Poverty Point: Star of My Show

Near Bayou Macon, Louisiana, is an archaeological site called Poverty Point. I am drawing for information about Poverty Point primarily on the book Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, 1986, by the The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., but here is the official Poverty Point web site. It is now a World Heritage Site. Here is a recent article about an archaeological project done at Poverty Point.

First, the Obligatory Eye-Rolling at Mainstream Archaeology

Like many North American sites, Poverty Point was hard to spot because it consists of earthworks that had been overgrown with forest. (And not only North American sites. Radar technology is revealing that the Mayan civilization was much more extensive than first thought — because the jungle took over so quickly — and is also revealing old settlements in what was hitherto thought to be never-before-settled Amazon rainforest.)

Earthworks are basically impossible to date, but for other reasons, Poverty Point is thought to be about 3,000 years old (i.e. about 1,000 B.C.). However, it helps to remember that when dealing with paleontology and even archaeology, dates are often basically just made up — i.e. reached through dead reckoning based on a shaky framework of background assumptions. But let’s accept 1,000 B.C. for now.

Mysteries, which again, was published in 1986, also makes several more or less dubious claims about the builders of Poverty Point. Here’s a sampling:

“[S]cholars think it is doubtful that societies on the chiefdom level existed in North America 3,000 years ago.” (page 111)

“[This civilization] had no writing, no true agriculture, and no architecture except for its earthworks. Its weapons were simple: the spear, the atlatl, the dart, the knife, and possibly the bola. Even the bow and arrow was unknown to these people.” (page 112)

“Considering the massiveness of Poverty Point’s ridges and mounds, one naturally assumes that they were built over many generations or even centuries.” (page 112)

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas

The first of these quotes is 100% pure assumption, based on the noble savage mythology so beloved of modern academics.

The second is also pure assumption. A better way to put it would be that we have found no evidence of writing, agriculture, etc., so far. The findings reported at the first link above seem to confirm that agriculture was not a big thing at Poverty Point, based on the remains of the peoples’ diet, but this could have been simply because the fishing and foraging was so abundant. It does not necessarily mean they were “only hunter-gatherers” who had not “advanced” to the level of agriculture. C.f. similar claims being made about Gobekli Tepe. As for the bow and arrow, I take it that remnants of all these other weapons have been found, but not bows. Even that, I take with a grain of salt, as it seems that almost every week, something is discovered that we had thought this or that ancient group didn’t have. (Here’s the latest example, which even refers to ancient humans as not particularly ‘smart,’ with ‘smart’ in scare quotes.) But even if the Poverty Point people did not use bows and arrows, this does not necessarily mean the weapon was “unknown” to them. Perhaps they had specialized in other weapons instead. Not everybody in the Middle Ages was an English longbowman, but boy oh boy did they know about them!

Finally, the third claim made in the Mysteries quote box (which they at least had the grace to call an assumption), appears to have been possibly disproven by the second link above. “New radiocarbon dating, microscopic analysis of soil, and magnetic measurements of soils at Ridge West 3 found no evidence of weathering between layers of soil, suggesting that the earthwork had been built rapidly.”

Now, the Site Itself

from Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 111

It’s easier to just show you guys this diagram than to try to describe it, but buckle up, here comes the description. The Poverty Point site consists of earthen ridges set concentrically inside each other, in what looks like a C-shape from the air. “The two central aisles point toward the setting sun at solstice” (ibid). Directly to the west of all this is a large man-made mound (Mound A), while a ways farther north there is a smaller mound (Mound B), which seems to be a burial mound. Bayou Macon, directly to the east, cuts through the eastern side of this whole complex. Was this whole thing originally C-shaped, or was it a circle? Probably a C shape, because there are similar, smaller sites around this region which tend to be “constructed in a semicircle or semioval pattern with the open side facing the water and with one or more mounds located nearby.” (ibid)

The book uses the word “ceremonial” a lot, and honestly I can’t fault them. This complex was constructed by human beings, and now, millennia (?) later, more human beings come and look at it and say, “This looks like it was clearly designed for ceremonial purposes.” That’s a valid argument. The architecture is having a certain effect on us, and we can assume that it had that same effect on our long-lost fellows, and was designed to.

