People have been living in the Southwest for more than 13,000 years. With spectacular photos by Larry Lindahl, The Ancient Southwest: A Guide to Archaeological Sites, by Gregory McNamee, showcases some of the ruins these civilizations left behind: Casa Grande in Arizona, the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, Chimney Rock in Colorado, and Hovenweep in Utah. On the cover in a photo of a vessel housed at the Luna Mimbres Museum in Deming; courtesy Río Nuevo Publishers.
People have been living in the Southwest for more than 13,000 years. Hunters and gatherers of the Clovis, and later Folsom, cultures were followed by what many archaeologists call the Basketmakers. The Basketmaker culture began in the northern Southwest between 500 and 200 BC; its people left scattered pithouse settlements. Between AD 700 and 900, which coincided with Europe’s Dark Ages, Southwestern people began building Pueblo villages, and have continued to do so. The most elaborate ruins date to the period of Europe’s high Middle Ages.
Just as today’s Native Americans do not have one monolithic culture, their ancestors created many different civilizations. These people include the Hohokam, who lived near what is now Tucson and Phoenix, and who thousands of years ago built irrigation canals to water their corn and bean crops. Later, the Mogollon people settled to the east, famous in ancient times and among modern collectors for their black-and-white pottery. The ancestors of many of today’s Pueblo people lived in an area stretching from what is now Taos and Socorro, to Durango, Colorado, to St. George, Utah, to Holbrook, Arizona. Their abandoned towns and cities can be seen at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Bandelier, and many other places. To the northwest were the Fremont people, who lived in smaller settlements and left spectacular rock art. Other civilizations flourished farther west and south.
Different styles of architecture and pottery and varied agricultural techniques characterize Southwestern civilizations of the last 1,500 years. Archaeologists suspect that the groups did not share one language or religion. Modern Pueblo people trace their ancestry to one or another of these groups,in traditions passed down orally from generation to generation.
With spectacular photos by Larry Lindahl, The Ancient Southwest: A Guide to Archaeological Sites, by Gregory McNamee and released by Río Nuevo Publishers, showcases some of the ruins these civilizations left: Casa Grande in Arizona, the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, Chimney Rock in Colorado, and Hovenweep in Utah. The text describing each site is succinct, but photos tell much about the builders of the ruins: the care with which they laid their walls, how they sited their cities in the landscape, and how the buildings have fared since their inhabitants left.
The geographic setting of each site is more spectacular than the last: kivas silhouetted against a mountain range, towers clinging to cliffs or perched on desert hills, mesa-top ruins. Some photos bring the viewer very close to a vanished people: At a few cliff dwellings, such as Betatakin and Keet Seel in Arizona, it seems as if the inhabitants left only a few hours ago to hunt or tend their crops. Photos of rock art, from geometric designs of the Mogollon people, to a possible painting of a supernova at Chaco Canyon, to the disquieting spirit figures of the Fremont culture, illustrate the variety of artistic traditions among ancient Southwesterners.
Interspersed among the book’s architectural and landscape photos are cameo images of artifacts found in excavations and caves: wicked stone projectile points, a turquoise-inlaid shell that looks very much like modern Zuni jewelry, boldly painted pottery, a clay dog, and a small carved mountain lion. These photos help us see how the ancients viewed the world around them. Showing the great span of the Southwest’s artistic tradition is a photo of small deer figure made of twigs that dates from two to four thousand years ago and was found in a cave in the Grand Canyon. Fiber is rarely preserved in archaeological sites, but photos of rare sandals and cotton fabric demonstrate the care with which ancient people dressed.
The most common artifacts found in ruins are broken and whole pots. If the traditions of modern pueblos can tell us anything about the past, women made these. It’s interesting to think that it is mainly female artistic output that has survived the centuries in the Southwest, whereas in Europe, art from the Middle Ages that has come down to us was made by men in the form of paintings and sculpture. There, say in the Old World or in Europe, women’s artistic skill was directed to weaving and needlework, most of which has long since rotted away.
Lindahl’s photos tell a great deal about ancient cultures. McNamee’s text and the information about each archaeological site would serve as a great guidebook for touring the Southwest. The book contains a map, a historical timeline, and a useful index. It features 14 sites in New Mexico as well as many in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado.
Another recent book, Living the Ancient Southwest, edited by David Grant Noble and published by Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, answers many of the questions that visitors to archaeological sites might have. How were farmers at Chaco Canyon able to support such extensive cities? Did violence cause the people of Mesa Verde to abandon their homes? Can oral histories of today’s Native Americans be considered reliable accounts of where people went when they left the ancient sites? What are the stories behind pottery designs and rock art?
This book contains 18 essays by various authors on the ways of ancient and modern Southwestern Natives. The time frame is a long one. Chapters discuss campsites built by Archaic hunters and gatherers thousands of years ago, explore the iconic
Pueblo ruins of the last millennium, and retell current Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo stories. Each author offers insights into the people who left their artifacts and ruined cities across the Southwest, knowledge that casual visitors to archaeological sites often don’t possess.
