Beyond Stone & Mortar: A Hopi Perspective on the Preservation of “Ruins” (& Culture)

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“Buildings too, are children of Earth and Sun”

~Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Throughout the American Southwest are thousands of prehistoric architectural remains that were once the homes, ceremonial centers and gathering places for the Indigenous peoples who occupied this vast geographic area. Ranging in size from pit-houses to large village and cliff-dwelling complexes, and including many forms and layouts, these structures represent the last 1,000 years of Southwestern Indigenous architectural skill. These sites, “ruins” as some call them, continue to serve as important and sacred places to the descendants of the original builders. Modern day Pueblo tribes such as the Hopi in northeastern Arizona and those residing in New Mexico, including the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni and Rio Grande River Pueblos, are all direct descendants from the ancestral peoples who built and occupied archaeological sites throughout the Southwest.

Many of these sites are now included in parks and monuments (federal, state, tribal, non-profit), serving to educate and inform millions of tourists from within the United States, as well as from around the world. As part of this educational platform, much of the architecture that remains at these sites has been excavated in the past, or is currently being excavated as part of ongoing scientific research. While these activities provide tourists with an up close and personal experience, as well as allowing current researchers access to new scientific data, these sites face continued preservation issues as they are unearthed and exposed to natural and human elements.

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Wall-fall rubble and accumulated sediments that once filled these sites as part of the deterioration process, also served to preserve and protect portions of the architecture from the ever present impacts of time and erosion. Much of the architecture that we presently see at major archaeological sites such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Wupatki, Kawestima and many others is due in part to continuous, natural preservation that occurred over several centuries. Yet with their excavation, archaeologists and other researchers realized there was a need to find other ways to further preserve and protect the excavated architecture that remained standing. Thus beginning in 1891, with the preservation of Casa Grande Pueblo in southern Arizona, the “Age of Stabilization” was born and with it, came various preservation efforts, some involving partial or total reconstruction of the ancestral sites throughout the Southwest.

While much of this past preservation work contributed greatly to the scientific understanding of Southwestern prehistoric cultures, not all of it is beneficial to the sites themselves. Preservation efforts conducted during the last 100 years often used substitutes, such as Portland cement, steel re-bar and other modern materials as replacements for more traditional, organic materials. This use of synthetic materials by early preservation workers, many of whom were actually maintenance personnel supervised by field archaeologists, offered a seemingly long-term and easy solution to the deterioration dilemma. These materials provided the opportunity to stabilize prehistoric structures with minimal expenditures in man-hours and funds, resources that were and continue to be in short supply. Unbeknownst to the preservationists of that time, we now know that some synthetic materials are unsuitable for use in the preservation of prehistoric structures.

This is because some synthetic materials do not have the same technical properties as traditional materials used by prehistoric peoples. The most noticeable example is the use of Portland cement as a substitute in place of original mortars, which often were combinations of locally available soils, clays and tempers. Compared with these types of mortars, Portland cement is harder and less porous, thus it often acts to channel and trap moisture within interior wall cores that over time resulted in accelerated deterioration of original stone and mortar. In addition, modern cements are not as flexible or elastic in nature as compared with traditional mortars. Modern cements often have differing rates of contraction and expansion than traditional mortars, resulting in an architectural space in which the materials work against each other, causing increased structural deterioration and loss of original architecture.

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Aside from contributing to the accelerated erosion of structural elements of prehistoric architecture, use of incompatible materials within the preservation process also led to an alteration of the natural aesthetic and integrity of prehistoric sites. Cement mortars used in historic preservation efforts were often tinted with color additives to try and match the prehistoric mortars. Long-term exposure to ultra-violet radiation from sunlight has dramatically changed the appearance of the tinted cement mortar to a variety of colors, ranging from purple to pink tones. As a result of using modern cements, many prehistoric sites now exhibit qualities that are practically irreversible and give them an artificial look and feel.

For the average visitor who spends but a few moments touring these sites, it maybe hard to notice that there are on-going preservation concerns with the sites themselves. Aren’t “ruins” supposed to look like that? From the viewing space of interpretive trails and overlooks, these sites may look as if they have sustained centuries of deterioration with little to no effect. Yet for those who are actively charged with their care and preservation, the realization is that there are far more complex issues affecting the condition, appearance, and integrity of these ancient structures.

As a former Ruins Preservation Specialist with the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, which includes 3 park units, Wupatki National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, I saw first hand these types of problems. Identifying and understanding the stabilization problems discussed here was a task that occupied much of my time. In addition, because I am a person of Hopi ancestry and a descendant of those who built this architecture, there was added importance for me to conduct preservation work that is not only effective, but culturally appropriate and respectful of the prehistoric origins of these sites.

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From a Hopi perspective, what can be considered as appropriate preservation methods? One “traditional” Hopi perspective believes that our ancestral Hopi homes should be left to decay in a natural state. Sites unoccupied for generations should return to mounds of rubble and soil, crumbling into pieces of disarticulated architecture, spewing out the material traces of Hopi ancestors. This is in line with a philosophy about the cycle of life and death; these homes and ceremonial structures having been borne out of the earth, “living” a life with their human occupants, only to return back to the earth. These homes and places of worship now only contain the spirits of those who built and occupied their spaces. The memory of a place and those who lived there is held within oral histories of their descendants. Thus it can be said that the very act of preservation goes against these beliefs.

So why do preservation work at all?

