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Archive for June, 2009

Durango, Colorado

Durango, Colorado

At the end of my post on the suicide of Dr. James Redd, I said that I wouldn’t be surprised if his death wasn’t the last to apparently result from the indictments of 24 people for looting archaeological sites in southern Utah.  Now, via Derek Fincham, I see that I was, unfortunately, correct in thinking that this would get uglier.  Steven Shrader, a Santa Fe resident (although apparently described in the initial indictments as a resident of Durango), killed himself in Shabbona, Illinois, on June 19.  It’s not entirely clear if his suicide was the result of the indictments specifically, and no one in Blanding interviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune seemed to know him or know anything about him so it’s hard to say if there was anything else in his life that might have contributed, but given Redd’s earlier suicide it looks pretty likely at this point.

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Speaking of Redd, it appears he and his wife may also have been involved in some sort of pyramid scheme.  This is in addition to their previous legal problems involving pothunting and Medicaid fraud.  Also, while this particular investigation doesn’t seem to have found any links to drugs, there have been considerable connections between looting of antiquities and dealing of meth, which is a major problem in the rural southwest.  Since people in this area tend to be heavily armed as well, there’s a whole lot of potential for ugliness in this sort of investigation, and it’s hardly surprising that the authorities went about the arrests in a heavy-handed manner.  Nor, of course, is it surprising that people in Blanding are complaining about the heavy-handed methods, given the longstanding antipathy between the local population and the federal government.

House with Ron Paul Sign, Durango, Colorado

House with Ron Paul Sign, Durango, Colorado

I don’t have a whole lot of commentary or insight on these latest developments, but since I’ve been following this story pretty closely I thought I should note them.  All I can say at this point is that it’s still a big mess all around, and it’s unlikely to get any less messy going forward.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Lowry Great House

Lowry Great House

The Chaco system is distinctive in a number of ways, some of which distinguish it from other contemporaneous societies elsewhere in the southwest and others of which distinguish it from later societies in the same area.  Among the most striking examples of the latter is the low-density settlement pattern typical of Chacoan sites, though by no means limited to them.  In contrast to the highly aggregated cliff-dwellings and massive pueblos of later periods, Chacoan communities were composed of loosely clustered small-house sites, generally in open locations.  These communities are generally marked as “Chacoan” by the presence of one or more great houses and other examples of Chacoan-influenced “public” architecture, such as roads, encircling berms, and Chaco-style great kivas.  This settlement pattern has been proposed as a marker of the extent of the Chacoan system, and it is perhaps the way of defining the system that gives it the largest geographical extent.

It is important to note, however, that while the low-density settlement pattern certainly distinguishes Chacoan communities from the high-density aggregated pueblos that succeeded them within that same geographical area, during Chacoan times that same community pattern minus the great houses and other specifically “Chacoan” features was quite widespread throughout the Pueblo world, including in areas that show no sign of direct Chacoan influence.  That is, the “Chacoan settlement pattern” is a temporal rather than a spatial marker of Chaco-ness.

Multiple Layers of Kivas at a Small House near Casa Rinconada

Multiple Layers of Kivas at a Small House near Casa Rinconada

The shift in Pueblo community layout from the widespread pattern of low-density clusters of small houses during the Pueblo II period to the equally widespread pattern of high-density aggregated roomblocks during the Pueblo III period has long been a matter of considerable interest in southwestern archaeology.  Many theories have explained this using vague references to increased pooling of labor resulting in increased economic efficiency or some such.  Another idea, which I find more persuasive, is that increasing climatic volatility led to resource shortages, which led to competition and warfare, which led to aggregation for defensive purposes.

This theory has been expressed in the most detail by Steven LeBlanc, who makes the point that, far from being a generally optimal strategy for maximizing economic efficiency, aggregation is actually a very problematic strategy that leads to over-exploitation of nearby resources and under-exploitation of resources further away, with the resulting depletion of accessible resources leading to a lower standard of living.  In addition, aggregated living is pretty unsanitary, and the combination of a lack of sanitation with a less diverse diet, on top of the general tendency toward malnutrition typical of small-scale agriculturalists, led to shockingly high levels of disease.  And, indeed, studies of human remains from aggregated pueblos have shown a population that is much less healthy than that of the dispersed communities of Chacoan times.  The obvious implication of this is that people lived spread out across the landscape, a settlement pattern which LeBlanc characterizes as maximally efficient for resource exploitation, whenever regional political conditions were peaceful enough to make that a viable strategy, and they only aggregated (or went with other more defensive but less efficient strategies) when forced to by increasing warfare.

