Kivas of the Anasazi

    The ancient Pueblo Indians of the southwest, the Anasazi, are known to be one of the most interesting cultures to study, simply because of the many artifacts, pit houses and cliff dwellings that were left behind in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico (Hicks-Klund).  Anasazi is a Navajo word which means “ancient ones” or “ancient enemies;” because of this meaning, the descendants of the Anasazi prefer to be called “Ancestral Puebloans,” although, for the purposes of this paper, the term “Anasazi” will be used since it is more widely known (Bureau, “Ancestral Pueblos”).

    It is assumed that the Anasazi began their existence as traditional hunters and gatherers.  The oldest known Anasazi, traced back to about 500 A.D., were already building permanent dwellings called pit houses (Ferguson, p. 25).  Pit houses were built partially underground, lined with large flat stones, and then four large logs were used as posts, set vertically into the floor of the pit (Ferguson, p. 25-6).  Four more logs were set horizontally on top of the first four, and the rest of the house was built up with mud, timber and branches to form the walls and roof in a circular or oval shape, completely underground (Ferguson, p. 25-6).  An opening, called a sipapu, was left in the top of the roof as an entrance using a ladder, to symbolize the entrance into the spirit world (Ferguson, p. 27).  Some pit houses also had an antechamber or corridor at one end as a means of entrance (Ferguson, p. 27).  Other features of the pit houses included a fire pit lined with clay in the middle of the floor for cooking and heating, a draft deflector for the fire, a ventilator shaft in one wall, benches, and bins or niches for storage (Ferguson, p. 27; Brody, p. 72).

    The direction that pit houses faced is unclear because of conflicting sources, but is an important topic since most cultures had spiritual or religious beliefs which claim certain directions to be sacred.  Ferguson claims that pit houses always faced south (p. 25).  Brody, on the other hand, asserts that entries faced east or southeast by way of a tunnel or antechamber attached to the pit house (p. 77).

    The traditional pit house dwellings of the Anasazi eventually became known as kivas around 900-1000 A.D., when they were used more for religious and social gatherings (Ferguson, p. 25). The kivas of the Anasazi is the focus (and coincidentally the title) of this paper.  The basic structure of the pit houses remains the same for kivas, with little variation among different clans or tribes of the Pueblo Indians.  The topics that will now be covered are: the meaning behind the kivas, the differences between kivas and great kivas, and a description of the great kiva Casa Rinconada.

    Unlike temples and shrines built by peoples of other religions whose structures reach high into the sky, kivas were almost always built at least partially underground to represent “the link between this world and the ancestral underworld of the Pueblo Indians” (Passage Construction Co.).  The word ‘kiva’ means ‘world below’ (Turtle Hill).  Turtle Hill describes kivas as “a sanctuary from the unpredictability of the elements, a private and safe space combining the practical and spiritual dimensions of existence in one form, a womb of culture and vision, a special opening into the reality of mother.”

    Here are some interesting facts about kivas and great kivas.  One feature that both kivas and great kivas display is that many were aligned along a north-to-south axis (Ferguson, p. 29).  The fire pit, deflecting stone and ventilation shaft defined the axis about which the other elements in the kiva were aligned, such as benches, niches, and even roof posts (Charbonneau, “Pueblo Bonito”).  Some kivas were astoundingly precise, for example, the axis of Casa Rinconada, a great kiva, is aligned with the North-South line to within 20’ (Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  It should also be mentioned that the shapes of the kivas and great kivas were usually circular or keyhole shaped (Ferguson, p. 29).  Another interesting fact is that many kivas were found to have wall murals painted on the inside (“Casa Rinconada 1995 Site Guide”).

    The differences between kivas and great kivas are very distinct, the main one being size; the great kivas are typically two to three times as big as the kivas (Bureau, “Archaeological Sites”).  A typical size for a great kiva from about 1200 A.D. was circular in shape, forty-five to seventy feet in diameter, and still dug partially underground (Ferguson, p. 31).  Another difference between kivas and great kivas is purpose.  Kivas were generally built near dwellings and would be big enough for only about 12 people, which explains why clans with large populations had hundreds of kivas in their villages, since each ‘family’ would have their own kiva to use for gatherings and for worship  (Brody, p. 77).  Great kivas, on the other hand, were so huge that they could accommodate much larger numbers and would often be built some distance away from the main buildings of the village (Brody, p. 77).  Great kivas also contained more features than kivas, such as fire boxes, multiple ventilators, a banquette or bench which aligned the entire kiva wall, and floor vaults which served as foot drums (Ferguson, p. 31; Brody, p. 98).

    The great kiva Casa Rinconada is one of five great kivas in Chaco Canyon (Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  Unlike many kivas built right next to dwellings, Casa Rinconada stands on top of a small hill a fair distance away from large buildings (Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  Casa Rinconada is also built partially above ground, whereas most kivas are completely underground; it is a little more than 20 meters in diameter and 4 to five meters deep (Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  The symmetry axis of Casa Rinconada is more precise than most of the kivas; as mentioned before, the axis defined by the two T-shaped doors of the great kiva is aligned with the North-South line to within 20’(Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  The niches lining the wall are equally spaced and placed so that the lines made by opposing pairs of niches all have their center within 10 cm of the center of the great kiva, which indicates that the kiva walls form a nearly perfect circle (Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  As far as the purpose of the great kiva, “Casa Rinconada is thought to have been designed as a physical representation of the Anasazi cosmos, and was likely used for important religious ceremonies involving the larger Chacoan community (Charbonneau, “Casa Rinconada”).  [Check out this floor plan of Casa Rinconada:]

    This paper constitutes just a short overview of just some of the features of  kivas including a brief description of what they looked like, what their purpose was, and what made them so unique.  The Anasazi and other Pueblo Indian cultures have left a wealth of information behind them, and much of it is accessible to the general public via museums and tour trails, not to mention libraries and the world wide web.  For more information on kivas and sites to visit, look up these sites on the world wide web: Anasazi Heritage Center, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado,; Casa Rinconada 1995 Site Guide,


Brody, J. J., The Anasazi: Ancient Indian People of the American Southwest, Rizzoli, New York, 1990.
    Bureau of Land Management, Colorado, Anasazi Heritage Center, “The Ancestral Pueblos
    (Anasazi),”, 2000.

Bureau of Land Management, Colorado, Anasazi Heritage Center, “Archaeological Sites: Lowry Pueblo,”, 2000.

“Casa Rinconada 1995 Site Guide,”, 1995, (author unknown).

Charbonneau, P., et al, Solar Astronomy in the Prehistoric Southwest, “Casa Rinconada,”, 1999.

Charbonneau, P., et al, Solar Astronomy in the Prehistoric Southwest, “Pueblo Bonito,”, 1999.

Ferguson, William M. and Arthur H. Rohn, Anasazi Ruins of the Southwest in Color, U of New Mexico Press,
    Albuquerque, 1987.

Hicks-Klund, D., “Anasazi,”, 1996.

Passage Construction Company, “More on a Kiva Style Modern Home,”, 1998-2000.

Turtle Hill, “Kivas,”, 2000.


© Copyright 2000 Christina Mertens