Archive for the ‘History’ Category


Fish-Weighing Station, Seward, Alaska

150 years ago today, US Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard de Stoeckl signed the treaty known as the Alaska Purchase, under which Russia sold Alaska to the US for $7.2 million. The agreement was controversial at the time, and remains so in some circles, but for better or for worse it shaped the destiny of this far corner of the world from that point on.


Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

There are a few events both in Alaska and in Washington DC commemorating the anniversary this year, and “Seward’s Day” is an Alaska state holiday that state employees get off annually (it was actually on Monday this year), but otherwise this isn’t a widely celebrated or noted date even within Alaska. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it either, actually, but I figured I’d at least point it out and share some pictures of the charming town in Alaska that bears Seward’s name.


Sea Otters in Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska

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Welcome Sign at North Entrance to Chaco Canyon

Today is the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. It’s getting more media attention than I had expected, although I had noticed that the NPS had mounted a noticeable publicity campaign in the lead up to the date itself, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, it’s a good milestone to mark. I have my issues with the way the NPS works and some of the things it does and has done, but it’s definitely a hugely important institution both to the country as a whole and to me personally.

I started this blog in December 2008 when I was working for the NPS at Chaco Canyon, and the early posts were mostly attempts to put the information from my tours and my background reading into a more permanent form so I could refer people to them long after I had left the park and moved on to other things. It’s worked quite well for that, although in the meantime the internet has moved on and blogs like this are much less of a focus for interaction than they were then. I’ve kept it up, though at a much less frequent pace of posting, because I like having a platform like this to talk about the things that interest me, and I now have a fairly small but consistent reader base that is interested as well. (Which is not easy to find for what is after all a pretty esoteric interest.)

But beyond being the starting point for this blog, the NPS is an important institution for setting me on the path my life has taken in more general ways too. That job at Chaco allowed me to really delve deep into the backstory of the area where I was born and where my family has a long history (at least by white-people standards). What I learned there has had a profound effect on my life since in all sorts of ways, and I expect that to continue indefinitely. This blog may have slowed in posting frequency in recent years, but it’s not from any decline in my interest in the subject matter, which I’m sure I will continue to write about for many years to come, not necessarily just here. I have some ideas for books I might want to write on related topics at some point, although I’ve been realizing recently that it’s awfully hard to find the time for a project of that magnitude while also working full time. But someday.


Welcome Sign at Alaska/Yukon Border

The influence of the Park Service on my life goes even further than the Chaco stuff, though. It was an internship with the NPS that brought me to Alaska a little less than five years ago, and my experience there, while frustrating in some ways, led me to discover the first place I had ever lived where I could seriously imagine living permanently. It’s not at all clear that I will actually end up settling down here, and the Alaska of 2016 is so different from the Alaska of 2011 that it’s hard to even explain the difference. But that feeling of finding a place I liked enough to stay, even if I didn’t necessarily have a lot in common with most of the people here, was important to me and it set a standard that anywhere else I might end up will have to meet or exceed for me to stay permanently. And I have the Park Service to thank for that too.

I may or may not ever work for the NPS again. My career path has never been along an established route, and I have no idea how much longer I’ll stay in my current job or what I’ll do next. Some of the most important factors in the future of my career are totally out of my control. But others are mine to control, and I’ll probably have to make some serious decisions in the next few years, if not sooner, about where I want my life to go next. I have to be honest that working for the Park Service again is not my top choice for a next step. It really was a frustrating place in some ways, for a variety of reasons, some of which are I think inherent to the structure and culture of the agency. But it’s a large organization, and I’m sure there are some positions within it that I would find congenial, so it’s definitely still on the list.

Anyway, despite my ambivalence about it, the Park Service has done a lot of good for me and I am very appreciative of that. I’m very happy to celebrate 100 years of this complex, occasionally infuriating but just as often inspiring, American institution. Happy birthday, NPS!