T-Shaped Door at Lowry Great House

T-Shaped Door at Lowry Great House

Even if a dispersed pattern of settlement is more efficient than an aggregated one, though, it’s by no means inevitable that such a pattern will arise.  A variety of social factors come into play that end up having at least as much effect on settlement patterns as the location of resources and the most efficient ways of exploiting them.  The lack of warfare is one obvious prerequisite for a dispersed pattern, which necessarily involves a certain amount of vulnerability to attack and therefore is only likely to arise when the threat of attack is minimal.  Since the Chaco era is a famously peaceful time in the southwest, for reasons that remain somewhat obscure, it’s hardly surprising that this condition was met.

There’s more to it than that, though.  Not all peaceful societies involve people spreading themselves evenly across the landscape.  Historical contingency and traditional patterns of land ownership and usage rights play a role as well.  In the prehistoric southwest this issue has been most intensively studied in southern Colorado, particularly by scholars associated with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.  They have found that, while this area remained quite productive agriculturally throughout the prehistoric period, environmental variability could have devastating effects on particular communities given the restrictions on land use resulting from traditional rights to particular pieces of land.  In other words, the maximally efficient usage of land could not be realized because of cultural and historical factors that kept people from having complete freedom of movement in the event of environmental perturbations impacting their ability to cultivate their own lands productively.  This eventually resulted in regional abandonment around AD 1300.

Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

Even this, though, may not go far enough.  The idea of traditional land-use rights and restrictions is plausible enough, but what, exactly, were they?  What sort of units held the rights to cultivate (or otherwise exploit) particular pieces of land, and why?

One possible answer is suggested in a study by James Kendrick and Jim Judge published in an edited volume on Chacoan outlier communities.  This study looked at long-term changes in land-use and settlement patterns at the community surrounding Lowry Pueblo north of Cortez, Colorado.  Lowry is one of the best-known Chacoan outliers in southern Colorado, and one of the northernmost outliers in the Chacoan system.  While this study does talk a bit about the great house, however, particularly noting that there is little evidence that it ever served anything other than a residential purpose (not an uncommon conclusion for the studies in this volume), the main focus is on the small-house sites surrounding the great house where most of the population lived.

Abutted Walls at Lowry Great House

Abutted Walls at Lowry Great House

The conclusion Kendrick and Judge come to after looking at where these small houses are located in each period of occupation is that during the Pueblo II period individual households were largely autonomous economically, and the basic unit of economic production and land-use rights was the individual family group occupying a single small house.  These small  houses were, therefore, distributed fairly uniformly across the landscape throughout the community.  Later, in the Pueblo III period, the community began to aggregate, and Kendrick and Judge argue that part of this process involved the transfer of land-use rights to the community as a whole.  They posit this as an explanation for why, when the Mesa Verde region as a whole was abandoned around 1300, entire communities seem to have moved as units, making the abandonment throughout the region remarkably complete.

Closeup of Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

Closeup of Banded Masonry at Lowry Great House

This all seems reasonable enough, and it would explain a number of puzzling elements of the late prehistory of southern Colorado, although some other research suggests that land-use rights were still held at the household level after the migration of at least some of the population further south into the Pajarito Plateau area.  When it comes to taking this idea out of isolation and wondering about its implications for the present (which is what I’m all about), however, there’s something troubling about it.

Masonry at Lowry Great House

Masonry at Lowry Great House

The recent trend in policy discussions about community planning is to extoll the virtues of density and bemoan the evils of sprawl, which is held to be horribly inefficient as well as aesthetically appalling.  In the current context, of course, this makes perfect sense, and the data backing it up is compelling.  When it comes to looking at the lessons of the past, however, a problem arises: in prehistoric communities like Lowry, sprawl (in the form of low-density patterns of settlement) is presented as maximally efficient, and aggregation (i.e., increased density) is presented as uncomfortable, unsanitary, and a last resort of a desperate people under siege from both a declining environment and hostile neighbors.  This seems totally plausible as well, in its context.  So how can these both be true.

