Stir­ring the pots Stephen H. Lek­son on South­west­ern ar­chae­ol­ogy


Pasatiempo - - CON­TENTS - En­comien­das

Slip slop, a term re­lat­ing to the pot­tery of the an­cient Mim­bres peo­ple in what is to­day south­west­ern New Mex­ico, is an ex­am­ple of a seem­ingly triv­ial point that can il­lus­trate some­thing big. Slip slop shows what ar­chae­ol­o­gist Stephen H. Lek­son, dis­cussing Mim­bres in his 2008 book A His­tory of

the An­cient South­west, calls “the one-two his­tor­i­cal punch of Ho­hokam and Chaco.” This style of pot­tery serves as ev­i­dence that Mim­bres had con­tact with these two large, in­flu­en­tial com­mu­ni­ties in Ari­zona and North­ern New Mex­ico, re­spec­tively.

On Mon­day, Feb. 20, Lek­son dis­cusses this and re­lated top­ics in a South­west Sem­i­nars lec­ture, “Mim­bres Pots: Dim­ples, Slip Slop & Clap­board (What They Are & Why They Mat­ter),” at Ho­tel Santa Fe. Then, three days later, he speaks on the sub­ject “What Ifs: Santa Fe and South­west­ern Ar­chae­ol­ogy” at the James A. Lit­tle The­ater, a lec­ture pre­sented by the School for Ad­vanced Re­search.

The ex­pres­sion “slip slop” is “not about de­signs or any­thing es­o­teric,” Lek­son told Pasatiempo, “but just some­thing about how Mim­bres pots were made. The in­side of a Mim­bres bowl has a white slip, a thin wash of white clay that con­trasts with the grey of the fired pot­tery clay. They don’t put that slip on the out­side, but some of it drips down from the rim. Guess where else you see that? In Chaco. And you don’t see that in too many other places.” Ar­chae­ol­o­gists think of Mim­bres as a sub­group of the Mo­gol­lon cul­ture, one of three ma­jor cul­tural group­ings in the an­cient South­west, along with the Ances­tral Pue­blo (Anasazi) peo­ple and the Ho­hokam. The Mim­bres cul­ture was mostly cen­tered in ap­prox­i­mately 20 fair-size towns that were con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with the Chaco Canyon oc­cu­pa­tion, but not ev­ery­one ac­knowl­edges a link.

“There is an in­ter­nal ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment, one side say­ing that Mim­bres was this in­de­pen­dent en­tity that owed noth­ing to any­body. My view is that you can’t un­der­stand Mim­bres without know­ing about its con­tem­po­raries,” Lek­son said. “I’m sure the peo­ple who I’m think­ing of would say I’m mis­quot­ing, but they’ll say, ‘Of course the Mim­bres peo­ple were aware of Ho­hokam and they were aware of Chaco, but it made no par­tic­u­lar dif­fer­ence to them.’ I see Mim­bres as kind of a won­der­ful ex­ter­nal weath­er­vane that points west, when Ho­hokam was go­ing re­ally strong.

“The Ho­hokam was this pretty amaz­ing civ­i­liza­tion in south­ern Ari­zona that peaked in the 9th cen­tury and then de­clined, so Mim­bres looks a lot like Ho­hokam at that point. Then when Chaco comes on strong 100 years or so later, these Mim­bres peo­ple who were mak­ing Ho­hokam-like pot­tery and liv­ing in Ho­hokam-like pit­houses all of a sud­den de­cide they’re go­ing to make black-and-white pot­tery and build lit­tle stone pueb­los with ki­vas. I don’t think that’s a co­in­ci­dence. The changes at Mim­bres cor­re­spond pretty closely to the geopol­i­tics of the South­west.”

The no­tion that the Mim­bres peo­ple were con­tent liv­ing in their own lit­tle val­leys grow­ing corn, squash, and beans is un­likely. “They were ac­tu­ally all over the place, just like any other so­ci­ety in hu­man his­tory,” Lek­son said. Peo­ple ranged far from their homes not only to seek trade ad­van­tages but be­cause of hu­man cu­rios­ity and the urge to ex­plore. “And for thou­sands of years. Chaco wasn’t the first hu­man group­ing in the South­west. I mean, there were amaz­ing things go­ing on in 1200 B.C. in the South­west, about the same time as Olmec, what they call the early agri­cul­tural pe­riod. There were long his­to­ries of con­nec­tion be­tween the South­west and Mex­ico. There were no bor­ders here in A.D. 1000. The South­west was part of Me­soamer­ica; it was the ex­treme north­ern boonies, the fringe. The guys down in what would be­come Mex­ico City prob­a­bly didn’t think much about it, but the peo­ple up north knew about the cities down south.”

