Ancient art

I hefted the strand of rusty barbed wire and helped my kid brother out onto the sandy expanse. “Go that way,” my dad directed from the car as he fiddled around in his bags. “Out over there. That looks like a good place to search.” So it was that we two mountain kids set off on an extremely amateur archaeological expedition, taking a break from the family road trip to scour the scrub somewhere south of Durango.

“I had no idea you guys would find anything,” my dad confessed to me recently. “I just wanted a break from the drive. That seemed as good a spot as any to stop and twist up a fattie.”

But find we did. This then 8-year-old and my kindergartner bro returned just as the smoke cleared, our hands and pockets overflowing with loot. Much to my dazed dad’s chagrin, we produced a large pile of potsherds, ranging in color from dull grays to brilliant reds and searing whites. Numerous flecks of chert, one prime specimen resembling a finely crafted spear point, also greeted his bloodshot eyes.

Had we chanced upon the remains of a once thriving pueblo? Or was this a section of one of Chaco’s great roads, stretching from the ancient mecca into the greater Southwest and littered with offerings of pottery? I’ll never know.

My father was equally mystified. But like any good denizen of the Southwest, he shared the most vital lesson of living in the land of the Anasazi. In spite of our disappointment and pleading, he laid down an ancient law and had us cross back over the barbed wire and return the treasures to where we found them. Dad, no doubt, seized the moment and twisted up another one.

More than three decades later, that first run-in with ancient art is still echoing into my present day. It’s sent me on repeated excursions through the great houses of Chaco, on numerous forays into the forgotten folds of Comb Ridge, down Fish and up Owl canyons and up the ladders of Kiet Siel. It’s also spurred chases into Ruin Canyon, led me to the Painted Hand Pueblo and inspired almost weekly searches for signs of the Basketmaker culture, quite literally in my backyard just north of Durango.

Call them what you will, the Anasazi, Ancentral Puebloans or Hitsatsinom once dominated these Four Corners, living here in far greater numbers than we “moderns” do today. And forget what you’ve been told about these so-called primitive farmers. The Anasazi crafted an elaborate and exquisite civilization. This was America’s Ancient Egypt, a complex society rooted in profound relationships to the local landscape and complex connections to the heavens. The history books are only just beginning to catch up.

Two weeks ago my inner impulse called yet again, and I found myself back in the land of the ancients, chancing onto the red rock shortly after super cell had torn the sky and sent flash floods ripping down each

of the drainages. It was a fortuitous moment to visit. The torrent had wiped the desert clean, lifting a layer of time, and 800-year-old potsherds were popping to the surface like seedlings. One seemingly non-descript mound was littered with hundreds of bits of pottery. Among them were a few pieces of multi-colored pottery tattooed with intricate designs – signatures that put their origins well south of here – rare finds for this still extremely amateur archaeologist.

But my eyes were elsewhere and gravitated away from the ground and toward the sky. Far off and hundreds of feet up a sandstone wall, I’d spied a small ledge seemingly hanging in outer space. Following that familiar impulse, I made it my destination – plodding a couple miles through sand and sage before scrambling up over steep slabs, through a rock chimney and onto the narrow, sandstone cut.

The view swept in all directions from the high point, shadowy forms of the La Platas and the dark figure of the Sleeping Ute dominating the east. Polychrome Monument Valley and the twin shapes of the Bear’s Ears shot up on the other side. At the center of the landscape was the almost shocking form of the Diatreme – a sharp uplift of once molten rock that now knifes skyward from the San Juan River bottom.

I’m not sure what I expected at the high spot. A small panel of forgotten petroglyphs? Moki steps? A remote cliff dwelling? Whatever it was simply was not there. I looked high and low, but found only sandstone and sweeping vistas.

Having given up, I tiptoed to ledge’s western edge. There, I found my answer. After a slippery move around a stone buttress, I stepped into a previously hidden niche and looked upon a small dwelling. A plastered wall of flawless stonework had been built to enclose a small cave. The ruin’s single doorway beckoned. Unable to resist, I cautiously made my way past a fully-intact granary and carefully stepped into the dark portal.

A space smaller than many La Plata County dog houses – its roof charred from fires – greeted me. The home was dusty, dark and, unfortunately, empty. Alas, someone other than the original inhabitant had beaten me to it. To add insult to injury, he’d left his mark etching a sloppy “W” (perhaps the sign of my evil twin or of George W. himself) into the wall.

My disappointment was quickly replaced with revelation as I glanced past the vandalism and back out through the door. From wherever I moved inside the structure, the view never changed. Like a gateway into another world, the keyhole door always framed the Diatreme.

Having finally found what I was looking for, I pulled up a seat in that little dark hole, took a deep breath and watched the world pass outside. Light soon shifted toward twilight, and reds and blues twisted across the small entrance to that secret spot. No fattie was necessary.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

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January 26, 2024
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January 11, 2024
High and dry

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