The answer, I think, lies in the way that prehistoric societies, and preindustrial societies more generally, were really quite different in their economies from our own (post-)industrial society.  Basically, a dispersed settlement pattern is maximally efficient in a society based on subsistence farming.  If everyone or almost everyone is farming for their own sustenance, and possibly for export if they happen to produce a surplus, it makes sense to put as much land under cultivation as possible, and the most efficient way to do that is to spread the population out so as to have fields everywhere and people living as close as possible to them.

The Abundant Life Natural Food Store, Cortez, Colorado

The Abundant Life Natural Food Store, Cortez, Colorado

In an industrial society, however, most people don’t farm.  Those who do have to do so on a vast scale to feed the huge numbers of unproductive non-farmers.  As a result, supply chains are necessary to bring food from the farms to the towns and other locations where most of the population lives.  The more spread-out the people in those towns are, the longer and more elaborate (and more fragile) those lines have to become.  If people are packed in densely, it takes less effort to supply them with both food and other necessary resources, which in an industrial society generally come from far away and need to be brought in just as food does.

So while for a place like Lowry low density farming was efficient, for us it makes a lot more sense to live more densely.  Modern medicine and other technological advances have made it a lot more comfortable to live this way than it was for the people at Lowry, so we can count ourselves lucky in that respect.  This is a good example of how important it is to look carefully at the lessons of the past and not just blindly apply prehistoric solutions to modern problems.

Pueblo Mural at Cortez Cultural Center, Cortez, Colorado

Pueblo Mural at Cortez Cultural Center, Cortez, Colorado

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Petroglyph Panel Showing Three Quadrupeds

Petroglyph Panel Showing Three Quadrupeds

There’s a lot of rock art at Chaco.  It’s present in varying densities the whole way along the cliff face, from one end of the canyon to the other.  There are a few places within the park with rock art that is particularly noteworthy, either for being very numerous, very spectacular, or otherwise distinctive.  These areas are marked on the maps we give out and indicated with signs.

Petroglyphs above Una Vida

Petroglyphs above Una Vida

One thing visitors often notice, and ask about, is that there are two different but similar terms used to denote these rock art sites: “petroglyph” and “pictograph.”  These are terms used to distinguish two types of rock art by the way they are made.

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

A petroglyph is pecked, carved, or incised into the rock surface, and can be considered a type of very-low-relief sculpture.  Most Anasazi petroglyphs are pecked, but some are incised or even raised in bas-relief.  Navajo petrolyphs are typically incised, and tend to be shallower in relief and therefore less obvious than Ansazi ones.  Petroglyphs of various sorts are quite numerous, and most of the rock art in the park and elsewhere is of this type.

"Supernova" Pictograph

"Supernova" Pictograph

Pictographs, on the other hand, are painted onto the rock surface using a variety of pigments and fixatives.  This means that they are very vulnerable to weathering, and they typically only survive in sheltered locations such as in caves and under rock overhangs.  As a result, they are much rarer today than petroglyphs.  There’s no way to know how common they were originally.

Pictographs behind Wijiji

Pictographs behind Wijiji

One way the two do not differ is in the ease of interpreting them.  It’s very difficult, in practice usually impossible, to tell what, if any, meaning a given petroglyph or pictograph had for its maker.  Many of the petroglyphs at Chaco have been examined by modern Pueblo consultants, who often identify clan symbols in them.  They are not, however, able to assign meanings to all of the signs, and most remain very mysterious.  Some seem to have astronomical alignments, the Fajada Butte “Sun Dagger” being the most famous, but most don’t seem to have any detectable alignments.

Navajo Petroglyph of a Horse and Rider

Navajo Petroglyph of a Horse and Rider

In the end, it’s probably best not to worry too much about the meaning of rock art.  It’s nicer just to appreciate it on an aesthetic level.  It is important, however, not to touch it or damage it in any way.  While pictographs are obviously extremely fragile, petroglyphs are quite vulnerable as well, and both can easily be destroyed by too much attention.  It’s best to keep a safe distance and quietly admire these beautiful but mysterious artworks.

