Archive for the ‘History and Archaeology’ Category

Sky City

October 27, 2010

Can you believe a city could be cursed by its windows?Some of the Treasures of Acoma

Well, that’s what happened to the Pueblo Indian city of Acoma.

Acoma is located about an hour and a half west of Albuquerque. A couple of weekends ago, Jim, myself, and our friend Michael Wester drove out to tour Acoma.

Research I had done for my alternate history novella, “Like the Rain,” (which will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Golden Reflections, edited by Joan Saberhagen and Robert Vardeman) had transformed my vague thought that I’d like to visit Acoma “one of these days” into a burning desire. We’d tried to make a date to go in the spring, but my extensive travel schedule had made that impossible. Summer is not a time I’d choose to go visit an adobe village built up on a mesa top, so we’d postponed until autumn.

We had perfect weather for our visit. When we arrived at around eleven in the morning, the skies were clear. There was the slightest of breezes and the temperatures were in the short- sleeved shirt range. A friendly young woman took our entry fees (which included camera permits that extended to the entire reservation) and informed us that the next tour would be leaving in about fifteen minutes.

The city of Acoma is built on a mesa overlooking lands ornamented with the twisted, wind-sculpted stone formations commonly known as “hoodoos.” The surrounding vista is also embellished with buttes and other mesas, including the poetically (and perfectly) named “Enchanted Mesa.”

We rode a tour bus for the short but steep climb up to the village of Acoma. This road is a relatively recent addition. When the village was founded in the 1100’s, it was isolated except for some very challenging trails. Most water and food was carried up these trails, often on top of the heads of the climbers. (We went down the “stone stair” – one of the easier trails, and it was still pretty steep at points).

Our tour guide was an Acoma resident named Conran. (He also gave us his Acoman name, but I didn’t make a note of it; I do remember he was affiliated with the Pumpkin Clan).

I know Conran must have been a man of mature years, because he mentioned a son who is in the military, but based on appearance I would have thought him in his late twenties or early thirties. Like many Pueblo Indians, Conran is not overly tall, but powerfully built, with very dark black hair and dark brown eyes. He was quite serious as he began the tour, but when he saw he had an interested audience, he often departed from his formal tour information to add personal information and introductions.

(“That’s my aunt with the oven bread.” “This is my nephew. He’s a firefighter in Albuquerque. He also runs marathons.” “These are my family’s houses.”)

Conran’s willingness to share such details transformed the village into what it is – a living, breathing community, not a mere tourist destination. He seemed to take for granted that we would already know that this is one of the longest continuously lived-in communities in the United States.

Today, many of the tribal members have more modern homes in the nearby communities of Acomita and McCarty’s, as well as in Albuquerque. However, the religious leaders annually nominate some who will take up residence in the traditional village. To these are assigned the task of praying – not only for the members of the tribe but, as Conran assured us, for all the world.

That’s very generous coming from a people whose contacts with the world beyond their own group have not always been kind. You don’t think they chose to live up on a mesa because their neighbors were all friendly, do you? No. I didn’t think so.

Additionally, the Acomans came in for a lot of attention – not all of it nice – from the Spanish. Remember what I said about those windows? The story goes like this…

When the Spanish were new to the area, a priest traveling through the region caught a glimpse of Acoma from a distance. The sunlight caught the windows and gave back the warm glitter of gold. Immediately, he turned around and reported that he had found one of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, where even the streets were said to be made of gold.

One problem. The Acomans didn’t have any gold. Gold is actually relatively uncommon in New Mexico. However, the Acomans had made their windows from thick sheets of mica (often called isinglass), a material that – when it catches the sun – glitters like gold.

The Spanish conquistadores arrived. Not only didn’t they find a city made from gold, they found a city up on a mesa top whose residents couldn’t understand why someone down below was shouting at them that they were now subject to a king of whom they’d never heard. The situation only got worse from there.

I’m not going to give a long history lesson here, but the material does make fascinating reading. However, I’d suggest you read a more modern, balanced account. The older Spanish ones contain a certain degree of what must be called self-justification.

Despite their less than ideal encounters with the outside world, we only met with friendliness from the Acoma residents with whom we spoke. After the tour, Jim, Michael, and I had an excellent lunch in the visitor’s center café. We then toured the museum. Our final stop was a stroll around the outer portal where some vendors sat with their wares.

Jim had already bought a beautiful hand-made plate: a bear-paw design in black on a red-brown micaceous-glaze background. Therefore, we weren’t exactly in the market for souvenirs. I did pretty well until we fell into conversation with a very nice woman named Carolyn Concho.

All of the vendors had been completely up-front about which of their work was handmade and which was merely hand-painting on commercial green ware. Therefore, I was fascinated when Ms. Concho proudly presented the brightly colored paints on her pieces as all-natural mineral paints.