National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage, Alaska

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Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’m currently in Albuquerque visiting my mom, and while I’m here I figured I read up on the archaeology of the Rio Grande Valley and do some posts on it. I’ve read some interesting articles from the journals I have access to, and I’ll have some substantive posts soon based on that, but one thing that has limited me so far is that so much of the early archaeological literature on this region was published in El Palacio, the magazine of the Museum of New Mexico (named after the Palace of the Governors, the original location of the museum). Today this is basically a glossy (but serious and substantive) magazine aimed at a popular audience, but in its first few decades it functioned more like a scholarly journal and was the primary venue for publication of research on the archaeology, anthropology, and history of northern New Mexico.

The problem with this for someone like me had been that, unlike other major publication venues for this kind of research that have evolved into (or been created as) peer-reviewed scholarly journals, El Palacio is not included in any of the major academic databases, and it could only be found on paper in libraries that happened to subscribe to it. This made it effectively impossible for me to access it, given geographic and time constraints, so I was at a distinct disadvantage in understanding the archaeology of this region.

That’s all changed, however. I discovered today that, apparently as part of the commemoration of the magazine’s centennial this year, El Palacio has put its entire archive online. The interface is a little clunky, and it looks like it’s only possible to download pdfs of entire issues rather than individual articles, but this is still a fantastic resource that has suddenly become vastly more accessible. Given my general interest in open access publishing and making data broadly available, I figured it was worth doing a post to point this out. I’ll have some more posts on the actual archaeology of the northern Rio Grande soon.

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New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This post about what European history would look like if it were told like Native American history typically is has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention on social media lately. It’s quite well-done, and worth a look. Here’s a sample:

Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.

The whole blog is quite good. (And I’m not just saying that because it has me on the blogroll, although that is how I first discovered it.) The author, a college undergrad named Kai, seems to be very well-informed about Native American history and to have a perceptive and nuanced approach to the issues involved in it. I particularly like this post discussing the sources of information for indigenous history. I agree entirely with both the three main sources mentioned (archaeology, ethnohistory, and oral tradition) and the assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. My own approach with this blog is very similar in the types of information I draw on and how I evaluate them. The goal, however, seems to be slightly different from my own:

Personally, my ultimate goal is returning the power to indigenous people to tell our own histories. We are deprived of control of our own history on so many levels: through government and private ownership of ancestral remains and objects, through the lack of Native voices in popular history, through the poor education given to indigenous youth, through the delegitimization of indigenous ways of telling history. The only place we have kept sovereignty over our own history is amongst ourselves, in the stories our grandparents tell us and we tell each other. For that reason, I tend towards the view of using archaeology and written records to illuminate the oral and written traditions of Native people, rather than the other way around as many academics do it. Because at the heart of it, indigenous history belongs to indigenous people–people not only deserve but need to know their own history. So my priority is returning it to them where it has been forcibly severed from them.

This is a worthy goal, and I support it wholeheartedly. It’s not quite the same as what I’m doing with this blog, however. I am not Native myself, and the Native groups I discuss here are generally fairly satisfied with their knowledge of their own history (which is of course sometimes quite different from how white people see that same history) and often reluctant to share that knowledge with outsiders. My main focus is on illuminating the (pre)history of North America for all audiences who are unaware of it. This includes Natives themselves, of course, if they want to read what some white guy has to say about their past, but my expectation is that most of the people who read me will not be indigenous themselves. This difference in emphasis between me and Kai may stem in part from the different geographical areas we focus on; I focus on the West, where many Native groups have maintained major parts of their traditional culture quite robustly in the face of Euroamerican colonization, whereas Kai seems to focus on the East, where colonization has been a much more overwhelming force for Native communities and traditional culture has been maintained in more subtle ways. These are very different situations, and they lead to different issues that need to be addressed.

In any case, I highly recommend Kai’s blog to anyone who likes mine. It focuses mainly on a different part of the continent, but discusses it in a very similar way, and also addresses more general issues of interest to anyone concerned with Native America.

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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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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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Chuska Mountains from New Mexico Highway 371

In the year AD 1098 a spruce tree was chopped down in the Chuska Mountains, which run roughly along what is now the border between Arizona and New Mexico.  We don’t know who cut it down, exactly, since the people living in the area at the time had no system of writing and have therefore not left us any explanation of their actions.  We do know why it was cut down, however, and what became of it, and that gives us some clue to who might have wielded the axe.  It was likely either the local inhabitants of the Chuskas or the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, 45 miles to the east, who had close connections to the Chuskas and may have traveled there regularly to do things like cut down trees.

