John Ninnemann, Stephen H. Lekson, J. McKim Malville. Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. xii + 113 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8263-3241-7.
Reviewed by Robert Mooney (School of Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2005)
Ancestral Puebloans and Their Cliff Dwellings
Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World is intended for a broad readership. Florence C. Lister provides a wonderful foundation for the book's three principal parts that reflect the specific scholarly interests of the authors. The two essays by Stephen H. Lekson and J. McKim Malville focus on a specific area of prehistoric American Indian life in the Four Corners region of North America. John L. Ninnemann's black and white images comprise three photographic essays that he calls galleries, affording the reader vignettes of landscapes and ancient architecture across the breadth of the primordial landscapes of the Colorado Plateau.
While readers should be aware that much of what is known about these cultures is highly speculative, the authors' interpretations of life as it existed over a millennium ago are nonetheless compelling. There is a very real passion in their scholarly and photographic studies of pre-conquest Indian life. The essays weave theory together with facts embedded in the stunning urban landscapes. Yet because there is no written record of the cliff dwellers who inhabited an intensely unforgiving and delicate natural landscape, there is reason for caution in accepting the authors' theses.
Lekson's essay is a very personal view of what might have occurred between what is now called the Chaco Culture National Historic Park and the Aztec Ruins National Monument, both in northern New Mexico. While his writing is at times stilted and confusing, he examines urban planning at Chaco, the epicenter of the Anasazi culture, and at Aztec, fifty miles to the north, especially their architectural organizations, political structures, and the tenuous relationships between those ancient centers and their outliers. Lekson's essay has a more academic tone than one might expect in a book for the general public.
Malville is an accomplished interpreter of the Chacoan spiritual connection between the earth, architecture, and spirit lives of the ancient Puebloans and the heavens under which they lived. He clearly discusses how architecture and specific elements in the landscape interacted with celestial events. The essay does not explain, however, how astronomers, archaeologists and anthropologists sorted out the celestial connections with the Chaco site. Certainly, the planning at Chaco was brilliant and underscores just how urban values have changed over the past one thousand years from that magnificent design.
Ninnemann's black-and-white photography substantially exceeds the literary boundaries of Lekson and Malville's essays. The photographs should convey as much visual information as possible about how architecture melds with the landscape. That is not always the case in Ninnemann's work. While the heavy black areas that occur in a number of photographs are certainly within the creative purview of the artist, they are a compositional distraction and obscure significant visual information. For example, the photographs of Moon House on Cedar Mesa, which is a difficult subject at best, could show substantially more detail and the drama of natural light. Unfortunately the most informative Moon House photograph was unnecessarily divided by the binding of the book. The photograph of Keet Seel in the Navajo National Monument would better inform readers if it showed the ruins in their alcove within the context of the eight-hundred-foot cliff that soars above them. Captions are not keyed to the photographs, which are sometimes out of focus, perhaps choices made by editors and graphic designers. Nonetheless, Ninnemann is clearly a courageous photographer who worked hard gathering a handsome collection of images at sites which are often extremely difficult to reach.
Canyon Spirits could have been enhanced by a few additional frames of reference for the readers, such as: a glossary; representative plan drawings of cliff dwelling complexes keyed to the text; a capsule description of the Mogollon, Hohokam and Sinagua cultures and their limited connections with the Four Corners area; a modern map showing distances and site locations described in the essays and photographs; a time line with selected significant human events occurring elsewhere in the world during the rise and fall of the ancestral Puebloan culture; and a brief reference to the North American mound builder culture, which shared a similar time frame with the cliff dwellers.
Given the wealth of information in print regarding the ancient Puebloan culture, the bibliography should have been compiled with the general reader in mind. Additionally, the references should have been gathered in one place and tied to the notes.
Despite the concerns that I have mentioned, Canyon Spirits will be useful to professionals such as urban planners and architects, and stimulating to the general public. This book addresses with vigor what pre-conquest people accomplished with stone and timber in the Four Corners region.
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Robert Mooney. Review of Ninnemann, John; Lekson, Stephen H.; Malville, J. McKim, Canyon Spirits: Beauty and Power in the Ancestral Puebloan World.
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