Incorporating the Outdoors as Living Space

Ethnoarchaeology at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico

By: Nan A. Rothschild

Originally Published in 1991

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People’s houses both define and are defined by their lives. The material and permanence of houses are related to the nature of the environment in which they are located, and to how residents make their living. But beyond this basic level, the spatial order inside and outside houses will vary widely among societies. The question for us as anthropologists is, Do differences in the organization of space imply meaningful cultural or social differ­ences, or are they the result of historical accident or random events? I will compare the spatial organization outside the houses of two groups of people, the Zuni of western New Mexico and Euro­Americans. The houses themselves do not look very dissimilar. How­ever, we will see that there are real differences in the use of exterior space that reflect the different atti­tudes toward the natural and con­structed environments of members of these cultures.

The research involved focuses mainly on the Zuni, a native Ameri­can people. Some details of Euro­American spatial organization are presented to help delineate the con­trast in attitudes. An archaeological approach that analyzes activity areas in terms of the patterns formed by remnants of the activities allows us to perceive this contrast, which may not be explicitly recognized by the occupants of the houses.

Euro-American Homes

Contemporary Americans live in many types of houses, from apart­ments in glittering skyscrapers to rural cabins. However, if one asked people (both members of the society and outsiders) what the character­istic Euro-American house looked like, most would probably identify some form of single-family suburban home. Such a home is basically rectangular in layout, one to three stories in height, and set on a plot with a front yard (accessible to the public and casual visitors) and a back yard (more protected and private). The plot is defined by certain symbolic or real boundary-markers. Roads or driveways, walk­ways, fences, walls, trees and other forms of planting all serve to limit the spatial unit.

This housing form is associated with a particular family form, con­sisting most stereotypically of what is referred to as “the nuclear family,” a two-generational unit of parents and children. There are some signs that this dominant family form may be changing in Euro-American culture, but it is too soon to know if the stereotype is changing as well. There are, in addition, certain kinds of activities that would be expected to occur in various rooms in the house, and in various segments of the out­doors, weather permitting.

Structured ideas about space and its uses exist at the level of individual residential structures and at other levels, including that of the com­munity (Leone 1973; 1984). Conrad Arensberg (1968) wrote about re­gional variations in Euro-American communities, showing that each type derived from a particular historical European antecedent, and was asso­ciated with a characteristic form of socio-spatial organization and fre­quency of interaction. So the colonial New England town had an English ancestral form, was united around a town square and a single church, and was governed by the town meeting. It was a close-knit egali­tarian community; interaction was face-to-face, and occurred on a daily basis. In Arensberg’s second type, the southern county, based on a western European model, farmers or planters lived at some distance from each other, and within a day’s ride of the county seat. They met weekly on Saturdays when they came in to do business in the town. The unifying institution was the political seat; there was more than one church, and there was a two-class social system.

Members of other cultures also have stereotypic ideas about house forms and the kinds of activities that take place in different parts of the living space that a social unit occu­pies. However, since their spatial structures may be different than ours, they may be hard to interpret and may even look unstructured. (It should be noted that ideas about spatial structure are difficult to re­trieve in interviews, since they exist at a non-verbal or preconscious level.)

Zuni Housing

The Zuni live on land that they have occupied, according to written history, since at least the mid-l8th century (Ferguson and Hart 1985: 89), but that was occupied prehis­torically by the Anasazi, from whom they may be descended. The Zuni people now live on a reservation that was created in the late 19th century (Fig. 3); it consists of only a tiny fraction of their traditionally used lands (Ferguson and Hart:88).

Zuni society today is based on a cash economy in which wage labor, silversmithing and other craft activi­ties, and welfare are supplemented to some degree by the more tradi­tional activities of sheepherding and agriculture (both for subsistence and for animal fodder). Many members of the tribe live in and around the main pueblo, which has been in existence since the 15th century (Kintigh 1985:70), albeit modified frequently and rebuilt. Five stories high at one time, with entry by means of ladders through the roof, the pueblo has been considerably modernized in architectural detail, but retains much of its original character (Figs. 1,2).

The pueblo is not large enough to house all Zuni residents, nor has it been so in the recent past. Today a number of housing clusters similar to “sub-divisions” have been built with federal assistance. These look similar to the “typical” Euro-American house described above, but the exis­tence of houses that look alike does not mean that they are used alike. One example of an important dif­ference is in the family unit occu­pying a “modern” Zuni house. While the residential unit may be unclear family, it is much more likely to consist of an extended family with grandparents, sisters and their children.

