Awatovi

Detail part of a restored mural found in a kiva at Awatovi. Image shows the upper part of an ancient warrior surrounded by images of birds.
Detail from a restored wall mural found in a kiva at Awatovi
The ruins of Awatovi in 1937: there are only a few stone and adobe walls still standing
The ruins of Awatovi in 1937

Awatovi was founded around 1200 CE on a defensible point of Antelope Mesa, overlooking the Jeddito Valley below. Today's Jeddito Valley contains many ancient pueblo ruins but Awatovi is by far the largest and most spectacular. It's not that there's much to look at as there isn't: the excavated areas have been mostly backfilled and there isn't much showing above the surface. But there are broken pottery shards all over the place, so many shards that it has been said the original residents of Awatovi formed, decorated, fired and then broke pottery morning, noon and night for hundreds of years.

Awatovi came into being at a time when the concept of clans was first emerging. It is said that Awatovi was founded by members of the Bow Clan but many other clans came and went over the years. It seems most of the pueblos built in the environs of Antelope Mesa were built by people from the east. First Mesa was a form of interface between the eastern people and the western people as many of the clans and societies of the First Mesa area practice rituals first formed in Keresan, Tewa and Towa pueblos closer to the Rio Grande, and sing their stories in archaic versions of those same languages. Walpi, Shungopovi and Hano are living examples of that. Some of those same clans and rituals are common to other Hopi villages on Second and Third Mesas but there are subtle differences depending on the physical and spiritual distance each is from First Mesa.

The 1200's were also a time of great dislocaton as the climate changed considerably for the drier and families and clans migrated cross-country to be closer to more reliable sources of water. This was a time when the pueblos of Hovenweep, Betatakin, Keet Siel and others were being abandoned. Many of those people added to the populations of Hopi First, Second and Third Mesas but not necessarily to any of the Antelope Mesa/Jeddito pueblos.

As more and more Towa and Keres-speaking people (mostly coming from the Jemez Mountains and Acoma and Laguna regions in north and central New Mexico) migrated to the Antelope Mesa area, the more the clans and kachinas came to have local presence. There was also a long history of Zuni influence in the area as many Zunis, Acomas, Lagunas and Hopis trace the migrations of their families and clans back to ruins found in the Fourmile/Casa Malpais and Wenima areas in eastern Arizona.

Archaelogists say that at its height, Awatovi was a Towa-speaking pueblo first and Keres-speaking pueblo second. Nearby Kawaika'a was primarily a Keres-speaking pueblo. Both pueblos were on Antelope Mesa, well across Jeddito Wash and away from the Hopi pueblos on First, Second and Third Mesas. Awatovi and Kawaika'a were also in an area where there were multiple other ruins from pueblos already long abandoned. Due to the nature of how the various clans came together to become "Hopi," multiple languages have seemingly always been spoken across the region. Even today, the Hopi spoken at Walpi is different from the Hopi spoken at Oraibi, same as the Keres spoken today at Acoma is virtually unintelligible to a Keres-speaker from Santo Domingo or San Felipe.

Jeddito yellow clay is part of what made the pottery of those days so spectacular: it could be easily formed, polished and decorated, then fired with local coal. There were also other local clays that turned red and buff colored when fired. The first orange ware appeared around 1275, the first yellow ware around 1325.

Between 1375 and 1425 certain styles of wall mural and textile and pottery decoration were developed at Pottery Mound, on the banks of the Rio Puerco in central New Mexico. We don't know where the people who first built Pottery Mound came from but the vilage was a veritable melting pot of artistic and religious styles and designs. Toward the end of that time period there was a small migration of Hopis from the Jeddito Valley to Pottery Mound. That migration reversed direction about 50 years later and some of that design and style innovation made the return trip.

I bring up Pottery Mound because when the pueblo was excavated, underground kivas were found with particular designs painted on the walls. Textiles were found with portions of some of those designs dyed into them. And there was pottery found with aspects of those designs transferred from 2-dimensional renderings to 3 dimensional renderings. The dating of the artifacts and murals is put at between 1375 and 1425 CE.

It is felt that the designs were of spiritual significance as it must have taken quite some time to prepare and paint those kiva murals, create and dye the textiles appropriately, form and decorate the pottery and develop the rituals. As kivas are known centers of religious activity within the pueblo, the supposition is that the designs, textiles and associated rituals were specific to a particular clan. It is also felt that in the creation of the murals of Pottery Mound, ritual specialists may have evolved and a clan formed around that purpose. However, any clan so formed was quite small in number and reach. Wall murals of simpler design and similar age have been found at Kuaua and Awatovi. Only one kiva mural has been found at Awatovi in which layers are painted with various clearly "Sikyatki" designs.

