The best (readable) books about southwestern archaeology

Stephen H. Lekson Author Of A History of the Ancient Southwest
By Stephen H. Lekson

Who am I?

I was Curator of Archaeology at the Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado, Boulder; recently retired.  Before landing at the University of Colorado, I held research, curatorial, or administrative positions with the University of Tennessee, Eastern New Mexico University, National Park Service Chaco Project, Arizona State Museum, Museum of New Mexico, and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.  Over four decades, I directed more than 20 archaeological projects throughout the Southwest. I wrote a dozen books, chapters in many edited volumes, and scores of articles in journals and magazines. While many of these were technical treatises, I also tried to write scholarly books accessible to normal intelligent readers.  


I wrote...

A History of the Ancient Southwest

By Stephen H. Lekson,

Book cover of A History of the Ancient Southwest

What is my book about?

I wrote Chaco Meridian in 1999, a book that dared not mention “history” – but that’s what it was. Putting that book together started me thinking about how to write a larger regional history – thinking about “pre-historiography.” I presented a few possible pre-historical methods at conferences, and I was told firmly that “We cannot write a narrative history of the Southwest” (actual quote).  

So, I did: A History of the Ancient Southwest. The key was context: looking at historical events from every angle. What came before? What happened after? What was going on at the same time? The book presented stripped-down narratives of Mesoamerica and the Mississippi Valley, contemporary with Southwestern events. I brought in Native accounts for context – filtered by me, a white guy. 

The books I picked & why

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In Search of Chaco: New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma

By David Grant Noble (editor),

Book cover of In Search of Chaco: New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma

Why this book?

Chaco Canyon was a great capital of the Pueblo world, flourishing from about 850 to 1130 in an unlikely remote, desolate canyon in northwestern New Mexico. In that bleak setting, monumental “Great Houses” rose, the ruling elites’ (relatively) palatial homes. Chaco’s region was about the size of Ohio, with perhaps 100,000 people in 200+ villages, scattered at likely agricultural areas – wet places in the high desert. At each settlement, a small Great House loomed over the town, on a rise or hill. The far-flung villages were connected to Chaco (and to each other) by a network of “roads” and an intricate line-of-sight signaling system, working with smoke and mirrors.

We didn’t know any of this when I started out in archaeology in the early 1970s. The hot textbook of that time lamented, regarding Chaco, that “Less is really known about the area than of almost any other southwestern district.”  

From 1976 to 1986, I was a research archaeologist – a junior position – on the National Park Service’s Chaco Project, directed by a University of New Mexico professor. It was a big deal: we excavated many sites and wrote many technical reports. But at project’s end, there was no grand synthesis, no concluding volume. Ten years later I was doing other things, when the National Park Service approached me about writing or assembling such a volume. Which I did, through an elaborate series of meetings and conferences eventually published as The Archaeology of Chaco Canyon: An Eleventh Century Pueblo Regional Center – a technical, scholarly volume rife with archaeology jargon and charts, topical chapters written by twenty different authors. David Noble, an old Santa Fe friend, sat in on our final sessions and convinced the authors of most 2006 chapters to re-write them in standard accessible English, accompanied by excellent illustrations; and to the mix of my archaeologists, he added several profound chapters written by Native scholars (something I was unable to do, because of sticky politics at the time). With one thing and another, Noble’s excellent book In Search of Chaco came out a couple of years before mine/ours. And a wonderful summary of our knowledge of Chaco it is. 

In Search of Chaco: New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma

By David Grant Noble (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Search of Chaco as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Startling discoveries and impassioned debates have emerged from the Chaco Phenomenon since the publication of New Light on Chaco Canyon twenty years ago. This completely updated edition features seventeen original essays, scores of photographs, maps, and site plans, and the perspectives of archaeologists, historians, and Native American thinkers. Key topics include the rise of early great houses; the structure of agricultural life among the people of Chaco Canyon; their use of sacred geography and astronomy in organizing their spiritual cosmology; indigenous knowledge about Chaco from the perspective of Hopi, Tewa, and Navajo peoples; and the place of Chaco in the…


The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Pueblo Archaeology

By David Grant Noble (editor),

Book cover of The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Pueblo Archaeology

Why this book?

The cliff-dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park are the most famous ruins in the Southwest. Mesa Verde was the USA’s first archaeological site to make UNESCO’s World Heritage list (later joined by Chaco Canyon, Cahokia, and Poverty Point). But there was much more to the story than the cliff-dwellings – defensive settlements, the last-gasp before the entire “Four Corners” region was completely depopulated, with towns moving out to modern descendant communities from the Hopi Pueblos on the west through the Pueblos of Zuni and Acoma, and to the many Rio Grande Pueblos on the east. More than cliff-dwellings: the largest “Mesa Verde” sites are not in the National Park, but instead villages and towns found across a 100-mile stretch from northwest New Mexico to southeast Utah. The organization doing the most important research in that larger Mesa Verde area is Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in Cortez, Colorado – an organization I once led. This well-written, well-illustrated volume brings together their work, and the work of many other scholars, up to about 2005.  