Oren, and a variety of other natives added to the basic nuclear group The space around the housesaes also looks different from a Euro 1 meri­can house lot; it does not at appear to be partitioned into front al back yards, and often it does not appear bounded at all. To the eyes  non-Zuni observer (as reported by me) this may look “messy” or disorganized. In many North African towns, of course, the definition of yards is based on the presence of grass; the Zuni would think that taking scarce water resou s to grow grass would be waster and inappropriate. However, I think that another source of the difference between the appearance of Zuni and a non-Zuni plot of land  the different conception of their spatial structure.

Zuni Farming Village

In order to examine the spatial organization of Zuni house lot we mapped a series of houses in three farming villages, 19th century communities that lay outside of Zuni Pueblo. These villages were built, in either the 18th or the 19th centBury (although at least two were built on top of late prehistoric sites), and they were occupied by members  of the tribe on a seasonal basis, s ,were they provided a base for fan ming and herding (Mills and Ferg on 1980). In the 1930s or 1940s I these occupations became difficult because of soil erosion and the lower­ing of the water table, and population  began to decline (Ferguson son 1989). There are a series of theses villages, built using traditional at architectural materials and methods: adobe and stone, mortar and plaster and roofs of logs covered with brush, and dirt. They are found at distances of 10 to 20 miles from the Lin pueblo. They have been virtu lly unoccupied for the last 50 years, although at least one house in elch village is currently occupied, while others are still used on a daily basis for storage or simply to maintain a claim to a piece of land (Rothschild et al. 1990).

Some of these villages were studied in 1979 (Mills, Holmes, and Ferguson 1982) under the auspices of the Zuni Archaeology Program directed by Roger Anyon; other villages were recorded in 1989 by a group of students from Barnard and Columbia under the direction of Susan Dublin and myself. We were particularly interested in these Zuni analogs to the freestanding homes of Euro-American suburbs. They seemed to be an intermediate form between traditional structures (often contiguous with other houses in the village) and those found in the more recent housing settlements built with the assistance of the federal Housing and Urban Development program. If we believe that house plan, as well as other aspects of the organization of space, bears a relationship to social form, changes in plan are worthy of investigation.

The three villages that we focused on in the 1989 study were Lower and Upper Pescado and Lower Nutria (Fig. 3). Lower Pescado is the oldest of the three and was built on the ruins of a prehistoric village. It con­sisted in 1989 of only three intact houses and the ruins of a half-dozen more, with the eroding walls of pre­historic structures visible on the surface. Upper Pescado, according to informants, was originally part of the same social community as Lower Pescado; the two are approximately a mile apart, lying about 15 miles to the east of Zuni. When harvesting help was needed, or during social occasions when games were played, both villages would be involved. Both used water from the Rio Pes­cado River for farming; Upper Pes­cado has obtained some water from a large spring. Upper Pescado lies along the major road to Zuni Pueblo and was recently electrified, causing some increase in year-round occu­pation. There are about a dozen houses in its agglomerated or core area.

Lower Nutria, to the northeast of Zuni, obtained water from the Nu­tria River. It is fairly close to Upper Nutria (Figs. 4, 5) and seems to have had the same kind of social relation­ship with it that Upper and Lower Pescado had. Some houses in Lower Nutria were built on and around bedrock that is close to the surface (Fig. 6); it forms house walls and a threshing floor. The village was somewhat larger than Upper Pescado, with between 15 and 20 struc­tures in its core area. And it is unique among the villages we examined in that some of its structures were multi-family units, housing two or three families.

In all three villages the existing houses are one story, built of either adobe mud bricks or stone cut in rectangular pieces, with mortar be­tween the bricks or the stone. In most houses it was necessary to plaster walls regularly for mainten­ance. Roofs are held up with a series of parallel logs, sometimes covered by another smaller series of logs at right angles. The covering consistsof brush and dirt, often contained within two or three courses of stone placed at the outer roof edges. Windows are now glass and mostly enclosed by milled lumber, as are doors. Houses usually consist of two rooms, each used for a variety of purposes.