Many of the designs that are now termed "Sikyatki" were actually first expressed in the Fourmile/Casas Malpais area. Some was also developed at Homolovi but that was only shortly before the Homolovi pueblos were abandoned and the people moved back to the Hopi mesas. It seems the real flow of Sikyatki-style began to develop at Pottery Mound and was transplanted to Awatovi where it probably came to the attention of Sikyatki potters through regional trade.

The wall murals at Pottery Mound depicted kilts, blankets and other painted textiles but no evidence of them has been found at Hopi. As textiles are a more easily transported medium than pottery, it makes sense that those designs made the journey to the Hopi mesas painted on religious garments. Once at Hopi, at least one ritual specialist made the journey and for maybe 30 years, faithfully performed his/her duties in rendering versons of those designs on the walls of a kiva built for that purpose. However, rather than being a rendering similar to that of an unfolded/unrolled paper map, the viewpoint of some of the painting is from a polar angle with the elements of the design radiating outward from a centerpoint. That's how it would be if the surface of a painted pot were flattened. Apparently that clan didn't get a lot of support at Awatovi as the painting of those murals ended before 1450 and that kiva was closed by 1500. There's a large difference between the vocabulary that can be expressed on the large surface of a wall and what can be expressed on the globular surface of a pot. A potter, looking at a painted wall, could probably only grasp smaller elements of that whole and then transfer those smaller elements to the surface of a pot. That's most likely how "Sikyatki" designs spread like wildfire across the Hopi mesas.

The elders of Awatovi had long been involved in recruiting new clans and ritual specialists into Awatovi society. In the 1500's, that effort had helped Awatovi become the largest and most prosperous pueblo in the region. It was also the first approached by the Spanish in 1541. A skirmish quickly developed but was almost as soon settled as the elders of Awatovi sued for peace and offered appropriate gifts. Soon the other major Hopi pueblos (Oraibi, Mishongnovi, Walpi, Kawaika'a and Sikyatki) followed suit. The Spaniards searched thoroughly and, finding no gold, soon left. Various explorers appeared over the years but none came to stay until the first Franciscan friars appeared at Awatovi in 1629.

Backed by Spanish troops, the fathers forced the people to build the San Bernardo de Aguatubi Mission on top of the former primary kiva of the pueblo. Construction of the mission required the cutting and transport of large pine logs across the desert from more than 100 miles away. The mission is reported to have been open for business in 1629, indicating a massive disruption of the people, their religion and their labor.

The fathers weren't doing too well in converting the residents until one of them successfully treated the eyes of a young boy. As the people felt that to be a miracle, some of them began to convert. As that was a threat to the dominance of Hopi religious authorities, that priest was dead (most likely poisoned) less than four years after his arrival at Awatovi. However, religious conversions continued. Satellite missions were established at Oraibi, Mishongnovi and Walpi but they weren't doing well in the face of organized Hopi hostility. The situation led to increased Spanish abuse until the Spaniards were all killed and their missions razed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

Franciscan fathers reappeared in the area in 1696 and ordered the reconstruction of San Bernardo de Aguatubi Mission. The chief of Awatovi decided that his people had strayed too far from their Hopi traditions and conspired with leaders of the other Hopi pueblos to destroy Awatovi. Then came a morning in early 1701 when the men of Awatovi were in their kivas(the pueblo chief included, he did not spare himself) the men of other pueblos attacked. They pulled the ladders up out of the underground kivas and poured wood and burning pitch down. They also poured in masses of chile peppers (Awatovi was known for the quality of their chiles) and killed most of the men and boys that way (certain ritual specialists, from clans not reperesented among the other Hopi pueblos, were preserved). The women and girls were rounded up and some were being systematically executed when a deal was struck to divide the remainder among the other pueblos. That didn't go so well woth the women either as most of them did not survive the trip to those other pueblos. When that was finished, the pueblo was burned and essentially razed. The site was never settled again.

There were several archaeological expeditions to Awatovi over the years but these days, most visitors are Hopis collecting designs from the pot shards and from rock art in the surrounding canyons. The site of Awatovi can be toured by non-Hopis but that requires the presence of a Hopi guide. Many people who have walked on that hallowed ground report sensing multitudes of disturbed spirits still there.

Photos are in the public domain.

Sites of the Ancients and approximate dates of occupation: