Chan Chan: A Case Study in Settlement Archaeology

Analysis and interpretation are crucial stages in the archaeological research process. After all, in order to interpret findings and apply appropriate theories, an archaeologist must be able to understand the data. Reconstructing the past involves a mix of both stages, as an archeologist focuses first on relationships and components within the data and then reconstructs data on a larger scale in order to interpret it.

Archaeologists are able to gain insight into past activities through interpretation based on three categories: technology, social systems, and ideology. Within the social systems division, settlement archaeology uses spatial distributions of activities to ultimately understand how societies functioned. Assuming that spatial patterns reflect past human behavior, archaeologists are able to map out the lives of previous societies. An incredible example of the analytical abilities settlement archaeology provides is the research of Chan Chan, Peru.

The ruins of Chan Chan are found in the Moche valley of Peru. This once great kingdom was the capital of the Chimu people and was the largest city in pre-Columbian America. This city was highly advanced with an economy based on agriculture, supported by irrigation ditches. Buildings were made of adobe brick. This thriving city left behind clues into social structure, stratification, and inequality by the architecture and layout of the city.

Three general types of housing made up the city of Chan Chan. Small units, presumably slum architecture, were found on the edges of the city. There were 35 intermediately sized, larger units that housed more elite members of society. The center of the city was comprised nine rectangular structures, separated from the rest of the areas by thick earthen walls. Since Chan Chan was small in terms of area with a high population density, the fact these palaces contained large amounts of space points to a hierarchical society. Another important aspect of the palaces was the limited amount of entrances. It can be inferred that the elite part of Chimu society had limited interactions with other parts of society. Inside the palaces, there were also burial sites, temples, kitchens, gardens, orchards, which shows the diversity in how space was used. Compared to the barrios of the city, the city center temples were constructed in complex, symmetrical ways, with elaborate designs. The barrios, however, were built more clumsily and simply. These three sections of architecture tells archaeologists how the Chimu society was divided.

Settlement archaeology, by analyzing the layout of the city spatially, has allowed interpretation of social interactions of the Chimu people. Society was very hierarchical, with power concentrated in only a few people. The decorations of the palaces also show that the elite had leisure time, as those who lived in the less-durable housing did not have time to spend on their living arrangements. These interpretations illuminate the intricacies of past cultures, as well as tracing the evolution and adaptation by examining cultures through time. By analyzing the settlements of the past, archaeologists are able to make valuable interpretations with relevant implications.



-Kathryn Marshall

Cultural Influence and Tholos Tombs in Bronze Age Greece

Our discussion of interpretation through analogy this week in class reminded me of a somewhat contentious issue in the archaeology of late Bronze Age Greece, the issue surrounding the influence of Minoan burial practices on those of Mycenae.  By the late Bronze Age, Mycenae had unquestioningly gained power over, and thus influence from, the society that had developed on Crete.  Minoan architectural and artistic forms and styles begin to pop up all over Mycenaean Greece.  One of these borrowed forms, some scholars argue, is that of the behive-shaped tholos tombs (plural “tholoi”).


The Remains of a Minoan Tholos

The Remains of a Minoan Tholos

According to Ashmore and Sharer, an archaeologist interested in utilizing a specific analogy in her interpretation of archaeological remains has three burdens placed upon her:  She must show that there is cultural continuity, comparability in environment, and similarity of cultural form (Ashmore 183).  Those who believe the Mycenaean tholoi to be direct products of Minoan ones I think can readily provide support for at least the first and second of these, but evidence for the third is more nebulous.  Cultural continuity can be accounted for by reference to the facts that the last Minoan tholoi and the first Mycenaean ones occur very closely chronologically (Rutter); with the added knowledge of the Mycenaean conquest of Crete, the notion that Mycenaean tholoi are direct descendants of Minoan ones is strengthened.  Being as conservative as possible, we can say that the Mycenaeans were at least aware of Minoan tholoi while they were building their own.  Even less problematically, the environment of Mycenaean Greece and Minoan Crete are certainly comparable; they are both mountainous regions located in the Aegean Sea.


The remains of a Mycenaean tholos

The remains of a Mycenaean tholos

Most dubious, however, is the argument that Mycenae displays a cultural form similar to Minoa.  One of the clearest examples of difference between the two is Mycenae’s orientation towards war which is much stronger than Crete’s; indeed Minoan art is virtually void of any depictions of war which is heavily contrasted with the many battle scenes one can find in Mycenaean frescoes (Dickinson 167).  This one example alone shows the cultures to be very different and makes the notion that something as culturally important and sensitive as burial practices could be so easily adopted a bit shaky.  Furthermore, attitudes towards the dead in Crete were demonstrably different than those in Mycenae: Tombs in Crete were built for the dead of entire communities rather than families as in Mycenae; additionally, Minoan tholoi were generally built above ground whereas their counterparts on the mainland were either built underground or covered in a layer of dirt, a practice of perhaps symbolic importance (Rutter).  All of these considerations lend credence to the idea that, while perhaps Minoan tholoi influenced the design of those in Mycenae, it may be too strong to say they were entirely taken from Crete.


Further Reading

Rutter. Aegean Prehistoric Archaeology.  “Mycenaean Tholos Tombs and Early Mycenaean Settlements”.

Oliver Dickinson. The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.  1994.

Ashmore, Wendy. Sharer, Robert. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology.  McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, New York. 2014