A recent issue of American Archaeology (vol. 16, no. 4; Winter 2012-13) featured an article about my current Chaco work, “Chaco through a Different Lens” written by Mike Toner. Front cover! American Archaeology is published by the Archaeological Conservancy – an organization I enthusiastically support. It’s is a fine magazine which serves our profession well. But here’s the letter I sent after the publication of “Chaco through a Different Lens”:
Dear American Archaeology,
I was bemused to see my current Chaco work treated like a joke or a crackpot theory, which it is not. You’ll have to take my word for it; readers won’t learn much from your article about how the altepetl might help us better understand Chaco. Mr. Toner chose instead to compile startled reactions from my archaeological friends. Joseph Needham, the historian of science in China, endured similar guff from his historian colleagues, who knew for a certainty that science started with Thales and Pythagoras. Needham consoled himself with an Arab proverb: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves forward.” Toner’s article, alas, was more about the barking than the caravan.
Yours Truly, etc.
By my count, about 15% of the words in Mr. Toner’s article directly addressed Chaco-as-altepetl– a complicated argument requiring exposition: juggling apples and oranges while tight-roping across deep intellectual chasms. Mr. Toner offered a minimal model, just enough straws for a decently dressed straw-man. Another 10% of the article was necessary stage-setting (What’s Chaco? Who’s Lekson?). Mr. Toner said some pleasant things about me, for which I thank him. For the rest – about three-quarters of the piece – Mr. Toner first established me as an “inveterate provocateur” and “rabble-rouser,” and then reported the outraged cries of a well-roused rabble: a string of criticisms by a half-dozen prominent archaeologists (all of whom I count as friends). I recommended them to Mr. Toner, because at one time or another each disagreed with something I had written. I’m entirely confident that I’m completely correct about everything I think, do, or say; but, in fairness, I thought Mr. Toner should consult people who might not share my assessment – people who could provide critique and alternatives.
But I was not expecting what Mr. Toner chose to publish. One dismissed my past work as “a crock.” Another charged that I cherry-picked data. And another lectured me, at length, on my poor understanding of analogy. Yet another suggested (nicely!) that I was ignorant of ethnology. None of these things is true – but how would the innocent reader know? As Mr. Toner crafted his piece, I had no opportunity to respond, to face my accusers. The Sixth Amendment, it seems, does not extend to journalism.
I pointed this out to American Archaeology. Editor Michael Bawaya kindly added a positive quote from Bill Lipe. More importantly, Mr. Bawaya allowed me to insert some actual content through a long, dense, possibly incomprehensible caption to an abstract altepetl diagram. Those who know Chaco may get the point; those who don’t know Chaco will probably scratch their heads. I doubt that readers of American Archaeology will come away with any real notion of the issues.
This sort of thing is all in a day’s work, working with the media. I probably should take one for the team and shrug it off. But parts of “Chaco through a Different Lens” were really annoying, so at end of this post I address a few particulars – letting off steam. Mr. Toner probably did the job he was hired to do. He had an editor to please and word-limits. I have neither, so I can protest too much! And perhaps more: two themes of Mr. Toner’s article typify current Chaco conundrums – more important than my bruised amour-propre. We’ll riff off Toner’s title for those larger issues: Chaco through Rose-Colored Glasses, and Chaco through a Glass, Darkly; followed by a third section, Chaco through a Cracked Lens – some thoughts on archaeology and the media. And then I let off steam.
Chaco through Rose-Colored Glasses
We want to think well of Chaco. We want Chaco to be a happy place. Alas, maybe not: my eyes opened when colleagues from Rio Grande Pueblos – we worked together at MIAC – told me: yes, they knew all about Chaco but they didn’t talk about it, because terrible things happened there. That view, I found, was shared by other Natives of my acquaintance – members of Pueblo, Navajo, and Plains tribes.
