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Ancestral Pueblo Ceremonial Structures Called Kiva



Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Chris M

A kiva is a special purpose ceremonial buildings used by ancient Puebloan people in the American southwest, still in use among contemporary puebloan people, where communities reunite to perform rituals and ceremonies. In modern pueblos, the number of kivas varies for each village. Kiva ceremonies are mainly performed by men, however women and visitors can attend the performance. Among Eastern Pueblo groups kivas are usually round in shape, but among Western Puebloan groups (such as Hopi and Zuni) they are usually square.

Kiva Architecture

Prehistoric kivas were usually underground chambers. This characteristic is linked by archaeologists to earlier pit houses, also typical of ancestral puebloan societies. The earliest, and simplest, examples of kivas are known from Chaco Canyon for the late Basketmaker III phase (AD 500-700).

Architectural features typical of a kiva are: an enclosing wall with a bench, a central fireplace, a vent in the wall to provide fresh air, and a pillar to support the roof. Entrance to the kiva is usually made from a hole in the roof, along the north-south axes of the structure.

Many kivas have a small hole in the floor, a feature referred to by archaeologists as sipapu. In modern Puebloan cultures, this term is used to define similar features and symbolizes the shipap, the place of origins, where humans emerged from the underworld.

Great Kiva

In Chaco Canyon, the better known kivas were constructed between AD 1000 and 1100, during the Classic Bonito phase. These are called Great Kivas, and are associated with Great House sites, such as Pueblo Bonito, Peñasco Blanco, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Alto. In these sites, great kivas were built in central, open plazas. A different type is the isolated great kiva such as the site of Casa Rinconada, which probably functioned as a central place for adjacent, smaller communities.

Archaeological excavations have shown that kiva roofs were supported by wooden beams. This wood, mainly from Ponderosa pines and spruces, had to come from a huge distance, since Chaco Canyon was a region poor of such forests. The use of timber, arriving at Chaco Canyon through such a long-distance network, must therefore have reflected an incredible symbolic power.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Anasazi, Ancient Houses and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Cordell, Linda 1997. Archaeology of the Southwest. Second Edition. Academic Press

Vivian, R. Gwinn and Bruce Hilpert 2002. The Chaco HAndbook, An Encyclopedic Guide. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City

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