Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thinking about Chaco

Before we made our recent trip back to Chaco Canyon I browsed through the currently available literature on the subject in Albuquerque book stores. Chaco Canyon has inspired a huge body of work which in some ways has made the picture more confusing. In my opinion some of the most-read experts have contributed more to obfuscation than to clarity. Among those I include Jared Diamond and John Stuart. Both authors have considerable writing skills and records of accomplishment in research. Diamond's trasgression is using Chaco as a vehicle for arriving at an explanation for everything. Stuart proposes parallels between a speculative history of Chacoan society and our messy political and economic present which inspire little confidence.

Fortunately, there are authors of recent books on Chaco-era subjects which have stuck to more modest agenda, attempting to cast some light on the intriguing mysteries without blinding us with glaring blasts of ill-founded synthesis. A most entertaining and informative look at Chacoan society which I read just before our trip was House of Rain by Craig Childs. He has spent years walking through the Southwest to find the traces of a culture with Chaco Canyon at its center which is much larger than is often realized. Childs is not an academic archaeologist, but his combination of acute observational powers, stamina and logical rigor produces a chronicle of discovery with great credibility.

As luck would have it, a few days after our return from Chaco, Craig Childs showed up in Albuquerque to promote his latest book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. We spent an enjoyable two hours at the Library listening to the author talk about his wide-ranging investigation into how we so often destroy our opportunity to appreciate the distant past by giving in to our acquisitive urges to possess its remnants.

Childs makes the case that the artifacts which illuminate the ancient past are an unrenewable resource, and context is integral to their value. While that is not a new idea, it is one which he would have applied much more widely than has been done up to now. It is not just the commercial pot hunters who rob the past of its value; archaeologists who have built great museum collections and all those of us who have ever pocketed an arrowhead or an ancient shell bead must also confront complicity. Childs concedes that there is no easy, clear path to what he advocates; there are often convincing arguments in favor of protection, restoration, and even personal acquisition. At the same time, all such actions entail an element of destruction through changing or obliterating context. So, whatever the justification, some careful thought needs to enter into the process of examining the past at every opportunity.

Another genial source of information about Chaco that I have found recently is a blog called The Gambler's House, hosted by a precocious grad student who is a talented writer, and who has worked as a volunteer guide in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. His regular musings about Chaco-era archaeology really make the discipline come alive in a way that very few professional archaeologists achieve. If any of my anthropology professors had shown a fraction of his communicative talents I might have continued on with my early aspiration to join their ranks.