Sunday, July 20, 2008

Canyon Spirits and Motel Mysteries

Canyon Spirits; Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World. Photographs by John L. Ninnemann; essays by Stephen H. Lekson* and J. McKim Malville. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

This is a lovely book; the photos are beautiful and make you want to spend some time looking at all the details and then to map out a journey to see these places for yourself. Lekson's essay, "Anasazi Pueblos of the Ancient Southwest," speculates on the history and events experienced by the Ancient Puebloans who left behind so many tantalizing ruins, still puzzled over today. His interpretations are backed up by scientific methods for measuring past weather patterns and other archaeological techniques for speculating on what is, after all, an ultimately unknowable past.

It was the second essay, "Ancient Space and Time in the Canyons" by Malville, that lost me. I do not see how an archaeologist can look at a cave wall with petroglyph notches and a spiral carved into it and start talking about calendrical stations, triangular shadows, and "hierophanies of space and time." I know the man has studied these things, but it seems to me that his theories are based on pure speculation; one theory balanced on another and another.

I am reminded of David Macauley's spectacular The Motel of the Mysteries. Here is the publisher's description of this book, first brought out in 1979:
It is the year 4022; all of the ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985. Imagine, then, the excitement that Howard Carson, an amateur archeologist at best, experienced when in crossing the perimeter of an abandoned excavation site he felt the ground give way beneath him and found himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, was clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber. Carson's incredible discoveries, including the remains of two bodies, one of them on a ceremonial bed facing an altar that appeared to be a means of communicating with the Gods and the other lying in a porcelain sarcophagus in the Inner Chamber, permitted him to piece together the whole fabric of that extraordinary civilization.
Yes, Howard discovers the ancient site of the Toot 'n C'mon Motel and from the artifacts there (a toilet paper roll! A "ceremonial" and "ritual treasure" toilet seat!) constructs an extremely skewed world view of our own civilization. It just makes me wonder what the Ancient Puebloans might think of Malville's hierophanies...

*Lekson was a contributor to Canyon Gardens; The Ancient Pueblo Landscapes of the American Southwest, previously reviewed on this blog.


Towanda said...

Interesting...never encountered the word "Puebloan" before.

clairz said...

Ancient Puebloan/Ancestral Puebloan/Pueblo Peoples/Hisatsinom (Hopi)are apparently the new preferred terms for the peoples previously known as Anasazi.

According to the Canyon Spirits book: The literature describing the cultures of the Four Corners region has most often used the term "Anasazi" to label these people. The term comes from the Navajo language, and can be variously translated as "ancient ancestors," or "ancient enemies," giving an unfortunate connotation to people who, it turns out, were not ancestors or even enemies contemporary with the Navajo people. Today's descendamts of the Anasazi are the people of the modern Pueblos, so the term "Ancestral Puebloans" to describe their ancestors, is much preferred.

Sylvia K said...

That is some fascinating info. I'm familiar with the area and it is incredibly beautiful.


Towanda said...

I wonder why they felt like they had to go and change a name as cool as "Anasazi" to something as drab as Puebloan.