Saturday, November 14, 2015


Cavates at the Mortandad ruin, Los Alamos,
NM. Photograph Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.

In 2003 we visited the Mortandad Ruin with our friends Bill and Jeanne Gibson. This is on the Pajarito Plateau at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and features rock art as well as cavates and other features. One of the most exciting features there is a painted cavate kiva, in pristine condition and virtually as good as new.

Mortandad ruin, cavates and viga holes
in the cliff. Johnson and Hoagland,
2010, Fig. 3, p. 3.

"The Pajarito Plateau was formed by a series of large volcanic ash flows erupting from the Jemez Mountains about one million years ago. The ash consolidated into a soft rock resulting into what is referred to as Bandelier tuff, which through erosion, gradually dissected into the thirteen canyons upon which LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the Los Alamos townsite reside. The south-facing sides of the canyons frequently erode and fracture into vertical cliff faces. Between the twelfth through sixteenth centuries, people living on the Pajarito Plateau carved chambers into the tuff face, these referred to by archaeologists as cavates. By definition, a cavate or rock cut feature exhibits evidence of human modification (Figure 3). This evidence includes excavation marks, a shaped or modified entryway, floor or wall plaster, internal features including grooves, niches, sooting, or external features (e.g.,viga holes, hand/footholds, or staircases). Cavates, rock cut features, and other associated architectural features are carved into the soft tuff and are subject to degradation, resulting primarily from erosion. The Mortandad cavates, compared with others on the Pajarito Plateau, are relatively stable, as the tuff in this area is less friable than other tuff outcrops. Although the floors, walls, and roofs remain relatively stable, some of the Mortandad Canyon cavates are eroded and plaster and sooting that may have been present is now gone. The existing cavate deterioration indicates that the outer layer of tuff can crumble and/or spall off when touched or walked on." (Johnson and Hoagland 2010:2-3)

Cave kiva at the Mortandad ruin,
Los Alamos, NM. Photograph
Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.
 Of particular interest at Mortandad, is a decorated cave kiva. It is extremely well preserved and the walls inside are covered with images.

"The interior of the cave is elaborately decorated with a series of bold, well-executed petroglyphs carved into the soot-blackened ceiling and walls. A dado of tan plaster extends from the floor to a height of approximately 30 in. above the floor. Figures represented by the petroglyphs include the hunchbacked flute player, the plumed serpent, masked dancing figures, birds and other animals. Apparently either there were few fires in the kiva after the figures were carved, or they were periodically cleaned, as the incised areas have little or no soot remaining in them." (Steen 1977:62)

"Arrow swallower" and club swinger at the
Mortandad ruin, Los Alamos, NM.
Photograph Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.

"Mortandad Style. The almost perfectly preserved room at LA 12609 is the type site for the Mortandad Style of kiva art. To create figures in this style, the artist first blackened the cave with a dense, black coat of sooty smoke (see Fig. 18). Then, with a hard point of some sort, quite possibly a sharpened stick, he cut through the soot to the light gray tuff beneath. The resultant figures are large, rather stiff and roughly done. The Kokopellis and the club swinger - are the only figures in which any action is portrayed. This style was found from Ancho canyon to Pueblo Canyon." (Steen 1977:22)

"In an unusual, perhaps unique, representation of magic, Kokopelli is shown swallowing and arrow. It is not known whether the club swinger is aiming at the hunchback, but these are rare portrayals of action. "'Sword" swallowing is a practice of a curing society at Zuni (Stevenson 1904).'" (Steen 1977, Fig. 19, p. 25)

I am uncomfortable with the identification of this particular figure as a "Sword-swallower" or arrow-swallower. If that is actually the case, the arrow is being inserted into the throat nock end first. This means that the fletching of the arrow is going against the grain. It may be, in fact, that this was a real practice observed by Stevenson (1904) and my problem with the concept is only personal squeamishness, but I would like to know that a thorough search of Ancestral Pueblo references and pueblo mythology has been conducted to eliminate a concept such as a mythological  hero coughing up a sacred arrow. Another possibility is that the fletching of the arrow is purposely being inserted in the throat to induce vomiting. In the American southwest certain cleansing ceremonies included drinking a tea or infusion of certain herbs to induce vomiting that cleaned out the interior. Ethnographic mention of this sometimes also include the detail of using a chicken feather to tickle the throat if the onset of the purging was too slow. This might, in fact, be a portrayal of such a ceremony.

