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A Language of Beauty and Power

Terrain.org staff reviews Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World, photographs by John L. Ninnemann and essays by Stephen H. Lekson and J. McKim Malville

Crows Range: An Environmental History of the Sierra Nevada, by David Beesley.In the forward to the inviting new book Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World (University of New Mexico Press), archaeologist Florence C. Lister writes that “Neither the newly designated historic Pueblo Indians nor the prehistoric Ancestral Pueblos had written languages through which they defined themselves and their worldviews.”

They relied instead on oral traditions passed down through the generations, as well—it is speculated—as the petroglyphs and pictographs left among the canyon and desert boulder walls of the Four Corners region. Canyon Spirits is a modern-day attempt, for the non-academic among us, not to create a new language per se, but rather to provide a visual and textual history of the Pueblo people, roughly 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1540. It strives to give these cultures a language, to pair photograph with essay, shadow-laced image with informal reflection.

Though many parts of Canyon Spirits are truly fascinating, as a whole it ultimately falls short of its potential, both in form and function.

In the editorial world of books, there is undoubtedly an “excitement scale” to forthcoming books—not necessarily due to author or subject, but rather based on the variety and subsequent promise of content. Canyon Spirits must have been at the top of this scale: a real opportunity to bring together photographs of some of the most beautiful and historically significant landscapes in the North America, couple those with text from leading researchers (who also happen to be published authors), and then adding an array of interesting facts and figures.

Not quite a coffee table book, not quite a reference book, the genre bridges mediums and allows for a creativity that can be almost literally unbound.


Unfortunately, the book’s strengths do not overshadow its weaknesses and do not take full advantage of the creativity allowed. We’ll journey through the weaknesses first:

While there is new and good information in Lister’s Forward—especially the discussion of Puebloan language and geography—it is not as strong as we expected. After reading the Introduction and other essays, it is also redundant.

John L. Ninnemann’s photographs are beautiful, and it is clear that this book is designed around his work. But the images would be outstanding if they were in color. The use of black and white could be based both on design—the shadows of the landscape and the Pueblo “ruins,” the allusion to the transparency and colorlessness of Indian spirits—and cost—printing in black and white is considerably less expensive than printing in full color. The black-and-white photographs may hold for readers who have not had the pleasure of visiting Mesa Verde or Wupatki. But for those of us who are fortunate enough to have the stark contrast of the cliffs and rocks and dwellings against the azure sky emblazoned upon our brains—indeed, upon our souls—black and white is disappointing.

Ninnemann’s galleries, of which there are three in Canyon Spirits, make particularly good use of the photographs, and here black and white seems appropriate, at least in Gallery One: Cedar Mesa, where the photo’s shadowy edges bleed to black page borders. Ninnemann’s “reflections,” however, do nothing to enhance the galleries. Indeed, while both intention and layout are true, the resulting text uses broken, uneven line lengths so as to appear a poem. These reflections are not poetry, and while Ninnemann’s photographs are certainly poetic, his lines do not command such stature:

But with each passing mile, the recent memory of civilization fades,
leaving a canyon-walled world of quiet and beauty.
The empty rooms and rock panels, abandoned by stonemason and artist,
accent the stillness.
I stop, make a photograph, smile, and walk on.
Solitary, but not alone.

The galleries would be better if Ninnermann’s prose was set into text blocks rather than stanzas. The galleries would be stronger still if a respected poet had indeed penned them—Arizona’s Alison Hawthorne Deming or Colorado’s Linda Hogan, perhaps.

Finally, Canyon Spirits doesn’t take advantage of opportunities to further educate and excite the reader. For example, there is no map—literal or stylistic—showing the “two hundred thousand square kilometers of sagebrush grasslands, redrock canyons and mesas, and pine-forested mountain ranges” in which Anasazi sites can be found. For the unknowing reader, where is Chaco in comparison to Aztec in comparison to Paquimé? After reading Leckson’s essay, it’s a route that at a minimum we want to trace with our proverbial finger on paper. The lack of a map is a significant oversight for a book of this nature.

The similar lack of sidebars or callouts, until the few spare data tables of J. McKim Malville’s essay, is also disappointing. Rather than overwhelming the reader, sidebars help support the essay’s points, help bridge the text and the photos. The book is not “bad” without them, mind you; it is just one lost opportunity among many.