Petroglyph Panel Showing People

Petroglyph Panel Showing People

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Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

One thing that often happens when I’m out giving a tour of one of the great houses at Chaco, usually around the middle of the tour, is that I’ll ask if anyone has any questions and one of the visitors will say, with a knowing tone, “Slavery?”

Elevated Kiva at Chetro Ketl

Elevated Kiva at Chetro Ketl

There are variations, and sometimes it’s more of an honest question than a desire for confirmation, but the topic comes up quite frequently.  My usual answer is that there’s just no way to tell.  The Chacoans didn’t have a written language, so all the evidence we have for understanding the nature of their society comes from its material remains, which can be surprisingly ambiguous.  (There is of course also ethnographic analogy, with the modern pueblos providing the most obvious place to look, but this is problematic for a number of reasons and unlikely to be much help in this particular case.)

Different Masonry Types at Kin Bineola

Different Masonry Types at Kin Bineola

Certainly the construction of the great houses and other monumental aspects of the Chacoan system required a vast amount of labor.  I’ve noted my skepticism about estimates of construction labor; while this certainly seems like a good way to quantify just how much effort went into construction, in my view it suffers from a couple of serious flaws.  For one thing, there needs to be a source for the estimates, which is generally measurements of effort expended on modern (or ethnographically documented) projects using what are assumed to be comparable techniques and technology.  While this is plausible enough in theory, in practice it’s not really possible to tell how comparable the modern work is to the ancient work.  This makes any numbers dubious to start with.

Small Vent at Kin Bineola

Small Vent at Kin Bineola

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, once the calculations have been done the result is a series of estimates generally expressed as person-hours or some other similar unit.  From one perspective, having numbers is better than not having numbers, but from another perspective it’s not at all clear how useful these numbers are.  After all, the very nature of a measurement in person-hours is that there are two variables that can be manipulated.  The same amount of work can be done by a few people over a longer period of time or by many people in a shorter time.  In the case of Chacoan sites, tree-ring dates can provide some limitations on the amount of time necessary, but usually not enough to make a definite determination on how to interpret the labor estimates.

Stairway behind Hungo Pavi

Stairway behind Hungo Pavi

The same numbers, then, can be used to argue that the sites were built by small work crews over a considerable amount of time, which implies that the necessary labor could have been freely offered or even done by skilled workers in exchange for something akin to wages, or by a great many people in a very short amount of time, a context in which some sort of slavery or corvée labor looks a lot more likely.  Ultimately this type of evidence leads to a dead end, and it’s more useful for supporting theories derived from other lines of evidence than for deriving theories itself (although even then it’s not all that useful, in my opinion).

Type IV Masonry at Chetro Ketl

Type IV Masonry at Chetro Ketl

It’s interesting to compare this to the situation in Aztec-era central Mexico, where we do have records, in the form of pictorial codices from the precontact era and Spanish accounts from after the Conquest, showing how labor was organized and who built the impressive monumental buildings of the urban centers.  In that case, it is clear that labor service was treated as a type of tribute or taxation owed by the common people to their lords or kings.  While Chaco is clearly quite a different type of place from these later cities to the south, I think recent discoveries such as chocolate suggesting closer contact between Chaco and Mesoamerica than has previously been acknowledged implies that a close examination of Mesoamerican labor systems would be a fruitful way to address the question of labor requirements and the possible societal implications of them.  The question of whether the labor to build the Chaco system was freely offered or was the result of slavery, tax, tribute, corvée, or something else entirely is still an open one, and one way to address it would be to look further afield for parallels than has been done so far.

Doorway at Kin Bineola

Doorway at Kin Bineola

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What Are the Stakes?

Zions Bank, Blanding, Utah

Zions Bank, Blanding, Utah

How much is the past worth?

In many ways, that’s the core question behind the whole issue of pothunting, looting, and the antiquities trade (as well as, in a somewhat different guise, the related issue of the status and nature of archaeology as a discipline).  It’s recently been brought to the fore by the indictments against a large network of pothunters centered on Blanding, Utah, but it’s always been there in the background.  The recent apparent suicide of James Redd, one of the accused and a prominent citizen of Blanding, puts the question in stark perspective.  Preventing, punishing, and discouraging the looting of archaeological sites is valuable, I think most people would agree, but is it worth the loss of a human life?

