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
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).