Failing happy, we want Chaco to be congruent with our notion of Pueblos, which we assume to be happy(ish), peaceful, contemplative, ritual, and so forth – an idealization I take up elsewhere (Lekson 2009; see also Has Ritual Become a Religion?). But, on the evidence, Chaco was not always pleasant nor – in the ethnological sense – Puebloan. To be sure Chaco was part of Pueblo history and patrimony; I mean simply that Chaco did not operate as text-books tell us Pueblos operate. The archaeological evidence is very strong, but the dead heavy hand of American Anthropology pushes Chaco away from its sometimes harsh reality and toward a rose-colored view. That rose-colored a view is encouraged by laudable concerns with modern Pueblo heritage. Well-meaning archaeologists won’t let Chaco stray into territories which (we think) might offend Native peoples. I sympathize: archaeology can do harm — remember cannibalism? Yet to be honest brokers of the past, we must let Chaco be Chaco. And there’s not very much about Chaco that conforms to “Puebloan,” unless viewed through rose-colored glasses.
There’s a strong thread of Chaco-as-Pueblo in “Chaco through a Different Lens.” Gwinn Vivian and Jim Judge – I honor both as friends and mentors – want Chacoan leadership to be a priestly elite (Vivian, p. 30) with a sociopolitical structure which was “fundamental[ly] ritual” (Judge, p. 30). John Ware states that “Chaco has a strong ritual flavor and there is strong ritual continuities with today’s Pueblos” (p. 32). (I admire Dr. Ware for his leadership of Amerind, and for the fact he actually read and really thought about Chaco-as-altepetl; more on this, below.) Dr. Ware concludes that social institutions of the today’s eastern Pueblos could have built Chaco (p. 32) – Rio Grande Pueblos, rather than the Hopi-esque, relentlessly egalitarian models many of us carry in our heads. He does well to point this out: eastern Pueblos are far more authoritarian and centralized than many of American Archaeology’s readers would know. But here’s the rub: no post-1300 Puebloan society, east or west, ever created or re-created anything remotely like Chaco – a city central to a hundred towns. (A Puebloan society to the south, Casas Grandes, did; but that’s not of consequence here.) Dr. Ware may be correct: perhaps eastern Pueblos could have done it. But they manifestly did not do it, so I have grave doubts. I think what Dr. Ware sees in the eastern Pueblos are the final, tattered remnants of social structures which ruled in Chaco’s time, today discredited, curtailed, truncated.
Chaco-as-Pueblo goes beyond “Chaco through a Different Lens,” in the work of scholars wanting to “normalize” (my term, not theirs) Chaco – which apparently seems out-of-control. I’m thinking of recent interesting articles by Chip Wills (Wills 2012) and Steve Plog (Plog and Watson 2012). A simpler, more Puebloan Chaco, it seems, is somehow logically preferable to a more complicated Chaco. I disagree (Lekson 2009; 2010; see also Ancient Southwest); I am, of course, subject to correction.
Chaco through a Glass, Darkly
Another strong theme in Mr. Toner’s article reflects a second conundrum: the evident incredulity – approaching hostility – of many archaeologists and non-archaeologists to actually “solving” Chaco. For some reason, we believe that we’ll never understand the place. Mr. Toner writes, in his conclusions, “…many scholars concede the Chacoan mystery may never be never be fully resolved” (p. 32) — and then goes on to say guardedly positive things about my attempts to do just that.
C’mon gang: this is embarrassing! We’ve been picking Chaco apart for more than a century. The archaeology is easy: a short time-span, astonishing preservation, a wealth of tree-ring riches. And Chaco, in the context of its time, was not that big a deal – as I argue in “Chaco as Altepetl.” For the Southwest it was fairly unusual, but for North America it was barely visible. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus dismiss Chaco thus:
“To some archaeologists, familiar mainly with sites in the Southwest, Pueblo Bonito appears as spectacular as the ancient sites of Mexico and Peru. To most archaeologists familiar with Mexico and Peru, Pueblo Bonito just looks like a big village.” (Flannery and Marcus 2012:157)
I’m not aware of any southwestern archaeologist who claims Pueblo Bonito (or, for that matter, Chaco Canyon) rivaled the cities of Mexico and Peru – that garbage comes from popular writers and chamber-of-commerce boosters – but their point remains: Chaco isn’t the Eighth Wonder or a fabulous mystery spot, it’s just another archaeological problem to solve. So, solve it: that’s what we get paid to do.