Sun Marker at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

Sun Marker at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

It’s not an easy question to answer.  Certainly looters think the artifacts they find are very valuable, and as I mentioned before they are usually armed, so it stands to reason that at least some of them think the thousands of dollars in possible profit from a single find are worth enough to justify taking the risk of either being killed by a cop or killing one.  Craig Childs is likely exaggerating a bit when he quotes one talking about how the way to deal with cops is to “drop ‘em…and never come back,” but the mindset is certainly out there, and it fits uncomfortably well with the widespread pro-gun, anti-government conservatism found throughout the west.

The Dinosaur Museum, Blanding, Utah

The Dinosaur Museum, Blanding, Utah

Which is not to say that everyone who’s ever pocketed a potsherd or done a little illegal digging is a hardened criminal willing to kill to get their way.  A lot of the people quoted in articles about these indictments, especially but not exclusively people in Blanding, seem to take the view that this is not that big a deal, and that the intense focus on it by law enforcement is an example of misplaced priorities (at best) by the government.  While in Blanding, especially, there’s probably quite a bit of disingenuousness to this sort of talk, it is a point of view that is genuinely common in a lot of parts of the southwest.  Collecting arrowheads and potsherds has been a widespread hobby for a long time in the places like Blanding and Cortez, Colorado, where they are extremely widespread, and for a lot of people in those areas it’s very hard to see it as a crime worthy of massive sting operations and huge fines and jail time.  From this perspective, it’s very difficult to justify destroying people’s lives (sometimes, as in Redd’s case, literally) for the sake of inanimate objects, no matter how old they are.

Guymon Silver & Turquoise, Blanding, Utah

Guymon Silver & Turquoise, Blanding, Utah

Archaeologists tend to take the view that this perspective is just totally mistaken, and that the archaeological record is incredibly valuable and must be preserved by any means necessary.  As endless signs at public archaeological sites admonish, this extends even to the lowliest potsherd, which is incredibly valuable in the information it can give from its context if left in place but becomes totally worthless if it’s removed from that context.  Archaeologists, therefore, tend to argue that the way to combat looting is to educate the public and let them know just how valuable these things are.

Blanding Elementary School, Blanding, Utah

Blanding Elementary School, Blanding, Utah

I don’t think that’s really right, though.  Some people may pick up potsherds as souvenirs because they haven’t really thought about the implications, but most people in the southwest who collect (either directly or by buying from pothunters) are fully aware of how archaeologists and the government see these issues.  They aren’t ignorant, they just disagree, and their disagreement is often part and parcel of a whole worldview in which the government and the intellectuals are out to get the “little guy,” who needs to defend his rights by any means necessary.  If that means guns, so be it.

Westwater Cliff Dwelling, Utah

Westwater Cliff Dwelling, Utah

So what’s the solution?  I’m not sure there is one.  Redd’s suicide troubles me, a lot.  It seems to emphasize to the utmost degree that these really are just not reconcilable perspectives.  At the moment one side has the upper hand and is able to do things like arrest people, while the other side feels oppressed and in need of self-defense.  This has not always been the case, and it may not always be the case in the future.

It’s really just a total mess, I think.  What I will say, however, is that while James Redd’s death is the first to apparently result from these indictments I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it weren’t the last.

Flute-Player Statue at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

Flute-Player Statue at Edge of the Cedars State Park, Blanding, Utah

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Abajo Mountains from Blanding, Utah

Abajo Mountains from Blanding, Utah

Via Derek Fincham, I see that the FBI has indicted 24 people, mostly residents of Blanding, Utah, for looting archaeological sites on public lands.  I’ll have much more to say about this and related issues later, but I just want to note it now and mention a couple of things.

Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Blanding, Utah

Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Blanding, Utah

First, this looks like some serious stuff.  Some of the people quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune article talk about how there are potsherds that come up all over Blanding whenever it rains and don’t the authorities have better things to do?  This is probably disingenuous in any case, but it’s also very misleading.  It’s quite true that places like Blanding are just covered in sites and artifacts, and the potsherds certainly do come up everywhere when it rains, but what that really means is that things like potsherds are so common as to be worthless monetarily.  Nobody’s fencing potsherds for thousands of dollars.  The real money is in the well-preserved and rare stuff found in places like cliff dwellings, almost all of which are on public land, which makes taking anything from them a felony.  Places like Grand Gulch have tons of perishable stuff like sandals and robes that fetch very high prices on the illegal antiquities market, which tempts people to take them, and that’s what these people are being accused of.

Sign at Edge of the Cedars Imploring Visitors to Not Steal

Sign at Edge of the Cedars Imploring Visitors to Not Steal

Second, this is very difficult to deal with from a policy perspective.  There’s a long tradition in the southwest of collecting antiquities, so for a lot of people in places like Blanding this is a way of life and it’s not at all surprising to see upstanding and prominent citizens in town affairs involved in looting like this.  Indeed, the history of southwestern archaeology is closely intertwined with this sort of shady business, and much as archaeologists now try to distance themselves from it that history has not quite gone away.  For a non-archaeologist’s perspective on this issue, see this Craig Childs essay (via Paul Barford), which I mostly agree with.  Childs has a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize, but he gets this one pretty much dead-on.  As he says, serious looters are almost always armed.  If we at the park suspect that there’s something like that going on, we’re told to refer it to law enforcement immediately and not get involved ourselves.  This stuff can get ugly fast.  The Tribune article mentions possible connections to meth dealing as well, which I hadn’t heard about before but which seems pretty plausible.

Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling near Blanding, Utah

Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling near Blanding, Utah

This is a really thorny issue, and as Childs notes archaeologists are not necessarily much better than pothunters about this stuff.  (Though I’m a little skeptical that any archaeologists ever actually threatened his life.)  The distinction between pothunting and “scientific” excavation is both relatively recent and pretty subtle, especially from the outside.  On balance, though, it’s the pothunters who are out there with the guns, so it’s good to hear about these arrests.  I’ll have much more on this later, including connections to Chaco and its role in the history of southwestern archaeology.

Blanding, Utah, from Edge of the Cedars

Blanding, Utah, from Edge of the Cedars

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California Welcome Sign Riddled with Bullet Holes

California Welcome Sign Riddled with Bullet Holes

It’s absolutely true that people in the rural west will shoot at anything and everything they can, in addition to the sorts of run-of-the-mill vandalism and graffiti that are widespread everywhere, and it’s important to keep that in mind when making decisions about what sorts of signs to put where and what to make them out of.  Within national parks this is much less of an issue than elsewhere, given the presence of law enforcement on a regular basis at most parks, but some parks, including Chaco, have outlying units that are not regularly patrolled and are vulnerable to these risks.  (Depending on how things go with the new concealed-carry regulations if and when they go into effect, more isolated portions even of regularly patrolled parks may become vulnerable as well.)

Kin Ya'a

Kin Ya'a

When I went down with some colleagues to Kin Ya’a, one of our outlying units, on a training trip not long after I started working at Chaco, one of our tasks was to replace a sign there that had been pretty badly pockmarked by bullet holes.  We carried out our duty, although it required a run into Crownpoint to get a screwdriver when we realized we didn’t have one in our vehicle.

Old Sign at Kin Ya'a, Riddled with Bullet Holes

Old Sign at Kin Ya'a, Riddled with Bullet Holes

This isn’t really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an example of the sorts of small decisions that comprise preservation and management of resources that parks and other agencies have to deal with all the time.  The National Park Service has the resources to deal with this stuff pretty easily, but many archaeological sites are managed by state, local, or nonprofit organizations that have fewer resources and are often faced with tough decisions.  Management of cultural resources is a remarkably complicated matter on both the philosophical and practical levels.

New Sign at Kin Ya'a, Free of Bullet Holes

New Sign at Kin Ya'a, Free of Bullet Holes

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Type III Masonry, West Side of Pueblo Bonito

Type III Masonry, West Side of Pueblo Bonito

Lest my praise for archaeologists in the previous post make me seem overly sympathetic to their perspective, I’m now going to criticize them pretty harshly.  While my position here gives me the opportunity to read a lot of archaeological research and present its contents and implications, I’m not actually an archaeologist myself, and I think having that distance is pretty useful for my role as an intermediary between the scholars and the public.  It lets me look at the history and practice of archaeology in detail and from the outside, and from that point of view there are a lot of things that bother me about the discipline.  Here I’ll just mention one, which has very deep roots within archaeology and its allied disciplines, and that’s the shockingly cavalier and disrespectful attitude toward human remains that is still remarkably prevalent.

