Stirring the pots Stephen H. Lekson on Southwestern archaeology
STEPHEN H. LEKSON ON SOUTHWESTERN ARCHAEOLOGY
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