Why on earth should we be surprised – even dismayed – if maybe we finally figured out Chaco? Or even, figured some of it out. Turn that on its head: why are we not upset and humiliated that we’ve spent so much of our time, so much of our energy, so much of our brain-power, and so much of other peoples’ money at Chaco…and still claim ignorance, almost proudly? Through a glass, darkly: David Phillips tells Mr. Toner: “Trying to understand what kind of a system built Chaco is a little like trying to take a picture of a shadow after the person casting it isn’t there anymore” (p. 29). If I felt that way, I’d find another line of work. And I’d admit that the Indians are right: Southwestern Archaeology is just archaeologists arguing with each other over stuff they can never really know. (Too many intelligent non-archaeologists already believe that – a grim topic to which I will return, below.)
One reason Dr. Phillips feels that way, apparently, is that we don’t have a vision of Chaco “…that everyone can agree on” (p. 29). (Flannery and Marcus 2102:157: “To say opinions on Pueblo Bonito differ would be putting it mildly.”) Well…not everyone agrees on Pueblo I, or Gila Butte phase, or Salado; but we do not throw up our hands and declare them un-solvable mysteries. We seem content that Chaco remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The Mystery of Chaco Canyon has replaced the Mystery of the Anasazi in popular culture, and it’s seeped back into our profession. Many archaeologists seem annoyed by the mere notion that someone – anyone – could ever “solve” Chaco! Well, I’m annoyed by those archaeologists. They are not helping. The Mystery of Chaco Canyon is a failure of Southwestern Archaeology.
In his editorial in the same issue of American Archaeology, Mark Mitchell (President of the Archaeological Conservancy) asks: “Are we ever to reach a scientific consensus as to the nature of Chacoan culture? … A new well-funded, long-term research project using the latest theories and technologies can solve this mystery for once and for all” (p. 2). He calls on the National Park Service to mount such a project. While I welcome more research at Chaco, absent some unlikely “smoking gun” I’m not sanguine that piling on more and more data will resolve our muddle. We already have plenty of data – more data than we know what to do with (to see the tip of the iceberg, see the Chaco Research Archive).
Those data decisively show that Chaco was not Puebloan. Put aside the rose-colored glasses. So what was Chaco? I think that Chaco-as-altepetl is by far the most likely, historically relevant interpretation (see Chaco-as-altepetl). I reached that conclusion by a long and winding road. One of my first serious publications on Chaco denied any significant engagement of Chaco and Mesoamerica (Lekson 1983). Understanding the data and – importantly – building realistic contexts for those data changed my mind. Not overnight! – the process took 30 years. Today, I’m convinced that it is impossible to understand Chaco and the Greater Southwest without sustained reference to Mesoamerica. I’d like to believe that the change in my thinking reflects learning: creating new knowledge and moving Southwestern Archaeology forward. Doing my job.
Chaco through a Cracked Lens
I do a fair amount of work with the media: print, video, radio, exhibits, and – slowly but not so surely – web. Some of this work comes by choice and some by contract – I’m a curator, and curators deal with the public. I write for the public and sometimes I am written about for the public.
“Chaco through a Different Lens” was American Archaeology’s idea. Mr. Bawaya approached me, and I was receptive – Chaco-as-altepetl is pretty cool, but it won’t see official print for some time. Mr. Bawaya hired Michael Toner, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist from Atlanta who had written for the magazine before. Mr. Toner read my books and my blog. He interviewed me (by phone) at length. I was impressed. I offered him names of several archaeologists who could be counted on to be intelligently critical. I assumed he would seek others.
The article-in-process was timely: I was teaching a class “Archaeology and Contemporary Society” in Fall 2012, which included quite a bit about the media. I reported on the progress (and regress) of the article, and drew useful lessons. Such as: don’t expect too much. Try to control the beginnings with ground rules; you’ll have no control over the process or the product. And, unrelated to Mr. Toner: don’t use as many colons and semi-colons as I do; make titles transparently descriptive – search engines don’t appreciate jokes, metaphors, elliptical references; be very careful with copyright. Things like that.
