Interior of a reconstructed kiva at Mesa Verde National Park.
Ruins of a great kiva at Chaco Canyon.
The Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument was excavated by Earl Morris in 1921 and reconstructed by him 13 years later.
Interior of Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument shows the vast size of the structure.

A kiva is a room used by Puebloans for religious rituals and political meetings, a large number of of them associated with the kachina belief system. Among the modern Hopi and most additional Pueblo peoples, kivas are square walled and underground, and are used for spiritual ceremonies.

Similar subterranean rooms are found among ruins in the American southwest, indicating uses by the ancient peoples of the region including the Ancestral Puebloans, the Mogollon and the Hohokam. Those used by the ancient Pueblos of the Pueblo I Era and following, designated by the Pecos Classification system developed by archaeologists, were usually round and evolved from simpler pithouses. For the Ancestral Puebloans, these rooms are believed to have had a variety of functions, including domestic residence along with social and ceremonial purposes.

Evolution of the kiva

During the late eighth century, Mesa Verdeans started building square pit structures that archaeologists call protokivas. They were typically 3 or 4 feet (0.91 or 1.22 m) deep and 12 to 20 feet (3.7 to 6.1 m) in diameter. By the mid-10th and early eleventh centuries, these had evolved into smaller circular structures called kivas, which were usually 12 to 15 feet (3.7 to 4.6 m) across. Mesa Verde-style kivas included a feature from earlier times called a sipapu, which is a hole dug in the north of the chamber that's thought to represent the Ancestral Puebloan's place of emergence from the underworld.

When designating an ancient room as a kiva, archaeologists make assumptions about the room's original functions and how those functions might be similar to or differ from kivas used in modern practice. The kachina belief system appears to have emerged in the Southwest at approximately AD 1250, while kiva-like structures occurred much earlier. This suggests that the room's older functions might have been changed or adapted to suit the new religious practice.

As cultural changes occurred, particularly throughout the Pueblo III period between 1150 and 1300, kivas continued to have a prominent place in the community. Notwithstanding a few kivas were built above ground. Kiva architecture became more elaborate, with tower kivas and great kivas incorporating specialised floor features. For example, kivas found in Mesa Verde were generally keyhole-shaped. In most larger communities, it was normal to find one kiva for each five or six rooms. Kiva destruction, primarily by burning, has been seen as a strong archaeological indicator of conflict and warfare among people of the southwest throughout this period.

Fifteen top rooms encircle the central chamber of the vast Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument. The room's

"...purpose is unclear.... Each had an exterior doorway to the plaza.... Four massive pillars of alternating masonry and horizontal poles held up the ceiling beams, which in turn supported an estimated ninety-five-ton roof. Each pillar rested on four shaped stone disks, weighing about 355 pounds [161 kg] apiece. These discs are of limestone, which came from mountains at least forty miles away."

After 1325 or 1350, except in the Hopi and Pueblo region, the ratio changed from 60 to 90 rooms for each kiva. This might indicate a religious or organisational change within the society, perhaps affecting the status and number of clans among the Pueblo people. The use of the kiva was for men and boys only.

Great kiva

Chacoan round room features

Great kivas differ from regular kivas, which archaeologists call Chaco-style kivas, in several ways; first and foremost great kivas are always much larger and deeper than Chaco-style kivas. Whereas the walls of great kivas always extend above the surrounding landscape, the walls of Chaco-style kivas do not, but are instead flush with the surrounding landscape. Chaco-style kivas are often found incorporated into the central room blocks of great houses, but great kivas are always separate from core structures. Great kivas almost always have a bench that encircles the inner space, but this feature isn't found in Chaco-style kivas. Great kivas additionally tend to include floor vaults, which might have served as foot drums for ceremonial dancers, but Chaco-style kivas do not. Great kivas are believed to be the first public buildings constructed in the Mesa Verde region.