Steven Lekson lectures on archeology of the southwest

Bonnie Tilland

On the evening of Oct. 8, in the Wriston Auditorium, Steven Lekson, the Curator of Museum and Field Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, visited Lawrence to lecture on archaeology in the “new” ancient southwest. He lectured to a fairly large crowd in the auditorium, composed of Lawrence students and members of the Appleton chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America. Jere Wickens, a professor of anthropology here at Lawrence, gave the introductory remarks, starting with a plea for more people to become members of the archaeological society, including Lawrence students. In smaller cities like Appleton, it is hard to keep up the required twenty-five members, but if the number drops below twenty-five, archaeology lecturers will no longer be funded to speak at Lawrence.

Dr. Lekson has conducted his research throughout the American southwest (the Four Corners region) and parts of northern Mexico, studying the ancient Laguna, Zuni, and Acoma groups, all related to the so-called Pueblo Indians of today’s southwest. These people have often been referred to as “Anasazi,” which is what the Navajos called them, meaning “ancient enemies of our people.” Today the Pueblo Indians generally prefer to simply be called “Ancestral Puebloans.”

Lekson gave a brief background and history of the three main excavation sites in the southwest, all centers for these ancient societies: Aztec (1110-1275), Chaco (850-1125), and Casas Grandes (1250-1500). Excavation in these areas has unearthed amazing artifacts: intricate and well-crafted pottery and an abundance of valuable turquoise gems, among other things.

The artifacts in these areas, and the structure of these sites themselves, give cultural anthropologists a lot of clues about life in these areas long ago. For instance, on some vases, there are pictures of beheadings and public executions, probably a ritual to ensure obedience among the people. There is also evidence of government and hierarchy at these sites, as shown by large buildings, possibly palaces with many rooms where turquoise, artwork, and rare feathers of Macaw birds have been found.

Lekson also touched on the missteps of anthropologists who have studied the Pueblo people, especially cultural anthropologists in the 1930s and 1940s, who projected their wishes for a simpler life onto the indigenous people of the area. There was an unquestioned belief that these people were “happy, peaceful people living together in harmony,” says Lekson, because that’s what Americans wanted to believe. It has only been in the last decade or so that this “cornbread and squash” existence theory—that all the people did was grow corn and squash and eat corn and squash—fell out of favor. Finally, the Pueblo people are starting to be allowed to have their own history, apart from white America’s misconceptions, and they are beginning to tell their history to the world.