There’s no question that the study of burial practices (traditionally considered part of archaeology) and the analysis of the remains themselves (traditionally the domain of the related but separate field of physical anthropology) can provide a great deal of interesting and useful information about ancient societies, and I’m quite willing to take the results of that research when it has been done and incorporate them into my thoughts on various issues.  When I do that, however, I’m always troubled by a nagging sense that this sort of study feels somehow inappropriate.  Once it’s been done and the information is out there, it might as well be used, but I feel like it really shouldn’t be done except in extraordinary circumstances.

Doorway at Una Vida

Doorway at Una Vida

This sort of attitude is by no means uncommon these days, especially among the modern Pueblos.  In the era of NAGPRA, descendant communities have much more say over what sorts of research get done than they ever did before, and in this region they generally don’t want any research that involves disturbing burials.  This seems like a very natural and sensible position to me, but it has provoked an unfortunate reaction among archaeologists, even otherwise thoughtful and sensitive ones, who now seem inordinately defensive and insistent on maintaining their prerogatives as researchers.

These issues are particularly notable in a (relatively) recent edited volume entitled Ancient Burial Practices in the American Southwest: Archaeology, Physical Anthropology, and Native American Perspectives.  Despite the subtitle, “Native American perspectives” are represented by only a single chapter, at the beginning, by representatives of the Hopi Tribe who talk about the Hopi perspective on this sort of research and how it intersects with both traditional beliefs about death and legal responsibilities under NAGPRA.  This is a very interesting chapter, though occasionally marred by the kind of inflammatory rhetoric to which many Hopis are occasionally prone in these contexts, and overall it raises questions about the propriety of the sort of research represented by the rest of the chapters in the book that those chapters really don’t make any effort to answer.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

Not that there’s nothing of value in the remaining chapters, however.  The most relevant to Chaco is Nancy Akins‘s chapter, which conveniently collects much of the key information from her studies of Chacoan burials.  Most of this information has been published elsewhere, and to those who (like me) have read those other publications there’s not a whole lot new here, but it’s useful to have it in an accessible form like this.  Akins’s main point is that the evidence from burials at Chaco, especially the many differences between those at Pueblo Bonito and those at the small houses across the canyon, clearly indicates a significant amount of hierarchy in Chacoan society.  Indeed, this is probably the strongest and least ambiguous evidence for a hierarchical Chaco out there, and even those who argue for a more egalitarian system have to acknowledge and explain away the evidence from the burials.  I do get a bit concerned about the way Akins has largely monopolized study of the Chaco burials; although I find her arguments convincing, it would be nice if there were someone else out there looking at the same evidence and either confirming or disputing her findings.  (There are some tantalizing hints that someone is, actually, but as far as I know nothing published yet.)  Be that as it may, Akins’s work is a good example of the valuable information that can be derived from burial studies, and at least in this one case I think the value of the information derived is worth the cost of disturbing the burials to get it.

In most cases, however, the information that can be derived from mortuary studies is much more limited and ambiguous, and rarely worth the harm caused by the excavation of the burials.  In many cases the burials either were excavated long ago and, being already disturbed, might as well be studied, or were disturbed in the course of salvage excavations to recover information that would otherwise be lost forever by construction or other development activity.  Indeed, this is the case for pretty much all of the chapters in this collection, and so I don’t have too much objection to the specific studies being undertaken and published here.  The days of archaeologists digging wherever they want just for the hell of it and keeping and studying whatever they find are over, and I think that’s a good thing despite the limits it places on the amounts and kinds of information available.

