Remembrance and Commemoration in the Past and Present

Posted June 30, 2024

Dr. Susan C. Ryan, Executive Vice President of the Research Institute


On this Memorial Day, I ponder the ways we mourn and honor military personnel who died in service to our country. First observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, this proclamation was initiated by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union Army sailors and soldiers. Ours is a relatively young country, and our citizens are not the first to engage in acts of commemoration. In 2021, archaeologists reported a 4,500 year old Mesopotamian burial mound was identified as the “World’s first” military memorial. Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a calling to remembrance, or preserving in memory,” commemoration acts have been practiced for as long as we have been humans. This had me pondering acts of commemoration detected in the archaeological record; Crow Canyon’s work in the Goodman Point community immediately came to mind.

Shields Pueblo

Shields Pueblo is an ancestral village in the Goodman Point community located in the Mesa Verde region and occupied from the Basketmaker III through Pueblo III periods (A.D. 500–1300). Remains include 18 distinct architectural “blocks” dotting a 35-acre parcel, now owned by The Archaeological Conservancy. Crow Canyon’s work at Shields Pueblo (1997–2000) was guided by a research design developed by Dr. Mark Varien and Ian Thompson titled, “Communities Through Time: Migration, Cooperation, and Conflict.” Our research examined the development and depopulation of this long-lived community center, one of the largest in the Mesa Verde region.

Kiva Shrines

At Shields Pueblo, seven kivas—or round rooms used for domestic and ritual activities—were identified as having been intentionally decommissioned and subsequently commemorated with a round, dry-laid, coursed masonry construction during the mid-to-late thirteenth century A.D. These constructions were, on average, seven courses tall and lacked evidence of prepared floors, internal features, roofs, or artifacts. Pollen samples revealed the presence of a maize anther, or five or more grains of pollen. The presence of maize pollen is intriguing given it is commonly used by Indigenous peoples in ceremonies today. These kivas are characterized by the following:

(1) post-A.D. 1245 construction dates;

(2) burned roofs; and

(3) the presence of one or more masonry structures, or “shrines,” constructed above the burned roof sediments.

Given the uniqueness of these architectural features, their function was unknown to Crow Canyon researchers for some time. Eventually, they were identified as “shrines” by the late Peter Pino, a Pueblo of Zia Governor, Tribal Council member, War Captain, and long-time member of Crow Canyon’s Pueblo Advisory Group. While on a site tour, Pino explained just as the sipapu (a round, ritual feature located in the north-central portion of a kiva’s floor) connects people to ancestors and the underworld, these shrines connect subsequent generations to the places below—first to the kiva itself and then to the underworld via the sipapu. In this sense, a continuum of vertical, cosmographic space was created following the kiva’s decommissioning. Over time, the shrines were covered by alluvial and aeolian sediments, eventually rendering them indiscernible to those walking on the ground surface.

The commemorative act of placing shrines in decommissioned kivas was uncommon in the Mesa Verde region and appears to be primarily practiced in the Goodman Point community. Approximately one-half mile south of Shields Pueblo, another example was uncovered by Crow Canyon archaeologist, Grant Coffey, and dozens of citizen scientists during the testing of the Harlan great kiva. The great kiva—a round, structure greater than 10 meters in diameter and used for social integrative activities—was constructed and intentionally decommissioned during a burning event in the Pueblo II period (A.D. 900–1150), more than 100 years—or five generations—prior to the construction of the shrines at Shields Pueblo. Shortly after the Harlan great kiva was burned, a dry-laid, masonry shrine was constructed above natural sediments covering the fallen roof. This is the earliest known example of a kiva shrine in the northern San Juan region. It is important to point out kiva shrines were used to commemorate both public and residential architecture in the Goodman Point community.

Timing of Events

Based on tree-ring analyses, we are confident the decommissioned kivas at Shields Pueblo were constructed sometime between A.D. 1245 and 1255. Using ceramic refuse accumulation rates from several sites in the adjacent Sand Canyon community, Varien suggested most Pueblo III period (A.D. 1150–1300) residences had an average occupation span of between two and three generations. The briefest use of a roomblock dating to the Pueblo III period was 19 years. Given the Shields Pueblo kivas were constructed at approximately A.D. 1250 and were most likely used for at least two or three generations—or approximately 40–60 years—it can be inferred the structures were decommissioned sometime between A.D. 1270 and 1280. The latest known tree-ring date for the central Mesa Verde region is A.D. 1280, thus we have a period of two or three decades in which the decommissioning events most likely took place.

The convex depressions created by the collapsed kiva roofs were exposed to the elements for an unknown period of time. Alluvial and aeolian sediments were deposited in finely layered stratums directly above the burned roof fill, however there is no way to tell how rapidly the depressions accumulated sediments. Geoarchaeologists have examined pitstructure stratigraphy, noting structures located on mesa-tops—like those at Shields Pueblo—filled rapidly, immediately following the initial roof collapse, yet the rates of infilling are variable according to the surrounding topography and precipitation events. Thus, the amount of time between a decommissioning act and the construction of a shrine is somewhat unclear; however, based on geomorphological observations, they were probably constructed a few months to a few years after the underlying kiva was burned.

Remembrance and Commemoration

Remembrance is more than the act of recalling a thought; it keeps memories alive so we don’t forget the past. Commemorative events are acts of remembrance, such as ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations used to voluntarily recall past events, people, histories, or things. Commemoration distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary, the common from the uncommon. When we recognize and mark significant cultural events, we assign meaning to things important to us as a collective. This concept is not new to modern societies such as ours, it reaches far into our shared human past. The act of building a kiva shrine and raising an American flag on Memorial Day are one-in-the-same, they are our way of remembering and honoring those who came before.

Image caption: Structure 1412, a dry-laid masonry shrine, constructed within the depression of decommissioned Structure 1402, a Pueblo III period kiva.