The peo­ple liv­ing in what is now Chi­huahua (the south­ern Mo­gol­lon) and neigh­bor­ing ar­eas of Mex­ico had much fewer needs than those in the Gila-Río Grande-Chaco re­gion, who eked out a liv­ing on the arid, drought-sen­si­tive Colorado Plateau. “There wasn’t a whole lot be­sides turquoise and maybe cot­ton up here that any­body down south wanted,” Lek­son said. “But of course they were aware of what was up here. When the con­quis­ta­dors came into this coun­try again and again and again, they were fol­low­ing In­dian guides.”

The “dim­ples” in his talk’s ti­tle re­fer to another char­ac­ter­is­tic of Mim­bres pot­tery. The tech­nique of us­ing tools to thin the walls of a clay ves­sel, which cre­ates a dim­pled sur­face, was sim­i­lar to the pad­dle­and-anvil method em­ployed by the Ho­hokam. And it was sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent from the strat­egy used by many Pue­bloan and Cha­coan pot­ters: build­ing the ves­sel with coiled clay and us­ing a sharp-edged tool to scrape it thin.

For Lek­son, the most telling fea­ture is Mim­bres clap­board cor­ru­gated pot­tery, where the maker of a jar would leave small coils ex­posed and then in­dent them so that the sur­face re­sem­bles bas­ketry. “It’s a very par­tic­u­lar tech­nique. I’ve emailed around the

world and you just don’t see it any place. They did it at Mim­bres and they did it at Chaco at the same time. This is not some­thing that was in­de­pen­dently in­vented. These are neigh­bors.”

Another in­trigu­ing as­pect about Mim­bres ce­ram­ics is the wealth of de­sign, in­clud­ing hu­man fig­ures, tur­tles, fish, birds, and bats. “We love that stuff,” Lek­son said, “but then we have one pot in our col­lec­tion where one guy is tak­ing another guy’s head off. Every­body loves Mim­bres pot­tery, but peo­ple out­side that area didn’t like it so much. It didn’t travel; you don’t find it at Chaco. They could have any­thing they wanted and they didn’t want Mim­bres pot­tery. The de­signs were very ide­o­log­i­cally charged and you had to be a Mim­bres per­son, you had to be part of that par­tic­u­lar so­ci­ety to want one. The de­signs meant some­thing.”

In the Thurs­day, Feb. 23, talk “What Ifs: Santa Fe and South­west­ern Ar­chae­ol­ogy,” at­ten­dees will learn about the con­ven­tional but il­lu­sory set of ideas that Lek­son calls “Pue­blo Space,” about Amer­ica’s min­i­mal­iza­tion of the Amer­i­can In­dian, and about early ar­chae­ol­o­gists in Santa Fe. Lek­son is a pro­fes­sor in the an­thro­pol­ogy depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Colorado-Boul­der and cu­ra­tor of ar­chae­ol­ogy at the univer­sity’s Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, as well as a pro­lific au­thor.

So, what if? “What if Henry Clay had won the elec­tion of 1844 in­stead of James Polk? We wouldn’t have had a Mex­i­can War and you’d have our ar­chae­ol­ogy com­ing out of Mex­ico City rather than Bos­ton and Phil­a­del­phia, and it would be very dif­fer­ent,” he said. “Mex­ico na­tion­al­ized its past. Its in­dige­nous past is part of the na­tional iden­tity, and that’s cer­tainly not the case with how the United States has dealt with Na­tive peo­ple; it’s sort of an us-and-them kind of thing.”

