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2008 Pecos Conference Vision (download pdf doc)


Uniquely in Southwestern archaeology, the Pecos Conference for 80 years has been a time for Southwestern archaeologists to gather together to discuss in an informal setting the principal issues and new findings of their discipline. Since A. V. Kidder famously sent out postcards in the summer of 1927, attracting about 70 people representing some 14 institutions, this Southwestern Conference provided an opportunity for the contributors to the field to form strategic alliances that set the agenda for future work. By talking over issues and reaching consensus about what was now known and what next needed to be done, the participants shaped the direction of Southwestern archaeology in ways that also influenced the trajectory of American archaeology as whole.

Harold Colton, who in 1927 was about to become the Director of the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), which opened its doors in 1928, 80 years ago, did not receive one of Dr. Kidder’s postcards. He and his wife heard about the conference anyway, and decided to attend, discretely camping across an arroyo from the Kidders. They were welcomed, and with the growth of MNA, and the establishment of the Harold Colton Research Center after World War II, in 1950 they hosted the first Southwestern Conference to be held in Flagstaff, AZ, which Katharine Bartlett suggested should henceforth be called the “Pecos Conference.” In subsequent years, the conference returned to Flagstaff about every six years, part of a round-robin alliance among the leading archaeological institutions in the Southwest.

Now it is the 21st century and much has changed in Southwestern archaeology. Old institutional arrangements are giving way to new ones. Most of the funding for archaeological field projects now comes from federal or state contracts and it is a plethora of private companies rather than museums or universities which execute much of that work. The archaeological profession is spread widely across those companies; federal, state and local administrations; and a great many academic or museum institutions, both large and small. Swelling these numbers are hundreds of avocational archaeologists whose assistance to the profession is incalculable. A decade ago, the Pecos Conference was attracting 700 registrants—ten times the size of the original—but more recently these numbers have declined to about 450 people. Noticeably absent today are many academic archaeologists and their students, who have apparently begun to question the value of informal discussions about the central issues of Southwestern archaeology. Some voices have even been heard to tout the advantages of an alternative forum, the Southwest Symposium, which is held every two years, in the winter, and which admirably publishes its proceedings. What, then, may the future of the Pecos Conference be in this new era?

The organizing committee for the 2008 Pecos Conference, which will be held August 7-10 in the same beautiful meadow where it was staged in 1996 and 2001, believe that the Pecos Conference can continue to make essential and unique contributions to Southwestern archaeology. The intellectual health of our profession requires that there be a place where all the constituencies of the profession come forth to discuss together the main issues of the day. The informality of the Pecos Conference facilitates the ready give and take of debate, and the extra time that comes from camping together allows discussions to go on into the night. Out of such discussions consensus can emerge, and new strategic alliances can be forged to achieve our collective ends.

We also believe, in this internet age, that new technological approaches can and should be integrated into the Pecos proceedings in creative ways. We plan to solicit students to blog the conference events, and hope to capture much of the proceedings on film that can quickly be streamed onto the internet and thus can be preserved for future reference. Starting from the premise that many academic students will be looking for jobs in the private archaeological sector where command of specific skills is highly valued, we organized a set of workshops that will be offered concurrently with the traditional field reports and poster sessions on the afternoons of August 8 and 9. Although the out-door conditions of the Pecos Conference can make it difficult to show posters, we greatly value the opportunity they afford to stand and talk to people about your work. Field reports, too, if spoken (not read) can be an exciting way to convey one’s most recent findings. The workshops will be staged both at the Colton Research Center a few miles south of the Pecos main tent, and at the Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station, a mile west of the main tent.

Our biggest idea about how to reinvigorate the 2008 Pecos Conference, and to make it memorable, is to present a series of four plenary sessions of two hours each in the mornings of August 8 and 9. Each is designed to address a major issue in Southwestern archaeology, issues that all Southwestern archaeologists, from whatever perspective, will want to hear about firsthand. Those issues are the secrets of collaboration and cooperation over many decades; the early agricultural period in the Southwest; the hypothesis of a comet explosion being responsible for the end of the Clovis period and the onset of the Younger Dryas; and the current state of mega-databases in the Southwest.