I asked how this could be and was treated to a wonderful discussion of how Ms. Concho and her sisters (she referred to them as “the Lewis sisters”) have gone out of their way to explore the possibilities of various minerals they encounter in their travels. They then experiment with these (grinding, mixing, heat-treating) to see what they come up with. She was particularly delighted to show us a greenish-yellow paint that they’d mixed up in hopes of finding a bright yellow. Instead, what they ended up with was a bright red.

Well, after that, I really wanted a piece of her work. I purchased a tiny pot (see the photo above) on which a lizard was painted in a fashion that displayed Ms. Concho’s colors. Note the detailed black-line patterns surrounding the lizard. Then note the size of the piece – it’s resting on a pedestal made of United States quarters! Much of the painting was done with a single hair.

My wallet was pretty empty after this, but we stopped to chat with a vendor named Karen Miller.

(By the way, most Indians in the southwest have at least two names, one of which will sound very “un-Indian” to those who expect all Indians to be named things like Sunset Warrior or Little Flower).

Ms. Miller was eating her lunch, but came over to chat when she saw us admiring her work. One piece in particular caught my attention. It was about the size of a gum ball (in the photo above, it’s resting on a stack of pennies). Ms. Miller told us it was hand-coiled and that the designs (four bands of them) were etched on with a needle. She even brought out the needle to show us.

I crouched down to eye-level so I could better admire and fell completely in love. Not only was the second band made up of miniature bear-paws (Ms. Miller is affiliated with the Bear Clan), but the third band contained eight individual depictions of various symbolic animals or figures from legend.

I guess Ms. Miller saw the glow in my eyes, because she knocked a third off her price. Jim and I dug in our wallets and managed to come up with the amount. (By the way, lest you think all this friendliness was mere effort to make a sale, not one vendor mentioned there was an ATM in the Visitor’s Center)

So we left with some of the true treasures of Acoma. Not only the pottery, but our joy in the friendliness of the people, the wealth of their history, and the curious comfort that, in this world where competition rules, someone is taking time out to pray for everyone and everything.

Chiles and Sherds and Other Stuff, Too

September 29, 2010

A sixteenth century crossbow was amazingly heavy.

Carved Hawk and Raven at Open Spaces

Rabbit fur blankets are made from strips of fur bound together on a loom. Turkey feather blankets are made in a similar fashion. Both are as warm as modern down coats.

To use a chest crutch, you need to punch, not just push.

Pueblo pottery from between 1325 and 1700 can be accurately typed and dated by rims. An expert can tell blindfolded with just a fragment when a piece was made.

Yucca fiber can be used to spin a very strong cord.

The historic pueblo of Mojo is quite likely located right off Coors Road in Albuquerque.

If you’re going to open-fire pottery, you need at least a breeze or the fire won’t get hot enough.

These and other marvelous bits of information were among the things I learned this past Sunday when I attended the “Chiles and Sherds” archeological event hosted by the Office of Archeological Studies (OAS) of the Museum of New Mexico.

“Chiles and Sherds” is OAS’s annual fund-raiser and educational event. The venue changes from year to year, but the event’s emphasis is always some aspect of New Mexico’s rich archeological tradition.

This year, the location was the lovely Albuquerque Open Spaces Visitor Center on the west side of the city. Tucked between Coor’s Road and the bosque (river forest), the Open Space’s Center is an oasis of quiet – a real jewel that I can’t decide whether I wish more people knew about or that I want to keep a secret.

Just north of the center, on land owned by the City of Albuquerque, are the ruins of an adobe pueblo that was occupied roughly between 1300 and 1600. Thousands of local residents drive by it each day, unaware that what looks like gently rising and falling ground (you can’t even really call what’s there “hills”) is shaped the way it is because below the surface are the remains of plazas, middens, and thousands of rooms.

Exactly which pueblo this was is open to debate. In fact, several of the talks given during “Chiles and Sherds” explored the evidence for and against this being Mojo – a pueblo that Coronado besieged for months, and where several pitched battles were fought.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this was a dry academic event. Far from it! Remember those crossbows I mentioned? In honor of one of the Coronado Expedition’s most popular weapons, a hobbyist named Don Menning very kindly brought along a part of his collection of crossbows, including a couple of accurate replicas of the bows Coronado’s men would have carried.

Perhaps I should say “hauled.” When Don insisted I pick up one of the replicas, I was staggered – literally – by the weight. I don’t usually consider myself a wimp. I carry twenty-five pound bags of guinea pig chow around with ease. These, however, must have weighed nearly twice that. The bow section was made of thick steel, so was the mechanism. The wooden stock was a solid chuck of wood. The cord used for the winding was twice the diameter of my clothesline.

