Photographic Analysis

A Study of Architectural Change at Oraibi Pueblo

By: Catherine M. Cameron

Originally Published in 1993

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The multistoried pueblos of the Southwest appear ancient, time-less, and unchanging. Most of these villages have been occupied for over 400 years, and they reflect a traditional Native American life-style that contrasts dramatically with the rapidly changing modern world. Archaeologists who study prehistoric Pueblo peoples look to the living Pueblo villages for ways of interpreting the past. Architecture is probably the most important source of information archaeologists use in their interpretations, and modern pueblos, with their use of traditional construction materials and methods, seem like the perfect analogues for prehistoric pueblo buildings. But the apparent timelessness of pueblo structures may be deceptive. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware that Pueblo buildings, both ancient and modern, undergo almost constant change as structures are modified, razed, and rebuilt to suit the needs of their occupants. The processes that cause architectural change at pueblos must be thoroughly understood before archaeologists can hope to use prehistoric buildings to interpret the past.

I found that architectural change at prehistoric pueblos can be studied by observing structures at a historic pueblo over time. For my study, I used historic photographs and a method that archaeologist Richard Ahistrom has called “casual repeat photography.” Repeat photography is a technique used by geographers, geologists, and botanists to document changes to the landscape The process involves taking sequential views of the same scene at controlled intervals using precisely the same camera position for each views (Ahistrom 1992).

Historic photographs of pueblos buildings were never produced busing the orderly methods required for repeal photography. However, innumerable “casual” photographs taken of pueblos during the past century overlap enough so that the methods of repeat photography can be approximated. Especially useful is the fact that at many pueblos one particular camera position captured the largest number of buildings, and almost every photographer who visited felt obliged to duplicate this shot.

I selected the Hopi Pueblo of Oraibi for my study. Oraihi is located in north-eastern Arizona on Third Mesa, the westernmost of the three Hopi Mesas (Fig. 3). It is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States, possibly founded as early as the 12th century A.D. Houses there were built of sandstone masonry, with roofs of wood beams, brush, and earth. In the late 1800s, when the first photographs were taken, houses were usually one room wide, but often three or even four stories tall (Fig. 2). They were built in long, linear roomblocks, with adjacent houses sharing walls. There were 25 roomblocks separated by “streets” or plazas, and most faced southeast.

Oraibi was chosen because it would provide data on several types of architectural change. First, it would exhibit the normal architectural change that occurs as a result of both the developmental cycle of families and of the structural limitations of building materials and techniques. Second, it would show the effect on structures of large fluctuations in population. After a serious dispute at Oraibi in 1906, the village split. Almost half the population of the village was forced out (this group was called the “Hostiles”) and moved away to found two new villages. Photos could show what happened to the structures these unwilling emigrants left behind. Furthermore, before the split Oraibi had experienced a population boom, so the effect of both population increase and decrease on structures could be explored. Third, since the late 19th century, architecture at Oraibi had been influenced by the introduction of European construction methods, tools, and materials. The effect of an intrusive culture on traditional architectural styles would also be visible in the architecture of Oraihi.

Finding Photographs

The first task was to gather pho­tographs of Oraibi. I visited museums, libraries, and universities across the country and examined thousands of pueblo photographs. Some were well dated and described, while others had virtually no information on when or where they were taken. Eventually, I turned up photographs taken from every corner of the village. If a photo­graph seemed particularly useful, I asked for a xerox copy. I developed a catalog system that included all available information about the photograph, the institution at which it was located, and the number used by the institution to identify it.

At the end of the collecting trips, I had catalogued over 800 photographs, and I began to order prints to be used in  the analysis. The most useful views were oblique shots that showed long rows of houses in enough detail that modification to individual structures could be observed. Overlapping views taken at the same time were especially revealing because they provided a panorama effect while retaining a great deal of detail. Many views were repeti­tious or did not show architecture de­tail; these were dropped. In the end, I had assembled more than 30f prints of buildings at Oraibi dating between 1871 and 1948.

Two additional sources of data were of great assistance. In 1887, Victor Mindeleff, an employee of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Eth­nology, produced an enormously de­tailed map of Oraibi as part of a study of Southwestern Pueblo architecture. All structures were shown, multiple stories were indicated, even the location of doors, windows, and ladders were placed correctly on the map (see Fig. 4). The map provided a perfect baseline from which to begin.

