In Other Words The Lost World of the Old Ones: Dis­cov­er­ies in the An­cient South­west by David Roberts and Mex­i­cans in the Mak­ing of Amer­ica by Neil Fo­ley

by David Roberts, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 352 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Alex Heard

David Roberts, a pro­lific au­thor and out­doors­man, has now writ­ten five books that in­volve ex­plo­rations of the his­tory, ru­ins, art, and ar­ti­facts of Na­tive Amer­i­cans in the desert South­west: The Pue­blo Re­volt: The Se­cret Re­bel­lion That Drove the Spa­niards Out of the South­west (2004), Sand­stone Spine: Seek­ing the Anasazi on the First Tra­verse of the Comb Ridge (2006), Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geron­imo, and the Apache Wars (1993), and this one, a se­quel to In Search of the Old Ones: Ex­plor­ing the Anasazi World of the South­west (1996). That book, still in print, is Roberts’ en­dur­ingly popular deep dive into the an­cient Anasazi civ­i­liza­tions of the Colorado Plateau, a vast area of desert, red rock, canyons, moun­tains, rivers, and for­est that spreads over parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mex­ico, and Ari­zona.

I’ve read three of them, and what al­ways im­presses me is the ef­fort Roberts puts in to ad­vance his knowl­edge. In the field of South­west­ern ar­chae­ol­ogy, he’s a lay­man, but he’s spent a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of his adult life plow­ing through ar­chives and tromp­ing around in the field — since 1996, for ex­am­ple, he’s re­turned to the Colorado Plateau at least twice a year to hike and back­pack. It’s ob­vi­ous he keeps up with the lat­est schol­arly ar­ti­cles, books, and the­o­ries in a dis­ci­plined way. In a chap­ter that ex­am­ines a com­pli­cated de­bate among the pros — about mi­gra­tions by the an­ces­tors of the Tewa-speak­ing peo­ple in the Rio Grande pue­b­los north of Santa Fe — he hears a “mock­ing imp” whis­per in his ear: “Does your av­er­age reader give a damn where the Tewa came from?”

“Maybe not,” he writes. “But I give a damn, although I’m not sure why.” If you care enough about any­thing to feel this in­ner drive, you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate what Roberts is up to here.

That said, this may not be the best place to start if you’re new to the sub­ject and crave an over­view of An­ces­tral Pue­bloans 101. (In that case, you might want to read In Search of the Old Ones first and fol­low up with this.) The new book re­vis­its old sites, ideas, and feuds that ap­peared in the pre­vi­ous work. Some­times this strat­egy re­sults in sto­ries that have a clear pay­off, some­times it doesn’t. In all cases, though, Roberts’ en­gag­ing prose style and deep knowl­edge make for en­joy­able read­ing.

One of the most com­pelling nar­ra­tives in­volves Waldo Wil­cox, a Utah rancher whose 12-mile-long fam­ily prop­erty at Range Creek sat in the heart of coun­try once in­hab­ited by the Fre­mont peo­ple, the sub­ject of much spec­u­la­tion among ar­chae­ol­o­gists. Some think the Fre­monts were sim­ply lesser, “north­ern pe­riph­ery” re­la­tions of the Anasazi; some think they were a dis­tinct cul­ture. Wil­cox has no in­volve­ment in that tus­sle: His sig­nif­i­cance lies in his ethics as a stew­ard. Un­like many old-school landown­ers, he never col­lected ar­ti­facts or dealt in them, sell­ing his ranch in 2001 to the state of Utah and the Trust for Public Lands. As a re­sult, Roberts had high hopes for how this rich as­set might be stud­ied and pre­served.

Watch­ing the process over a pe­riod of years, though, he be­came pro­foundly dis­ap­pointed. Roberts is a pro­po­nent of a con­cept called the Out­door Mu­seum, which means leav­ing ar­ti­facts

in place in­stead of sacking them up and haul­ing them off to schol­arly tombs. Dur­ing vis­its to Range Creek, he was dis­mayed to see re­searchers “plant­ing lit­tle red flags as they picked up pot­sherds and chert flakes and dropped them into plas­tic bags.”

“As I had seen with my own eyes on many a gloomy oc­ca­sion,” Roberts writes, “the stor­age draw­ers of fa­mous mu­se­ums all over the world are crammed with ar­ti­facts no one has both­ered to look at in decades.”

New Mex­ico gets its due — with chap­ters touch­ing on Chaco Canyon, Tewa mi­gra­tions, and Je­mez Pue­blo — but if Roberts had to pick one part of the Colorado Plateau as a fa­vorite, it would def­i­nitely be south­east­ern Utah, specif­i­cally a 400-square-mile area called Cedar Mesa. As re­counted in In Search of the Old Ones, he ex­pe­ri­enced an in­cred­i­ble mo­ment there in 1993, when he was creep­ing around on a ledge and found a large, in­tact, cor­ru­gated pot that prob­a­bly had been sit­ting in this same spot since the 13th cen­tury.

Ob­vi­ously, Roberts left the pot alone, but even though he didn’t pro­vide pre­cise de­tails about where he was when he found it, plenty of peo­ple have fig­ured out its lo­ca­tion. “To­day, I’m in­formed,” he writes, “a beaten trail leads to the ledge on which the priceless ves­sel was stashed seven cen­turies ago.”

Roberts’ re­turn trips to his beloved Cedar Mesa — he’s been there more than 50 times since 1996 — yield some bleak news about the threats to th­ese sites posed by care­less vis­i­tors and or­ga­nized thieves. He vis­its Moon House, a Pue­blo cliff dwelling that used to be hard to find. It’s now eas­ily ac­cessed — you can get di­rec­tions on­line — and dur­ing one visit a few years ago, he saw a group of ya­hoos let­ting an un­leashed dog run around in­side the ruin. But the greater dan­ger has come in the form of so­phis­ti­cated loot­ers. Roberts re­minds us of dis­heart­en­ing heists, like one in Blanding, Utah, in 2009, when FBI and Bureau of Land Man­age­ment agents busted a ring that had il­le­gally re­moved 256 ar­ti­facts worth an es­ti­mated $335,000.

Roberts doesn’t pre­tend there’s an easy so­lu­tion to the hu­man fac­tor, and he’s not a fan of in­creased gov­ern­ment man­age­ment of all the sites. On one level, then, the book reads like an el­egy — to a van­ished time when fewer peo­ple, and fewer rules, meant freer rein for true en­thu­si­asts like Roberts to pur­sue their pas­sion. David Roberts, au­thor of “The Lost World of the Old Ones: Dis­cov­er­ies in the An­cient South­west,” dis­cusses his book at 6 p.m. on Mon­day, April 20, at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226).

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