Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Entrance to Library and Social Sciences Building, University of Alaska Anchorage

Entrance to Library and Social Sciences Building, University of Alaska Anchorage

Maria Konnikova has a good post explaining how blogging, along with other “popular” writing such as journalism, is very good practice for the sort of work involved in academic scholarship. I’m not an academic myself and have no interest in becoming one, but I definitely agree with her that blogging helps develop skills in analyzing, synthesizing, and (especially) explaining complicated information compiled from diverse sources, which is what good scholarship in any discipline should do.

I also found her comments on disciplinary isolation within academia interesting, since I’ve found a lot of the same things to be true in archaeology that she found in psychology. I tend to dig deep and look broadly for research that might relate in some way to Chaco, and in doing so I’ve found interesting and relevant publications in very unlikely places. Some of my early posts on subjects such as the ancient Maya and the European Reformation are good examples of how these connections can be found. I haven’t done as much of this lately, it’s true; I’ve increasingly begun doing posts that are either narrowly about Chaco or about something else entirely that also happens to interest me. My recent decision to devote this blog to Chaco and to find somewhere else to put the other stuff may lead me to do more to relate the various things I read to Chacoan issues, or maybe not. We’ll see.

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Richard Wetherill’s Grave

Today is Wetherill Day, the anniversary of Richard Wetherill’s death in 1910, and as such I would like to continue my tradition of marking the occasion by discussing the complicated and often misunderstood legacy of Wetherill, the pioneering amateur archaeologist who excavated many sites in the Southwest, including most famously Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. I’ve talked about the general story and context in previous posts, so this time I’d like to note one specific example of how, in contrast to his popular image as a simple pot-hunter focused on collecting artifacts, Wetherill made some quite perceptive (though not necessarily correct) deductions about cultural history based on his excavations.

After his early work in the 1880s at Mesa Verde, near his family’s ranch outside the small town of Mancos, Colorado, but before his more famous work at Chaco between 1896 and 1901, Wetherill did some exploring of the cliff dwellings of the Grand Gulch area of southeastern Utah. By this point in his career Wetherill had become quite sincerely interested in archaeology not just as a source of articles to be sold but as a window into the past, and his techniques of both excavation and interpretation had improved markedly, in part due to influence by the Swedish archaeologist Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who had come to Colorado in 1891 and assisted with the Mesa Verde work.

In the winter of 1893–1894, Wetherill organized an expedition to Grand Gulch with the financial backing of the wealthy New York brothers Benjamin and Talbot Hyde. This was the first instantiation of the Hyde Exploring Expedition, which would later become the aegis for Wetherill’s work at Chaco as well. As James Snead notes in an article on the relationship between Wetherill and the Hydes:

The principal archaeological discovery of the season was of remains predating those of the “cliff dwellers,” which Talbot Hyde, exercising a prerogative of sponsorship, named the “Basket Makers.”

And Basketmakers they remain; the term is still in use to designate this culture, which did indeed predate the later groups of “cliff dwellers” who built stone houses and are therefore known as “Pueblos.”

But how did Wetherill and the Hydes know that the Basketmaker remains they found at Grand Gulch predated the cliff dwellers? Through the use of stratigraphy, which is based on the assumption that in undisturbed deposits lower layers are older than higher ones. The Basketmaker deposits were below the cliff dweller ones, therefore they were older. There have been suggestions that Wetherill actually used stratigraphic excavation at this time, which is to say that he used stratigraphic levels as the organizing principle for the excavation itself, but David Browman and Douglas Givens argue in an article on the rise of stratigraphic excavation in American archaeology that there is no evidence he actually did. Instead, he most likely excavated and only afterward looked at the strata in the exposed trenches to make his cultural determinations, a fairly common practice at the time which Browman and Givens call “post facto stratigraphic interpretation” and oppose to the truly stratigraphic excavation that arose in the 1910s.

But Wetherill didn’t just notice that the Basketmaker remains were different from and lower than the cliff dweller ones. He also came up with a tentative theory on the relationship between the two groups. Based on both artifact differences and, as Erik Reed discusses in an article on the early history of physical anthropology in the Southwest, skull shapes, Wetherill concluded that the two groups were “racially” distinct, with the implication that the one was not descended from the other. As Reed notes, this was challenged a bit by other archaeologists at the time, but later discoveries seemed to confirm it, and it became dogma in the early twentieth century until further research in the 1940s showed that the differences in skull form were actually due to artificial cranial deformation in the later skulls probably caused by the introduction of stiff cradleboards. It was further found that there were actually multiple kinds of such deformation, of possible significance in delineating different cultural groups. Reed says:

The very significant distinction between lambdoid and vertical occipital cranial deformation was brought out only in 1937, by T. D. Stewart, followed up by my 1949 paper; but was foreshadowed by Richard Wetherill who stated […] “that there is a difference in the mode of flattening the head. In the skulls of the mesa dwellers the artificial depression of the posterior part of the cranium has been applied obliquely from above, so that it principally affects the parieto-occipital region; the skulls from the cliff-dwellings have been flattened straight from behind, the occipital region being most affected.”

