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Yellow Jacket Pueblo as Community Center

Yellow Jacket Pueblo (Site 5MT5) as Community Center

by Kristin A. Kuckelman

Yellow Jacket Pueblo (Site 5MT5) is one of numerous ancient community centers in the Mesa Verde region (Lipe and Ortman 2000*1; Lipe and Varien 1999*1:Table 9-2; Ortman et al. 2000*1; Varien 1999*1:Tables 7.1–7.3). A substantial amount of recent research has been devoted to documenting community histories in this region and to considering the social, ritual, and political aspects of communities (Adler 1990*5, 1992*3, 1994*1, 1996*3; Lipe 1992*2, 2002*1; Lipe and Ortman 2000*1; Mahoney et al. 2000*1; Ortman and Bradley 2002*1; Ortman et al. 2000*1; Varien 1999*1, 1999*2). A thorough treatment of those issues is beyond the scope of this publication, and the reader is referred to the works cited for more in-depth discussions of communities. My goal in this chapter is to characterize the settlement history of the Yellow Jacket community in particular.

A community is defined as a cluster of many households that share social and natural resources and whose members interact, face-to-face, on a regular basis (Adler 1994*1; Varien 1999*1:19; Varien et al. 2000*1:47). Communities, referred to as the "fundamental element" of ancient Pueblo settlement (Lekson 1991*1:42; Varien 1999*1:22), are recognized in the archaeological record as areas of denser population, usually with public architecture, surrounded by more sparsely settled areas.

Like other large sites in the region, including Sand Canyon Pueblo (Adams 1984*2, 1985*1:2, 9, 1985*2; Bradley 1989*1:153, 155), Yellow Jacket Pueblo has been interpreted by some researchers to have been primarily a "ceremonial center," rather than a residential village, because of the high ratio of kivas to rooms (Ferguson 1996*1:105–107; Lange et al. 1986*1:15; Malville 1991*1:14; Wilson 1990*1:4). An ever-increasing body of evidence indicates, however, that the small, or standard-size, ancient kivas in this region were largely domestic structures for individual residence groups, or households (Cater and Chenault 1988*1; Kuckelman 2000*5; Lekson 1988*1, 1989*1, 1999*1:3–4, Lipe and Varien 1999*2:284; Rohn 1989*1:158; Varien and Lightfoot 1989*1); the rituals performed in these structures probably involved only members of their respective residence groups. This finding has been corroborated by testing, at both Sand Canyon and Yellow Jacket pueblos, that documented substantial deposits of domestic trash, such as one would expect in residential villages (Ortman and Bradley 2002*1).

Additional evidence that these sites were not strictly ceremonial centers for a surrounding, dispersed community comes from the Sand Canyon Archaeological Project Site Testing Program (Varien 1999*2). The results of this project, in which numerous smaller sites in the Sand Canyon community were tested, indicate that most of these dispersed habitations predate Sand Canyon Pueblo. This leads to the inference that Sand Canyon Pueblo, and probably Yellow Jacket Pueblo as well, were vast residential villages that were formed largely by groups that had moved to the villages from surrounding, dispersed settlements.

Evidence indicating that Yellow Jacket Pueblo was the center of a community includes the presence of public architecture at the site: a probable great kiva, a possible Chacoan great house, two possible Chacoan roads, four possible plazas (see "Architecture"), several water-control features (see "Subsistence"), and a canyon-rim complex that includes a bi-wall structure and encloses a spring. These structures and features were constructed over a span of approximately 220 years.

The Late Pueblo II Community (A.D. 1050–1150)

Our pottery data indicate that habitation of Yellow Jacket Pueblo began sometime between A.D. 1060 and 1100, in the late Pueblo II period (see "Chronology"). However, evidence from excavations at the small, neighboring sites (Sites 5MT1, 5MT2, and 5MT3) across the draw to the southwest indicates habitation in the vicinity of Yellow Jacket before that time, during the Basketmaker III period and again in the early Pueblo II period (Cater 1989*1; Karhu 2000*1; Yunker 2001*1).

