The Society for American Archaeology’s paper of the month for June comes from American Antiquity and is entitled: ‘Drinking Performance and Politics in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon’. Author: Patricia L. Crown.

People require liquids to survive and have long created tools to make it easier to consume, share, and carry beverages.  Over time, human groups have elaborated both the drinks and the vessels used to contain them.  So, many archaeological sequences show patterns of increasing varieties of drink recipes/ingredients and increasing varieties of drinking vessels. Early vessels shaped from natural forms including shells, horns, eggshells, skullcaps, gourds, or calabashes, were replaced over time by ceramic vessels that mimicked these forms, and later, in some areas, by metal and glass drinking vessels.  Vessels designed to hold large quantities of drink for group consumption, either by passing the vessel around the group or by drinking through straws, tend to be associated with societies that lack overt hierarchies.  Overtly hierarchical societies tend to have drinking vessels designed for individual consumption, permitting an elaboration of the vessels that reinforces status differences. Sequences of drinking vessel forms typically shift from generalized shapes designed to hold any concoction to multiple distinctive vessel shapes each associated with a unique drink recipe.  For instance, in the U.S. today, barware includes 11 varieties of tumblers, 7 varieties of stemmed cocktail glasses, 18 distinct wineglasses, and 12 beer/ale glass shapes!  While some characteristics of these vessels may enhance their associated drink contents, at least part of the shape/content relationship involves non-verbal signaling of what is being consumed.

Drinks are not only necessary for survival, they are used in ritual around the world, and drink ingredients (particularly coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao nibs, and alcohol) are important parts of exchange economies.  In the political arena, drinks are used to honor guests, create debts, and challenge or reify hierarchies.  Drinking occasions often involve complex etiquette.

In my paper, I explore the sequence of drinking vessel forms in Chaco Canyon, from early natural gourds, to ceramic gourds, tecomates, pitchers, cylinder jars, and finally mugs.  Elaboration included variations in their shape, size, slip color, and painted design. Within the sequence, the Chacoan cylinder jar stands out as a distinctive, highly recognizable, but rare form.  Research has revealed cacao residues in these vessels, indicating importation of drink ingredients from Mesoamerica for consumption in vessels that may emulate Mesoamerican forms.  Cylinder jars appear at the same time that another form, the pitcher, was in use.  But while pitchers were one of the most common burial accompaniments in Chaco, indicating association with individuals, cylinder jars were almost never placed in burials.  Instead, most cylinder jars came from a single room in Pueblo Bonito where they were stored on a shelf that spanned the room.  This suggests that a group, probably a ritual sodality, owned the cylinder jars, perhaps using them for drinking events that attracted people who repaid their participation with labor.  Around A.D. 1100, the room storing the cylinder jars was set on fire, burying 173 vessels, and probably ending whatever ritual was associated with them.  Studying drinking activity gives us a glimpse into many aspects of life in the past.


The Society for American Archaeology’s paper of the month for June, Drinking Performance and Politics in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon’, will be freely available until the end of the month.

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