At the very beginning I warned and advised Mr. Toner and American Archaeology that there was no point to interviewing people who had not read and understood Chaco-as-atepetl, from the presentation in this blog (the version currently posted is substantially the same as that posted at the inception of the article, with better English). I was trying to control the beginnings, to set the ground rules. It’s true: you have no control over the process.
Weeks later, a text was sent out to me and to others quoted in the article, for “fact check.” “Fact check” is exactly that: actual errors such as mis-spelled names or incorrect dates, and not license to change or modify statements or ideas. The “fact check” text went out on a gang e-mail, and several respondents hit “reply to all” with interesting results. A teapot-tempest: several of the party expanded on their critiques, and I reposted as time, energy and humor allowed. I mention this because the emails exchanges made it clear that Mr. Toner had not taken quotes out of context; and because the email exchanges made it clear that at least two commenters had only a sketchy understanding of what I – and, consequently, they – were talking about. Apparently they had not read or did not understand the argument. I’m not entirely certain that Mr. Toner understood it, either – based on the published article. Much may have been left on the cutting room floor. It is, I admit, a complicated argument, but I think my explanations (in this blog, for example) can be understood by most readers. Heck, kids in a middle school science club “got it,” perfectly. I’m not sure what went wrong with “Chaco through a Different Lens.”
I reported faithfully to my university class, and awaited the outcome with some nervousness. The final appearance of the article in the class was the article itself, hot off the presses. (Do they still print on presses?) I emailed the published version to the students, and — on the second-to-last day of class — attempted a post-mortem “teaching moment,” and for me perhaps a learning moment. I was not thrilled by the article – I was very annoyed by some of it – but I urged the students and reminded myself to continue to work with the media. It’s an obligation, even a necessity, despite occasional disappointments.
We are condemned to work with journalists. And blessed: Mr. Toner is a gifted writer. Magazines don’t trust archaeologists to write for themselves. I can write, but American Archaeology (as far as I know) did not consider allowing me to author an article on my research. Curious. I once was an active contributor to Archaeology (AIA’s popular magazine). I’m still carried on their masthead as “Contributing Editor,” but my recent offers to fulfill that role have been rebuffed – there seems to be little interest in an archaeologist-author. It’s possible that magazine editors think: by and large archaeologist’s talents do not run to popular writing and, in an age of diminishing print, professional writers are readily available. (Has a Pulitzer prize-winner written about your work? As print dies its slow death, that might happen more and more often.)
P.T. Barnum said there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’m here to tell you Barnum was wrong. But recall Principle #4 of the SAA’s “Principles of Archaeological Ethics”:
“Archaeologists should reach out to, and participate in cooperative efforts with others interested in the archaeological record with the aim of improving the preservation, protection, and interpretation of the record. In particular, archaeologists should undertake to: 1) enlist public support for the stewardship of the archaeological record; 2) explain and promote the use of archaeological methods and techniques in understanding human behavior and culture; and 3) communicate archaeological interpretations of the past. Many publics exist for archaeology including students and teachers; Native Americans and other ethnic, religious, and cultural groups who find in the archaeological record important aspects of their cultural heritage; lawmakers and government officials; reporters, journalists, and others involved in the media; and the general public. Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.”
Emphasis added: communicate archaeological interpretations of the past [to or through] reporters, journalists, and others involved in the media; and the general public.
Much (most?) of archaeologically-generated media focuses on stewardship of the archaeological record – a worthy goal, but too often minatory and prohibitive: we can do this but you can’t. That’s true; but elitist exclusivity (terms I’ve heard many times from engaged civilians) makes it all the more important to show WHAT we do that they can’t do, and to make it very interesting – that is, worth support from the excluded public. First, earliest, biggest – superlatives work with the media but superlatives by nature are rare, unusual, unique. We must make the interesting portion of the other 90% of our work available – through the media. At least, that’s what I told my class.
