Among the Ruins

'Puebloan Ruins of the Southwest' takes stock of our historic architecture

As the Bush administration pushes forward with the selling of public lands, it might behoove us to take a glance at what's risked when we bury our nation in wartime debt and sell off our inheritance in order to keep our tanks rolling over other people's bodies. Tucsonan Arthur Rohn and the late William Ferguson--both anthropologists--have assembled Puebloan Ruins of the Southwest, a blend of history and aerial photography that brings to colorful life the vivid legacy of our past desert communities.

Since prehistoric times, Pueblo Indians have carved evidence of their existence into "the open valley floors, mesa-top ridges and canyon rims" of the Southwestern United States. (The Puebloan people were an agrarian, village-dwelling group of Native Americans that lived throughout Arizona and New Mexico prior to their conquest at the hands of Europeans.) Arizona readers and history buffs will get the most out of chapters that cover pueblo ruins of the Grand Canyon State. The rest of the book is informative, with a general-interest approach that won't overwhelm or inundate with dates and facts.

Instead, Puebloan Ruins takes us all the way from the prehistoric world to the present-day Indians of New Mexico and Arizona. Sure, the prose is a tad textbook-ish, without an overarching narrative. Still, Rohn and Ferguson present the material in relatively palatable chunks. If you stick close to the photos rather than wade into explanations of the different eras of the "Basket Maker Puebloans," you should be all right.

The book's introduction does much to affirm how tough these people were, and how they did without the modern conveniences many of us take for granted. A photo of "a yucca fiber apron and juniper bark menstrual pad worn by a Puebloan woman during the ninth century A.D.," for instance, was enough to stop this reviewer in his tracks. Wearing tree bark ... down there? Of course, these people were neither masochists nor sadists. Although they were capable of as much violence as anyone, they lacked certain hallmarks of violence, according to the authors:

In many cultures, warriors have been celebrated in art, literature, and folklore. But Puebloan rock art and ceramic decorations totally lack any depictions of warriors or battle scenes. Even the so-called war chiefs of the historic Pueblos help to organize cooperation among their fellows, sometimes for defense, but most often for the development of communal tasks. Only once during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 did the Puebloan peoples act in concert to expel the oppressive Spaniards.

In any case, don't skip the intro, since it provides insight into a vanished--and more hardened--way of life.

In the "Northern San Juan Region" chapter, the Cliff Palace and Cliff-Fewkes Canyon Ruins (occupying the southwestern corner of Colorado) do much to stimulate the imagination. Sun Temple, for example, sits proudly atop the canyons' most prominent point, looking like an ancient resort still open for visitors. Cliff Palace, meanwhile, remains "the largest individual cliff dwelling on the Mesa Verde," occupying an overhang and containing more than 220 rooms. Equally fascinating are the still-visible toehold trails peppered vertically across a cliff canyon of Montezuma Creek. Say the authors: "The individual depressions carved out of the cliff face could barely accommodate the toes or hands of the traveler, who had to be confident of his/her balance." Let's hope so.

In the "Kayenta Region" chapter, the Keet Seel site in Arizona's National Navajo Monument "is the best-preserved large cliff dwelling in the American Southwest." Built in the 1200s, it housed more than 200 people before being abandoned sometime during the 14th century. Another cool revelation is that there's a Bright Angel Pueblo site near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon National Park. That the Kayenta Puebloans had fashioned their own alluvial fans to ward off rainwater is evidence of their craftiness. The "Chaco Canyon Region" (in New Mexico) boasts some intriguing information, like the astronomical observatory high atop Fajada Butte. Some archeologists suspect this site "contains a device for recognizing the phases of the moon."

Finally, there's the "Zuni and Hopi" chapter, and Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park definitely has its share of Puebloan sites. All the great sightseeing marvels are here--Agate House, Newspaper Rock--demanding our attention and respect. The "Northern Rio Grande Valley Region" is also worth a look, with the Painted Cave in Capulin Canyon of Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico) being a particularly powerful example of prehistoric Puebloan art.

Yes, Puebloan Ruins is akin to taking a college class on Southwestern history. But, hey, at least we're not being graded on this. Instead, we simply get to enjoy the hard work done in order to bring us a complete picture of Puebloan culture from prehistoric times through centuries of development. Hopefully, these ruins will remain with us after Dubya's second--seemingly infinite--term.

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