Research Narrative

2012-09-01 18.39.01Casas Grandes Ritual Behavior
My work on the mortuary and ritual behavior of the ancient Casas Grandes culture is most fully explored in my book, Ancestors and Elites: Emergent Complexity and Ritual Practices in the Casas Grandes Polity, published by Alta Mira Press in 2009.  The book expands upon my previous research (Rakita 2001) on the emergence of complexity and ritual practices at the prehistoric site of Paquimé and presents my analysis of mortuary and ritual behaviors in the Casas Grandes region of Chihuahua, Mexico.  The Casas Grandes culture developed in the desert of northern Chihuahua and southern New Mexico around the thirteenth century A.D.  By integrating both archaeological and biological data from human burials, I am able to provide a unique insight into the emergence of socio-political complexity and changing religious systems at the site of Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico. My book situates my research within the context of southwestern mortuary and ritual practices, but also grounds my empirical data within broader anthropological theories relating to ancestor worship, ritual and religious behavior, ritual specialists, and emergent complexity.  Taking a bio-cultural perspective, I argue that the manipulation and use of human bone in the Casas Grandes culture occurred as part of the emergence of specific religious cults and ritual practices that supported and encouraged the development of social and political complexity in the region.  Just prior to my book being published I published a focused examination of the use of human bone relics and ancestor worship as a chapter in the Reanalysis and Reinterpretation in Southwestern Bioarchaeology volume (Rakita 2008).  Obviously, these publications speak to my interest in Casas Grandes mortuary ritual and general prehistory as well as to bioarchaeological approaches and anthropological studies of human ritual behavior.

Picture11Mortuary & Ritual Theory
As someone interested in prehistoric ritual, the methodological and theoretical underpinning to how archaeologists reconstruct this unique aspect of human behavior is crucial.  In 2008, I and a colleague published an introductory chapter to a collection of previously published articles that explored prehistoric ritual (Rakita & Buikstra 2008).  This compilation came out from the Society for American Antiquity Press.  In our chapter, we describe the history and trajectory of ritual and religion studies in Americanist archaeology.  Since mortuary ritual is a major component of the bioarchaeological approach, the history of how we approach prehistoric ritual also plays a part in my interest in the history of bioarchaeology. My engagement with the mortuary ritual literature can also be seen in recently published reviews of books focusing on Southeastern U.S. mortuary practices (Rakita 2012) and death rituals during the early colonial period (Rakita 2011).

Casas Grandes Prehistory
Prehistoric mortuary practices cannot be examined in the absence of an understanding of other aspects of a culture, thus I continue to explore the general prehistory of the Casas Grandes culture.  For the past seven years I have been collaborating with other scholars to decipher the nature of this region.  Recently I participated in a seminar at the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon, Arizona where I and a colleague presented a paper on the organization of craft production at Paquimé (Rakita & Cruz Antillíon n.d.).  This paper will be published as part of the Archaeology of Paquimé volume for prehistorians and a version for a public volume is already drafted as well.  I have also contributed a chapter for a volume to be published by the School for Advanced Research on Casas Grandes prehistory (Rakita n.d.).  This volume is designed for lay people and is one in a series that the school has been publishing.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am co-director with colleagues from the University of Missouri of an archaeological field project centered on the borderlands between Chihuahua and New Mexico that seeks to expand our understanding of the development of the Casas Grandes culture.  The site that we are investigating, called the 76 Draw site, lies at the northern edge of the Casas Grandes phenomena just south of Deming, New Mexico.  Our work at 76 Draw has been supported by a 2010 summer research grant from UNF.  In 2011 we published (Rakita et al. 2011) the results of our first three seasons of work at the site.  We have conducted both ground-penetrating radar surveys and sub-surface excavations at the site.  This past summer we continued our excavation efforts and also completed a systematic collection of surface artifacts at the site.   Our field work and analysis of the recovered artifacts have led to publications on obsidian sources (Van Pool et al. 2013) and faunal remains (McCarthy et al. 2013).  Prior to working at the 76 Draw site, my colleagues and I published a study of a site in northern Chihuahua which contained a unique collection of over 200 rock mortars (Van Pool et al. 2009).

Ground-Penetrating Radar Work
Picture1In 2006, in collaboration with a colleague in the College of Computing, Engineering & Construction, the UNF Anthropology program acquired a 500 MHz ground-penetrating radar (GPR) system.  This acquisition has prompted me to explore the uses of GPR in a variety of field settings.  My co-direction of the 76 Draw Project and some work on the Philmont Scout Ranch (Rakita 2010a) have allowed me to test GPR’s utility for identifying sub-surface features in the American Southwest.  I have also been using this technique here in the Jacksonville, Florida area.  This has led to some applied and community outreach work.  For example, I was awarded a $1,136 contract to conduct a GPR survey of a historic mission site in St. Johns County (Wester Davis & Rakita 2013).  While not a large contract, the funds did allow me to employ UNF students to assist in the fieldwork and analysis and write-up of the GPR data.  Just this summer we completed, in conjunction with our colleague from CCEC, our attempt to use GPR to assess the condition of the San Carlos fort at the plaza of old Fernandina on Amelia island (Wester Davis et al. 2013). However, the best example of our GPR work is our recent report to the sexton of a local cemetery (Rakita & Wester Davis 2012).  The United Methodist Church of Middleburg, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, requested that we use our GPR to look for unmarked graves in their cemetery.  Our report also represents a new research interest of mine namely understanding changing mortuary practices in historic cemeteries.  Since the work in Middleburg, I and my lab team have conducted GRP surveys at two other local cemeteries and I developed a related Community-Based special topics course in the spring of 2013.  I have just received a Research Enhancement Plan grant through the UNF College of Arts & Sciences and Office of Sponsored Research to upgrade our GPR processing software.