Poverty-Point-related sites have yielded thousands of little decorated clay balls, called Poverty Point objects, that we think were used for cooking. There are also little clay sculptures of female torsos (with or without heads), reminiscent of the Venuses found around ancient Europe. There are also “myriads of stone tools,” including drills, awls, and needles, made both from local stone and from flint imported from as far away as Indiana. They made “plummets,” perhaps as bola weights or perhaps as weights for fishnets, “most often of hematite in graceful teardrop or oval shapes [and] often decorated with beautifully executed stylized designs representing serpents, owls, and human figures.” (ibid, p. 115)

But it is in lapidary work that the Poverty Point people excelled. Pendants, buttons, beads, and small tablets are worked in an array of such colored or translucent stones as red jasper, amethyst, feldspar, red and green talc, galena, quartz, and limonite. Most of these stones were obtained by far-flung trade. Among the pendants are a number of bird effigies — red jasper owls and parakeets, and bird heads worked in polished jasper and brown and black stones. There are also representations of a human face, a turtle, claws, and rattles, and stubby but carefully made tubular pipes.

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 115

O.K., I’ve changed my mind. Perhaps this C-shaped complex was not ceremonial, it was a lapidary factory.

Regardless, the Poverty Point “hunter-gatherers” have once again made my point for me: that wherever human beings go, they start up civilization and display mathematics, art, and craftsmanship.

The Snake City

I guess there have been a lot of “snake cities” throughout history. In my third novel, The Great Snake (upcoming, hopefully in 2022), Snake City is founded by a small group who break off from our main group of characters. Their city is like a smaller, less populous version of Poverty Point.

As you can see, our city is much smaller. It overlooks the Mississippi River itself, rather than a bayou. The temple is built not on a man-made mound, but on a natural hill. The people actually live on top of the ridges. They aren’t lapidary craftspeople (at least, not as of the end of the novel). And, finally, this city is about 7,000 years earlier in time than Poverty Point. Other than that, though, it’s exactly the same.

In the cover image, Klee is standing on the lower hill that houses the women’s complex. Behind her, the temple looms over her from atop the hill. It has a Mayan-style roof comb that is facing away from the viewer. In this view, the snake is either hovering in the air just east of the temple, or possibly it is out over the river.

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.

Hippie Project of the Week

The succulent has gotten too big for its tiny pot.

But the 80-cent terra cotta pot is too plain. We want to make it look dressier.

It’s going to look like this. Directions: turn it upside down on newspaper. Squirt acrylic paint on it in alternating stripes of white and black. Now take a stiff brush and smear the white and black paint together. Careful, don’t blend too much or you’ll end up with an even grey. Let dry overnight.

Here is Ms. Succulent in the new pot after transplanting. Since we do not have an oven to fire the paint in (and we probably used the wrong kind of paint for that anyway), the paint will bubble a little bit around the bottom whenever you water the succulent. But that is OK because we are only watering twice a month. The paint job might not last forever, but it will last a couple of years.

Six Oh Six

I’m not musical. Hence, this is the only choral arrangement that I could sing with you, any time, even a capella. Reason? I grew up Mennonite.

“606” – so called because for years it was hymn #606 in the Mennonite Hymnal — is an arrangement of the doxology. It is, or it used to be, sung often enough in Mennonite churches that it could be called the Mennonite national anthem. Which means it was sung often enough that I, who have to hear a song about 100 times before I catch on, actually had a chance to learn it. It wasn’t until years later, hearing it after a gap in time, that I realized how very German it sounds. The Mennonites are an Anabaptist sect founded by Menno Simons. He was actually a Freislander, but Mennonites are German enough in culture that it has influenced their music.

I was inspired to post this when Chris posted an arrangement of Nearer, My God, to Thee that reminded me very much of the music I grew up with.

A Decent Man Would Never Write “No Irish Need Apply”

Well, I couldn’t stand his nonsense, so aheld of him I took

and I gave him such a baetin’ as he’d get in Donnybrook.

He hollered me the murther, and to get away did try

and swore he’d nivver write again, “No Irish Need Apply.”

He made a big apology, and I bid him then goodbye,

sayin’, “When nixt you want a baetin’, write ‘No Irish Need Apply.'”

Well, some may think it a misfortune to be christened Patrick Dan,

but to me it is an honor to be born an Irishman.

Sure, I’ve heard that in America, it always is the plan

that an Irishman is just as good as any other man.

A home and hospitality they nivver will deny

to strangers here, or ever write, “No Irish Need Apply.”

Oh, but some black sheep are in the flock: “A drrty lot,” says I;

a daecent man would nivver say, “No Irish Need Apply.”

See below

Happy St. Patrick’s Day yesterday!