Editorial: Kansas may hold a lost city

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

What’s lurking beneath the surface in Kansas may rewrite national — perhaps even world — history.

Thankfully, for once, this isn’t some statement or metaphor about politics or a conservative movement or some other piece of controversy that causes books with titles like “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” to be written. These days, that seems to be about the only thing that gets Kansas into the national spotlight.

No, we’re talking about actual items being dug out of the Kansas soil that may end up being some of the most significant archeological finds in all of America. Work is underway in Arkansas City to unearth a truly lost city. Wichita State anthropologist and archeology professor Donald Blakeslee believes he has found the lost city of Etzanoa, a Native American settlement that housed perhaps 20,000 people from the years 1450 to 1700.

Blakeslee has been working on this project since at least 2015. Don’t feel bad. Although the project has gotten some attention in the Wichita media, there are hordes of Kansans who know nothing of this. But the project has gained wide attention in the archeology community, and it got a worldwide boost of attention earlier this month when The Los Angeles Times wrote a major article about the project. The Sunday Times of London soon followed, and if you Google recent news articles about Etzanoa and Kansas, you’ll find quite a few from all over the world.

“We get about 10 calls a day to the see the lost city,” Pamela Crain, director of the region’s convention and visitors bureau, told The Los Angeles Times.

The process is still in its early stages. Kansas State Archeologist Robert Hoard is not yet ready to say the find is the lost city of Etzanoa without seeing more evidence, but he said the evidence thus far makes it plausible, according to the Times article.

If the site indeed is the lost city of Etzanoa, Arkansas City very well could become home to the second largest ancient settlement in America, trailing only Cahokia, a pre-Columbian Native American city dating back to 1050 on the banks of the Mississippi just east of St. Louis.

In Arkansas City, locals for decades have been finding large amounts of pottery, tools, arrowheads and other artifacts of a Native American culture. In the article, one man is said to have 100 boxes of artifacts his family has found over the years.

Blakeslee, the WSU archeologist, began questioning whether the Arkansas City area actually was the site of Etzanoa after new research emerged at the University of California-Berkeley in 2013. Scholars there had retranslated some ancient Spanish texts about the Conquistadors’ forays into Kansas.

“I thought, ‘Wow, their eyewitness descriptions are so clear it’s like you were there.’ I wanted to see if the archaeology fit their descriptions,” Blakeslee told The Times. “Every single detail matched this place.”

Among some of the recent finds that have caused excitement are the discovery of three Spanish cannon balls from the 17th century that seem to match up with a tale of a 1601 battle between Spanish Conquistador Juan de Oñate and about 1,500 members of the Escanxaques tribe.

There is still work to be done to solve this mystery, but the answers to come could be fascinating and fill in significant gaps of knowledge about how this region of the world was settled.

As the Times article notes, conventional history views the Great Plains as an area sporadically populated by nomadic tribes that followed the buffalo herds. But this Arkansas City site may prove that there actually were large urban centers — 20,000 people would still be one of the largest cities in Kansas — that process bison and other goods on a commercial scale. There is evidence to suggest there were trade connections all the way to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in Mexico.

“So this was not some remote place. The people traded and lived in huge communities,” Blakeslee said. “Everything we thought we knew turns out to be wrong. I think this needs a place in every schoolbook.”

Indeed, it is a story worth telling. Kansans should take the lead in telling it. It is a good reminder of what we can find when we keep our minds open to new possibilities and take the time to look beneath the surface of a matter.

No need to ask what’s the matter with Kansas, if we have a story like that to tell.


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