The Field of Bioarchaeology
p7018177.jpgThe history of the field of bioarchaeology has long interested me.  I continue to publish explorations of how our field has changed over its approximately forty years of existence.  For example, I have contributed a chapter on the development of bioarchaeology in the U.S. to a volume exploring bioarchaeology across the globe (Rakita 2014). My chapter (Rakita 2013) in a festschrift for Jane Buikstra, the originator of the approach, explores the contributions she has made and how her research trajectory has changed through time.   As Associate Editor for Bioarchaeology for the Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin, I published two short essays on recent developments in the field (Rakita 2010; Rakita 2011).

Prehistoric Andean Mortuary Ritual
I maintain an interest in the mortuary practices of the Chiribaya culture of the Andean coast.  The Chiribaya culture developed during the eighth through thirteenth centuries A.D. along the southern coast of Peru.  I continue to collaborate with colleagues to explore what Chiribayan mortuary remains can tell us about gender and economic roles and the life-histories of these pre-Hispanic people.  This year, a colleague and I (Lozada & Rakita 2013) published an analysis of Chiribayan mortuary practices that sought to identify culturally specific age-grade classes and gender construction.  We found that the practice of burial in large funerary urns was restricted to children under the age of six years.  We further concluded that keros (ritually special drinking cups) and musical instruments were more common in the graves of male individuals while weaving tools were more common in female graves.  In an earlier publication (Lozada et al. 2009), we examined the inclusion of camelid remains (llamas, alpacas, vicuña, and guanaco) in Chiribayan graves.  By including bioarchaeological analyses of genetic relatedness of skeletal remains and forms of cranial deformation, we were able to document economic specialization and unequal access to camelids among Chiribayan sub-populations.

Ongoing Scholarly Projects
P1050423Over the next few years, I expect several of the above mentioned research foci to continue to bear fruit.  For example, my co-directors of the 76 Draw project are planning a poster session at the 2014 Society for American Archaeology meetings.  I will be presenting a poster that details our analysis of the surface collections we made at the site this past summer.  We have plans to return to 76 Draw in the summer of 2014 and are currently considering further GPR work at the site and the excavation of architectural features discovered at the end of our 2013 season.
I am currently preparing a proposal for a book manuscript in the Issues in Southwest Archaeology Series by AltaMira Press.  In the book, I will examine southwestern burial practices through a bioarchaeological lens.  While explicitly bioarchaeological approaches to southwestern mortuary practices are fairly recent phenomena, scholars have been studying human burials in the region for over a century.  Each chapter in the proposed book will review, synthesize, and comment on a major issue in southwestern mortuary studies.  Throughout the book, I will identify how theoretical or methodological trends have impacted southwestern mortuary studies, highlight seminal studies and how they have influenced our thinking, and emphasize how a bioarchaeological approach provides for a rich and nuanced picture of past societies.  This work will bring together my interests in the history of bioarchaeology, southwestern prehistoric societies, and mortuary practices.
P1050273The study of prehistoric mortuary practices in the American southwest is experiencing several challenges, including repatriation of burial collections, a decline in the number of large mortuary samples being excavated, and the loss of data from previously excavated burials.  Moreover, the region is experiencing an increasing level of applied, cultural resource management archaeological work.  Given this state of affairs, the development of a regional database of prehistoric mortuary practices is imperative.  To that end, I and a colleague from Arizona State University have started the Southwest Mortuary Database Project. The project is a collaborative effort to create a regional database of mortuary programs practiced across the greater southwest through prehistory.  The primary goals of the project are 1) to chronicle the modal patterns in mortuary programs and the diversity of mortuary behavior across the southwest through time, and 2) to provide a venue for the responsible, respectful, and ethical curation of extensive, already existing southwestern mortuary data sets.  We have already developed regional mortuary databases, securely archived on the Digital Archaeological Record ( and have presented results of our work at two Society for American Archaeology symposia.  We will be synthesizing our work for publication over the next year.  We are currently in the process of assembling the work of our colleagues for publication as an edited volume.
My recent work with UNF students at local cemeteries has prompted an interest in understanding how mortuary practices have changed in the First Coast region over the past centuries.  In 2012, I attended two workshops (one by the National Preservation Institute and one by the Florida Public Archaeology Network) on historic cemetery preservation.  Our developing community cemetery project seeks to document the history of mortuary practices in the Jacksonville area and address issues of cemetery preservation.  While this project is primarily applied research, I do envision academic and scholarly venues for dissemination of our research.