Another of Lek­son’s won­der­ings: What if Cora Whit­ford, the wife of the in­flu­en­tial ar­chae­ol­o­gist Edgar Lee Hewett, hadn’t con­tracted tu­ber­cu­lo­sis? She did, and in the late 1890s the cou­ple moved from Gree­ley, Colorado, to Santa Fe for the ben­e­fi­cial “desert air” and to con­tinue their ex­plo­rations of the Pa­jar­ito Plateau. “Hewett and a dozen other lead­ers kind of in­vented the Santa Fe that we have to­day and cre­ated an im­age of Pueb­los mostly to mar­ket the South­west. [Brad­ford] Prince and [Ken­neth] Chap­man and oth­ers were busy shap­ing the im­age of Santa Fe, but Hewett was prob­a­bly the real mover and shaker in bring­ing ar­chae­ol­ogy into the mix.”

Another noted ar­chae­ol­o­gist, Adolph Ban­de­lier, con­trib­uted another facet to this story. He was a stu­dent of Lewis Henry Mor­gan, the fa­ther of Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­ogy, and Ban­de­lier was a men­tor to Hewett. “But be­cause Mor­gan put the his­tory of an­cient Na­tive Amer­ica in an­thro­pol­ogy, it made it a nat­u­ral sci­ence rather than his­tory, and there was this no­tion that there was no his­tory,” Lek­son said. “In­di­ans were spec­i­mens in a nat­u­ral sci­ence par­a­digm. Mor­gan was a real good friend to In­di­ans and lob­bied on their be­half, but he was quite clear that the way to study them was through sci­ence and not his­tory, and ba­si­cally that they didn’t have a his­tory, or at least any his­tory that made any dif­fer­ence, and that has af­fected how we see the South­west.”

The is­sue is sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent in Mex­ico, where the na­tional mu­seum is a mu­seum of both an­thro­pol­ogy and his­tory, Lek­son said, adding that the Span­ish and Mex­i­can gov­ern­ments had a very dif­fer­ent way of ad­dress­ing the Na­tive Amer­i­can past than did the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. “The Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment wanted to say that there was no his­tory, so these peo­ple were dis­pos­able. But the con­quis­ta­dors mar­ried into Aztec royal houses, treat­ing them more or less as equals. Even though it was hor­ri­ble and there were all kinds of prob­lems, it was a dif­fer­ent way of en­gag­ing the Na­tive peo­ple. They kept the Aztec roy­alty and the Taras­can roy­alty and then the nor­mal peo­ple, the peas­ants, the farm­ers, were put in and treated like serfs. It was more of a feu­dal type of thing, but it was one civ­i­liza­tion to another civ­i­liza­tion, the Span­ish rec­og­niz­ing, as they must, that the Aztecs were a civ­i­liza­tion.”

He con­trasted the Mex­i­can sit­u­a­tion to the typ­i­cal U.S. de­scrip­tion of Ca­hokia, a Na­tive site in south­ern Illi­nois whose pop­u­la­tion peaked in the 1200s. “This was a huge city, at the same time as Chaco, and it had the big­gest pyra­mid north of Mex­ico City, and we call it a ‘mound.’ Our In­di­ans don’t have pyra­mids; they have mounds — just like any In­dian boat is a ‘ca­noe.’

“The role of Santa Fe in all this, and it still plays this role, is what I’m call­ing the Pue­blo Space. We cre­ated this no­tion of what Pue­blo means and I think the gen­eral phi­los­o­phy in Santa Fe is all flute mu­sic and Zen and that kind of stuff, and this sort of very ide­al­ized ver­sion of both the Pue­blo present and the Pue­blo past that suits Santa Fe, and it worked. It sold. The Atchi­son, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail­road was in­volved in this, too. It wasn’t just the peo­ple in Santa Fe. It was Fred Har­vey and a bunch of guys in Chicago sit­ting there go­ing, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s get peo­ple on the train, let’s fill those seats.’

“Did that af­fect our un­der­stand­ing of the an­cient past? It did and it does. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists try to make ev­ery­thing fit into that Pue­blo Space, like Chaco, which doesn’t. Chaco’s not even close to fit­ting into that Pue­blo Space,” Lek­son said. “That’s not to say it isn’t Pue­blo. Of course Chaco is part of Pue­blo his­tory, but what hap­pened to Chaco didn’t op­er­ate any­thing at all like this ide­al­ized no­tion of Pueb­los as these egal­i­tar­ian, in­de­pen­dent sort of Zen gar­dener vil­lages.”

Two ex­am­ple of ves­sels with slip slop, be­low, Cha­coan, above, Mim­bres; top right, Stephen H. Lek­son

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