As I mentioned briefly in discussing Linda Cordell’s chapter of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, Cordell was not the only discussant involved in the conference that resulted in the volume, though her discussion was the more “traditional” of the two concluding chapters. The other, chapter 17, is by David Wilcox of the Museum of Northern Arizona, one of the most creative, dynamic, and controversial thinkers in contemporary southwestern archaeology. Wilcox’s theories about the Chacoan system, especially, occupy the far reaches of one end of the spectrum of current models, with Gwinn Vivian’s theories perhaps occupying the other end.
Wilcox basically sees Chaco as a highly centralized, hierarchical, militaristic state that attempted to impose hegemony on the surrounding area through shows of force. He differs from many other advocates of a more centralized Chaco, however, in seeing the scale of successful Chacoan hegemony as being rather limited, with the rest of the Chacoan “regional system” occupied by competing polities organized along similar lines and attempting to impose their own hegemony. This is in contrast to both the highly centralized but unitary proto-state envisioned by Steve Lekson and the diffuse network of competitive but autonomous local elites proposed by Lynne Sebastian, among others. The evidence Wilcox presents for his model is rather weak and dubious in several respects, and his theories are not widely accepted. He plays an important role, however, in challenging and provoking other archaeologists and pointing out new avenues for possible research that have received less attention than they deserve.
That gadfly role is more or less what he sets out to play in this chapter, which is only nominally about the conference and resulting book. Or, perhaps more accurately, Wilcox takes the remarkable achievement of data-collection represented by the conference and uses it as a starting point to exhort his colleagues to adopt new ways of thinking about their data, particularly methods of analysis based on graph theory. He uses his interpretation of the Chaco regional system, which is heavily based on spatial relationships, as an example of how this can be done.
Beyond the specific methodological proposals Wilcox offers, however, he also suggests that southwestern archaeologists need to look beyond their own regional specialties and look at processes and developments on a much larger scale. He has some suggestions about how this might be done for the Pueblo III period that is the topic of this book; these involve a macroregional interaction sphere on a scale well beyond anything proposed by any of the other contributors to the volume. Key aspects of this system involve trade routes for shell from different coastal areas into the interior of the continent, connections between a Chaco system argued on very thin grounds to survive into the thirteenth century and other regional systems such as the Hohokam, Fremont and Chumash, and the mysterious site of Wupatki playing a key role as a point of contact connecting several of these systems. With masonry and settlement patterns oddly reminiscent of Chaco and a Hohokam-style ballcourt, Wupatki is certainly worthy of close study in a macroregional context, especially since it seems to postdate both the decline of Chaco and the end of Hohokam ballcourt construction. Overall, however, this scenario is based on very shaky interpretations of a lot of the evidence, and many of its details are highly improbable.
The importance of Wilcox’s point, whatever the status of his specific theories, is considerable. As I have recently noted with regard to contact with Mesoamerica, evidence is mounting for extensive contact and influence on a scale that would have been laughable only a few years ago, and it’s becoming more and more clear that to fully understand developments at Chaco and elsewhere we need to look at things in a much broader context. If Wilcox succeeds in convincing his peers of nothing else (and he may not), hopefully his entertaininly over-the-top theories can at least draw attention to the scale at which they operate. With careful and detailed data collection such as that represented in this book, the possibility of archaeologists looking at things on this scale becomes more likely. As such, this chapter is a fitting end to an important book.