To: David A. Phillips, Jr (SWCA)
From: Stephen H. Lekson (CU Boulder)
Subject: Doctrinal errors, manifest heresies, and cardinal sins.
Date: April 6, 2000
I read, in humility and abnegation, your dictum on my several theses, nailed first to the poster
boards of the Society and propounded later in Chaco Meridian. Forgive me, David, for I have
sinned. It has been many years since I've confessed to anything worse than simple indolence. I
now freely and fully admit to errors clerical, numerical, cartographical. Mea, as they say, culpa.
My soul is at risk, my reputation is in the tank. But, as I leave the Court of Higher Opinion, I
mutter: "They still align." And the argument still works. At risk of full inquisition and final
censorship, I respond to several (but not all) queries and charges, to wit:
Their errors negate my argument.
The Meridian wobbles! I make no claims that ancient engineers were preternaturally precise.
The meridian argument, in fact, is based on the realization that errors were unavoidable,
theoretically predictable, and, indeed, observable in the careening route to the North Road. But
the ancient importance of meridian alignment is independently affirmed by: (1) the final
north-south wall in the plaza of Pueblo Bonito (built over a Great Kiva, when a two degree
deviation would have avoided that dangerous construction); (2) the "Cardinal City" of Paquime -
Di Peso's words; and (3) the Great North Road - as close to a large-scale meridian monument as
any ancient ever built. Hammering these people for their errors is, I think, demanding false
precision. They did the best they could, lacking chronometers and GPS, and their errors are key
to my argument.
Chronological overlaps: the trains arrive before they leave the station.
Just between you and me, I think the actual chronology went something like this: Chaco was
really rolling from 1000 to 1110; Aztec boomed from 1110 to 1275; Paquime began about
1275-1300 and ended either at 1450 with the rise of Culiacan, or maybe a century later with the
arrival of European microbes. I used the "as is" tree-ring dates to avoid endless chronological
digressions and exegeses. But the "as is" dates overlap, a little. Fine: if I were the High
Panjandrum, I'd surely send a gang ahead to build a comfortable palace before I dragged my
Royal Self over hill and dale to the new Pleasure Dome in Xanadu. (See "Salmon Ruin" below.)
In the dendrochronologically beglamoured Southwest, we have come to expect temporal
precision. We find these little overlaps alarming. In most parts of the archaeological world, the
temporal sequence of Chaco, Aztec, and Paquime would be hailed as astonishingly tight. (I say
this because I've presented the chronology to non-Southwestern archaeologists; they hailed it as
What about Salmon Ruins?
Salmon Ruins began at 1088, at Chaco's height - that is, they started their move out of Chaco
while times were good, undercutting the standard climatic arguments. As a child of the '70s, I
was raised to believe that ancient activities mirrored climatic shifts. But as a practitioner in the
'00s, I must let ancient people act politically, making decisions free of the Natural Laboratory.
The move from Chaco to Aztec and the move from Aztec to Paquime were, I think,
fundamentally political -- hence the book's subtitle. They moved north out of Chaco long before
the droughts of the 1130s. Perhaps the High Panjandrum wanted to leave that dry nasty canyon,
and move to one of the lovely little creeks up north. That's Salmon Ruins -- but the San Juan
wasn't so lovely, after all; so they went to Aztec.
What about all those Casas Grandes people, before the new Lords arrived?
Well, what about 'em? Where are they? Mike Whalen and Paul Minnis have been looking for a
decade, and they still can't find substantial remains of post-Mimbres, pre-Paquime archaeology in
the Rio Casas Grandes Valley and its surroundings - or such is my impression. I believe that the
base population which built and supported Paquime were living elsewhere during the 12th and
13th centuries - exactly as suggested by Ben Nelson and Roger Anyon for the valleys of the
Chihuahua Desert north of the Border. If "fallow valleys" worked north of the line, why not
south of the line, too? The missing links might be the early El Paso Phase or Jane Kelley's sites
farther south. But - if you insist on looking at actual evidence - the evidence suggests that
nobody was home in the Rio Casas Grandes in the 12th and 13th centuries. Indeed: where
WERE the Casas Grandes people before the new Lords arrived?
Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest (Altamira Press, 1999)