The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Pueblo Archaeology

By David Grant Noble (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mesa Verde World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mesa Verde, with its stunning landscapes and cliff dwellings, evokes all the romance of American archaeology. It has intrigued researchers and visitors for more than a century. But "Mesa Verde" represents more than cliff dwellings--its peoples created a culture that thrived for a thousand years in Southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Archaeologists have discovered dozens of long-buried hamlets and villages spread for miles across the Great Sage Plain west and north of Mesa Verde. Only lately have these sites begun to reveal their secrets.

In recent decades, archaeologists have been working intensively in the Mesa Verde region to build the…


The Hohokam Millennium

By Suzanne K. Fish (editor), Paul R. Fish (editor),

Book cover of The Hohokam Millennium

Why this book?

Contemporary with Mesa Verde’s cliff-dwellings and Chaco’s Great Houses, the Hohokam of southern Arizona too often fly under the radar. Their extensive settlements were constructed of mud and thatch – materials of the desert – and consequently Hohokam sites are mostly flat fields littered with potsherds. Ansel Adams never photographed a Hohokam site. There are exceptions: towering berms delimit oval ball courts (a local version of the Mesoamerican ball game) and vast canal systems which moved water many miles to the farm fields that underwrote the civilization. Hohokam was centered in Phoenix, but the civilization stretched from Gila Bend, Arizona on the west to Safford, Arizona on the east, and from Flagstaff on the north to Tucson on the south – the latter, the setting for my brief Hohokam fieldwork in the late 1980s. That fieldwork and my studies of Hohokam collections in museums, opened my eyes: I had no idea that Hohokam was so big and so interesting!

Late in the game, construction with massive adobe walls left standing structures, most notably Casa Grande National Monument southeast of Phoenix; and impressive “platform mounds” such as Pueblo Grande Archaeological Park, just east of the Phoenix airport. Indeed, the sprawling Phoenix metropolis was built over much of the Hohokam center – hence, “phoenix,” rising from the ashes of the ancients. For various reasons, Hohokam archaeology lagged behind research in the Four Corners sandstone ruins; Federal laws passed in the 1960s created a boom in Hohokam work, when new highways, water projects, and other developments triggered “salvage” excavations in the 1970s-‘90s. Today we know a lot about Hohokam, and it’s fascinating stuff. This book brings together that information – much previously trapped in technical reports – with readable chapters by the leading researchers. Lots of illustrations, too.

The Hohokam Millennium

By Suzanne K. Fish (editor), Paul R. Fish (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hohokam Millennium as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a thousand years they flourished in the arid lands now part of Arizona. They built extensive waterworks, ballcourts, and platform mounds, made beautiful pottery and jewelry, and engaged in wide-ranging trade networks. Then, slowly, their civilization faded and transmuted into something no longer Hohokam. Are today's Tohono O'odham their heirs or their conquerors? The mystery and the beauty of Hohokam civilization are the subjects of the essays in this volume. Written by archaeologists who have led the effort to excavate, record, and preserve the remnants of this ancient culture, the chapters illuminate the way the Hohokam organized their households…


Discovering Paquimé

By Paul E. Minnis (editor), Michael E. Whalen (editor),

Book cover of Discovering Paquimé

Why this book?

One of the most important Southwestern sites isn’t in the USA’s “Southwest.” This is the site of Paquimé, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Paquimé (pronounced pah-key-may) was the capital city of a region that encompassed much of northeastern Chihuahua and portions of southern New Mexico, from 1250 to 1450. While Pueblo people to the north recovered from the traumas of Chaco by deliberately simplifying their societies, Paquimé rose in glittering glory with a massive city center (hence Paquimé’s other name, Casas Grandes) surrounded by Mesoamerican-style ball courts, (small) pyramids, a football-field-long effigy of a plumed serpent, and all the wealth in the world: for example, copper artifacts fancier and more plentiful than at many central Mexican sites, and 500+ colorful macaws – birds brought up from the tropical south and bred at Paquimé.

The list of the architectural and artifactual wonders goes on and on. Archaeologists were aware of the ruins (and their importance) early on, but no one investigated. US archaeologists were bedazzled by cliff dwellers; Mexican archaeologists were busy with pyramids and temples. In the 1960s, archaeologist Charles Di Peso led a joint US-Mexican project which produced a game-changing over-sized eight-volume technical report. Di Peso dropped the big one, and stunned his archaeological audience. Their things sat. Decades later, the editors of Discovering Paquimé, Paul Minnis and Michael Whalen, initiated the next big project, a multi-year investigation not of Paquimé itself, but of its region and its deeper history. The rush was on: more researchers from the US, Canada, and Mexico joined in. (I never worked in Chihuahua; but that didn’t prevent me from writing about the importance of Paquimé, based on Di Peso’s magnificent report and more recent archaeological publications.)  

