Pithouse to Kiva


by Bruce Bradley

In 1982 I was commissioned by a film crew from the National Park Service to act as technical advisor on a film they were producing called "Anasazi-Hisatsinom". They wanted a set that included a full-scale Pueblo I pithouse and associated features. Ironically, they couldn't easily obtain permission from the nearby Mesa Verde National Park to build it there, so I was contracted to build it on my land just at the base of the mesa. I only had a short time to build it so I was unable to do it with totally 'primitive' techniques, although I used all native materials. We made the film (I believe it is still the best about Ancestral Pueblo Peoples) and I ended up with the pithouse.

Pithouse scene from "Anasazi-Hisatsinom" film

I maintained it for twelve years with very little effort an had a good time learning about this type of structure. The only major rennovation was the lining of the ventilator shaft with stone about six years int the life of the pithouse. Finally, we had a really wet spring and the ground on the south side of the pithouse became saturated. The leaners on the south side collapsed into the pithouse. I tried a quick rebuild but it collapsed again. At that point, I decided to see what would happen if I left it alone.

The following are photos of the progress with annotations about construction methods, materials, and where possible, person hour estimates to complete the tasks. It is broken into four sections: 1)pit digging and masonry lining; 2) dismantling of old pithouse for wood elements; 3) roof construction; and 4) interior finishing.

The site of the kiva is just downhill from our house where we put several very large boulders that came from our basement excavation. After these were put there, it dawned on me that one is ideal for the construction of a Hovenweep style tower. My archaeological experience told me that towers are usually connected, or at least directly associated with, a kiva. So before I could build a tower, I had to construct the kiva. My original idea was to do a real experiment, keeping track of every task, the time it took, etc. This became too daunting and after two years of half-heartedly trying to enlist help (especially for recording) I gave up and decided to make it an experience rather than experiment. This is in line with my sense that the best experiments are conducted only after a certain level of expertise is gained. I had to build one first without the constraints of record keeping (a decent rationalization I think). So, I began excavating the pit. I aligned it to the south, slightly downhill from the boulders. I defined the mainchamber placement and shape by identifying the center and drawing a circle on the ground surface with a peg in the center and a cord that equalled the radius. The size was guessed and I used no measuring insruments. I made the circle big enough to accomodate the bench and the masonry lining. Once the main pit was excavated, I decided upon the orientation by simply guessing about where south is and this aligned closely with a prominant point on Mesa Verde. I adjusted the orientation to point at this horizon marker. To this day I haven't actually measured the orientation in relation to magnetic or true north. My intent was to make an average-sized Ancestral Pueblo III (AD 1150-1300), masonry-lined kiva, much like the many I have excavated over the years.

PHASE 1: Pit Excavation and Masonry Lining

Beginning of kiva excavation. I did all of this by hand, mostly with a shovel but some, at different times, with a digging stick and baskets. The pit cut into the hillside and the upper side encountered soft silty top soil (A horizon) folloed by more clayey material (B horizon), underlain by silt with varying sized pieces of different sandstones and numerous iron concretions. The south side of the pit had deeper top soil with a more clayey and thicker B horizon. I only just started getting into the rocky layer. I estimate that had I done the whole excavation with digging stick, it would have taken about 100 person hours.

Kiva excavation completed. My original intent was to dig the pit about two feet deeper, but three things convinced me to stop: 1) I encountered our main power line in the southern recess area; 2) I encountered our buried phone line running right through the main chamber area; and 3) the rocks started getting much bigger. The elevation of the power line defined the depth of the bench surface, and since the floors of kivas are usually about a meter below the bench surface, I had to stop. Ultimately, this meant that I had to construct a retaining wall above the ground surface, especially on the south side.

Shannon Bradley helping with construction of subfloor vent. Several of the Late Pueblo III kivas I have excavated at Sand Canyon Pueblo and Wallace Ruin have had subfloor and floor-level vetilation systems that were built with the kiva (not added later). I decided to do this, so the subfloor vent tunnel had to be added before the lower lining wall was started. Throughout the construction process I had some help from family and friends (I estimate about 5-10% of the effort).

Beginning of southern recess. Stones for the lower lining and bench walls were obtained partly from those found during pit excavation, partly from the nearby hillside, and partly from robbing stone from the pithouse (especially slabs). I also used some of the spoil stones from excavations at Wallace Ruin. When needed, I shaped each stone by breaking them with a hammerstone, and evening up the face by pecking with a home-made peckingstone. Since I used hard sandstone for the lower lining walls, pecking was kept to a minimum.

Construction of north lower lining wall. The lower lining walls are single stones stacked so that the interior face is evenly aligned, the stone more-or les form even courses that run around the entire interior, and the stones in succeeding courses overlap the joints below (much like brick work). I also carefully fitted the ends of the stones so that the vertical joints are very narrow (most stone ends are in contact with each other.

Construction was recorded in a number of ways including by the popular media. Nickleodian was doing a show on ancient Pueblo People and they filmed my son Kyle helping me with wall construction. Since the structure was completed, it has been the scene of numerous documentaries.

Construction of floor-level vent. I did the lining of the floor-level vent tunnel first because it was easier to get at than it would be later. I used a lot of the irregular stones and some river cobbles for this. The large lintel stone is Dakota snadstone from north of Cortez and I carefully shaped it with a pecking stone. I estimate this took about 1/2 hour per square foot.

Construction of southeast lower lining wall. One of the features common to old kivas is an inward lean of the lower-lining wall. I am convinced this was done to increase the wall strength much as a dome is strong. As the lining progressed upward, the space behind was filled and packed with spoil dirt.

Construction Pilaster 6. I built the traditional six pilasters to hold the roof. These were made from pecked blocks of soft Dakota sandstone. The centers of the pilasters were filled with stone rubble and packed dirt. They rest on top of the bench surface. Spacing was done by eye and other dimensions were kept similar by using a small stick broken to the dimensions of the first pilaster.

Completed masonry kiva. Finshing the masonry lining of the pit was a great relief. Since I worked in fits and starts (I hate mixing mortar), it seemed to take for ever. Actually, I estimate that stone shaping, mortar mixing, and building, probably only took about 150 person hours. Add to that more hours for stone procurement, and the total time to dig and line the pit probably comes out at around 250-300 person hours. Not outrageous if five people worked together.

PHASE 2: Pithouse demolition

Kiva Roofing

Interior Finishing and Use (check out an amazining accidental solar alignments!)

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