The distinction between the Basketmakers and cliff-dwellers on stratigraphic grounds was an important discovery, and while it was the sort of thing that many professional archaeologists would likely have noticed at the time, it’s not something a typical pot-hunter would have cared much about. Wetherill, however, not only noticed it but drew some reasonable if ultimately erroneous inferences about population history from it. He also noticed some subtle differences in skull form and attributed them to different types of cranial deformation, which was later found to be quite correct (although note that he doesn’t seem to have considered that this might have been the reason for the differences between Basketmaker and later skulls as well). Wetherill was a problematic guy in a lot of ways, as my previous posts have noted, but when it comes to archaeological methodology and inference he was definitely at the forefront of the archaeological thought of his time, if not in fact ahead of it.
Browman, David L., & Givens, Douglas R. (1996). Stratigraphic Excavation: The First “New Archaeology” American Anthropologist, 98 (1), 80-95 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.1.02a00080

Reed, Erik K. (1963). The Beginnings of Physical Anthropology in the Southwest Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, 2 (3), 130-132 DOI: 10.2307/27641802

Snead, James E. (1999). Science, Commerce, and Control: Patronage and the Development of Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas American Anthropologist, 101 (2), 256-271 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.2.256

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Linguistics Building, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Sorry for the extended hiatus; I’ve been busy with various things. I’ll have more on the Mississippians at some point, but for now I want to  discuss a more general issue: the relationship of historical linguistics to archaeology in attempting to reconstruct past events. Both disciplines provide ways to study past events beyond the reach of historical scholarship in the traditional sense, which is based on written documentation. (I would argue that in many cases oral tradition provides an additional line of evidence, similar to written history in many ways, useful for understanding the prehistoric past, but that is a controversial position and I’m not going to defend it in detail right now.) What makes linguistics and archaeology particularly powerful is that they are independent lines of evidence, which means that tentative conclusions drawn from one can be compared to the evidence from the other to see how well they coincide. This provides a much more robust and reliable reconstruction of past events than would be possible based on either line of evidence alone.

And yet, despite the potential interpretive power to be gained from using linguistics and archaeology in tandem, this integration is rare, and both linguists and archaeologists have a tendency to ignore each other’s work most of the time and, when they do acknowledge it, to use it in a very uncritical and superficial manner that doesn’t come close to unlocking the full power of real integration. Back in 1976 the journal World Archaeology published a theme issue with several papers exploring the potential for integrating linguistics and archaeology, and it’s a sign of how little this integration has progressed that some of these papers are still useful summaries of the issues and the state of research.

The introductory paper in the issue, and the one I will primarily focus on in this post, is by Christopher Ehret of UCLA, and it provides a general overview of the types of historical inferences that can come from historical linguistic research. He notes that most research up to that time had been oriented toward just one of these types: those inferences that can come from evidence of genetic relationship between languages, which is to say, the knowledge that a given group of languages descends from a single “proto-language” presumably spoken by a single socio-cultural group at some point in the past. These are certainly useful, in a general way, but there are real limits to how much can be learned just from knowing which languages are related in a given region. Looking at the reconstructible vocabulary of the proto-language can give some important information about the culture that spoke that language that can, at least in theory, be correlated with archaeological evidence to pinpoint which archaeological “culture” corresponds to the speakers of that proto-language. Two other papers in this issue address different aspects of this kind of research in different context and with different language families: Robert Blust’s paper on Proto-Austronesian shows how information gained in this way can supplement the archaeological record by providing evidence for the presence of certain items of material culture and social institutions that are not recoverable by archaeology because of their perishable or intangible nature, while J. P. Mallory’s survey of research along these lines on Proto-Indo-European mostly points out the difficulty of attributing cultural items for which there are reconstructible words to a single culture when the proto-language being reconstructed may not actually represent a single language or its speech community.

Moving beyond these issues, however, Ehret points out that there is more to historical linguistics than determining which languages are related and what words can be reconstructed for various proto-languages. A potentially much more productive line of evidence for culture history, and yet one that has seen remarkably little research, is loanword studies. Languages may adopt words from other languages for a variety of reasons, many of them quite important for understanding political and economic relationships between societies at various points in the past. Furthermore, loanwords are often (though not always) easy to identify either in currently spoken languages or in the reconstructed proto-languages from which they descend. Ehret gives various examples from his own research in Africa to illustrate how loanword studies can give substantial insights into cultural relationships and history.

It’s important to note, however, that while most of what Ehret says in this paper about general methodology is unexceptionable, his own conclusions about African prehistory are quite controversial and one of his faculty pages at UCLA even has this remarkable paragraph:

His linguistic works include A Comparative Reconstruction of Proto-Nilo-Saharan (2002), Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (1995), and The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary (1980). He has also written monographic articles on Bantu subclassification, on internal reconstruction in Semitic, on the reconstruction of proto-Cushitic and proto-Eastern Cushitic, and, with Mohamed Nuuh Ali, on the classification of the Soomaali languages. These reconstructions have not been well received, and are not followed by other linguists.