During the 1930s, Mischa Tillery, a cultural anthropologist from the Uni­versity of Michigan, interviewed resi­dents of Oraibi and produced a reconstructed “census” that document­ed all individuals living in Oraibi at the time the village split in 1906. Most important for my project, Titiev recorded the rooms where each family lived on a copy of Mindeleffs map (Levy 1990, 1992). With both photographs and census data, I could see not only how buildings changed, but how archi­tectural change reflected the dynamics of individual families.

“Seeing” Historic Oraibi in Photographs

The most time-consuming, although entertaining, part of the project was working with the photographs. Three hundred photographs had to be fit together, and then ordered chronologically.

Systematically recording architectur­al change was a challenging task. I start­ed a series of isometric drawings of Roomblock 4 that were intended to record the addition or removal of indi­vidual rooms observed in photos; this was very time-consuming. Then I dis­covered a computer mapping program (AutoCAD) that could accomplish the same task much more quickly. In the end, neither of these techniques could handle the rich detail that them photos provided. For example, I could see doors and windows being added, roofs repaired, rooms being torn down and completely rebuilt, and the addition and removal of specialized cooking shelters. I started jotting down notes about the changes, and eventually these notes were standardized and used throughout the remainder of the analysis.

To describe architectural change, I had to be able to identify the same structure in a series of photographs. I used Titiev’s room numbering system and proceeded room by room through the pueblo. In some cases, change was evident using only a single photo and comparison with Mindeleff map. For example, if Mindeleff showed a 3rd story room where a photo showed only two stories, I knew that the 3rd story had been removed. Mindeleffs map also shows numerous wall segments under construction when he was there in 1887. In some cases, later photos showed these rooms after completion. Eventually, I documented detailed architectural change to over 200 rooms.

Architectural Change at Oraibi

Rooms at Oraibi underwent four major types of architectural change: they were abandoned, dismantled, rebuilt, and newly constructed. A vari­ety of different visual clues identified each type of architectural change. Some abandoned rooms were easy to identify: their walls were cracked and deteriorating and roofs were missing. Others were intact, but had clear indi­cations that they were no longer in use (Figs. 9, 10). In a few cases, a blocked door suggested that a room was aban­doned, although these were sometimes found in rooms used to store ritual paraphernalia.

Dismantled rooms were much easier to identify. Rooms visible in the earli­est, pre-1887 photos hut not shown on Mindeleffs s later map were presumably dismantled. Likewise, some rooms appear on Mindeleffs map or in early photos, but not in later photos of the same area. Some photos showed wall stubs of dismantled structures still in place (Figs. 11, 12).

Rebuilt rooms were identified by major architectural alterations, such as a change in the size of the room or the location of the walls. Two separate rooms might be combined into one during rebuilding, resulting in a much larger room. Intriguingly, combined rooms were much more common after the 1906 split (Figs. 5 and 6). Rooms were rebuilt for many reasons: because they had become structurally unsound; to change their function; to better fit the family occupying the structure; or to incorporate European architectural styles. Change in room function was identified primarily by the addition (or occasionally blocking) of doors.

Newly built rooms first appeared in later photos (Fig. 13). New rooms sug­gested the expansion of existing house­holds or the creation of new households as part of family developmental cycles. Even in a static population, some households will increase in size, and will either expand space in existing structures or split, with part of the group building elsewhere. New struc­tures may also indicate that the total population of the settlement is growing, either through immigration or internal population expansion.

Periods of Change

Now that the major types of archi­tectural change at Oraibi had been identified, I could begin to work on the real goal of the project: understanding change through time. The architectural data could be separated into three time periods. Period 1, from the earliest pho­tos (1871) to Mindeleffs map (1887), provides the earliest glimpse of the ar­chitecture, when Orafbi was least af­fected by European contact. Period 2 (1887 to 1906) encompasses architec­tural change before the split, and is the period when European influences are first apparent. Period 3 (1906 to 1948) shows the dramatic effects of the split at Oraibi.

Photographs were rare during the first period, and fewer than 50 rooms were documented. Most architectural change at this time was probably the result of changes in the housing needs of individual families. Of the rooms vis­ible in photos, only 7 showed architec­tural change: 1 room was dismantled, 2 were rebuilt, and 6 were newly built. All of the newly built rooms were addi­tions to existing houses, presumably expanding space for growing families. One of the rebuilt rooms was located behind the dismantled room on the third story and may have required extensive remodeling once the disman­tled room was removed. The rebuilt room probably changed function from a dark interior storage or sleeping room to a front-facing habitation room.