After the bark and branches of the tree were carefully stripped from the trunk, and its ends laboriously ground flat, it was probably left to dry out for a couple of years.  At the end of that period, a group of men carried it carefully, by hand, the 45 miles to Chaco, where it was used in the construction of Kiva G at Chetro Ketl, the prominent elevated round room that can still be seen prominently at the site today.  This room was built over the remains of earlier round rooms, and the architectural history of this part of Chetro Ketl is very complicated and hard to unravel.  This particular beam, now known as CK-168, was used as a “tie beam” in the northeast corner of the square room into which Kiva G was built.  I take this to mean that it was used to span the interstitial space roughly tangent to the outside of the circle of Kiva G as part of the elaborate support structure of beams that was necessary to support the “blocked-in” kivas like this one that are so typical of Chacoan great house architecture.  The stage of construction involving Kiva G, and therefore beam CK-168, was one of the latest at Chetro Ketl, and Kiva G is noteworthy for displaying the “McElmo” style of masonry, which is a relatively late style at Chaco that echoes the style of masonry found to the north at sites such as Aztec Ruins.

Elevated Kiva G at Chetro Ketl from the North

We know when and where beam CK-168 was cut down because of two types of analysis that have been done on this and many other pieces of wood from Chaco and other prehistoric archaeological sites in the American Southwest.  The first is tree-ring dating, which allows the determination of the date a given tree was cut down with amazing precision, potentially to the calendar year.  Not every beam that is analyzed produces what is called a “cutting date,” indicating the exact year in which it was cut, but CK-168 did, and this is how we know it was cut down in 1098.  The other technique, which was developed much more recently, is strontium isotope ratio analysis, which at its current level of development allows the determination of the general area in which a tree (or a person) lived.  Many fewer pieces of wood have undergone this type of analysis than have been tree-ring dated, but CK-168 is one that has, and it is from this testing that we know it came from the Chuskas.  We don’t know exactly where in the Chuskas it came from, but we can be reasonably sure it was somewhere in the range.  These techniques are more or less the state of the art in wringing information from the archaeological remains of the prehistoric Southwest, and the amount of information available from them in this arid region with good preservation of materials like wood is quite remarkable by the standards of prehistoric archaeology in general.

At the same time the tree that became beam CK-168 was being cut down and left to dry out, on the other side of the world a group of heavily armed men was rampaging through a country that was not yet under their control but soon would be.  These were the Crusaders, a group of pious Christian knights and others, mostly from the various lands that are now part of France, who had heeded Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 to aid the Byzantine emperor in fending of the Turks who were threatening his lands and who at some point added the goal of conquering the holy city of Jerusalem from the Turks as well.  This expedition is now known as the First Crusade, and by 1098 it had reached the Holy Land and begun to conquer parts of it.  In June of that year they captured the important coastal city of Antioch (now in Turkey) after an eight-month siege and began to move on toward Jerusalem.  One group, under the command of Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles, arrived at the nearby city of Ma’arra (now in Syria) on November 28 and began to lay siege to it.  This siege, in striking contrast to the long, miserable one at Antioch, lasted only two weeks, and on December 12 the Crusaders entered the city after having destroyed its defenses.  They then remained at Ma’arra for another month as Raymond and the other commanders who had assisted him in the siege argued over how to divide up the spoils of their conquests.  On January 13, 1099 the ordinary soldiers, who were impatient to get to Jerusalem, finally prevailed on Raymond to move on and the army left Ma’arra.  They reached Jerusalem in early June and, assisted by a group of Genoese sailors who landed at Jaffa on June 17 and disassembled their ships to make siege engines, seized the city on July 15.  They then massacred the majority of the inhabitants.