Looking at it from a larger perspective, some may say this question can be applied to all of Archaeology and Cultural Resource Management (CRM) work. That is, why should Indigenous descendants be involved in these efforts? In answering this question, many academics, both Indigenous and non, have produced a large body of research about the effects and relationships between Indigenous peoples and Western researchers that come to study them. To say the least, it is not always a reciprocal interaction. From the Hopi perspective, we have over 400 years of history on our side to attest to this fact. Yet, while it is easy to focus on the negative, and may even be necessary to facilitate moving forward, it is not the focus of this writing. Rather, I am asking if there is a “Common Ground” we can come to, at least in regards to preservation work. In seeking an answer, we must look for other ways that scientific research and efforts can benefit Indigenous cultures and their ancestral past.

To do so, I must look to other teachings from Hopi culture that state these ancestral sites are referred to as the “footprints” of the ancestors, physical proof of previous generations occupying vast tracts of the American Southwest and beyond. Included in this ideology of “footprints” is the material culture of Hopi ancestors; the ceramics, lithics & groundstone, textiles and burials. All of these were left behind to verify Hopi oral histories of our ancestral clan migrations across an ancient landscape; teaching future generations about Hopi longevity and of our covenant to be stewards of this earth for time immemorial.

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Hopi concepts of our ancestral history are both complex and varying. This is because each Hopi clan has its own understanding of their ancestral movements across the southwest and beyond. Not all clans moved in the same directions, at the same time, or with the same groups. As one Hopi cultural advisor explained, “…migration routes can be confusing because sometimes the ancestors started somewhere and then went in a circle and came back to where they started”. In addition, the specific cultural groups assigned to Hopi ancestors by archeologists – Anasazi, Sinagua, Hohokam, Mogollon, Salado, Fremont, etc. – are considered arbitrary within a Hopi perspective of the past. As Hopi anthropologist, Ferrell Secakuku simply but confidently reiterates, “To Hopi, these are ancestors they call Hisatsinom, the ancient people”.

Yet this Hopi designation for our ancestors does not have an end so to speak. Rather than viewing them as neatly defined cultures with specific territorial boundaries, Hopi people view their ancestors as being much more dynamic and fluid, with numerous clans, comprising the ancestral populations found throughout the southwest. Unlike “conventional” archaeological cultural designations that confine a group to a certain area based on material culture and assign them to a specific time period, the prehistoric, the Hopi concept of our ancestors does not imply that type of finality to their existence or presence. Hopi concepts about our ancestors evoke a connection that extends to the present that includes the added dimension of spiritual aspects embedded within the ceremonial culture of Hopi.

With this Hopi perspective in mind, is there a way to reach a suitable compromise in preservation work? From an archaeological view, preservation can mean maintaining the scientific value of a site for possible future study. From the Hopi view, applying our understanding that this architecture represents tangible landmarks of Hopi history, the maintaining of these sites affords this legacy to live on. Thus, ruins preservation enables more than preservation of architecture, but also promotes Cultural Preservation.

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Fast forward to the modern day, September 2015, as I and a handful of scientists and preservationists embark upon a multi-day river trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Our mission? To preserve the ancestral “footprints” of Hopi ancestors (as well as a few historic/anglo structures). I thought about this idea as our group made our way down river, from site to site, applying mortar and stone to homes that my ancestors once lived in hundreds of years ago. I distinctly remember sitting at the edge of the alcove at the granaries at Nankoweap, watching clouds cast shadows on the opposing cliff wall across the river. I thought about why I chose to be there, doing work which was counter to what “traditional” Hopi beliefs stated should be allowed to happen.

Hopi oral histories contain the memories and essence of Hopi ancestors and these histories remain viable aspects of Hopi culture. These histories can be reinforced through visitation of sites. Being able to actually experience the landscapes they occupy and seeing first-hand how and where our ancestors lived aids in the understanding of what a “Cultural Landscape” really is. In an age when Indigenous oral histories are continually challenged as viable source information, at least for some scientists, the need to preserve our histories becomes paramount. This includes not just the oral histories, but the actual, for-real-life sites where our ancestors lived. Granting future generations of Hopi to follow their ancestor’s footprints across the landscape.

At the heart of preservation work, lies an inherent act of respect; maintaining our living culture, while honoring our ancestors of a long ago era. Today when a Hopi person visits ancestral villages, we don’t simply see the remnants of a by-gone era, we see reflections of who we once were and what we have now become. We witness the artistic and technical accomplishments of Hopi ancestors, but we recall the spiritual accomplishments of our ancestors as well. We are reminded that in order for the present generations of Hopi to flourish and prosper, we are dependent upon the gifts of our departed ancestors. This is a concept which is based on the Hopi thought that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. Thus I will continue to conduct preservation work.

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So where do we go from here? As Hopi people working in these fields, we continue to do as we have always done, that is, we do our work with our Hopi history and values always in mind. Through our work, both personally and professionally, we try and impart our traditional knowledge and information to our non-Hopi counterparts in a manner that is also respectful of our own personal and cultural boundaries. In doing so, we serve as human reminders that the people who toiled to build these monuments of stone and mud are not gone. We are still here.

With any luck, the errors of our era will be slight, and as we continue to learn from the past century of stabilization, hopefully those who come after us will learn and benefit from the work we do now. But in order for that to happen, the integrity of the architecture, both the cultural and scientific, must always be considered first. We owe it to our Hopi ancestors who originally built and occupied these places to respect their efforts, and therefore we must strive to present the truest form of their hard work and dedication. For if not by us, the people charged with their care, the Hopi cultural preservationists and specialists, then by whom?

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6 thoughts on “Beyond Stone & Mortar: A Hopi Perspective on the Preservation of “Ruins” (& Culture)

  1. Robert Dundas

    BRILLIANT… MASTERFUL…INCREDIBLE… Your words and insights are a valuable connection to a better respect and understanding by non indigenous people into your world!

    Thanks Lyle!

    Bob

    Liked by 1 person

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