Ruth M. Van Dyke

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Lived Landscapes, Constructed Pasts: Memory, Phenomenology, and Chacoan Society

Architecture’s ability to evoke powerful emotions is evident to most people visiting a Gothic cathedral, national monument, or public building such as the U.S. Supreme Court. Through size, shape, and relationship to the surroundings, such structures are intentionally designed to suggest authority or sacredness, or to honor a person or an historic event. In Lived Landscapes, Constructed Pasts: Memory, Phenomenology, and Chacoan Society, Ruth Van Dyke presents a new argument for the meaning and purpose of the “great house”; architecture that spread across northwestern New Mexico during the 11th century, imagining how these huge structures may have been experienced and perceived by members of the communities who built them.

An anthropological archeologist, Van Dyke is investigating the intersections of landscape, power, and memory among the Ancestral Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest, both at Chaco Canyon and surrounding “outlier” settlements within a one hundred mile range. At least seventy-five great houses similar in structure to Chaco’s Pueblo Bonito were built in this area. While many scholars agree that construction of the great houses is related to developing social inequality, their meaning and use remain a mystery.

Drawing on concepts from critical social theory and phenomenology that suggest our lived, sensory experiences and daily interactions with architecture and landscape are part of the construction of our social contexts and identities, Van Dyke speculates on the potential impact of the “Bonito-style” architecture. “The great houses are big, they sit up high, they look down on people. I’m convinced that part of what’s going on is that people are supposed to be impressed by that,” she says, “and that the great houses are positioned to be recognizable at a distance.”

The elements that make up the suites of Bonito-style architecture found in the “outliers”—including great houses, roads, great kivas, and earthworks—gradually constructed what Van Dyke calls a landscape of social memory. “These spaces reminded people of their real or imagined pasts, and helped create a feeling of social continuity that would have played an important part of the developing social inequality,” states Van Dyke.

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, California State University, Fullerton

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