According to Don, the quarrels (that’s the proper term for a crossbow arrow) with their folded metal tips would have weighed about a pound apiece. A solider going into battle would have carried about twenty of these – in addition to the bow, in addition to the heavy winding mechanism, in addition to the weight of his steel breast and back plates, and steel helmet.

The great advantage of a crossbow over a long bow was the time it took to learn to use one effectively. Long bows – especially of the size and weight used to punch through armor – take a lifetime to master. Within a week or two, a solider could be trained to arm and point a crossbow – the bow’s mechanism provided the punch and carrying power.

No wonder the Indians residing along the bosque when Coronado’s forces came riding through were overwhelmed. Their armaments included bows, however, these weren’t the great English longbow. They were shorter bows, meant for hunting rabbits, squirrels, water fowl, and the occasional deer.

Of course I couldn’t shoot the crossbow – no one did, given that these have enough power to punch through a steel plate or a modern wall. However, Don very kindly let me shoot a light-weight replica of a Chinese repeating crossbow. If I ever write a fourth book in the “Breaking the Wall” series, you can count on these showing up! It was really neat.

After playing with the crossbows, it was inevitable that between tours (I was volunteering as a supporting guide), I would find my way out to the range where you could try an atlatl or bow. I’ve used an atlatl (often called a “spear thrower”) before, but it’s been years since I fired a bow. When I was a kid, I worked out how to make bows, starting with twigs and bits of grass, graduating up to something like a crude short bow. However, I never studied archery and my mostly city life hasn’t exactly provided room for flinging projectiles around.

Mary and Isaiah, who were running that event, encouraged me to take up a short bow Mary had made. I found I remembered enough to get some decent distance, not enough to actually hit the target (okay, I’ll blame the breeze), but the activity certainly did awaken a desire to take up playing around with such again. I understand that OAS has a pamphlet on making arrows. Maybe I’ll get a copy…

Meanwhile, Jim was demonstrating not only traditional flintknapping, but how a device called a “chest crutch” could be used to knock longer blades off a chunk of obsidian. These blades provided the sharp cutting edges of the macanas, a sort of hybrid sword/ club that was the principle melee weapon used by Coronado’s indigenous allies.

Over near the archery/atlatl range, several potters, including Eric Blinman of OAS and Ulysses Reid of Zia Pueblo were demonstrating how pottery could be fired over an open fire rather than in a kiln or pit. The same light breeze that was enough to send my lightweight reed arrows off course was not enough to get the fire quite hot enough. Still, later in the afternoon, I saw Eric wandering around, his newly-fired bowl hanging from his fingertips. When he tapped it, it rang like a bell. Although he wasn’t satisfied with it (are experts ever?), he did admit that it was a functional piece, that is “It wouldn’t melt if you cooked in it.”

The “chile” part of “Chiles and Sherds” is a high-class catered lunch. This one was fantastic, even better for being served on a perfect autumn day under a tent in good company. That sense of good company continued throughout the day. Eventually, Ulysses the potter took a break and wandered over to sit with Jim and discuss flintknapping. Various experts and enthusiastic amateurs engaged in a vivid cross-fertilization of ideas and theories.

By the end of the day, slightly sunburnt (I forgot to put on extra sun-block when I twisted my hair up) but very, very happy, I assisted Jim in loading his gear into the car. I’d listened to several lectures that had deepened my appreciation for local history. Even better for someone who lives a little too much in her own head, I’d gotten out and played with some neat toys, smelled what pottery firing over a fire is like, and added to my store of “know.”

What do I mean by that? Well, an axiom of the trade is “Write about what you know…”

Out Knapping

June 2, 2010

As I write this, Jim’s out in the yard flintknapping.

Some of Jim's work

That is, he’s making arrowheads. I think this one is out of blue glass. Jim primarily works in obsidian (a natural glass), but he enjoys the colors in manufactured glass and plays with that as well. Pictured are Mexican obsidian, mahogany obsidian, and blue glass.

People often ask me what it’s like being married to an archeologist. Well, I can’t say in general, but I can say that this particular archeologist is pretty fascinating.

Jim is a senior project director for the Museum of New Mexico, working within the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job embraces a wide range of duties and skills, ranging from the physically demanding to the highly intellectual. He not only needs to be able to work outdoors in the punishing conditions of our New Mexico weather, but also to be familiar with the most cutting edge theories of his profession. In addition, he also does laboratory analysis, and trains newcomers in skills that range from lithic analysis to how to shovel without doing yourself damage. Oh, and he has to write budgets, too.

And it doesn’t hurt that he knows how to make arrowheads.

Why this last you might ask? Well, one of Jim’s specializations is lithic analysis – that is, analysis of stone tools including arrowheads, knives, scrapers, gunflints, and the related detritus.

Contrary to what television and movies may have led you to believe, artifacts are rarely found intact. In fact, in the case of lithics, it is much more usual to find the detritus associated with the creation of the artifact than the artifact itself.