During the late Pueblo II period in the Mesa Verde region as a whole, communities consisted of large clusters of dispersed residential sites (Varien 1999*1:146–147). The existence of a community at Yellow Jacket during this time is indicated by the construction of a great kiva (Kendrick and Judge 2000*1:116; Lipe and Varien 1999*2:255) and what is believed to be a Chacoan great house (Adler 1996*2:Figure 12.1; Durand and Durand 2000*1:107; Lipe and Varien 1999*2:258). Although the great house at Yellow Jacket Pueblo has not been dated, most such structures in this region appear to have been built between A.D. 1075 (Lipe and Varien 1999*2:256) and 1135 (Lipe and Varien 1999*1:299). Thus, a community already existed at Yellow Jacket Pueblo when the great house was built sometime during that span. In the early A.D. 1100s, great houses, along with great kivas, were the predominant structures serving to integrate communities (Lipe and Varien 1999*2:256; Varien et al. 1996*1:101). According to Lipe and Varien (1999*2:259) these great houses evidently were "large, formal, highly visible houses that clearly differentiate(d) those who lived there from the rest of the community."

According to Ortman's probabilistic pottery analysis, it is possible that a few of the masonry roomblocks we tested at Yellow Jacket Pueblo, as well as masonry or post-and-adobe structures that might have gone undetected during our testing, were constructed between A.D. 1080 and 1100, and there is a reasonable probability that at least some portions of five to seven roomblocks had been constructed by A.D. 1140 (see "Chronology"). On the basis of the available data, I estimate that between 70 and 112 people might have lived at this site by A.D. 1140 (see "Population Estimates"). The three small sites across the drainage (Sites 5MT1, 5MT2, and 5MT3) were occupied during the late Pueblo II and the Pueblo III periods (Cater 1989*1; Karhu 2000*1; Lange et al. 1986*1; Mobley-Tanaka 1997*2; Yunker 2001*1). The area that the Yellow Jacket community as a whole would have occupied has not been surveyed, but Mobley-Tanaka (1997*2:3) estimates that there are at least 20 sites in the immediate vicinity of Yellow Jacket Pueblo.

In summary, the foregoing suggests that, in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, a Chacoan great house and a great kiva were constructed within an existing dispersed community at Yellow Jacket. I am convinced that the early formation of communities and community centers in the late A.D. 1000s in this region was inextricably linked to the Chaco system, although we are still far from understanding what this system was and how it operated (see also "Architecture").

The Pueblo III Community (A.D. 1150–1300)

The status of the Yellow Jacket community during the oft-cited major drought that lasted from A.D. 1140 to 1180 (see "Chronology") is not clear. During our testing at Yellow Jacket Pueblo, we could find no stratigraphic evidence of an occupational hiatus, and the results of Ortman's probabilistic pottery-design analysis indicate a reasonable probability that four architectural blocks were occupied during this time. Thus, it is possible that the population of the community dwindled during the drought but some inhabitants of the village, and possibly of the dispersed community, were able to remain in the area.

After the drought ended, late in the twelfth century, Yellow Jacket Pueblo underwent a major construction surge and soon became a large village. By the early 1200s, it was probably the largest village in the region. Public architecture constructed in the village during the A.D. 1200s included four possible plazas (see "Architecture"), a number of water-control features (see "Subsistence"), and a canyon-rim complex (with a bi-wall structure) that enclosed a spring. Varien et al. (1996*1:101–102) state that, although public architecture appears to have been quite variable in form and use during this period, it is probable that Chaco-era great houses and great kivas "continued to play an important role in the ritual landscape of the post-Chacoan communities." Martin (1936*1:208) believed that the presence of the great kiva at Lowry was the reason the site was reoccupied several times.

