Material Culture and Subsistence

Ground and Chipped Stone

In terms of groundstone material, excavations have produced many manos and metates, sandstone implements used primarily for milling. These were found throughout the site, in domestic structures, storage pits, and refuse mounds, and even incorporated into pithouse architecture, and provide evidence for extensive maize processing (Mathien, 2005; Mathien, 1997). Other groundstone tools include hafted mauls and hammers, which may have been used for stone slab quarrying and as weapons. Chipped stone tools include deeply notched arrowheads, knife blades, and spearheads. These were found in primarily in pithouses and refuse mounds, and were made mostly of chalcedony, although some obsidian arrowheads were recovered (Roberts, 1929).


Ceramics found at Shabik’eschee are characterized by white sand tempering, and include a range of clay colours, from grey to orange-red. Most ceramics had pebbled surfaces, and polished painted specimens included zigzag, parallel and bisecting line, dotted, tippled, stepped line, and triangular figure designs. Ceramic forms include cooking pots, bowls, ladles, pitchers, pipes, vessels with lateral spouts, and jars, all of which came in an extremely diverse variety of shapes and sizes. All ceramics found at Shabik’eschee are part of the “standard complex” of ceramics that characterize Basketmaker III ceramics (Roberts, 1929).

Bone tools

Bone tools found onsite include awls, spatula awls, punches, flaking tools, needles, bodkins, scarpers, and whistles, typical of the period (Roberts, 1929).

Ornamental and Symbolic Items

In terms of ornamental items found at Shabik’eschee, beads and pendants were fashioned from stone, bone, shell, calcite, alabaster, lignite, gypsum, and turquoise. Shell bracelets and disks also compose Shabick’eschee’s ornament assemblage. Turquoise “mosaic pieces” were found onsite, which were likely attached to perishable items such as clothing and basketry (Mathien, 1997; Roberts, 1929). Although none were found during excavation, it is likely that residents at Shabik’eschee created the intricate woven textiles characteristic of the Basketmaker III period, which were not preserved in the site’s archaeological record (Roberts, 1929).

Faunal and Botanical Remains

Unfortunately, Shabik’eschee village was primarily excavated before the routine collection of botanical remains (Cordell, 1997). However, from the sheer numbers of manos and metates found onsite, along with comparisons with other Basketmaker III sites excavated using more modern methods, it is clear that residents were maize farmers who also cultivated squash and corn (Altschul and Huber, 2000; Roberts, 1929). Wild edibles were also collected by village residents, and include pinyon nuts and possibly indian ricegrass (Cordell, 1997; Wills and Windes, 1989). Faunal remains found at Shabik’eschee include mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, jackrabbit, turkey, and even wildcat (Roberts, 1929).

Mortuary Practices

Relatively few burials and human remains have been excavated at Shabik’eschee village. Roberts’ research in the late 1920s revealed only 14 burials scattered throughout the village, including two secondary burials located in separate pithouses, two just outside of storage areas, two close to outdoor firepits, and the rest simply dug into the village’s subsoil underneath the accumulated debris and refuse (Roberts, 1929)). Most interred remains were found in flexed positions with knees drawn to the chest, heads placed toward the west facing north, and bodies lying partially on the left side. Eleven out of the fourteen individuals were interred without any non-perishable grave goods, although baskets, textiles, and sandals may have been included, as is seen at other Basketmaker III sites. Some pottery was found in three burial contexts while one internment included a large spoon-like spatula and bone tubes (Mathien, 1997; Roberts, 1929)).

Debates on Settlement and Social Structure at Shabik’eschee Village

Most researchers agree that there is little evidence for intense social stratification at Shabik’eschee village, although Lightfoot and Feinman have suggested that decision-making structures at Shabik’eschee may have developed in relation asserting control over interregional trade of exotic items, such as shell and turquoise (Altschul and Huber, 2000; Cordell, 1997). Inhabitants of the village likely adhered to a fairly simple form of social organization based on nuclear family units, and due to the presence of clustered houses may have been organized into lineages and unilateral bands (Altschul and Huber, 2000; Steward, 1937).
Until the late 1980s most researchers understood Shabik’eschee as a major, populous settlement of the Basketmaker III world, with occupants inhabiting the site on a year-round or at least seasonal basis (Wills and Windes, 1989). However, researchers Wills and Windes (1989) have proposed that rather than a full-blown village, Shabik’eschee was a place of sporadic aggregation based on environmental conditions. The researchers argue that humans occupied Shabik’eschee periodically based on favourable conditions for farming maize, dependant on high amounts of winter rain. Following winters of high precipitation the region’s inhabitants aggregated in the village and farmed on the canyon bottom, taking advantage of Shabik’eschee’s domestic and storage structures. During such times the village’s Kiva structure facilitated group cohesion through communal ritual, events, and conflict resolution. A small portion of inhabitants may have inhabited the village year-round, keeping watch over the village’s grain stores (Wills and Windes, 1989). Recently, Wills has moved away form more ecologically deterministic explanations, arguing that Shabik’eschee may have functioned as a “stable social centre” linking the much wider and more dispersed social network of Chaco Canyon’s Basketmaker III peoples (Wills et al, 2012 p.341).

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