The first plenary session on Thursday, August 8, will celebrate 100 years of cooperation and collaboration among several Flagstaff institutions. The year 2008 is the 100th anniversary of both the Coconino National Forest and the Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station, as well as the 80th anniversary of the Museum of Northern Arizona. Representatives of these institutions will be joined by other collaborators from the National Park Service, Northern Arizona University, and the Arizona Archaeology Society to mark the progress achieved by their long-term collaboration and cooperation with one another. As early as 1952, Gladys Reichard explained to a group of linguist friends how Harold Colton, the long-time chairman of the board of the Museum, did what he did: “In different fields the Research Center of the Museum of Northern Arizona in the six years since its founding [in 1946] has accomplished an incredible amount of essential research with very little money, but a great deal of cooperation with other institutions and with very careful management. To me the secret seems to be a determination to emphasize ability and achievement of personnel, combined with extreme tolerance of personal (“personality” if you will!) and institutional idiosyncrasies. One of their most successful and expanding projects involves the cooperation of the Navajo Tribal Council, the Department of Indian Affairs of the U. S. Government, and the Department of the Interior, the U. S. Geological Survey, and the University of Arizona. In this stupendous, almost miraculous, achievement the Research Center of the Museum of Northern Arizona acted as catalyst. The results grew out of goodwill, tolerance and cooperation. The Research Center is constructive, never destructive, but it is nevertheless discriminating.” This program continues to be inspirational today, and may be of equal interest to many Southwestern institutions.

The second plenary session will be a panel report on the results of a mini-advanced seminar staged at the Museum’s beautiful Colton House that will focus on the early agricultural period in the Southwest. A collaboration between MNA, the Pecos organizing committee, Desert Archaeology, Inc., and the Center for Desert Archaeology, the seminar is being organized by Dr. Sarah Herr. The intent is to summarize and synthesize current knowledge along a selected set of theoretical dimensions with an eye toward influencing the directions of on-going work about a fundamental issue in Southwestern archaeology. Following the Pecos Conference, there are plans to “publish” the peer-reviewed results on the internet and to publish a special issue of Archaeology Southwest.

Friday evening, August 8, at the Cline Library Auditorium at Northern Arizona University, the Pecos Conference will host a special presentation by three scientists, Allen West, Jim Wittke and Ted Bunch, who are part of the team which has hypothesized that a comet explosion marked the end of the Clovis period and precipitated the onset of the Younger Dryas interval.

The following morning, in the third plenary session under the big Pecos tent, a distinguished panel will discuss the comet theory, exchanging views with the proponents, and then there will be discussion from the audience. Come and participate in considering what this comet theory may mean, both for our understanding of specific events at the close of the Pleistocene, and our general theories of climatic and cultural change. What are the implications for American and world archaeology? And for Southwestern archaeology? How may an ambitious scientific hypothesis such as this be tested?

The fourth plenary session will review the current status of a selection of mega-databases that have now been constructed for use by professional archaeologists. Data on archaeological sites in the Southwest began to be kept systematically as early as 1916 and has resulted in site inventories numbering today in the hundreds of thousands. Computerization of those records is now well under way in such databases as NMCRIS and AZSITE, which are statewide in scope and include sites and surveys in geographic information system (GIS) formats for New Mexico and Arizona, respectively. Federal agencies have also been converting their site data into national or regional databases. Research archaeologists, in an effort to address their own particular research problems, have been constructing mega-databases, such as the Coalescent Communities Database of all known sites 13 rooms or larger found throughout the entire North American Southwest during the period AD 1200 to 1700. The increasing use of digital data in all aspects of archaeology has also led to a national initiative to create ways to curate and maintain in accessible form such information over the long term as technology continues to evolve (see “archaeoinfomatics.com”). History, functionality, access, usership, challenges, and future directions will all be addressed from many points of view by a panel of experts on such efforts. Active discussion from the audience will then be encouraged.

The 2008 Pecos Conference will begin on Thursday, August 7. The campground will be open in the afternoon. Registration packets may be picked up at the Museum’s Branigar-Chase Discovery Center from 3:00 pm to 7:30 pm, or at the Pecos site’s registration tent August 8 and 9 from 7:30 am. A reception will be held at the Museum from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm, and the whole Museum will be kept open during that time. Two special events are planned during the reception. First, we plan to honor a very special Southwestern archaeologist, David A. Breternitz, by dedicating the 2008 conference to him. If people would like to contribute photographs or stories in this regard, please contact Todd Metzger at <todd_metzger@nps.gov>. Second, a silent auction will be held in Branigar Hall to raise funds for the Kenny Acord Memorial Fund at Northern Arizona University.

On Sunday, August 10, a series of field trips to sites north, east, south, and west of Flagstaff have been planned. With that, the 2008 Pecos Conference will conclude. And then it will be on to 2009!