In the years that Jim has practiced flintknapping, he has learned first hand what that detritus means. He can often tell whether a specific flake indicates a skilled worker, a novice, or merely someone in a hurry. He can look at a partially finished piece and tell you why it wasn’t competed.

Not always, he wants me to assure you, but a lot of the time.

That reminds me of a funny thing that happened a few years after we got together. Jim’s office had two young hotshots who were training in lithics with Jim. Their assignment was to analyze the lithic assemblage from a particular site, making conclusions about materials, type of flakes, and stuff like that.

Because they were in training, Jim was checking their work. I guess they figured that maybe Jim didn’t know as much as he thought he did. Maybe they were just feeling their oats. For whatever reason, these two young men came into Jim’s office all serious and presented him with a piece of stone.

“Jim, we’ve looked at this, and we just can’t figure out what it is.”

Jim accepted the artifact in question, swung around to his microscope, and inspected the artifact.

“Well,” he said, after a moment. “If I didn’t know better, I’d figure that somebody banged on the edge of this flake with a piece of metal.”

Two faces shifted from serious to astonished. Guess what? That’s just what they had done.

Jim’s pretty cool in other ways, too. I’ve seen him down in a hole that’s nine feet deep – an Ancient Puebloan (or to use the now outdated term “Anasazi”) pithouse – tossing out shovels of dirt and, without looking, hit squarely in the center of a wheelbarrow that’s another three feet up.

I’ve watched him present academic paper at invitation-only seminars, then be complimented for his scholarship by the people who were once his professors. In fact, Jim has more publications than most writers I know – and that includes me.

And I’ve watched him talking with a law officer who has stopped by his site to ask for advice about some bones that have just been found where a flash flood washed out a dirt road. I’ve seen him listen patiently while a tourist who has read precisely one article on Southwestern archeology holds forth as if she’s an expert.

This summer, Jim has a project going into the field. I’ve volunteered for him before (usually taking notes in order to free up someone who is more skilled). I’m already setting aside time to go and volunteer on this one.

What’s it like being married to an archeologist? I can’t say in general, but I can say that being married to this one is pretty cool.

Landscapes Present… and Not

February 10, 2010

This past weekend we went hiking with our friends the Lattimore Family and Joan Saberhagen in one of Albuquerque’s gems: the Rinconada Canyon section of Petroglyph National Monument.

Wait! Before you run screaming, this is not going to be another description of the New Mexico landscape. At least not too much so. However, those of you who have read my fiction have probably already figured out that I like both archeology and being outside. Going hiking to various archeological or historical sites combines those interests nicely.

My interest in archeology pre-dates my marrying an archeologist. I had the idea for The Buried Pyramid (which is set in 1870’s Egypt) long before I knew Jim as more than a guy in my gaming group. However, I must admit that knowing Jim and living in New Mexico have given me opportunities to nourish my interest.

Petroglyph National Monument has three sections and, although Jim and I have hiked all of them repeatedly, Rinconada Canyon is our favorite. The petroglyphs in all three areas are both prehistoric (that is, pre-dating European contact) and historic (post-dating European contact, but excluding modern graffiti). The petroglyphs themselves are evocative and often religiously symbolic: masks, hand prints, bear paws, snakes, stars, cloud terraces, shield figures, and even full masked dancers.

Although The Buried Pyramid is the only one of my novels to be built around my interest in archeology, several of my short stories have permitted me to explore my interest.

“Hell’s Bane” in the anthology Battle Magic is set in large part right in Rinconada Canyon. It also features the Three Sisters, as the dormant volcanoes on the western edge of Albuquerque are known.

“Jeff’s Best Joke” in Past Imperfect is the only story I’ve ever written where people I know are the main characters: in this case, my husband, Jim, and his frequent co-director, Jeff. You might say I couldn’t separate the archeology from the archeologists, but it would also be accurate to say I couldn’t separate the tricksters from the tricks.

“Out of Hot Water” in Earth, Air, Fire, Water also owes quite a bit to my knowing Jim. It’s set in the Ojo Caliente valley where he directed a project, and where I went out and volunteered several times – mostly by taking notes to free up the more skilled folks to dig and map out grids.

History and archeology are sides of the same coin. “Three Choices: The Story of Lozen” in New Amazons expands on the true story of the Apache war chief Victorio’s sister, Lozen. My forthcoming story, “Like the Rain,” in Golden Reflections is based on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Archeology doesn’t need to be “real” to show up in my writing. “Ruins of the Past” in Far Frontiers and its sequel “Lies of Omission” in Silicon Dreams are pure science fiction – and yet are inspired by my pleasure in reading about the great archeological discoveries of the past.

So when I go hiking, I never quite know what I’ll discover. Archeologists walk through landscapes that combine their interest in the present and the past. Writers walk through landscapes that are both present – and are not.