The Study of Architecture and Artifact Distribution

Archaeologists are interested in how people lived in the past. This curiosity extends to what kinds of things people did, and where they did what they did. The places where certain activities were regularly carried out are called “activity areas,” and we believe that the structuring of these areas is in­timately related to a number of other cultural factors, such as how people made their living (or what kinds of activities were necessary to daily life), and what the social structure of the group, including the division of labor, was like. It is often difficult to identify clearly the spatial organiza­tion of activities in the past. Ethno­archaeology allows us to look closely at some of the interconnections be­tween detailed aspects of life in the present and reflections of these de­tails in the material world. By under­standing these connections in the present, we will enhance our ability to understand them in the past In addition to recording architec­tural details (the number and place­ment of windows and their shape, materials, and measurements, for example, or wall construction ele­ments), we also mapped the location of objects outside of houses. These fall into two categories: there are items, mostly small, found on the ground—broken pieces of glass, frag­ments of clothing, bits of metal, old tires—and there are larger things such as wood and stone piles, old oil drums recycled as trash receptacles, burned garbage dumps, bread ovens, and the like. Some of the latter items are what archaeologists call “features,” small components of a site associated with specific ac­tivites (these may include hearths, dumps, sleeping areas, and the like).

There are a number of types of features surrounding the houses in the Zuni farming villages that can be tied to particular activities. Moist houses are accompanied by several of the following: hearths; circular stone and dirt outdoor ovens used for baking traditional bread; piles of a variety of reusable materials (stones, wood, mud or adobe brick; Fig. 7); trash dumps, either within a container such as an oil drum or on the ground; and outhouses. There are also a variety of sheds, corrals, and animal pens houses. The land around the ag­glomerated housing area was ex­tremely important for farming and herding, and for other communal activities such as threshing. These villages are notable for their lack of any kind of ritual architecture such as kivas; all ceremonial activities took place in the main pueblo of Zuni during the winter.

Analysis of Spatial Patterning

In the present analysis I have focused on features that are assumed to relate to the use of the house as a residential structure. (So, for ex­ample, I did not include piles of reusable construction materials be­cause these may date to a period after the house’s primary use, when some destruction or rebuilding was being planned.) I plotted the loca­tions of these features around the houses in Lower Nutria, and Lower and Upper Pescado, then considered what kinds of features there were, where they were located (near the major door, or alongside a wall that does not have a door), and how far from the nearest wall of the house they were. I assumed that if the space around these Zuni houses had a characteristic structure, there would be a regular and identifiable pattern for the placement of these features. Further, such a pattern would imply a predictable set of activities that took place outside of houses, some of which were tied to these features.

Several such patterns do emerge. One is defined by the presence of items such as firewood piles and hearths, and by the organized dis­posal of household refuse, often in oil drums. These features are almost always placed along the wall of the house in which the major door is located, within about 5-8 meters of the wall. They are placed parallel to the wall, and within a space defined by the extent of the wall, or fanning out from the front door (Fig. 9). Other types of features such as out­houses and ovens are located in a different pattern vis-a-vis the house. Outhouses, which are relatively rare, are mostly found at a greater dis­tance from houses than the features just described, and are located off of a wall perpendicular to the front wall. Ovens are found either behind or in front of houses, at a distance of from 10 to 20 meters. Since the majority of ovens are sited to the south of houses, it seems reasonable to suggest that their location related to prevailing wind direction. There are other natural conditions that may affect the organization of outdoor space. For example, as mentioned above, Lower Nutria was built on bedrock, and some of its houses were located so that the rock formed one wall.

To interpret this patterning in terms of activities, we see that one set of everyday routine actions in­volving keeping houses warm and kitchens clean is conducted near the front door, where it is most con­venient. Outhouses are segregated, presumably because they represent health issues or notions of pollution. And ovens are more distant, because of the danger of fire. In addition to the information on activities derived from the placement of features, we can also get some insight into the use of outdoor space by examining the patterning in the distribution of discarded artifacts, namely those found on the ground outside of houses. We recorded these artifacts and classified them into use-related categories; included were broken pottery, food remains (mostly bone), bottles and cans (and broken glass), toys, auto and bicycle parts, cloth­ing, household objects and hard­ware, and large items such as kitchen appliances, beds, and agricultural implements.

There are a number of different processes that account for the loca­tions in which these items were found (Schiffer 1987). Some are accidental (affecting mostly small or broken things); there may be several displacements and forces involved between the use of the object and where it was recovered. The wind may move some things, dogs will transport others. One human ac­tivity, namely cleaning up, including sweeping, will also dislocate some small items. In other cases, the ob­jects recovered may still be where they were placed when first dis­carded. For example, dumping, as a deliberate activity, is usually visible in the creation of piles. Sometimes these consist of one major type of object—e.g., cans—but at other times the dump is varied in its composition. And then there is the discard of large, potentially usable items. Bed parts are often incor­porated into fences (Fig. 10); agri­cultural tools (plows, harrows, and the like) are left near barns or along field boundaries; and kitchen appli­ances are often left inside houses, or just outside the door.