"Fig. 21. Masked figures and, at
the right, two quadrupeds kissing.
Kissing quadrupeds and birds
occur frequently in this style of kiva
art. (Meter stick shown.)"
(Steen 1977:27)

"Few geometric figures were seen in any of the kivas; the style seems to run almost exclusively to life forms. Anthropomorphic figures, either masked men or gods, are common (see de Peso's letter below), but Kokopellis are seldom seen. The most common single figure is probably the Awanyu. Birds and quadrupeds are the other figures carved on the walls, and frequently they are shown in pairs in kissing position (Figs. 20 and 21)." (Steen 1977: 22-3)

"Some of the figures seem to have a Mexican accent, so a set of photographs (Figs. 19-22) of the art work at the kiva at LA 12609 was sent to Charles di Peso of the Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Arizona. His reply was:

"Fig. 22. On the left is a possible
representation of a Mesoamerican
Sun god and, on the right a
Kokopelli." (Steen 1977:28)

"What a lot of wonderful decoration - exciting as hell and twice as much fun! Starting at the 'sunburst' kid, who occupies the area between the two entries - isn't he something! His sun body with the center cross is an iconographic form used by the Mesoamericans to represent Tonatiuh (Beyer 1965, pp. 147 and 169). In his left hand is a perfectly good 'horned serpent' and in his right, a T-shaped club. By the 14th century, when the kiva was in use, it is believed that Tonatiuh was submerged by the Huitzilopochtli complex (Nicholson in Wauchope's Handbook of Middle American Indians, 10, pp. 424-426) in Mexico. If so, the Anasazi snake-in-hand portrait would resemble that of Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus 34 (Fig. 39).

Horned serpents and spotted animals
at the Mortandad ruin, Los Alamos, NM.
Photograph Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.

The Kokopellis - hunched, ithyphallic flute player, and sundry sword swallowers, etc. - the 'rainbow' Plumed Serpent, which was laid out as a design over the wall niche, suggests some affinity with Quetzalcoatl. Below it are the two long-tailed, spotted, kissing characters. They are a far cry from 'tigers', but they are spotted and have long tails. Whether or not the one with the ears or 'horns' is a male and the other a female is open to one's imagination. Further, there is a relationship between this pair and the Plumed Serpent with the bifurcated tail - it remains and interesting supposition. - - Not much I can say about the kissing animals noted over the last niche and over the first niche where the horned helmet stands." (Steen 1977:23-4)

Elsewhere I have speculated that the two spotted quadrupeds may be canines, given the straight tails, lack of claws, and also the lack of feline pointed ears. Canines or jaguars ("tigers"), I really do not know.

One must not get the impression that ll the cave kivas from Ancho to Pueblo Canyon werre decorated in this manner. From more than half the hundreds of cavate ceremonial rooms, the inner surface has exfoliated so that all trace of any former designs has disappeared. At other sites, the rooms were blackened but not decorated. Where the Mortandad style figures were cut into the walls, normally only one or two figures were made. We are fortunate that the best preserved kiva also contains the most figures." (Steen 1977:24)

All in all, this is a fascinating site with an amazing array of extremely well preserved art, including a number of unique themes and images. 


Johnson, Alexander F. and Stephen R. Hoagland
2010    Mortandad Cavate Complex Baseline Study, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM.

Steen, Charlie R.

1977    Pajarito Plateau Archaeological Survey and Excavations, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory of the University of California, Los Alamos.

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