By A.D. 1225, Yellow Jacket Pueblo might have housed between 850 and 1,360 residents, and the results of the probabilistic pottery analysis suggest that this population level either was maintained or declined only slightly until the regional migration late in the thirteenth century. This population estimate is far greater than estimates for other communities in the region (see Mahoney et al. 2000*1:Table 3). The increase in population during the Pueblo III period at Yellow Jacket Pueblo is beyond what could be attributed to natural, biological growth. Where did the additional people come from? It is likely that many of the new buildings constructed in the late A.D. 1100s and early 1200s were built by people returning to the pueblo after living elsewhere for a time and/or by descendants of people who once inhabited the pueblo. New members might have joined the community as affinal kin, friends, and acquaintances of the former Yellow Jacket residents; most of these new members probably came from communities founded elsewhere during the drought. It is also possible that most or even all residents of dispersed habitations within the community relocated to the village at that time. The latest tree-ring dates (which are noncutting dates) from Sites 5MT1, 5MT2, and 5MT3 are A.D. 1194, 1191, and 1136, respectively (Robinson and Cameron 1991*1), which could indicate that the residents of these habitations relocated to Yellow Jacket Pueblo during the building surge in the late 1100s and early 1200s. If the history of the Yellow Jacket community was similar to that of the Sand Canyon community (Varien 1999*2) and of the Sand Canyon locality as a whole (Adler 1992*3:22–23), most of the inhabitants in the surrounding dispersed settlements would have relocated to Yellow Jacket Pueblo, the community center, by the mid-1200s. During the early Pueblo III period, then, the population of the community was probably sparse and dispersed. In the late 1100s and early 1200s, Yellow Jacket Pueblo became the largest village in the region, and it persisted until the regional depopulation of the late 1200s.


Our work at Yellow Jacket Pueblo has contributed significantly to our understanding of community centers in the Mesa Verde region. First, we are able to establish that the history of Yellow Jacket generally follows a model of community center succession proposed by several researchers and substantiated by multiple lines of evidence (Adler and Varien 1994*1; Lipe and Ortman 2000*1; Ortman et al. 2000*1; Varien 1999*1; Varien et al. 1996*1). This model describes late Pueblo II communities as habitations dispersed on farmable uplands, often with some residential clustering around a Chacoan great house or great kiva. Early Pueblo III communities were characterized by villages of linear roomblocks. During the late Pueblo III period, communities became increasingly aggregated and shifted to canyon-rim locations.

Although the development of the Yellow Jacket community generally followed this model, it diverged somewhat from the pattern in that its community center grew rapidly during the late 1100s and early 1200s and probably reached its maximum population by A.D. 1225. There was no relocation and additional aggregation in the mid-1200s. It is possible that some differences between the development of this community and the development of others are related to the location and environment of the site. At Yellow Jacket, good agricultural land, the residential land of choice in the late 1100s and early 1200s, occurred near multiple, reliable canyon springs, so the formation of a dispersed community during the late Pueblo II period in this location is not surprising.

The building surge in the late A.D. 1100s and early 1200s was also not unusual, and resettlement of much of the community population into the big village by the mid-1200s follows the regional pattern as well. Because the population of the community was already aggregated on a canyon rim, literally on top of dependable water sources, the construction of the great tower complex (Architectural Block 1200) in the mid-1200s might have been all that was needed to accomplish what other communities could achieve only by completely relocating to canyon rims.

Second, our work documents the process of growth of one community center. Yellow Jacket Pueblo appears to have grown from the central part of the site outward and to have been abandoned in roughly the reverse order. This pattern could have important implications for systems of land tenure and for the power, prestige, and influence of individuals or families inhabiting the blocks that were among the first to be established and last to be abandoned. Also, the occupation of specific roomblocks throughout the stages of community development confirms the continuity of the population.

Third, the results of Crow Canyon's research demonstrate that the Yellow Jacket community had aggregated into the largest ancient Pueblo village of the region by the early 1200s, in contrast to other communities in the region, which did not aggregate to this extent until the mid-1200s (Ortman et al. 2000*1:141). Although the reasons for this development are difficult to ascertain on the basis of the available data, this difference could signal the beginning of what was an important and regionwide chain of events. For it is possible that, whatever the stimulus or stimuli were that caused this community to aggregate, the formation of this large village was one catalyst that induced other dispersed communities to aggregate into villages.

Fourth, our research shows that this community center endured for at least 100 years and so is clearly an example of a center that persisted for multiple generations before the formation of very large, protohistoric Pueblo villages in what is now New Mexico. And finally, comparisons of trade goods from Yellow Jacket, Castle Rock, and Woods Canyon pueblos (see The Castle Rock Pueblo Database and The Woods Canyon Pueblo Database) indicate divergences between community centers in the level of access to nonlocal objects, possibly related to village size, location, and time of occupation. This variation could have significant implications for the relative importance of villages in the political, social, ritual, and economic landscape of the region.

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