Villages in Syria from the Golan Heights

In the grand scheme of the Crusade, and compared to the brutality that marked the Crusaders’ actions at Antioch and Jerusalem, the siege of Ma’arra may seem like a minor chapter.  There was something distinctive about Ma’arra, however, and it remained a painful memory for both sides quite out of proportion to the short duration of the siege.  The Arab historians recorded that the massacre of the people of Ma’arra after the siege was even worse in total number killed than that at Jerusalem, and some reported that the Crusaders had promised the people of the city safety before treacherously killing them.  According to the chroniclers who accompanied the Crusaders, however, what happened at Ma’arra was even worse than that.  With clear discomfort but remarkable consistency, almost all of the chroniclers recorded that some of the Crusaders had engaged in an activity much less respectable in European eyes than killing Muslims: eating them.

The cannibalism at Ma’arra has long been a difficult issue for historians of the Crusades to understand.  Beginning with the contemporary chroniclers, some of whom were at Ma’arra and apparently witnessed the events personally, they have offered various explanations for the behavior.  In a recent article Jay Rubenstein took a close look at the accounts the chroniclers offered of Ma’arra, and found some interesting patterns.  For one thing, although almost all of the contemporary chroniclers mention the cannibalism, the specifics of their accounts vary considerably.  Some placed it during the siege, while others put it afterward, during the month when the Crusaders were hanging around the city as their leaders argued.  Some attributed it to famine and starvation among the soldiers, who were said to have eaten flesh from dead bodies furtively.  One eyewitness account says that when the leaders of the Crusade found out about this they piled the bodies in a mound and set fire to them to put an end to it.  Others, however, said that the Crusaders ate the flesh of the dead Muslim enemies avidly and publicly, and one even said that some of the Crusaders were so disgusted by the sight that they deserted, blaming the leaders of the Crusade for not providing sufficient supplies and letting things deteriorate to this point.  Some of the chroniclers blamed the cannibalism on an apparently fictitious group of poor Crusaders called “Tafurs.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Rubenstein makes some interesting connections between all this and various other medieval references to cannibalism, including various episodes of starvation cannibalism during famines in Europe and references to “theatrical” mock-cannibalism involving the ostentatious preparation of dead enemies as if to eat them in view of living enemies, including one instance allegedly during the siege of Antioch and one earlier, in Spain.  He also mentions Biblical references to cannibalism as a punishment for disobeying God, with the context often being siege warfare quite similar to that conducted by the Crusaders, as well as some suggestive references to the possibility that some Crusaders might have resorted to eating each other (or at least come close) during the long, hard months at Antioch.  This is all rather speculative, however, and most of it has one crucial difference with the reports of what happened at Ma’arra, which Rubenstein does acknowledge: in these cases people were generally eating members of their own group, while at Ma’arra all the chronicles are quite clear in saying that the Crusaders only ate the flesh of the Muslim enemy.  This alone suggests that more than simple survival cannibalism is involved here, since there would surely have been plenty of dead Crusaders around to eat and the contempt the Crusaders had for “infidels” makes it odd that they would choose to defile themselves by eating them.  Rubenstein notes this and comes up with an admittedly speculative reconstruction of what happened at Ma’arra in which he proposes that there had been scattered instances of survival cannibalism at Antioch and perhaps earlier but that at Ma’arra, during the siege, some of the starving Crusaders decided to make a virtue of a necessity by ostentatiously eating dead Muslims in full view of the defenders of the city as a form of psychological warfare.  This would presumably have struck fear in the hearts of the Muslims and perhaps led to an easier conquest of the city than had been the case at Antioch.  Upon learning about this, however, the chroniclers, highly uncomfortable with this celebratory cannibalism, finessed their accounts to put the cannibalism after the siege, attribute it to starvation, and make it furtive and discouraged rather than open and aggressive.  Rubenstein puts the celebratory cannibalism in the context of “holy war” and the idea that the Crusaders thought of themselves as tools of God sent to punish the Muslims, which justified anything they did in the course of achieving that aim, regardless of how perverse and taboo it might be under normal circumstances.