Evidence for the controversy engendered by Ehret’s interpretations comes in the very same special issue for which he wrote this introductory paper. One of the other papers, by the archaeologist D. W. Phillipson, addresses the Bantu language family and the potential for both linguistics and archaeology to shed light on the issue of when and how Bantu-speakers spread across much of southern and eastern Africa. Phillipson notes Ehret’s interpretations but disputes them in detail on various points. This is obviously a one-sided account, but Phillipson’s arguments seem pretty strong to me. I don’t know much about this issue, of course, and it’s quite likely that research has progressed a bit since 1976 in any case, so I’m not going to draw any conclusions about who was more right.

Africa is actually an interesting case here because it seems that historical linguistics has played a much bigger role here than elsewhere in developing hypotheses about prehistory (probably due at least in part to Ehret’s work). This is in contrast to the Americas, where linguistics and archaeology have mostly operated separately and the latter has been more dominant in developing historical hypotheses. I think the African model offers a potentially productive route for Americanists to take in trying to come up with more detailed reconstructions of culture history, although the many controversies over the proper interpretation of African prehistory show that this more integrated approach is by no means a cure-all.

I’ll have more on the potential implications of all this for North America later. For now I just want to introduce the topic.

Blust, R. (1976). Austronesian culture history: Some linguistic inferences and their relations to the archaeological record
World Archaeology, 8 (1), 19-43 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979650

Ehret, C. (1976). Linguistic evidence and its correlation with archaeology World Archaeology, 8 (1), 5-18 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979649

Mallory, J. (1976). Time perspective and proto‐indo‐European culture World Archaeology, 8 (1), 44-56 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979651

Phillipson, D. (1976). Archaeology and Bantu linguistics World Archaeology, 8 (1), 65-82 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979653

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Illinois Welcome Sign

The name “Cahokia” comes from one of the constituent tribes of the Illinois Confederacy, a group of several semi-autonomous “tribes” or “villages” that occupied much of what is now the state of Illinois and parts of some of the surrounding states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Staunch allies of the French throughout most of the colonial period, the Illinois were among the hardest-hit by the various forces buffeting Native American groups in the wake of European contact, and they ended up suffering one of the most dramatic demographic collapses of the tribes we have substantial information on. Emily Blasingham, who did a detailed ethnohistoric study of Illinois population decline in the 1950s, concluded that the total population of the Confederacy at the time of French contact in the 1670s was around 10,000, which by 1800 had dwindled all the way to a mere 500 people. The descendants of the remaining Illinois ended up in northeastern Oklahoma, where they are now known as the Peoria (originally the name of one of the constituent tribes of the Confederacy along with the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and others).

Most of the member tribes of the Confederacy, including the Cahokia and Peoria, spoke dialects of the Miami-Illinois language, part of the widespread Algonquian language family. One possible exception is the poorly known Michigamea, who joined the Confederacy in the early eighteenth century and had apparently lived before that somewhere further down the Mississippi River. While it has generally been assumed that the Michigamea also spoke Miami-Illinois, there is some evidence that they may actually have spoken a different language, possibly belonging to the Siouan family, before they joined the Confederacy. Be that as it may, the Illinois Confederacy as a whole was clearly primarily a group of tribes who lived near each other in the seventeenth century and spoke the same language.

Cahokia Courthouse, Cahokia, Illinois

The various Illinois groups moved around quite a lot during the colonial period in response to various threats and opportunities, but they had two main focuses of settlement: the upper Illinois River valley, especially around Starved Rock and Peoria Lake, and the American Bottom, along the Mississippi River between the mouths of the Illinois and Kaskaskia Rivers. The Cahokias consistently lived in the American Bottom for most of their recorded history, and gave their name to both the French settlement of Cahokia, which still exists as the town of Cahokia, Illinois, with its famous courthouse, and the nearby Cahokia Mounds.

The question of who built the Cahokia Mounds, and even if they were artificial at all, was hotly debated in the early history of American archaeology. Even after the early period of wild speculation in the nineteenth century had given way to a more systematic, realistic approach in the early twentieth, the answer remained unclear. In 1944 Donald Wray and Hale Smith, two archaeologists from the University of Chicago, proposed an answer with at least a surface degree of elegance and plausibility, namely, that Cahokia and other Mississippian sites in the region were the work of the Illinois Confederacy.

Southwest Corner of Monks Mound, Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois

Wray and Smith had two main lines of evidence for this proposal: distributional and chronological. They noted, first, that the remains of what was then called the “Middle Mississippi Culture” corresponded pretty closely to the areas known to have been occupied by the Illinois in colonial times. Recall that the main areas of Illinois settlement were in the American Bottom and along the upper Illinois River, both areas that do indeed have substantial Mississippian remains. They also note that the general uniformity of Mississippian material culture suggests substantial social and political ties among the groups living in various parts of the region, such as would have been the case with a Confederacy such as that of the Illinois. Note that they don’t point to any specific material culture similarities between Mississippian sites and known Illinois sites, presumably because none of the latter were known at the time.

