Kivas were architecturally unique rooms or structures built by Ancestral Puebloans in southwest Colorado that served important ceremonial and social functions. Architecturally, they are recognized in the archaeological record in southwestern Colorado as far back as AD 500, although there are widespread inconsistencies in the use of the term. Although no longer used in Colorado, kivas remain important ceremonial structures and social units within contemporary Pueblo communities in the Southwest.
The term Kiva was originally derived from a Hopi word meaning “ceremonial room” and was adopted by early twentieth-century archaeologists. John Wesley Powell seems to be the first to use the Hopi term in describing a small ruin in Glen Canyon during the Colorado River exploration. He states: “In the space in the angle there is a deep excavation. From what we know of the people in the province of Tusayan, who are, doubtless, of the same race as the former inhabitants of these ruins, we conclude that this was a “kiva” or underground chamber, in which their religious ceremonies were performed.”
Jesse Walter Fewkes, in his description of Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park, further explains: “The special chamber set apart by Pueblo Indians for ceremonial purposes was called by the early Spanish discoverers an estufa, or stove, a name no doubt suggested by the great heat of the room when occupied. An estufa is commonly designated by the Hopi Indians a kiva, which term is rapidly replacing the older name. It is found that prehistoric ruins as well as modern pueblos have kivas.”
The way we understand the term Kiva today stems back to the first Pecos Conference held in 1927. Alfred V. Kidder clarified that after discussing the variety of shapes and internal features of kivas, the conference adopted this broad definition: “A kiva is a chamber specially constructed for ceremonial purposes.”
This broad definition glosses over the wide range of variation that anthropologists observe over time and across the Southwest. For example, the shape of kivas varies. In Western Pueblos (Zuni, Hopi, Acoma, and Laguna) kivas are rectangular and usually incorporated into the room blocks. However, in Eastern Pueblos (such as Tamaya and Zia) kivas are generally round and are separate structures. There is also variation in size, design, and function. Using the presence of a specific ritual feature called a sipapu, Fewkes attempted to differentiate a circular structure with a ceremonial purpose (kiva) from a pithouse. He explains that “a sipapu is a small circular opening in the floor representing symbolically the entrance to the underworld.” In fact, some archaeologists argue today that the presence of ceremonial features is a much clearer indication of a kiva’s ceremonial use than its size, shape, or construction.
The purpose of kivas has also changed over time. In Prehistoric times, at Ancestral Puebloan sites after AD 900, each small room block had a kiva. These “unit pueblos”—which consisted of a room block, kiva, and an associated midden for trash—have been called Prudden Units, after the archaeologist who first recognized them. It is unclear what purpose the kivas in these unit pueblos served but they usually contain diverse remains. This suggests they may have served many uses, both secular and ceremonial. Many archaeologists question the use of the term kiva for these types of structures because the term implies a ceremonial purpose that may or may not have been their primary function.
Prudden cautions us not to see all these structures as kivas, and suggests that some may be the “last manifestation of a long standing tradition of pithouses.” He argues that many of these circular subterranean/semisubterranean rooms exhibit wide variations in features and probably function more as living rooms with multiple uses for men, women, and children. These rooms may have evolved out of earlier pithouse structures and over time their purpose changed to become more ceremonial and gender specific. While their exact purpose is unknown prehistorically, archaeologists have been calling them kivas for about a hundred years and it is likely that some ceremonial or ritual activities took place in them.
During the Pueblo I through Pueblo III eras (AD 700–1300), Mesa Verde kivas in the Four Corners area of the Southwest typically have one proto-kiva or kiva for each block of six to nine rooms, and were probably used by relatively small social groups such as an extended family. Mesa Verde kivas also have a distinctive shape. They are keyhole shaped, having a larger southern recess than ones found farther south in the Chaco region. This recess results from building out the walls as opposed to simply containing a recess in the bench, as in the Chacoan great kivas. Mesa Verde kivas also have high masonry pilasters to support the cribbed roof.
Great kivas, on the other hand, were ceremonial structures and public buildings that could accommodate large numbers of people. In the Mesa Verde region, great kivas appear as early as the Basketmaker III period (AD 500–750) and continued through the Pueblo III period (AD 1150–1300), when the region was largely abandoned. Great kivas served to integrate various sectors of the community through ceremony and meetings. They differed from small kivas not just in size and their unambiguous purpose but also in the distinctive internal features they contained. These distinctions include unique floor features (like foot drums), size (generally over 100 square meters of floor space), and artifacts (large bowls for serving, presumably related to feasting). Great kivas can be broken into Chacoan and non-Chacoan kivas, each with slightly different features.
Chacoan great kivas appear in the Mesa Verde region during the Pueblo II era (AD 900-1150) in conjunction with Chaco-style great houses. They are associated with developments in Chaco Canyon originating in New Mexico. Chacoan great kivas had a highly standardized construction design that included
- a four-posthole arrangement in a square in the center of the structure designed to seat the large posts needed to the support the massive roof;
- benches around the interior circumference of the kivas (sometimes doubled)
- a series of wall niches around the circumference above the benches, varying in dimension and number and sometimes including more than one series on different levels;
- a staircase leading down from an antechamber, which can usually be found on the north side;
- a north/south axis with a fire box slightly offset to the south;
- a deflector (common in small kivas with a ventilation shaft on the south side), just south of the fire pit;
- two floor vaults.
Tower kivas, another form found in southwest Colorado, are circular kivas with two or more stories. They can be freestanding; however, they are more commonly incorporated into a room block and enclosed by rectangular walls. The intervening spaces are filled with rubble. Tower kivas can be found throughout the Southwest.
Since most contemporary kivas are used for ritual and private ceremonies and activities, it is inappropriate for nonpueblo residents to press for information on what happens inside. However, the anthropologist and San Juan Pueblo native Alfonso Ortiz has offered a description of the underlying meaning from the perspective of a Tewa speaker: “The contemporary Tewa kiva … is regarded, when in use, as a symbolic representation of the primordial underworld home from which the Tewa believe they emerged to this world. The term used for the kiva when gods [kachinas] are impersonated, Sipofene, is the same name used for the primordial home. The impersonation of the gods is itself a reenactment of the original act of emergence from the underworld. Therefore, although there may be numerous sacred centers, the kiva itself is the center of centers, or the navel of navels.”