  Long House, Mesa Verde National Park.
Photo by John L. Ninnemann, Canyon Spirits, pg. 41..

The Light,
the Strength

Just as Ninnemann’s photographs show the dark and the light, it’s only fair for this review to present Canyon Spirits’ strengths, as well.

As mentioned previously, the book’s overall presentation is excellent. Despite the lack of color, the photographs on the page, typesetting, and liberal use of white space work very well.

Though we aren’t enamored with Lister’s Foreward, Ninnemann’s Introduction is just that—a solid, well-written overview with welcoming information:

People of distinctly different cultures occupied the southwestern portion of North America during prehistoric times. 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 the people who, it turns out, were not ancestors or even enemies contemporary with the Navajo people. Today’s descendants of the Anasazi are the people of the modern Pubelos, so the term ‘Ancestral Puebloans’ to describe their ancestors, is much preferred.

Besides the 85 photographs, the highlight of Canyon Spirits is undoubtedly Lekson’s essay, “Anasazi Pueblos of the Ancient Southwest.” Beginning with an exploration of the origin of the Pueblo people, the essay is an utterly fascinating account of the evolution of the culture and architecture of the pueblos, the creation of the three great regional centers—Chaco Canyon, Aztec, and Paquimé—and the people’s “new directions.”

“Pueblo traditions recount long and complicated migrations,” Lekson begins. “[A]fter emerging from an earlier existence beneath this present world, Pueblo people followed signs and instructions from spiritual guardians, wandering over much of the Southwest until they found their ‘middle place’—the locations of their present villages. Each Pueblo has its own middle place, and its own history; indeed, each of the many clans that make up a Pueblo village has its own unique migration story.”

Lekson’s review of corn and pottery as the formation of a “base” culture provides a strong foundation not only for the rest of the essay, but for the dichotomy of the unknown that is Southwestern archaeology: “Archaeology hints at common origins; language diversity and traditional tribal histories argue otherwise.”

The essay continues with a section on migration: “The ‘village’ itself was a place visited and revisited only when local plant foods were ripe and available,” reminding us that “[t]here were no wagons or pack animals to move food to the village, so families moved to the food.” He continues:

That was the annual cycle; but a longer, larger cycle of movement also occurred. After a couple of decades in one area, firewood was cut, game was hunted out, and farm fields were depleted. An entire community might move into a new area with richer resources. Generation after generation, villages shifted from valley to valley, perhaps eventually reoccuping and rebuilding on the sites of their great-grandparents’ homes, after nature had restored trees, game, and soil.

By A.D. 850, however, pit house villages were more common, and fifty years later, Pueblo people came together at “White House” in Chaco Canyon:

Chaco, which flourished from A.D. 900 to about 1125, was a ceremonial city on a scale unprecedented in the Southwest. Huge sandstone masonry buildings, which archaeologists call ‘great houses,’ rose five stories tall, encompassing hundreds of rooms in ground plans of semi-circles, ovals, and rectangles covering areas larger than football fields.

Lekson details the downfall of Chaco Canyon and the rise of Aztec, as well as “a phenomenon unique in Pueblo history”—the eruption of Sunset Crater (near Flagstaff, Arizona). Lekson’s brief history is stunning:

The Hopi call this small volcano ‘Red Hill,’ and remember it in their oral histories. There had been no volcanic eruptions in the Southwest for three hundred generations. Some Pueblo travelers had probably seen smoking mountains in Mexico, but for the vast majority of Southwestern people, Red Hill was an unprecedented wonder. A towering, violent plume shot up from the crater. It was visible from Chaco Canyon and most of the Southwest. Lightning flashed day and night through the ash-laden clouds; the thunder was drowned out by the rumble of volcanic explosions. Red Hill became a huge, permanent thunderhead. Lava flows and smaller eruptions continued for decades.