Their chronological argument takes a somewhat different tack. They note that other archaeologists had recently proposed that Mississippian societies dated to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, based on the lack of mention of some of the major mound sites by the early European explorers. Since the only occupants of the Mississippian parts of Illinois during this period are known to have been the Illinois groups, it follows that they must have been the Mississippians. They also go into some detail about certain sites showing contact between the Mississippians and the Oneota culture found primarily further north and tentatively identified with the speakers of Chiwere Siouan languages (i.e., Ioway, Oto, and Missouria). Since many Oneota sites have European trade goods and therefore clearly date to the contact period, Wray and Smith conclude that sites such as some in northern Illinois showing both Oneota and Mississippian traits support their chronological reconstruction. They also note the contacts between the American Bottom Mississippian sites and the southeast Missouri/northeast Arkansas area occupied historically by the Siouan-speaking Quapaw and connect this on somewhat shaky grounds to the Oneota as well.

Interpretive Sign at Southwest Corner of Monks Mound, Cahokia Mounds

We now know that this is all wrong, of course. Wray and Smith were working at a time when there was no way to get absolute dates for archaeological sites in the Midwest, and their chronological assumptions turned out to be totally unfounded when radiocarbon dating was invented a few years later and it turned out that the Mississippian sites were much older than the Illinois Confederacy and that in between there was a period when the American Bottom was part of the “Vacant Quarter” abandoned by the Mississippians. While it’s not impossible that some of the ancestors of the people who would later become the Illinois were involved in some Mississippian societies, there is no particular reason to connect them to the American Bottom specifically, and there is certainly lots of evidence indicating that the Illinois Confederacy itself came many centuries after the Mississippian phenomenon and had no direct connection to it.

While it’s easy to criticize ideas like this in hindsight, with the benefit of more and better information accumulated over several decades, it’s important to note that Wray and Smith’s ideas were actually challenged quite vigorously at the time by Waldo Wedel of the Smithsonian, who published a comment the following year aggressively pointing out the weakness of their assumptions and the dubiousness of their conclusions. Wedel points out that there are no known European trade goods associated with Mississippian sites in Illinois and that there is no evidence at all linking the Mississippian sites to the Illinois Confederacy despite their similar geographical distributions. He also challenges the idea that Mississippian societies in general are post-contact, and points out that while it was a possible interpretation of the evidence available at the time it was definitely not the only one and was lacking in actual supporting evidence. Further, he points out that while some Oneota sites are definitely post-contact, not all of the known sites had produced European trade goods, and it was not at all clear that all Oneota sites were historic rather than prehistoric. Also, he notes that the Quapaw stuff doesn’t make any sense and seems to be predicated on the assumption that since the Quapaw spoke a Siouan language and Oneota was thought to represent Siouan speakers the Quapaw could somehow be associated with Oneota despite the lack of any known Oneota sites in the Quapaw area. Wedel takes great pains to note that he is not criticizing the very idea of synthesizing archaeological data and organizing it into big historical narratives, as Wray and Smith have tried to do, just pointing out the flaws in the way they and some other archaeologists go about doing this. (This part is interesting because Wedel himself would go on to become one of the most important synthesizers of the archaeology of the Great Plains.)

Welcome Sign, Kaskaskia, Illinois

As it turns out, Wedel was more or less completely right on every point he criticized Wray and Smith about, and the much more complete and accurate picture we now have of Midwestern archaeology has vindicated him. The point is not that Wray and Smith were wrong so much as that they were sloppy; it’s always going to be the case that even many very reasonable interpretations based on the best data available at one time will turn out to be wrong when better data appears, but not all interpretations at any given point in time are necessarily based on the best data or the most reasonable assumptions. This little dispute provides a particularly clear example of this general point.
Blasingham, E. (1956). The Depopulation of the Illinois Indians, Part I Ethnohistory, 3 (3) DOI: 10.2307/480408

Blasingham, E. (1956). The Depopulation of the Illinois Indians. Part 2, Concluded Ethnohistory, 3 (4) DOI: 10.2307/480464

Wedel, W. (1945). On the Illinois Confederacy and Middle Mississippi Culture in Illinois American Antiquity, 10 (4) DOI: 10.2307/275581

Wray, D., & Smith, H. (1944). An Hypothesis for the Identification of the Illinois Confederacy with the Middle Mississippi Culture in Illinois American Antiquity, 10 (1) DOI: 10.2307/275179

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Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash Near Their Confluence

I’ve never read any of Jared Diamond‘s books, so I’ve been reluctant to say much about him and his ideas.  Chaco is one of his main case studies in Collapse, however, so I really should read it at some point and try to figure out what I think of it.  I’ve heard conflicting things about how accurately it presents and interprets the evidence he gathers from archaeologists.  A lot of people seem to really like it, but most archaeologists seem to hate it and think that it’s riddled with errors.  I browsed through it a little once in the Chaco bookstore (which, yes, carries it, or at least did at the time), and I didn’t see any obvious errors of fact in the parts of the Chaco chapter I looked at, but the caption for one of the pictures, an overview of the canyon as it appears now, seemed to imply that the current desolate look of the area was the result of the overexploitation of the local environment by the Chacoans, which presumably led to their collapse.  My understanding of Diamond’s message, based mainly on the subtitle of the book (“How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”), is that the main driver of collapse he sees is environmental degradation, and the book’s popularity in environmentalist circles certainly makes sense in this light.

