Kiva vs. Pit House

If you can bear with me, we are going to do one more Mesa Verde post before we start mixing it up again.

As mentioned last week, when I went to Mesa Verde this July, we did not visit the famous Cliff House (which was closed), but instead the lesser-known Wetherill Mesa. Last week I showed you a smaller cliff house, called Step House, that is part of the Wetherill Mesa area. This week, I am going to show you a pit house.

Here’s part of the path to it.

The ruin sites that have been excavated on top of Wetherill Mesa have had sheds built over them that are open on one or two sides. I imagine this protects the excavated ruins, but it’s also great for the tourists. It is so hot out there in the Four Corners desert that, were these sites not shaded, no one would stop for very long to look at them. As it is, you come over the blistering trail, and that shed represents a welcome oasis of shade where you can cool down, take a breath, and then spend some time studying the ruins.

A Pit House

Here we are standing at the entrance to Badger House, viewing it through the first two anterooms, towards the inner room at the back. The inner room has a bench around the edge of it, a narrow little door leading into it, and a big slab of stone sitting right in front of that door, blocking our view in. When in use, this pit house would have had walls extending a little way up from ground level and then a roof. All of this would have been made with wood posts for the basic structure, and then adobe applied in a wattle-and-daub manner. These pit houses had the people living partially but not completely underground. This kind of housing is super practical in a desert, because it insulates the inhabitants from the wild swings of temperature that come not only seasonally, but also between day and night.

Here’s a view of the inner room of Badger House, taken from the side. As you can see, in the foreground there is a little stone closet area (for grain storage?). Opposite it, on the other side, is another stone half-wall (for privacy?). On the left, there is a line of three post-holes for wooden posts that would have helped hold up the roof. (The holes in the bench are also thought to have been put there so that wood beams could be rested in them.) The star of the show is the sunken fire-pit, with the upright slab of stone standing between it and the door that leads from the anteroom.

When I first saw this slab of stone, which seemed to me to be randomly and inconveniently placed, my thought was, “What the heck?” Then my mind immediately went to privacy for people in the inner room, or a Feng-shui type arrangement for blocking bad spirits or energy that might try to enter, or even a physical barrier to make it easier to corral pets and toddlers. But the actual explanation may be even simpler. It’s to protect the fire from drafts. I hadn’t considered this explanation at first, because I expected such a stone to be placed right next to the fire. (A Native friend once told me that if you build a fire right next to a stone, the stone will cause the smoke to draw upward.) But apparently, this is how the Anasazi people dealt with drafts. The informational posters at the site call it a “deflector stone.” If this is where they needed to deflect drafts, that also gives us clue about how the air was flowing through this pit house. The builders were aware of the need for ventilation, as we will see in a moment when we look at a kiva.

The small hole just to the left of the fire pit may be a sipapu. Every kiva has a sipapu, and we know from modern Four-Corners area Indians (the descendants of these builders), that the sipapu symbolizes (or is an iteration of) the hole through which people’s ancestors emerged in their origin legends. In Navajo origin legends, for example, people start out living in a world that in some ways resembles ours, but is four levels down under the earth. Through a series of disasters, they have to abandon each level and flee to the one above it. If I remember correctly, the final level is destroyed by a flood, and then the people finally emerge onto the bare surface of the earth.

So, this is a pit house that shares some characteristics with a kiva. This article explains (or at least introduces the topic) of how, before the Anasazi started using adobe brick to build structures aboveground, they apparently lived in pit houses that also functioned as kivas. When they started building aboveground dwellings, they would then build a kiva for every settlement, but in pit house dwellings, the distinction between kiva and living area is not as clear. So, in Badger House (this is my own thinking now), it’s possible that the three rooms we see are anteroom, then the living area in the middle, and then the more elaborate room at the back is the kiva.

A Kiva

Farther along the path on Wetherill Mesa, we see complexes like these, which are called pueblos. Though still partially dug (again, practical) these are not pit houses but little villages or apartment complexes that are laid out in a row and employ adobe brick. In the first photo, you can see multiple layers of brick walls laid down at different times and not quite square with each other. Once you start getting pueblos like these, each comes with a proper kiva.

It was difficult to get a wide enough angle to properly photograph this small kiva, but here are my attempts.

As you can see, there is a bench around the edge just as in the kiva area of the pit house. There is a fire pit with a deflector stone. There is a deep recess on one side (second photo), and there is also a raised platform area in the wall behind the deflector stone. Under this comes the ventilation. You can see the little hole at the bottom of the platform, which is the ventilation shaft. The other end of the ventilation shaft is aboveground, here.

When my kids first saw this, they speculated that it was for pouring water into; but no, it is for air.

The kiva would have been covered with a roof, and of course the interior would have looked much smoother than this, perhaps with plaster, paint, etc. After all, this thing is about 1000 years old.

This poster has some good information about the kiva, although the drawing on the right cracks me up. It shows that the artist didn’t really know how the kiva was decorated, what kinds of clothes the Anasazi wore (so they just gave them almost none), or what they did in the kiva. (Weaving? Wouldn’t that be done in a house? Oh, what do I know …) More detailed, colorful, and elaborate speculation about all these things shows up in the novel People of the Silence, which I will soon review.

A Great Kiva

Here, near one of the pueblo sites on Wetherill Mesa, is a partially excavated Great Kiva, a kiva big enough to serve a whole community (or a larger community). I’m a little confused by this excavation, because if I understand the informational poster correctly, its total circumference is much bigger, and it looks to me liked it would overlap with pueblo ruins that it shares the site with. So it’s a little hard to picture how this complex looked in real life.

Here’s a poster that explains the excavation. It almost looks like the Great Kiva was filled in, and then a pueblo built over it.

The ruins at Chaco Canyon, where People of the Silence is set, include not only large towns with many rooms, but multiple Great Kivas, well-preserved, in each town. Unlike this rather confusing site, things were planned out so that the town was built in a semicircular shape, people lived in rooms around the edges, and the kivas were in the plaza in the middle. This was a large culture area that extended over what are now four western States.

Other Cool Stuff

This tunnel-tower arrangement is apparently connected to the smaller kiva that I showed you earlier. What I called a “deep recess” was actually the entrance to the tunnel!

Again, I love how the illustration shows nothing but the kiva, tunnel, and tower in the middle of a desert. No people, no fields, no animals, no other buildings. Maybe they had strict instructions not to go beyond what is proved.

I don’t know whether this tunnel and tower were constructed for war, but in Chaco Canyon, we see archaeological evidence that the people started fortifying their previously accessible town, sealing up the entrances and even windows, until there was only one small door leading in and out. All around this region, we find massacres.

I can’t now find the map I photographed, but as I mentioned last week, these excavated sites are not the only ones on this mesa. There are other known sites that have not been excavated (which we walk by on our way to these convenient shelters), and there are probably many undiscovered sites as well. This is not wild and unsettled country, and it has not been for millennia.

5 thoughts on “Kiva vs. Pit House

  1. Em @ The Geeky Jock

    That’s amazing! I’ve seen some discussion about needing to build modern homes into the earth, to help buffer against more extreme temperatures. Looks like we could – once again – learn something from the past!

    Liked by 1 person

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