Period 2, in the late 19th century, saw a significant and surprising increase in the rate of architectural change at Oraibi. At least 85 new booms were built; some of these rooms were part of at least 10 new houses. Few abandoned rooms were seen in photographs. Rooms that were no longer used were quickly dismantled and the building materials reused. Photos often showed piles of masonry and stacks of roof beams stockpiled ready for reuse (Fig. 14). Population was increasing rapidly. Historic documents suggest that the cause was both immigration from other Hopi villages and an increased birth rate (Levy 1992).

Residents of Orafbi were also modifying their traditional architectural style. The effects of European architec­tural methods and materials are first apparent at Oraibi after about 1890. Many of the abandoned and dismantled rooms were in upper stories (Fig. 11). This was the beginning of a decrease in the number of stories, a change that has also been observed at other Pueblos during this period. The traditional multistoried style of pueblo houses had been partly defensive. Since other groups, such as the Navajo, often raid­ed Hopi pueblos, the Hopi lived in upper storey rooms which could be easi­ly defended and used the lower story rooms primarily for storage. Upper sto­ries were reached by ladders that could be pulled up in case of attack.

By the late 19th century, raids were no longer a problem and it was safe to have habitation rooms in lower stories. Doors and windows began to appear in ground-floor rooms as they were converted from storage rooms to living rooms. At the same time, Euro-Ameri­can construction methods and materials began to change Hopi architectural styles. Milled lumber and glass win­dows were introduced. Wagons and draft animals, almost unknown at Hopi before the late 19th century, allowed residents to procure longer roof beams and build larger rooms.

Increased room size also reflected the introduction of wood-burning stoves that made it easier to heat large interior spaces. Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, Hopi hearths had no chimneys, and heating a room must have been a very smokey process. Even with chimneys, Spanish-style fireplaces located along walls threw out little heat. In the late 19th century, photos show the rapid replacement of the old exterior chim­ney (usually a stack of pots with their bottoms broken out) with metal stove pipes (Fig. 10).

The 1906 split had a dramatic effect on the previous architectural growth at Oraibi. When half the population departed, many houses were aban­doned and entire roomblocks fell into ruin (Fig. 8). Photos show that the abandoned houses were slowly disman­tled. Apparently members of the “Hostile” group returned to scavenge building materials for their new vil­lages. During the early decades of this century, some people who had stayed at Oraibi began to move to the new village of Kykotsmovi, located just below Third Mesa. Here, Christian churches and schools were available to those who had been persuaded to adopt Euro-Ameri­can ways. Some abandoned rooms at Oraibi were probably dismantled to build new structures at Kykotsmovi.

The distribution of abandoned rooms at Oraibi after the split showed a very interesting pattern. Most of the abandoned structures were located at the east end of the village, and people at Oraibi still say that this was “where the Hostiles lived.” But Titiev’s census shows that Hostile families had been distributed throughout the village. Apparently, after the split, families relocated to houses in the west part of the village, especially near the Main Plaza where important ceremonies were performed. Houses in this area of the village that had once belonged to Hostiles were reoccupied by people who chose to remain in the village. The split had caused major changes in the internal settlement pattern at Oraibi.

Archaeological Lessons

Historic photographs proved to be a remarkably useful tool for observing long-term architectural change at a pueblo. I was able to observe the con­struction and modification of Oraibi over a period of almost 80 years. Dur­ing those years, architectural change was almost constant. New buildings were built and old buildings were rebuilt or removed. Patterns in the con­struction, remodeling, or removal of buildings reflected not only normal changes necessary to accommodate family development, but significant fluctuations in population and the adoption of European architectural styles.

Architectural patterns discovered in the Oraibi study are part of a growing body of ethnoarchaeological data that can help archaeologists interpret struc­tures of the past. For example, the Oraibi study, like other studies of vil­lage architecture, has shown that aban­doned structures rarely remain intact for long when village population is growing. Materials and construction space will be readily reused. The constriation of new houses rather than the expansion of existing houses suggests population growth and may indicate immigration, as well as an increased birth rate. Abrupt population decline may result in the relocation of remain­ing inhabitants around important pub­lic ceremonial areas of a settlement. Perhaps most important, building materials will be extensively scavenged if a settlement remains partially occu­pied or if residents relocate nearby.

Analyzing the architectural history of Oraibi was a long and sometimes diffi­cult process. Determining the date and content of hundreds of fragmentary photographs was often frustrating, pre­cisely because the Pueblo was constantly changing. It was the analysis of change that was the reason for and the strength of the project; only through analyzing the architectural processes of growth, abandonment, and ruin can we learn how Oraibi—or thousands of settle­ments like it—became the archaeological site we hope to understand.

Cite This Article

Cameron, Catherine M.. "Photographic Analysis." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 1 (March, 1993): -. Accessed February 25, 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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