In any case, I’m skeptical about the whole idea that Chaco “collapsed” in the way that Diamond seems to think.  I’ve put forth my case in detail elsewhere and won’t repeat it now, but the basic idea is that what happened at Chaco is more complicated than a simple catchword like “collapse” (however it’s defined) implies.  On the narrow point of whether whatever happened at Chaco was the result of “choices” the Chacoans made about whether to “succeed or fail,” I guess it depends on what choices you mean by that.  David Stuart argues that the rigid, hierarchical social structure that allowed Chaco to become so impressive in the first place made the system too brittle to withstand severe climatic fluctuations, with the result that it was replaced by the more egalitarian and resilient social structures of the modern Pueblos.  He sees some clear lessons for our own society from this, primarily about the problems with economic inequality (a timely topic these days).  That’s one way of looking at “collapse.”

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

I’m not sure if it’s what Diamond is talking about, though.  I’ve seen him described as an “environmentalist” in the old sense, i.e., an environmental determinist who sees major aspects of human societies as inevitable results of their environmental situations, with the twist that he obviously doesn’t have a completely deterministic view of human reactions to the environment but rather, more in line with the modern meaning of “environmentalism,” he recognizes that the interaction between humans and their environments goes both ways.  Under this view, presumably the most enlightening examples of past “collapses” to look at for insights into how we should address our own environmental problems are those where collapse was the result of ecological “overshoot,” or human use of natural resources outstripping the ability of the environment to provide them.  Joseph Tainter, who knows a lot about “collapse” from an archaeological perspective, has vigorously criticized Diamond’s (and others’) use of this approach, and I think choosing Chaco as an example of this type of collapse is particularly questionable.

It’s not that the Chacoans didn’t have major effects on their local environment.  The permanent resident population of the canyon may not have been very large, but it’s not an area that’s exactly abounding in resources, and the fact that the Chacoans imported all kinds of stuff from outside the canyon strongly implies that there wasn’t enough of all sorts of things locally to support the community.  I believe Diamond makes a big deal specifically out of the evidence for importing wood from the distant mountains, which I presume he sees as evidence that the Chacoans had deforested their local area more or less completely, with the attendant implications for overshoot and collapse.  Hence the caption on the picture I noticed when leafing through the book: the implied sequence of events is rise of Chaco leading to deforestation leading to collapse leading to a treeless desert wasteland even 1000 years later.

Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

But of course the evidence for importing timber from 50 miles away also implies that the Chacoans had the ability to organize some seriously impressive procurement for those resources they were lacking locally (whether because they had outstripped them or because they were never there to start with).  It’s not that they didn’t deforest their local area; they totally did, and fast!  But if that had been enough to make the system collapse, it never could have gotten going in the first place.  The abiding mystery of Chaco, after all, is not that a major center of its scale arose in the Southwest but that it arose where it did, in one of the least inviting environments in the whole region.  Somehow, the people at Chaco were able to marshal the resources of a much bigger area with many more resources, until suddenly they couldn’t.  The thing that needs to be explained by any “collapse” narrative is why that social power stopped so abruptly, which presumably also requires an answer to the question of how it developed in the first place.  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, which is why Chaco remains such a fascinating and mysterious place even after over a century of intensive study.

“Overshoot” is not a very helpful explanation in this context.  Stripping the canyon of all its productive potential clearly didn’t lead to the collapse of Chaco, as the Chacoans were able to draw on the much greater potential of the whole region, at least for a while.  Overshoot doesn’t really explain why that control ended, either, since the overall resources of the region that the Chacoans apparently had access to were much too abundant for them to deplete.  They easily deforested the mesas above the canyon, but they never came close to deforesting the Chuskas or Mt. Taylor.  Those are big mountains, covered in trees!  And the same goes for all the other imported goods.  You could perhaps make a case for overshoot in some particular area perhaps contributing to the collapse of Chacoan power in some roundabout way, but it would definitely not be as simple as a straightforward story of overshoot leading to collapse implies.  That picture doesn’t show the enduring effects of Chacoan deforestation on the canyon; it shows what the canyon probably looked like when the Chacoans first encountered it.  Indeed, the canyon ecosystem we see today is the result of over fifty years of protection from grazing, and over a hundred years of protection from most other impacts.

Juniper Trees on the South Mesa Trail

So those are my thoughts on Diamond, and I really should read the book at some point to get a better sense of what he actually argues and whether this is a fair interpretation.  What I find interesting, though, is that noted archaeological iconoclast Steve Lekson has recently written an impassioned post in support of Diamond.  He points out that most archaeologists seem to hate Diamond’s books and spend a lot of time pointing out the flaws in them, but he argues that doing this is missing the more important point:

I’m sure there are errors – real errors.  Any work of this scope will have errors.  But much of the carping seems to concern not facts, but interpretations.  Diamond necessarily works from other archaeologists’ interpretations and I suspect the authors upon whom he relies would have something to say about all this.  The interpretations he accepts are not necessarily wrong; they are simply inconsistent with those of his critics.