University of Utah anthropology professor R. Steven Simms writes about those who inhabited the Great Basin: The ancients lived in the desert West with the nimbleness of long familiarity. They needed no street signs or maps because everything and every place had names and stories. Their languages held no word for “wilderness.” The people marked no separation between humanity and nature, nor did they pose humanity against nature. The notion of “making a living’ involved no distinction between work and play. There was harmony and balance, but these things were not static. The ancient people shaped their wilderness. They used it and sometimes even used it up. The balance they achieved was not a final state, but an unsteady relationship between human needs, beliefs, and the tyranny of circumstance.
The desert was a challenge to untold generations of Southwesterners. The book offers us clues as to how they not only survived but flourished. Today, people apply their powerful mental capacity toward
developing electronics and software. Ancient people applied that same intelligence to growing crops in an inhospitable climate, fashioning projectile points, and finding just the right materials and shapes for cooking pots.
Some chapters give us a glimpse of worldviews not shared by settlers of European descent. Barnaby Lewis, tribal historic preservation officer for the Gila River Indian Community, and Andrew Darling of Southwest Heritage Research, explain how the O’odhams describe space and time. Animal spirits compose songs and teach them to humans in a dream. This tribe’s Oriole song follows a circuitous route from the Gila River all the way to the Gulf of California. Trails, thousands of years old, are still visible in the Arizona desert.
Trails were also important for Pueblo ancestors in Northern New Mexico. California State University anthropology professor James E. Snead explains how, although early archaeologists concentrated mostly on digging up ruins on the Pajarito Plateau, their modern successors are looking at those villages’ relationship to the landscape. Scientists have mapped many square miles of agricultural features: fields, dams, water diversions, shelters, and lookouts. They have also begun to realize how an ancient and extensive system of trails connects the abandoned pueblos. In some places, pathways are worn deep into the soft volcanic tuff of the Jemez Mountains. In other places people carved steps and pecked petroglyphs onto cliff faces to mark trails.
Various authors explain that trails were — and, for modern descendants, still are — not only a way to get from one place to another, but a religious journey. Views along the way must have been an important spiritual component.
Because of the Southwest’s spectacular scenery, it is a shame that this book relies mostly on black-andwhite illustrations. Noble, the editor, is an excellent photographer, and the inclusion of more of his work would have added much to the project.
A more scientific volume than the other two is From Mountain Top to Valley Bottom: Understanding Past Land Use in the Northern Río Grande Valley, New Mexico, edited by Bradley J. Vierra and published by the University of Utah Press. The 18 papers collected in the book look at archaeological finds in a new way.
In his introduction, Severin Fowles of Barnard College at Columbia University explains that standard archaeological research often looks top-down at sites: “Iconic images of sites inevitably present architecture as if it existed on a flattened x-y plane — the bird’s eye view rather than the typical human gaze sideways at a world of elevations.”
A more realistic view would take elevation into account. He writes: “Topographic lines notwithstanding, the perspective of our maps is again top down, encouraging us to contemplate horizontal movement and the distance between sites as the crow flies rather than as the human scrambles over an uneven terrain: down into canyons, up onto the foothills, farther up to the mountain peaks.”
The volume’s essays discuss how ancient peoples made a living at varying elevations throughout prehistory: what they hunted, what kinds of weapons they used, the changing types of pottery they made, the variety of plants they gathered in valleys and uplands, how latitude and elevation influenced the types of corn they planted. One recurring insight among these papers is that farming success in this area depends not only on precipitation, but on the length of the growing season. Changing temperatures, as well as drought, may well have influenced habitation patterns and migrations.
Packed as it is with scientific charts and graphs, the book is not easy reading. A glossary of particularly arcane terms would help laymen, and even archaeologists of varied specialties, better understand the chapters.
Each author has a specialty, including pottery, stone projectile points, tree rings, flora, and fauna — and describes that area of expertise in great detail. Taken as a whole, the book gives readers an overview of how the ancients lived in, and moved up and down, the landscape.
“The Ancient Southwest: A Guide to Archaeological Sites,” by Gregory McNamee and with photographs by Larry Lindahl, is released by Rio Nuevo Publishers. “Living the Ancient Southwest,” by David Grant Noble, is published by the School for Advanced Research Press. “From Mountain Top to Valley Bottom: Understanding Past Land Use in the Northern Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico,” edited by Bradley J. Vierra, is published by the University of Utah Press.
A turquoise-inlaid shell on view at the Heritage Center, Colorado
A sandal worn by an Ancestral Puebloan now housed at the Edge of the Cedars State Park, Utah
A dog figurine recovered from a Hohokam settlement in Arizona
The “leaping sheep” glyph at the Eye of the Sun Arch in Monument Valley, an example of ancient rock art in the Southwest; opposite page, left, the “big house” that lends its name to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is located in the Hohokam heartland in south-central Arizona; a stone dart attached to a wooden shaft, which was then thrown with a carved piece of wood that served as an arm extension, now housed in a museum at the Edge of the Cedars State Park devoted to Ancestral Puebloan culture