Scratches on Cliff Wall near Pueblo Bonito

Scratches on Cliff Wall near Pueblo Bonito

Most archaeologists, however, especially the ones with articles in this book, don’t seem to agree.  There’s a really obnoxious tendency to adopt a passive-aggressive or even victimized tone when discussing things like NAGPRA, reburial, or indeed any restrictions at all on research.  Complaining about “premature reburial” not leaving time for all desired studies to be done is bad enough, but far more troubling is the tendency in this context for archaeologists to describe themselves as “scientists” being held back by “religious” objections from tribes.  While I’m sure most of the researchers who talk this way are quite sincere about it, to an outsider it reads like a blatant attempt to wrap the discipline in the mantle of Galileo and Scopes while ignoring the very different context.  The examples of this kind of talk in the volume under discussion are few and not as bad as others I’ve seen, but they’re still problematic.  No one comes right out and argues against repatriation or bemoans the passage of NAGPRA, and the overall conclusions are fine, but some of the language used in reaching those conclusions is telling.

Bonito-Style Masonry atop McElmo-Style Masonry, Pueblo del Arroyo

Bonito-Style Masonry atop McElmo-Style Masonry, Pueblo del Arroyo

In her chapter discussing the other contributions, for example, Lynne Goldstein says that she thinks “it is very dangerous to suggest that tribes will or should dictate the future of research” in the course of a quite reasonable call for more consultation and cooperation between the tribes and archaeologists in which she also says that “it is entirely reasonable to ask that archaeologists defend and explain the work that they propose to undertake.”  In that case, however, where’s the danger?  The threat of tribes dictating the future of research looks a bit like a strawman in this context; certainly that’s not what NAGPRA requires.  Archaeology has plenty of institutional and legislative backing, and no one’s threatening to shut it down entirely in deference to the wishes of any tribe (although some tribes, to be fair, probably would like for that to happen).

Similarly, in their otherwise quite reasonable epilogue the editors say that “whenever a religious group has tried to dictate the course of scientific studies, important information can be lost, and a variety of controversies develop” before noting that this “does not mean, however, that religious beliefs should be ignored.”  This is a pretty misleading way to frame the issue, I think.  While many tribes do indeed have religious objections to the way archaeologists and anthropologists treat the remains of their ancestors, many objections could just as easily be phrased in the language of universal human rights or the rights of cultural groups to preserve and protect their heritage without any reference to religion.  Similarly, while archaeology is often described as a “science,” and depending on how “science” is defined it may even be an accurate description, in this context the use of the term tends to imply a much greater degree of rigor and objectivity, to say nothing of direct relevance to society, than many archaeological studies can really claim.  Brunson-Hadley and Mitchell make reference to the possibility of direct benefits to descendent communities coming from research on ancestral remains, but they remain vague about the specifics, likely because it’s pretty hard to see what sort of benefits are going to come from studies like those presented in this book.

Masonry at Tsin Kletzin

Masonry at Tsin Kletzin

Furthermore, this sort of presentation of “scientific” archaeologists versus “religious” tribes is often an attempt to evoke memories of the suppression of useful research by oppressive Churches in the past.  (Again, Galileo.)  The problem in those cases, however, wasn’t that the authorities were “religious” but that they were powerful and able to use the vast resources at their disposal to hold back the tide of understanding.  Even in modern disputes over things like the teaching of evolution in schools problems only arise when the objections to scientific understanding have the backing of political authorities.  The disputes between tribes and archaeologists aren’t remotely comparable.  Archaeology has plenty of political support, and while the tribes have a lot more political clout now than they used to, they’re still far from occupying a position comparable to the early modern Catholic Church, no matter how “religious” their objections are to the digging up of their ancestors’ graves.

When asked to justify the types of research they want to do, archaeologists will generally talk about increasing knowledge and understanding of past societies, which is all well and good but not necessarily something descendent communities see much need for (they often already know all they want to about their past, and they don’t always want outsiders to know anything at all), especially if it involves methods that they consider offensive or needlessly destructive.  I agree that knowledge of past societies is valuable, but I think the tribes have a point when they say that some ways of acquiring that knowledge are not worth the destruction they cause.  This volume, despite the problems with the underlying attitudes of some of its contributors, does represent an attempt to begin a dialogue between the stakeholders that will hopefully result in a workable and stable compromise that may not be completely satisfying to either side but that will nevertheless allow both sides to retain their core values while pursuing productive collaboration.

Wetherill Cemetery

Wetherill Cemetery

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