I’m not saying that Diamond gets it “right.”  It’s hard to get things completely “right,” especially in science when many very reasonable hypotheses are probably wrong.  But the vehemence of academic reaction to Diamond is, I think, far disproportionate to his sins – sins of omission, commission or (worst of all) failure to cite the critic.  It is my opinion that much of the heat comes from Diamond’s success as a popular writer.  It’s not jealousy — well, maybe a little: after all, the guy won the Pulitzer with our data.  We don’t want anyone else to tell our story, even though we almost never tell it ourselves – accessibly.  And, it must be said, there is antipathy, even hostility from academics towards popular writers, even when that popular writer is an academic.     We all should re-read Article 4 of the SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, especially the bit about “Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.”

Fair enough.  I do obviously agree with the value of outreach and it’s true that Diamond has been a wildly successful popularizer of archaeology.  Lekson goes on to give a very interesting account of what he sees as the important “collapses” in Southwestern prehistory.  I note that Chaco, specifically, doesn’t appear on the list, although the depopulation of the Four Corners around AD 1300 does.  I have my doubts about that one too, but it really depends a lot on how you define “collapse.”  It’s not clear if Lekson has actually read Diamond’s book(s) (although obviously I’m hardly one to judge on that score), and he doesn’t directly address any of Diamond’s claims or interpretations about Chaco specifically, even though he is of course much more of an expert on Chaco than either Diamond or me.  Still, his general points about the reaction to Diamond are fair.  It would probably be more helpful for archaeologists who object to interpretations of their data put forth in popular accounts like Diamond’s to explain their objections in similarly popular fora, rather than just whining amongst themselves.  Diamond’s work may have a lot of problems, but at least he’s trying to draw conclusions from archaeological data and apply them to modern issues in accessible way, which is much more than you can say for most archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions like Stuart and, to a lesser extent, Lekson himself.  In any case, I think it’s clear that this conversation is really just getting started, so anyone who is really upset by the direction it’s taken so far has plenty of opportunity to jump in and contribute a different perspective.

View from Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

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Bloustein School, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Obviously I haven’t been posting much here lately.  There’s a reason for that; I’ve been very busy the past few weeks, and my life has been changing rather dramatically.  These changes are mostly for the better, but they have been complicating things quite a lot.

After I graduated in May with my masters in planning from Rutgers, I stayed in New Jersey and continued to apply for jobs.  That was a difficult and frustrating endeavor.  Everyone knows that the job market is terrible right now, but I don’t think anyone who isn’t currently looking for a job really realizes the severity of the problem.  Basically, unless you’re in a specialized field that happens to be in demand right now, if you graduate with either a bachelor’s or a master’s you cannot expect to get a job.  At all.  (This is why a lot of young people these days are moving back in with their parents after graduating.)  Even applying for jobs for which you’re overqualified doesn’t work, because the job market is so bad that employers can reject people for being overqualified.  The only ways to maybe get a job in most fields are either to network like crazy and rely on your connections, or to persevere for months and months applying to hundreds of positions hoping that eventually you’ll luck out.  I’m terrible at networking, so although I tried to do it a little I mostly relied on the second method.  My lease in New Jersey ended at the end of July, so I decided to stay there until then and move back to New Mexico in August if I hadn’t found anything yet.

New Jersey Turnpike Sign, Highland Park, New Jersey

Over the course of the summer getting a real job became such an uphill battle that I decided to look into other options, including doing another Student Conservation Association internship.  Doing one of those was how I started at Chaco, and that turned out pretty well.  I didn’t really want to do another visitor services or interpretation internship (although I had been applying for the few permanent jobs like that that I could find), but in a worst-case scenario I figured I probably could get one.  SCA does also have occasional positions more in line with my graduate degree and my planning interests, so if I managed to find one of those I figured I would have a good shot at it and it would be almost as good as a real job.  As it happened, one such position, with the National Park Service’s Alaska Regional Office in Anchorage, was posted in early July, so I applied for it.  I also applied for various other positions, some more attractive to me than others, as well as continuing to apply for the handful of real jobs that would be posted on various planning job boards from time to time.

In late July I went down to South Beach for a few days with my mom and my sister, which was a welcome vacation and change of pace for me.  I had become pretty frustrated with the job search by then, so it was nice to have a break.  It was also interesting to see South Beach, since while I was in school I had worked on a project about its revitalization (which is a really fascinating story).

Smokey Bear Sign on Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida

Once I got back to New Jersey from Florida, July was drawing to a close, and without a job or any reasonable prospects on the horizon it became obvious that I needed to start actually planning on moving back to New Mexico and staying with my mom indefinitely.  I decided that since it didn’t really matter when I got to Albuquerque I would take a leisurely road trip and see a lot of stuff along the way.  This was something I had always wanted to do but had never really been able to do because whenever I had taken road trips before (and I had taken several) there had been a definite deadline for when I needed to arrive, which really limited how much time I could take for sightseeing.  This time, however, I could take as long as I wanted, and I made the most of it.  I saw several cities that I had never been to before, including Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville, but the main focus of the trip was on seeing as many archaeological sites as I could.  In the Midwest and South, of course, the main archaeological sites that are open to the public are mounds, so hitting as many mound sites as possible became my priority.