Southwestern Archaeology has an uneven history with the media. Partly our fault, partly theirs. An example: Craig Childs – a best-selling regional author – wrote a pro-archaeology book, House of Rain. Our response was a round-robin email, signed by Leaders of the Field, listing in detail Mr. Childs’ sins. (Childs drank wine on a site! Oh, the horror! Oh, the humanity!) That’s a great way to cultivate the media. American Archaeology hires Mr. Toner to write about my work, and he inventories my peccadilloes. (Lekson’s a provocateur! To the gibbet!) I suppose there’s a karmic balance in this, a cosmic tit-for-tat. In the matter of Childs’ book, the email reflects our penchant for outrage. People enjoy being indignant – in my experience, especially academics. In the matter of “Chaco through a Different Lens,” it’s the attraction of controversy. Controversy sells, controversy is news, and news is what journalists do.
In the matter of Chaco, outrage and controversy are not helpful, because we’ve abandoned Chaco to mystery. We say: “Trying to understand what kind of a system built Chaco is a little like trying to take a picture of a shadow after the person casting it isn’t there anymore.” Toner concludes: “…many scholars concede the Chacoan mystery may never be never be fully resolved.” What’s the taxpayer to do? Throw more money down a black hole, “a new well-funded, long-term research project” at Chaco so the archaeologists can argue about it? Maybe not. Public display of our disarray hurts the field, so I apologize for “Chaco through a Different Lens” – I tried to set the ground rules, but I couldn’t control the process or the product.
My students had an answer: the web. Suss out the search engines and take our product directly to the public. A different kind of chaos – I’m too old for that kind of risk.
LETTING OFF STEAM
“Inveterate provocateur” (p. 28): I am not now, nor have I ever been a “provocateur” or a “rabble-rouser.” I just do my job. Doing my job, I sometimes discover wonderful or terrible things. Either way, if they are interesting I share those discoveries with my colleagues. (I can do boring, too; I do it in the gray lit.) Some of my colleagues become agitated and upset because my discoveries are incompatible with their views of the ancient world or of archaeology. Often that’s why the ideas are interesting: new knowledge! Labeling me as a provocateur makes my ideas ignorable; and for a certain kind of scholar, content with the old ways, that brings comfort. I am reliably informed, for example, that several senior Southwest archaeologists refuse to read A History of the Ancient Southwest. I am reminded of another biblical tag, not about glasses light or dark, but about margaritas before pork.
Shoot the messenger. I’ve been shot at and hit for decades: Mimbres beyond the Mimbres Valley; Chaco beyond the San Juan Basin; Chaco went north to Aztec; Unit Pueblo “kivas” weren’t kivas; migrations, obvious in Arizona, might be obvious in New Mexico; Di Peso was more right than wrong about Paquime; no process without history; Chaco and Cahokia are an item – over the years these ideas earned me Agincourt swarms of slings and arrows. I was not the only one saying these things, but I said them early and often; and consequently I’m the messenger who was shot, so many times the psyche resembles St. Sebastian, patron of pincushions. It does not feel good, and do I seek it. Many of these once-outrageous(!) notions are now widely accepted, even common knowledge. I’ll bet that in five or ten years, our grad students will spend as much time reading codices as they spend reading Tewa World. That’s how it usually works.
Chaco Meridian is “a crock” (p. 28): Mr. Toner writes: “A fellow archaeologist called the idea ‘a crock.’” In 1999 when Chaco Meridian was published, objections were loud and unpleasant. “Crock” was not the harshest word I heard. Had Mr. Toner done more research, however, he would have learned that while one archaeologist called it a crock, two ex-SAA presidents peer-reviewed the book and thought well enough of it to provide back cover blurbs. Dozens of reviews were uniformly positive save one, by Gwinn Vivian. Dr. Vivian’s review was not so much negative as politely and properly skeptical. Chaco Meridian was, indeed, a novel idea: if correct, it constituted new knowledge. As it happens, it was correct – mostly and perhaps entirely. Chaco Meridian was a four-point problem: North, Chaco, Aztec and Paquime. Three of those four points are now widely accepted, almost common knowledge. Only a few deep-dyed recidivists reject the idea that Chaco moved north to Aztec – a pox upon them. Indeed, new information strongly suggests that the Meridian extended long before Chaco and Aztec, as early as A.D. 500 (see Texts and Contexts). The empirical pattern is very strong and probably real – that is, not a coincidence. The issue is, what did it mean? A very good question! Now that it’s asked, we can perhaps answer it. As to Paquime – the fourth element of the original model – Di Peso long ago recognized Chaco’s role in the history of the Southwest’s last great city, and any balanced reading of the record supports his conclusion; but the current regime at Casas Grandes is not interested in such things.