After Aztec, a smaller version south of Chaco that likely continued its role as White House, the essay explores Paquimé, a Pueblo city inhabited from A.D. 1250 to 1400 located 150 kilometers south of the international boarder, in Chihuahua, Mexico:

Within the buildings of Paquimé, archaeologists found impressive evidence for wealth, trade, and craft specialization. One warehouse contained over one thousand kilograms of Pacific Ocean shell. Astonishing quantities of copper bells and other items were imported from western Mexico. Chaco, Wupatki, and Aztec had imported the brightly plumed macaws. Paquimé actually bred the birds…. Other products were commercially produced such as large-scale turkey farming and agave production…. Paquimé was not simply ‘another Pueblo;’ it was a commercial, political, and ceremonial center of the first order.

It is ceremony that greets us in J. McKim Malville’s unique essay, “Ancient Space and Time in the Canyons.” While Lekson’s essay is certain, Malville’s is tentative, full of the same speculation as “Anasazi Pueblos of the Ancient Southwest,” and yet not so boldly written.

Here, though, boldness should be the modus operandi, as Malville’s essay is an interesting—if less readable—coupling to the previous essay. Together, the essays form a symbiosis represented graphically by Ninnemann’s black-and-white photographs. Still, both the photos and this essay could use more color.

Malville’s focus is the sacred time and space, the Puebloan spiritual context of cyclical events:

Every winter solstice the sun rises at exactly the same place on the horizon and casts the same shadows across ancient petroglyphs on the canyon walls. Solstice suns cycle into the past and into the future, seemingly without limit. Past and future time merge with the present.

Ceremonies—whether at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, or elsewhere—were the means of “entering the world of the ancestors.” Festivals and other religious events were set in the context of “heirophanies,” which are “manifestations of the sacred” defined by the repetitions of cyclic events at a certain location.

A heirophany can be an unusual stone or geological formation, such as Chimney Rock, Fajada Butte, and Towaoac. It becomes doubly powerful if associated with a significant ‘fragment of time.’ Hierophanies may also be established by well-designed architecture.

In the Pueblo world, there were both. The majority of Malville’s essay is dedicated to identifying the possible hierophanies in the Four Corners Pueblo sites, especially in the context of summer and winter solstice and lunar events.

His thesis may explain why there are Pueblo grinding sites with locations that don’t at first seem logical:

In sites in Grand Gulch such as Green Mask, Junction, Split Level, Turkey Pen, and Perfect Kiva there are hundreds of bedrock grinding areas and associated pecked basins. Some of the grinding areas may have been used for grinding of domestic corn or sharpening of axes, but many are far from habitation sites and are located on exposed boulders that would not be appropriate for grinding corn for domestic purposes. Some may have involved ritual grinding of corn, sherds, or semi-precious stone for offerings to the rising sun to be placed in adjacent basins. The Perfect Kiva enclosure contains forty-six pecked basins and approximately forty grinding areas of which many are oriented to the rising sun at winter solstice. The natural acoustics of this enclosure are such that a chorus of grinding would have created a dramatic ceremony for bringing up the sun.

The short essay ends with a brief examination of the “unexpected displays of the sacred,” including the total solar eclipse of A.D. 1097, the Taurus supernova of A.D. 1054 that “was so brilliant that it was visible during the day for two weeks,” the eruption and continuous thunderhead of Red Hill, and the appearance of Halley’s Comet in A.D. 1066, which “may be represented as a pictograph on the wall below Peñasco Blanco” at Chaco.

Ending Details

Canyon Spirits ends with a section that could easily be missed—Photo Details—though fortunately we didn’t. Ninnemann provides a description of each photograph in the book, identified by page number. The details are not to be missed. While the photographs stand alone, these additional passages provide the photographer’s keen insight into each particular image.

In the end, though, it is attention to detail that keeps this good book from being great, that keeps it down among the brambly shadows of the scrub and canyons. With a remarkable series of photographs by Ninnemann and memorable essays by Lekson and Malville, Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World is a fine collection not to be missed by even those with only a passing interest in Southwestern archaeology. With a bit more attention to detail and the inclusion of maps and color photographs, however, Canyon Spirits could have soared among the spirits. It would have been a language of beauty and power indeed.


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Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World

Photographs by John
L. Ninnemann
Essays by Stephen H. Lekson and J. McKim Malville

   University of New
   Mexico Press
   May 2005
   ISBN 0826332412

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