Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 25, 2012

Keet Seel 4: ancient architects

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:32 am
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Keet Seel ruin is perched atop a ledge five stories above the canyon floor.
Only the northern part is visible in this photo.

Keet Seel is OLD; pottery shards and tree-ring dating show evidence of occupancy since 950 A.D. Those early houses are gone, but a few timbers were re-used in the subsequent village. In 1272 the ancestral Puebloans deemed this rich wet canyon suitable for a massive building project. At its height, 150 residents occupied the glorious alcove — likely from two different language groups, unable to understand each other but sharing an intimate neighborhood.

The care and artistry with which the village is laid into the rock space reflects the ancestral Puebloans’ ability to meld form and function. The alcove and its structures are inextricably unified, sandstone on sandstone, masonry on aeolian dunes, seamless. Ancient architects hung buildings on the bones of rock, suspended on slopes, fixed in place by unseen forces.

Keet Seel ruin is full of life and mystery.

June 19, 2012

Keet Seel 2: arrival at the ruin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:08 pm
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The ruin is so intact that I have no difficulty imagining its occupants in their daily lives. Just look at that beautiful street!

(continued from Keet Seel 1: the trek begins)

The ability to sense when you’re getting close to your destination helps when you’re bone-weary, which we three were. Ascending the final hill to the primitive campground, we found an open site and dropped our packs. Ground-cloths were spread and late lunch happened. The lure of horizontality couldn’t be overcome; we rested under the oaks in sight of our prize — Keet Seel Ruin.

If you’ve never seen a huge sandstone alcove, it’s difficult to comprehend the feel of the space. Organic, protective, curvaceous, smooth, empty, inviting — the ancestral people felt its attraction. When one of these magnificent spaces is filled from end to end with a village, my heart and mind are electrified with connection.

Polychrome pottery fragments — such lovely colors are mixed in among more common black-on-white shards.

Approaching the ruin with quietness and respect, we met Bill, a park ranger of Navajo descent. He guides only five people at a time through the 13th-century cliff dwelling, after the approach past thousands of breathtaking pottery shards and a climb up a five-story ladder. “Broken pottery scattered around” is Keet Seel’s rough translation in Navajo. I gasped at the quantity and size of the pieces and scrambled up to enter the ruin.

The ladder is not for the faint of heart. Ancestral people used less sturdy ladders, and sometimes moki steps (footholds and handholds) carved into the rock.

A masonry retaining wall running the length of the alcove presents a strong visual boundary; behind and upon it the people laid out three streets. Streets! Places of commerce, greeting, gathering, moving about, exchanging conversations — I’d never seen such streets in a ruin before. This, however, is no ordinary ruin.

~~ to be continued ~~

August 22, 2011

Those ancestral Puebloans

A single course of masonry curves gracefully around the space it once defined.

A hummingbird whirred by in the silence, jarring me back to the present. I was standing at an infrequently-visited ruin at Mesa Verde National Park, trying to wrap my head around the living conditions here in this cliff dwelling 800 years ago. Birth, work, ritual, play, cooking, dancing, death… everything we do, they did. Only they did it in an alcove high above the canyon floor, with little to work with but their marvelous resourcefulness.

I pondered the walls, their builders’ skills varying from ‘passable’ to ‘highly aesthetic’ with perfect corners and edge decoration. The seep spring in the rear of the alcove was ingeniously directed toward small cuplets carved in the sandstone floor, making collection easier. Grinding stations were conveniently placed where the women could watch their children play while socializing with “the girls” as they prepared grains and seeds. Each clan had its own ceremonial subterranean kiva for rituals and worship, with innovative HVAC elements supplying it. Sketchy toeholds and handholds were cleverly carved right into the cliff walls, enabling ascents and descents that would dizzy us today

Perhaps a hundred people called this alcove home during the early 13th century.

Their building boom (i.e., multi-story masonry cliff dwellings of the 12th century) lasted only about a hundred years; then they moved southward to New Mexico and Arizona, abandoning the architectural wonders. Why did the garbage middens have fewer animal bones in the top layers? Why did the last rooms added to the pueblo use far less timber? The likely culprit was that their intensive land use had made trees and game animals scarce, too scarce to support a population dependent on the land for everything.

My 28 hours among the archeological sites of Mesa Verde gives me pause to consider what we are doing to our own world.

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