I didn’t manage to see absolutely all of them, but I saw a lot.  In Ohio I saw the Newark Earthworks and the many Hopewell sites around Chillicothe, as well as the Serpent Mound, probably the most famous of the many Ohio mounds.  In Indiana I saw Angel Mounds in Evansville.  I saw Cahokia, of course, which was stunning.  I had known it was the most important archaeological site in the country, but I hadn’t really appreciated the scale of it until I saw it in person.  Heading down the Mississippi Valley from there, I saw Wickliffe and Kincaid, near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio, then headed southeast into Tennessee and saw Pinson and Shiloh.  Turning west onto I-40, I saw Chucalissa, Parkin, Toltec, and, last but definitely not least, Spiro.  It was a fantastic experience that gave me a much more detailed understanding of the archaeology and prehistory of other parts of the country, and I’m sure I will have some posts here in the future on some of these sites and the cultures behind them.

The Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio

I took about ten days to get to Albuquerque, so once I arrived it was well into August.  My mom had several projects for me to do around the house, which kept me busy, and she also suggested I might want to take some classes in the planning school at UNM, both to increase my marketability for jobs and to give me some connections in the area.  That seemed like a good idea, so I applied for non-degree status and prepared to register for a class.

Around this time, however, I suddenly got an e-mail from the NPS people in Alaska, asking if I was still interested in the SCA position and available to interview!  I was, of course, and within a few days I did the interview, they offered me the job, and I took it.  It’ll take a while to get all the paperwork through the system, so we settled on a start date in mid-September.

Albuquerque from Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Suddenly, after so many months of uncertainty and frustration, I had some clarity about what my life would be like for the next year.  It’s a one-year internship in the planning department of the regional office, which is exactly the kind of work I want to do, and since it’s through SCA I’ll get a living stipend plus free housing and health insurance, all of which is fantastic and basically perfect for my situation right now.  I decided that since I’ll mainly be in Anchorage it would be best to have a car, so I’m going to be driving up rather than flying.  I’m going to be taking the ferry part of the way, which is expensive but will make it a whole lot easier than driving the whole way up and should also be fun in its own right.  The current plan is that I’ll leave Albuquerque (where I still am) about September 13, drive up to Bellingham, Washington, take the ferry from there to Haines, Alaska, then drive up through Canada to the Alaska Highway and take it back down to Anchorage.

I had to be fingerprinted for my background check, so today I went over to Petroglyph National Monument, which is the nearest NPS unit, and the law enforcement rangers there fingerprinted me and helped me fill out the forms.  Although I grew up mostly in Albuquerque, I had actually never been to Petroglyph before, so after the fingerprinting was done I decided to go and see the actual petroglyphs in Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyons.  They’re quite impressive; very similar in style and content to the ones at Three Rivers, although fewer in number and much more damaged by graffiti and other impacts from being so close to a big city.  Seeing them is something that I always intend to do when I’m in Albuquerque, but I never seem to get around to it.  They’re in a part of town that I never really go to, so it would generally have to be a special trip to see them and so far I hadn’t managed to get around to it.  This fingerprinting thing gave me the perfect opportunity, and I’m glad I took advantage of it.

Visitor Center, Petroglyph National Monument

So that’s what’s going on with me, and why I haven’t been posting here for the past few weeks.  I’m unsure what effect all these changes will have on this blog, but rest assured that I will keep it going.  I haven’t had much time lately to devote to Southwestern archaeology, but I’m sure I’ll be back to it at some point, and in the meantime I have been studying up on the prehistory of the Midwest, the South, and (most recently) Alaska.  I’ll probably do some blogging about that stuff soon.  Meanwhile, if you really want to see some interesting blogging about the Southwest, Steve Lekson has a blog now, which he’s using to develop his ideas in preparation for his next book.  Like his last book, it’s very interesting, and I highly recommend it.  I don’t have anything in particular to say about his posts so far, but I’m sure I’ll be linking to and discussing some of his posts in the future.

Anyway, thanks to my remaining readers for bearing with me during this period of uncertainty, and things should resolve into a more predictable pattern soon.

Sign Pointing North at the Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio

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Sign at State of New Mexico Archives Building, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Several months ago Steve Lekson sent me a review copy of his latest book, A History of the Ancient Southwest.  I recently got around to reading it, and it’s very good.  The importance as well as the idiosyncratic nature of this book begins with its title.  While the title sounds generic, it’s actually carefully chosen and worded, and in a subtle way it expresses the unusual approach Lekson takes to Southwestern archaeology, not just in this book but in many of his other recent publications.

The crucial thing about the title, and about the book, is the word “history.”  This book is both an attempt to tell the story of what happened in the ancient Southwest, and thus a “history” of the Southwest in ancient times of the sort an historian might write, and a parallel attempt to tell the story of the development of Southwestern archaeology as a (sub)discipline, i.e., a history of “the ancient Southwest” as an idea and of the ways that idea has been studied and interpreted over time.  The title also refers, quite deliberately, to a book with the same title that Harold Gladwin published in 1957.  Gladwin’s a fascinating character, as is Lekson himself in his own way, but in this context the most important thing about him is his fondness for synthesizing archaeological data and presenting it as an accessible narrative.  Lekson is seeking to do the same thing in this book, and he mostly succeeds.  This is a more impressive accomplishment than it sounds, because summarizing the entire prehistory of the Southwest in narrative form is an astonishingly ambitious project, and there’s a reason no one else has tried to do it since Gladwin.  Furthermore, Lekson adds on top of this enormously difficult task the additional task of adding a parallel intellectual history of Southwestern archaeology.  And yet, like I say, he mostly succeeds in this near-impossible task.

