Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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.

April 2, 2011

In which Kathryn finds a metate

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:33 am
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This metate is about 15" x 22".

“A needle in a haystack,” I told myself. “How can I ever locate this artifact based on a six-month-old general description from visitors?”

A couple had come to the desk last September to report that they had found a grinding stone, or metate (meh-TAH-tay) in one of the less-traveled sections of the park. They showed me photos they had taken, and I assured them it was indeed what they thought it was, probably at least 800 years old, of ancestral Puebloan origin. I got their contact info, gave them the park archeologist’s email, and hoped for the best. I returned to Minnesota before I had a chance to get out there and look for it for myself.

It was just sitting on the sandstone in the open.

Today was supposed to be the most glorious spring weather yet, and it was my day off. I wanted to go metate-hunting. Based on the vague directions I had scribbled, it could be anywhere along hundreds of feet of rock, hundreds of feet wide, among junipers and pinyons. I had a mental image of the expansive area, and a general gut feeling to go on, but I knew it was a slim chance — even if the metate were still out there.

The crisp 46-degree air invigorated my lungs and my steps. An hour or so of solo sunrise hiking brought me to the vicinity, and I began slowly making some passes up and down, back and forth, just to see what I could see. I was also practicing identifying bird songs, so any time I heard one I’d stop and ID it with binoculars. A perfect spring morning.

My contemplation rock is in the background. A comfortable perch for a couple hours' pondering.

I put my back to the low morning sun, walked up a bench of sandstone, and almost tripped over this ancient artifact. Staring was all I could do for several minutes; I eventually marked it on my GPS and photographed it from every angle, including background landmarks so the archeologist can see it in situ. And then I sat down on a rock nearby.

I stayed on my rock for maybe two hours. I studied the metate plus everything around me — every landmark, every living thing, every noise in the soundscape, every smell. I wanted context. I tried to imagine the women and girls who ground seeds at this metate, and wondered whether they had wonderful girlfriends like I did, and what they made for their breakfasts, and whether their hearts were open to love, and what their names were.

Seven individuals walked by in that time, on an established trail but oblivious to the treasure just out of their sight. What a gift I had stumbled upon.

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