Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: What will the evidence be of your passage?

Paleoindian artifacts at the Anasazi Heritage Center, dating to 7,000-9,500 years BC
Our journey throught the Abandoned Lands continued. We were on a combined geology/archaeology field studies trip last June, and for much of middle part of the trip we were following in reverse the journey of the Pueblo People to their present-day homes along the Rio Grande River. We explored Bandelier, Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, and were now making our way through the "fertile crescent" of the Ancestral Puebloans that extended from Mesa Verde to Cedar Mesa in Utah.
Artifacts from the Archaic Period, 7,000 BC -200 AD
As a rank amateur in archaeology, I had always somehow assumed that the cliff dwellings in places like Mesa Verde had always been the home of the Ancestral Puebloans for hundreds of years. As we have seen in the last few posts of this series, the famous cliff dwellings were home to the people for only a few generations before they abandoned the region for the Hopi mesas or the Rio Grande. For more than a thousand years, the people lived in pithouses and small pueblos spread widely across the Colorado Plateau. From what we can tell today, fear of invasion or warfare was not part of their story until the very end, the last few generations.
Basketmaker II artifacts, from about 0-500 AD
I always had a tendency to think of the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people in terms of their buildings, their pottery and their arrowheads. In my own journeys that was nearly all I ever saw of their lives, aside from the petroglyphs and pictographs I've discovered here and there. The meticulous work of the archaeologists goes a long way towards filling out the daily lives of the people who lived on this land for so very long.
Basketmaker III artifacts from about 500-700 AD
The Dolores Rivers carves a deep canyon just north of Cortez, Colorado, and was an ideal site for a reservoir to be built in this arid landscape. The resulting lake would have covered and destroyed hundreds of sites, so a rapid excavation of as many sites as possible was undertaken, and the three million artifacts formed the basis for the collection at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colorado, an excellent museum and research center run by the Bureau of Land Management. The Center also serves as the headquarters for the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Pueblo I artifacts, from about 700-900 AD
We were on a field trip, but artifacts like these are rarely seen in the field. This was as close as we could get to "feeling" the lives of these people, of getting close to what daily existence was like. So today is a series of pictures that are snapshots of a particular period in the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people. It is amazing to me how well some of these artifacts survived (especially considering the trepidations of pothunters and other vandals).
Pueblo II artifacts from about 900-1100 AD
I always dream of finding things like this while on an expedition in the wilds of the Plateau country. Who doesn't want to be the next Indiana Jones? But as the years have passed, I have come to realize the value of allowing excavations to be done by those who have the training to interpret what they are seeing, and the value of seeing the objects in context. The issues are the same as those involved with paleontology and the loss of information when vandals dig up dinosaur bones or precious fossils like those of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia.
Pueblo III artifacts, from about 1,100-1,300 AD. I love the mug...

Will our artifacts and trash middens be as interesting in a thousand years, or will anyone be looking? What will people think of iPods if they have no way of turning them on? The ongoing joke among anthropology folks is that anything whose role is unclear must be interpreted as a ceremonial object. And in the case of an iPod, they may be right...

In our next post we explore the heart of the "fertile crescent" of the Ancestral Pueblo people at Canyon of the Ancients and Hovenweep National Monuments.

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