This is an interesting interpretation, and it is similar in some ways to the model I have proposed for the outbreak of cannibalism in the Southwest around AD 1150 (about fifty years after the Ma’arra incident) in which I argued that the attackers, whoever they were, may have been motivated by both hunger and the desire to terrify their adversaries.  I ultimately don’t buy it, though.  A careful look at how Rubenstein supports his argument shows that the sources he relies on are not the most likely to be reliable.  The chronicles that put the cannibalism at Ma’arra during the siege rather than after it, as well as those that mention the possibility of earlier cannibalism and various other aspects of Rubenstein’s theory, were mostly written well after the events in question by people who did not witness them.  Most of them did apparently speak to eyewitnesses in preparing their accounts, and in some cases these eyewitnesses may have included some of the cannibals themselves, a fact that Rubenstein leans on heavily in arguing for their validity as sources, but this is a thin reed on which to hang such an elaborate argument.  Looking just at the chronicles written by writers who actually accompanied the Crusade, some of whom were at Ma’arra personally, they generally seem to agree that the cannibalism took place after the siege, when the Crusaders were hanging around Ma’arra and probably still hungry from the months of deprivation and disease at Antioch.  These chroniclers do disagree on some other aspects of the cannibalism, but in general their disagreements are more minor than those between them and some of the later accounts by writers who were not there and relied on secondhand testimony.  The fact that only Muslims were eaten does still require some explanation beyond simple starvation, but a desire to humiliate the enemy, perhaps combined with an aversion to eating people they had known personally in life, could explain it at least as well as an attempt at psychological warfare, which as Rubenstein notes really requires that the cannibalism took place during rather than after the siege.  It may be a better explanation, in fact, in light of the fact that the Arab historians do not mention the cannibalism although they do note the brutality of the siege and massacre.  This suggests either that the Crusaders were unsuccessful in trying to terrorize the Muslims through ostentatious cannibalism or that the cannibalism took place after there were no living Muslims left in Ma’arra to see it.  It could also suggest that the cannibalism was successful in intimidating the defenders, who were then massacred, leaving no one left to tell other Muslims about it, but the fact that the eyewitness chroniclers were in general agreement that the cannibalism took place after the siege makes me think that it’s more likely that there just weren’t any Muslims around.

Sunset at St. Peter's Church, Jaffa

Note the difference here between Rubenstein’s interpretation of the cannibalism at Ma’arra and mine.  This is a context where we have abundant written documentation of the events in question, and yet we have a variety of possible interpretations of what really happened and no way to tell for sure which is closer to the truth.  We must just rely on which fits the evidence best and is the most plausible, a somewhat subjective matter at all times.  This is in contrast to the more “objective” evidence we have of what happened in some contexts in the prehistoric Southwest, such as the time and place that beam CK-168 was cut down.  Note, however, that the information we have about CK-168 is extremely limited compared to what we know about Ma’arra, despite the many conflicting accounts in the chronicles.  These just aren’t comparable levels of knowledge, and this points out the difference between history and archaeology.  Both can tell us stories about the past, but the stories are very different.  Without the written documents about Ma’arra we would likely never know that cannibalism occurred there; unlike in the alleged instance of cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest, which are based largely (though not entirely) on extensive “processing” of human bones.  The type of cannibalism alleged at Ma’arra consisted largely of the cutting of strips of meat from the fleshy parts of the body, which would likely not have left any marks on the bones and thus no physical evidence visible in the archaeological record.  But because we do have written records we do know about it.  If we had written records of what happened at Cowboy Wash we would presumably understand it better than we do, but the example of Ma’arra shows that we would not necessarily understand exactly what had happened even then.

Archaeology has its advantages, however.  Judging from what people typically write down when they have access to writing, it’s very unlikely that anyone in the Chuskas or at Chaco would have bothered to write down exactly when and where beam CK-168 was cut down even if they could.  Hundreds of thousands of beams were imported to Chaco during its florescence, and it’s unlikely that the specific origin of each of them would have been important enough to anyone to record.  Nevertheless, the analytical techniques available to modern archaeology does allow us to know in some cases when and where individual beams were harvested.  The story of CK-168 and the story of Ma’arra may be very different types of story, known to us in very different ways, but they are both known to us, and knowing both of them enriches our understanding of the past despite the still unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions the stories raise.  And remember that these two stories happened at the same time; they were literally simultaneous.  Many things were going on in the world in the year 1098, and the stories of most of them are lost forever.  The stories of these two events, however, are not, and we can still tell them today.
Rubenstein, J. (2008). Cannibals and Crusaders French Historical Studies, 31 (4), 525-552 DOI: 10.1215/00161071-2008-005

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