Today was the first day of the 2009 Pecos Conference, which is being held at the group campground at McPhee Reservoir north of Cortez, Colorado. This is a fitting location, since the creation of the reservoir with the construction of McPhee Dam in 1980 was the impetus for the Dolores Archaeological Project, often considered the largest salvage archaeology project in American history, which immensely increased knowledge of the archaeology of southwestern Colorado through an ambitious program of excavation and other research to gather information on the many sites at risk of being destroyed by the lake.
There were a lot of interesting talks. The way the Pecos Conference works, since it’s generally held at a campground of some sort, is that talks take place in a big tent and are short (about 10 minutes each), with no audiovisual equipment available. This keeps things from getting too dull even if a given talk isn’t the most exciting, and also allows for a lot of talks in a limited amount of time. The morning began with a symposium on recent research on the Basketmaker II period in several parts of the southwest. That isn’t really one of my main areas of interest, so I didn’t make it to all of the talks, but the ones I saw were pretty interesting. There were then some miscellaneous talks in the late morning, then lunch.
After lunch there was another little symposium, this time on “Chaco Migration and Emulation Research,” focused on the Totah or Middle San Juan region around present-day Farmington, New Mexico. This was obviously of considerable interest to me, so I stayed for all of the talks. The focus was on the major outliers at Salmon and Aztec and the question of the extent to which their striking similarities to sites in Chaco Canyon was the result of actual immigration of people from Chaco versus emulation of Chaco by local people. Most of the research was conducted under a grant from the National Science Foundation to Paul Reed of the Center for Desert Archaeology, who was the organizer of the symposium. The talks looked at different lines of evidence (architecture, pottery, perishable artifacts) and concluded from them that there was a mixture of immigration and emulation at the outliers in the Totah, but that the different river valleys in the area may have had different degrees of mixture. Since Salmon and Aztec were founded in areas of apparently low native population, the San Juan and Animas valleys respectively, direct migration of Chacoans is more apparent at those two sites than at outliers in the heavily populated La Plata valley, where any incoming Chacoans would have had to deal with a much more numerous and powerful local population, if indeed the great houses in the La Plata area had any direct Chacoan element at all rather than being entirely efforts at local emulation of Chaco. While I’m not sure I agree with all of this, it was quite interesting and I’ll have to mull it over.
There were a bunch more talks in the afternoon, many of them with relevance to Chaco, including one by two political scientists suggesting some ways that the political science literature could be integrated into Chacoan archaeology and one by a carpenter suggesting that the famous T-shaped doorways in great kivas may have been attempts to continue the form of doorway found in Basketmaker III pithouses. Somewhat less directly relevant to Chaco but still interesting was a report of a burial of a turkey, two dogs, and a rabbit in a kiva at a site in Colorado. The animals were apparently all buried at once, and while individual dog or turkey burials are fairly common, rabbit burials are apparently otherwise unknown, and the combination of all the animals is certainly unique in the archaeological record.
After all the talks, and a break for dinner, came the keynote address, by none other than Craig Childs. Childs is an interesting character, and I was interested to see what he would say and how he would be received by the archaeological community in this context, since he’s been rather critical of archaeologists at times in the past. It turns out, however, that he is on good terms with archaeologists in general, and he had plenty of good things to say about them. His talk was particularly interesting and relevant for me, since it focused on the importance of communicating archaeology to the public. This is basically what both Childs and I do, but Childs was quite adamant (and emphasized this in his answer to a question later) that while having intermediaries translate the research is all well and good, at least some archaeologists should be doing the work themselves, because they know the research and the data to a much greater degree than even the best-informed outsider. He therefore structured his talk as advice to archaeologists on how to write for a popular audience. It was good advice.
His main points were these:
- Just get it out there. It’s always easy to second-guess things and feel you don’t have it quite right or it’s not totally clear, but you can’t let that keep you from putting it forward anyway. The need for the information to be out there is too important to wait for it to be perfect.
- Pay attention to every word and sentence you write. Tell the story the way you’d want it to be told to you. Make the pacing, tone, and humor of the piece work. He specifically cited Steve Lekson as an example of an archaeologist who does this fantastically well.
- Omit. It’s hard to leave anything out, but to be readable a piece has to be a reasonable length, and that means you can’t include everything. The important thing is to know what is best to leave in and what can be taken out.
- Know your story. While this is somewhat in tension with “just get it out” above, since you can never know anything perfectly enough, it’s important to know what you’re saying and why. This is not always obvious. Sometimes it takes real work to figure out what you want to say.
- It’s not your story. Once you write something down and send it out, you no longer have control over it, and it’s important to accept that and not let it keep you from sending it out. Childs is known for inserting himself into his books to a degree that not everyone finds appealing, but he said that even so, he has to remind himself that it’s still not his story once he sends it out into the world. It belongs to whoever reads it.
- Transmit the mystery. This was particularly interesting, as Childs has been criticized by many, myself included, for overemphasizing the “vanishing Anasazi” idea and the notion that the ancient people of the southwest mysterious disappeared when they quite clearly just became the modern native people of the southwest. He acknowledged that, but put the mystery idea in a broader perspective. There’s always mystery to anything we study, especially anything we’re passionate about, and he wants archaeologists to transmit that sense of mystery and fascination. It’s not totally boring and dry; otherwise no one would devote their lives to it. When it comes to Chaco specifically, there’s so much we don’t know that it’s pretty easy to get this across. Chaco is, indeed, a place of majesty and a place of mystery.
Childs is a talented speaker; he speaks the way he writes, fluidly if at times a bit overwrought. He certainly got his points across clearly here, and the questions afterward reflected that. One point that came across most clearly in the question-and-answer session was that he sees communicating with the public as a moral responsibility of archaeologists. Archaeological research involves the acquisition of an enormous amount of knowledge and information, and archaeologists need to share that information with the public as the price of doing what it takes to acquire it. While he didn’t come out and say this squarely, it was obvious that he thinks the destructive nature of much archaeological research, particularly excavation, needs to be justified somehow in terms of its benefits to society. Distributing the information gained is the most obvious way to do that. It also, as David Grant Noble pointed out during the question-and-answer session, makes it easier for archaeologists to get funding and discourages looting. The more people know about the results of archaeological research, the more likely they are to support funding it and the less likely they are to support the destruction of the archaeological record through wanton digging up of artifacts. Neither Childs nor any of his questioners mentioned the recent Blanding arrests specifically, but they were clearly in the air.
I’ve been a bit skeptical in the past of efforts to have archaeologists be the ones to present archaeology to the public, but Childs made a strong case that they are useful to have out there leveraging their deep knowledge to inform the public. Lekson aside, archaeologists are generally terrible writers, since the skills that make a good archaeologist don’t tend to have much overlap with the skills that make a good writer, and as I learned from listening to the presentations today they’re often not very good at public speaking either. Childs’s advice on how to write well is therefore crucial if more archaeologists are ever to engage directly with the public the way he wants them to. Let’s hope it’s well taken.