The displacement of no-longer­used artifacts is also informative as to spatial use. We observed the clearing of space in front of houses by sweeping; a space with many pieces of broken glass littering the ground is not available for use in the way that a cleared space is (Fig. 11).The space that is regularly cleared is the area in front of the main door, the same space defined by the existence of a number of the features described above. It seems, therefore, that the most consistently and identi­fiably used outdoor space in Zuni farming villages is the section along the front wall.

Sources of Differentiation

The next question is, What is this space used for? More research will be needed to answer this question definitively, but our observations in the summer of 1989 suggest one pos­sibility. At least three houses (two at Lower Nutria and one at Upper Nutria) had benches or chairs out­side the door (Fig. 12). These were the houses that were used most frequently. In one of these we ob­served that conversations, especially with people who might not be well known to the inhabitants of the house, took place at the front door. Longer conversations might take place sitting outside the door. It seems as if this area near the door served as a transition zone between the house and the outdoors. People whose period of contact was brief, or who were strangers, could be interviewed in this space. It might also be used for the kind of conver­sation one conducts with non-rela­tives—exchanging information and gossip.

Euro-Americans spend less time talking at house entrances than Zunis do. A doorway conversation is usually very brief and is used only to decide whether to admit someone into the house or not. On the other hand, there is usually an area inside Euro-American houses where conversa­tion with non-intimates occurs. Another setting for this type of contact is yards, often at property boundaries, over fences, or near roads or driveways.

Finally, in contrasting the spatial structure of these two cultures, it is essential to recognize the significant difference in attitude toward the natural world that exists between Zunis and non-Zunis. The Zuni recog­nize the importance of the environ­ment and feel their place in it; structures and communities are aligned with reference to the car­dinal directions, and the world is perceived as having a harmony and order. Euro-Americans are known for their efforts to dominate the environment. Grid patterns and other attempts to impose regularity and structure on the natural world are seen in many contexts, from cities to subdivisions and even parks.


This analysis, while preliminary, has shown that there are character­istic ways in which the space around Zuni houses is structured, and par­ticular activities that are carried out in that space. It also seems that less of the space around the houses, at least in the villages studied, is claimed for use than is true for Euro­American residential communities. The remaining exterior space is left as an area of coexistence with neigh­bors and with the natural world, and is recognizable as such by its lack of alteration.

Another way to describe the dif­ference between the organization of space in these two cultures is to look at what kinds of areas are bounded. In the Zuni farming villages, there are sometimes boundaries between different kinds of use areas (e.g., animal pens may be fenced in), but there are no clear boundaries be­tween the same kinds of use areas, such as houses. One cannot tell where one home’s territory ends and another’s begins. This is due in part to the absence of a concept of private property in many tribal so­cieties, but I think it also reflects a cognitive structure that pervades the Zuni organization of space. The idea of fencing is important in Euro­American communities and has had an impact in Zuni, where one resi­dent told me that grazing lands did not used to be separated from each other, but are now. Fencing, how­ever, is essentially a form of control and as such would be inconsistent with Zuni ideas about the place of humans in the natural world. An interesting comparison here is of­fered by Leone’s analysis of the Mormon use of fences to replicate entire spatial/environmental systems (1973).

In conclusion, then, we can see that the visible difference betweenthe way Zuni and Euro-American people organize the space around their houses is meaningful and re­flects significant cultural factors. It does not imply that there is less regularity in the way the Zuni incor­porate the outdoors as living space. It does imply that their attitude toward the natural environment leads them to exert less control, or less visible control, over the land they live on.

This analysis is, in a sense, balanced between archaeology and ethnography. It focuses on Zuni, but employs Euro-American behavior as a contrast to clarify some of the relatively subtle details of spatial organization. Examining structures that have been abandoned only recently allows us access to the complete range of material remains of domestic life, while interviews with some former residents enrich our interpretations. Our ultimate goal is the clarification of the archae­ological record and the identification of material signatures of occupation and post-occupation debris. The history of use, “abandonment,” and reuse of structures in the Southwest and elsewhere is complex; we are only beginning to understand it.


Cite This Article

Rothschild, Nan A.. "Incorporating the Outdoors as Living Space." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 1 (March, 1991): -. Accessed April 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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