How does he do it?  Partly by limiting his narrative to the highlights of both stories, which admittedly makes it seem a bit thin at times.  This is largely countered by his the very extensive notes, where he relegates most of the in-depth argumentation over scholarly minutiae that would get in the way of the overall story.  And when I say “extensive,” I mean it; this is a book with 250 pages of text followed by 100 pages of notes.  I haven’t read through all the notes in detail, but they’re a mix of perfunctory citations for statements in the text and really long and detailed discussions of various archaeological points of contention and Lekson’s positions on them.

Part of the reason for this shoving of so much into the notes is to make the text more accessible.  The book is aimed both at professional Southwestern archaeologists and at popular audiences, and this dual purpose sometimes leads to some tension but mostly works.  Lekson is a very good and engaging writer.  He has a very idiosyncratic style, which some may not find appealing, but I like it, and it definitely contrasts with the turgid prose that is more typical of archaeological publications.  The story he tells here will probably appeal to the two audiences somewhat differently; other archaeologists are likely to look through the text and notes for questionable statements to contest (and there are plenty), while lay readers are probably more likely to just take in the story without thinking too much about it.  Neither of these approaches is ideal, perhaps, but the book does adequately provide for both in an innovative way.

The structure of the book involves parallel stories: each chapter includes both one period in the history of Southwestern archaeology and one period in the actual history of the ancient Southwest as determined (primarily) by that archaeology.  Lekson tries to unify the two parts of each chapter with a common theme, which works better for some than for others but often seems a bit forced.  In general, the intellectual history portions of the chapters are a bit weaker than the archaeological portions, which makes sense since Lekson is an archaeologist rather than an intellectual historian.  Still, he does make a serious effort to evaluate the research of his predecessors and colleagues in the context of their times and the prevailing intellectual currents both within the discipline and within society as a whole.  This is more than most archaeologists are willing to attempt, and it helps put the archaeological data he uses to reconstruct the “history” of the prehistoric societies he discusses into its own appropriate context.

Building with Pro-Book Sign, Carrizozo, New Mexico

That “history” really is history, too.  This is a story focused on events, rather than adaptations, and part of the importance of Lekson’s discussion of the history of archaeology is to situate himself within that history and, in general, to distinguish what he’s doing here from what archaeologists typically do.  Basically, he’s seeking to write history rather than science, whereas most archaeological research in the US since the 1970s or s0, as he demonstrates, has sought to be science.  (Longtime readers will know that I have my own opinions on this question, and that they’re mostly in line with Lekson’s approach here.)  His version of “history” will probably seem a little over-simplistic to many actual historians, just as his account of the history of archaeology will doubtless seem simplistic to actual intellectual historians and historians of science, but for the general reader and for most Southwestern archaeologists the general point should come across loud and clear.

In general, Lekson gives the general outlines for the story of the ancient Southwest as he sees it, but he downplays some of his own more controversial ideas.  The Chaco Meridian is confined to the notes and occasional brief allusions in the text.  There are plenty of quibbles I have with some of his specific interpretations, especially about Chaco, but the overall picture he presents is probably broadly acceptable to a relatively large number of other archaeologists.  He definitely comes down on the side of hierarchy and extensive Mesoamerican influence, but local origin, for Chaco, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s read any of his other recent Chaco stuff.  He also tries to tie everything together into a larger story, emphasizing the likely connections between developments at Chaco and among the Hohokam in Arizona, the Mimbres in southwestern New Mexico, and other Southwestern groups, as well as contemporaneous developments in Mexico and in the Mississippi Valley.  These broad-scale connections are controversial among archaeologists, but I think Lekson’s right on track in emphasizing them.

I’m not sure how well this book will work as an introduction to Southwestern archaeology for people who know literally nothing about it.  For those who know nothing about the ancient Southwest and have no intention of learning about it in great depth, this would be an entertaining and informative read.  Moving on from this to anything else written on the ancient Southwest (with the possible exception of some of Lekson’s other stuff) would be a pretty severe shock, however.  The difference in both tone and content is huge.  For people who are interested in the subject and have read one or two other books on it, however, this would be a very useful introduction to a very different way of thinking about these issues.  All professional Southwestern archaeologists should absolutely read it, not so much because they’ll learn much from it, although they might, but because it outlines a very different way of thinking and writing about the ancient Southwest that they should really be familiar with, even if they don’t want to do it themselves.

Personally, while I don’t agree with all of Lekson’s interpretations, I find this book inspiring.  Lekson is really pioneering a new way of writing the story of the ancient Southwest, and reading his version really makes me want to follow in his tracks and write my own version of the story, using his guidelines but reaching my own conclusions.  I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to follow through and write my own book, but it’s something I’ve been considering for a while now and reading Lekson’s attempt has made me more tempted than ever to actually do it.  After all, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands these days.

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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