A Crush Course on Old Ways

The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest
by David Roberts
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, 327 pages

An eight-year-old girl on a backpacking trip with her father, the renowned climber Greg Child, and the equally renowned writer and accomplished climber David Roberts, finds a woven basket created more than 1,500 years ago by Ancestral Puebloans of the American Southwest. It was the same basket David Roberts and his wife, Sharon, found and left in situ 18 years earlier.

But now I’ve gotten ahead of the story. I’ve told you the ending of David Roberts’s latest book, The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest. Roberts, a respected author of at least 27 books and countless articles for National Geographic and other publications, just can’t leave the American Southwest alone.

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In 1996 he wrote a book called In Search of the Old Ones, the result of seven years he spent exploring the Colorado Plateau, an extraordinary land of red-rock canyons, see-forever views, and proud heroic descendants of the Old Ones. That earlier book morphed into a cult classic and led to hoards of people looting and defacing ancient Puebloan ruins, despite the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the cogent Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Roberts had been vague about the locations of cliff dwellings and artifacts; nonetheless, the book became a “treasure map” and GPS coordinates soon appeared on the Internet.

In The Lost World of the Old Ones Roberts does it all over. Again he’s careful not to identify locations. Again he details extended conversations with leading archeologists, longtime ranchers, and ancestors of the Old Ones, adding erudite cross-references to history. Once more he digs deep into the “abandoned dwellings and enigmatic pictograph and petroglyph panels that abound all over the Southwest.”

Why do it again? “The prehistory of the Southwest has gotten under my skin,” he writes. He sets the record straight on what has been learned since the publication of that first book.

Roberts brings almost everything you want to the task: brains, solid research, objectivity, equanimity, empathy, and a sly wit to punch up the prose. He travels through the same magical country where human history stretches across millennia. “Nomads in the Archaic period hunted and gathered there during 5,000 years, from 6500 B.C. through 1500 B.C.,” he writes. The population then rose and fluctuated. We meet present-day Puebloans, descendants of Ancestral Puebloans who fled the Four Corners region before A.D. 1300 and now live in 20-odd villages between Taos, New Mexico, and the Hopi mesas in Arizona.

Sometimes he finds some of the well-trodden sites, like Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah, are “teetering on the edge of a cultural and environmental crisis.”

At times, while exploring the crazy quilt of slab-cist architecture, Roberts’s companions are archeologists, PhD candidates, and pioneer ranchers who respect the enduring remnants of the Old Ones and view the scientists as “stuffed-shirt academics.” But often Roberts travels alone, or with his friend Greg Child, scrambling up to unknown ruins that include granaries cleaving to cliffs. Searching for clues. Searching for answers. Always questioning. Rooting between academic jealousies that can blind and misguide.

Often the dalliances and the detours define the book. Archeology is not an exact science and some of the richest material lies in the varying theories and controversies that surround knowledge seeking. We journey along with Roberts on what he calls “a crush course” on the Old Ones. We face “vexing unsolved questions” like what became of the Fremont culture. We learn some of today’s ethical conflicts and latch on to the truth that the Four Corners is an Outdoor Museum: Take nothing away – except memories, ideas, wonder.

Here is a scene: “For more than an hour, the three of us climbed the steep, trail-less canyon wall, pushing through scratchy thickets of scrub oak and across exposed sandstone slabs. We had long since lost sight of the curious speck in the middle of the overhanging cliff that we had scoped with binoculars from the dirt road beside Range Creek a thousand feet below us.”

Dang. Now I’ve gone and told you the beginning.

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