This volume, forty years after Di Peso’s work, brings together the new information we now have on Paquimé, its region, and its history. Discovering Paquimé, with chapters by all the leading scholars and plentiful illustrations, will introduce you to a little-known but key episode in the history of the ancient Southwest.

Discovering Paquimé

By Paul E. Minnis (editor), Michael E. Whalen (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Discovering Paquimé as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the mid-1560s Spanish explorers marched northward through Mexico to the farthest northern reaches of the Spanish empire in Latin America. They beheld an impressive site known as Casas Grandes in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Row upon row of walls featured houses and plazas of what was once a large population center, now deserted. Called Casas Grandes (Spanish for “large houses”) but also known as Paquimé, the prehistoric archaeological site may have been one of the first that Spanish explorers encountered. The Ibarra expedition, occurring perhaps no more than a hundred years after the site was abandoned, contained a…


Mimbres Lives and Landscapes

By Margaret C. Nelson (editor), Michelle Hegmon (editor),

Book cover of Mimbres Lives and Landscapes

Why this book?

My archaeological career began in 1971 in the Mimbres region of Southwestern New Mexico. I continued to work in the area, on and off, until 2013. Along the way, I wrote four books and many chapters/articles about Mimbres, and I formed some strong opinions on ancient Mimbres history.

Centered in the Mimbres River valley, the Mimbres built about twenty sizable stone villages at the same time as Chaco Canyon, from 1000 to 1125. Their towns were notably large for the time, fueled by sophisticated canal irrigation (probably adopted from the Hohokam, see above). But Mimbres is most famous for its remarkable black-on-white pottery: artfully-painted bowl interiors show bugs, fish, antelopes, birds, and people – people doing things, tableaus of daily life, esoteric rituals, mythical events. These images appeal strongly to us, today. In ancient times, however, Mimbres bowls and Mimbres art seems to have been limited to the Mimbres region itself; the imagery that we find amusing or compelling was, I think, charged with now-lost ideological significance, possibly unpleasant. Contemporary Chaco Canyon, whose region’s southern boundaries lay only 50 miles north of the Mimbres region, eschewed Mimbres pottery. Chaco could have had pretty much anything it wanted, and it didn’t want Mimbres.

But we do. Many major art museums hold Mimbres pottery. And we are curious about the societies that produced that art.  

Early archaeological expeditions of the 1920s and ‘30s despaired over the looting of Mimbres sites by people seeking pots – while, of course, that was a major motivation for those expeditions. Mimbres archaeology was more-or-less written off from the 1930s until the 1970s – the sites were, indeed, sadly impacted; looter’s pits transformed ruins into Stalingrad after the siege. In the 1970s, several projects revisited the jumbled Mimbres ruins and discovered that, battered as they were, the sites still contained a great deal of useful evidence. Most notably, the Mimbres Foundation, led by Steven LeBlanc and including many of the authors in this volume, salvaged dates and data from a range of Mimbres Valley sites, while Harry Shafer from Texas A&M University concentrated on long-term excavations at one large site. One of the volume’s editors was a Mimbres Foundation alumna; together, Nelson and Hegmon directed a later major project in the eastern Mimbres region. I worked on the Gila River to the west, and along the Rio Grande to the east.

We’ve learned a lot about the ancient Mimbres since the 1970s. Much of that knowledge is summarized in this accessible, well-illustrated volume. My views on Mimbres are not: I see very strong evidence that Mimbres history was greatly influenced at first by the Hohokam to the west, then by Chaco to the north, and subsequently ended at Paquimé to the southThe authors in this volume mention those places only to dismiss their importance. They quarantined my conclusions by my assignment to write not about Mimbres, but about the Apache people who called the Mimbres region home, long after the Mimbres culture ended. But – hey! – Apaches are pretty interesting, too. Despite my personal disappointments, Mimbres Lives and Landscapes is the book to read about the ancient Mimbres. 

Mimbres Lives and Landscapes

By Margaret C. Nelson (editor), Michelle Hegmon (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mimbres Lives and Landscapes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

People have called the mountains, rolling hills, wide valleys, and broad desert plains of southwestern New Mexico home for at least ten thousand years. When they began to farm a little over two thousand years ago, they settled near the rich soils in the river floodplains. Then, around 900, the people of this region burned all of their kivas and started gathering in large villages with small ritual spaces and open plazas. Between 900 and about 1100, they also made the intricately painted geometric and figurative bowls today called Mimbres, their best-known legacy. Then, in the 1130s, they stopped making…


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