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.

April 9, 2010

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

In the ruins of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Canyon, in NW New Mexico, is an unassuming panorama of badlands, grasslands, buttes, and mesas. It is dry, dusty, desolate, and appears to be filled with nothing but monotypic stands of blackbrush as far as the eye can see… unless you go with an archeology major. Ranger Casey’s birthday gave us a great excuse to drive the 200 miles to her favorite place.

Wavy walls at Pueblo Bonito

Ancestral Puebloans built and occupied this remarkable place between 850 and 1150 A.D. The National Geographic Society started excavations in the 1920s. It is a World Heritage site, like Machu Picchu and the Pyramids of Giza.

Take an expert next time you go someplace; you will have new eyes with which to see. All those mounds of earth along the canyon walls are NOT mounds of earth, but buried ruins. Casey would point out when a piece of wall protruded from the boring desert scrub, or how one ruin lined up with and balanced other ruins along the axis of the valley. She took us to an ancient route behind a minor complex that scrambled up ten or twelve stories of sandstone, for our cool photos from above. She sighted a ruin complex three miles away that, to my untrained eye, looked like a rock outcropping. She showed us an ancient 30-ft-wide staircase carved onto a cliff, part of the road system that linked Chaco with other scattered communities. We peered into kivas and great houses and tried to grasp how they would have been used.

Casa Chiquita, from the cliff top

We looked at different masonry styles; the preservation workers there can tell which walls were done by the same worker a thousand years ago, they are so stylistically unique. And, thanks to dendrochronology, each ruin can be dated by tree ring analysis of its ceiling timbers. Wild!

A philosophical shift happened in archeology about thirty years ago. Costly, time-consuming, and disruptive excavations have been set aside in favor of using underground imaging techniques with instruments I’ve never heard of. This is much more acceptable to the Hopi, Navajo, and other present-day descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.

Ceiling timber is long gone. Artful masonry.

As I wandered this broad flat valley, with only my two companions, a few ravens, and my imagination, I pondered the life I would have led as one of the residents here twelve centuries ago. Evidences of their daily routine were scarce: only metates, or grinding stones, and a few potsherds. The rest has gone to museums.

What I know for sure is that I would have been highly in tune with light, seasons, cycles, weather, plants, animals, and the stars. When survival itself depends on these things, they assume an importance I will never experience. Thanks, Chaco, for inviting me to glimpse my world anew.

March 12, 2010

Mesa Verde, CO, in spring snows

ladder into a kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde; dust in air

Do you ever wonder about the people who lived in your area before you did? Waaaay before you did? The Colorado Plateau — which is parts of AZ, NM, CO, and UT — contain many evidences of early inhabitants. Rock art depicts many symbols of the people who lived here. Sometimes granaries (for storage of their crops) were built into alcoves or on mesa tops. If you have eyes to see, lots of telltale clues inform us of people living here before us.

masonry dwellings at Spruce Tree House

The pinnacle, however, seems to be when we discover their dwellings. In 1888, some cowboys were chasing down their errant cattle for a round-up, and rode into the deep canyons containing Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. They could not believe their eyes. It was such an incredible discovery that it took only 18 years to become a national monument. It is now a World Heritage Site, on a par with Egypt’s pyramids.

Square Tower, four stories, 26 ft, tallest structure of the ruins

These ruins are all 13th-century masonry construction, datable via dendrochronology (studying tree rings in roof timbers). The trees in the area seemed to quit growing around 1276; it is presumed that a long  and terrible drought (24 years’ worth) precipitated their abandoning these marvelous structures, which have stood for over seven centuries. My preferred way of looking upon ancient homes is to imagine the lives of the people who lived there. How did they stay warm in the winters? Who planted the crops? Did the girls laugh about the boy next door as they ground the corn? Where did they learn to weave, or to create clay pots? Who helped in childbirth? Was there anything resembling a school? How many generations shared a room?

snow, and lots of it, dominated the high elevations along the 20 miles of entrance road

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