In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chaco Canyon and Other Early Art in the North American Southwest

  • Introduction
  • Art Historical Overviews
  • Archaeoastronomy
  • Chaco Canyon and Mesoamerica
  • Chaco Canyon Research Bibliographies
  • Museum and Exhibition Catalogues

Art History Chaco Canyon and Other Early Art in the North American Southwest
James Farmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0088


For approximately 7000 years, the North American Southwest has been home to a variety of Native American cultures and art styles. By c. 2000 BCE (and probably earlier), several distinct traditions had emerged in different portions of the region, defined today primarily by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona and including a portion of adjoining northwestern Mexico and far west Texas. The most widespread and longest-lived of these cultures is the Ancient Puebloan tradition (aka Anasazi), with modern-day living descendants in Puebloan communities in northern New Mexico and Arizona. But a number of other contemporary indigenous cultures and styles existed alongside the Puebloan tradition prior to the 16th century, including the Mogollon of southern New Mexico and northern Mexico, the Hohokam of southern Arizona, the Fremont of central and northern Utah, and the Sinagua and Salado of central Arizona. Some of these cultures shared numerous artistic and design elements with Ancient Puebloans, while others exhibit distinctly different art styles. In addition, the period between c. 900 and 1140 CE saw the florescence of the so-called Chaco Phenomenon, centered in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Although this period is part of the Ancient Puebloan tradition, it has long been recognized by archaeologists and historians alike as arguably the most dynamic and extraordinary period of artistic accomplishment in the entire Puebloan tradition. Yet, rather ironically, its art forms are often distinctly different from the broadly defined traditional Puebloan style, so along with the other non-Puebloan styles, a separate section is included for Chaco Canyon scholarship. A substantial amount of anthropological scholarship exists for these various cultures and styles, but dedicated art historical scholarship is relatively recent and often dominated by anthropological method and theory (see Oxford Bibliographies Native North American Art, Pre-Contact). Archaeological interest in and scholarly research on these cultures emerged only in the 19th century. Though primarily archaeological in nature, many of these early reports are still valuable to art historians for establishing context and providing original descriptions and early photographs and illustrations. Not until the 1970s did distinctly art historical scholarship begin to emerge from a generation of academic art historians. Though closely related (art history is in fact often considered a subdiscipline of the broader field of anthropology), art historical scholarship typically focuses on issues of form, technique and materials, and what art styles and imagery reveal about the symbolic and ideological aspects of culture.

General Overviews

An abundant number of good, comprehensive general overviews exist for Southwestern art, architectural styles, and mediums. Those listed here are considered most valuable for their synthesis of anthropological, archaeological, and art historical approaches. These overviews are primarily archeological in their focus and consider these traditions in a variety of contexts. Well-illustrated volumes with especially strong art historical focus, though limited in number, include Brody 1990 and Bruggmann and Acatos 1990 (both cited under Art Historical Overviews), Cordell 1994, Rohn and Ferguson 2006, and Morgan 1994 (cited under Regional Chaco Canyon Architectural Studies). Comprehensive overviews that consider the Ancient Puebloan tradition within the broader context of the Greater Southwest paradigm include Plog 2008 and Lekson 2009. Each volume includes discussion of primary methods and theory for each area of interest. Excellent recent overviews of Chaco Canyon include Frazier 1986 and Vivian and Hilpert 2002 (both cited under Overviews and Archaeological Histories).

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