The parable of the Bentley (p. 29): David Phillips, who has done many excellent things for Southwestern archaeology, found me deficient in the logic of analogy, thus:
“If Chaco was an altepetl because it was like an altepetl, then a rusted-out 1974 Honda Civic is a brand-new Bentley, because it’s like a brand-new Bentley,” says David Phillips, curator of archaeology at the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. “Both have four wheels, a motor, a windshield, and headlights. If Steve persists in this logic, I have a Bentley I want to sell him.”
His parable, I fear, is wide of the mark. I did not argue that Dave’s Civic was a Bentley. Rather, I recognized that the Civic and the Bentley were, in fact, both automobiles. And this was a major discovery! Nobody believed that an archaeologist could afford a car; therefore Dave’s Civic was not classified as a car. The rusting old Honda was a chicken coop, or a pilgrimage shrine (Madonna on the dashboard?), or an artistic pile of sheet-metal – anything but an automobile. I don’t want Dave’s Civic; I want us all to realize that his Civic is, indeed, a car. Rather like a Bentley in its inherent car-ness, but otherwise its own ride.
Cherry-picking data (p. 32): Lynne Sebastian, who I cheerfully acknowledge is smarter than me, was quoted as saying “the only problem with Steve’s model is that he tends to pick data that fits his ideas and discards what doesn’t.” Ouch. We all marshal evidence, but I’ve always thought I was conscientious in understanding the data and others’ interpretations of those data. I offer as an example the book A History of the Ancient Southwest. A little over half of the book was text; the other half was footnotes, most which (by word count) were detailed considerations of data – pro and con – and others’ interpretations of those data. Much of my recent writing anticipates counter-claims; I’ve been chided by editors about this. I’ve grown a bit defensive in my old age: see “Inveterate provocateur,” above. I try very hard to engage relevant data and others interpretations. I’ve tried through my career to incorporate old data and old (and new) ideas, refreshed and re-interpreted. That’s what data and ideas are for, no?
I hope that Dr. Sebastian does not expect and require a review of all Chaco data or all Chaco literature before any pronouncement. Of course not: there’s just too much. The quantities of data are staggering (discussed above), and the range of interpretations is immensely broad, with lunacy at both ends. Some selectivity is required. Chaco-as-altepetl reviews the range of non-crazy Chaco narratives; there were so many that I had to classify and categorize. Then, like Stalin’s show-trials or the Terror’s tribunals, we can try ‘em in batches!
Michael Smith and not-an-altepetl (p. 30): Dr. Michael Smith, a leading scholar of Aztec cities, says definitively that “Chaco was not an altepetl” (p. 30). It’s lately come to my attention, from Dr. Smith himself, that he is inimical to the Lockhart-Hirth-Gutierrez model of altepetl. Since I follow the Lockhart-Hirth-Gutierrez model, I’m not surprised that Dr. Smith is unhappy with its application to Chaco – and my use of his data to supplement a model he dislikes.
Eastern Pueblo ethnology (p. 32): Mr. Toner suggests that my “altepetl-like society … [might be] a mistake due in part to a misreading of contemporary Pueblo culture” (p. 32), summarized by John Ware and discussed above. I may be over-sensitive, but Mr. Toner seems to suggest that I am ignorant of eastern Pueblo ethnology. I’m not; I may not know as much as Dr. Ware, but I appreciate the profound differences between Hopi and Ohkay Owingeh. This clarification does not affect the validity of Dr. Ware’s argument, but it does perhaps assuage my battered vanity.