Paul Andersen: Picking up pieces of the past |

Paul Andersen: Picking up pieces of the past

In the desert canyons of Utah, the relics of a past civilization are rapidly disappearing. Year after year, there are fewer archaeological remnants. One day, there will be hardly a trace.

Backpacking through a desert canyon last weekend, my wife, son and I marveled at pieces of pottery lying in the dirt or arrayed neatly on flagstones. We held them and studied designs painted by the hands of a people who instill awe for their artwork, cliff dwellings and granaries.

The looting of these treasures is carried on today by people like us who join the throngs of mountain folks on desert sabbaticals. We climb to ruins, find pretty pottery shards and want to keep a piece of the past as a reminder of a special place and a special time. A small shard goes into a pocket and the archaeological value of the site is depreciated.

The real looting began in the late 19th century, when expeditions were launched throughout the desert Southwest by professional pot hunters. Purportedly working for museums, these treasure hunters scaled any cliff face that held the promise of a basket or a pot.

The relics they retrieved date as far back as 2,000 years. That’s when the basketmaker culture first visited these canyons. The basketmakers are best known today for their aerie-like granaries perched high on impossible ledges and by the fine baskets they wove. Of course, the baskets are long gone, on display at various museums or sold to private collections.

Drought drove the basketmakers into the nearby mountains in about 700 A.D. When their descendants returned around 1050 A.D., they brought a revolutionary influence from the Mesa Verde and Kayenta people. The new breakthrough was pottery, which we see at many ruins today.

Systematic excavations of basketmaker and Pueblo sites, which are lumped together as Anasazi, were begun in 1890 by Charles McCloyd and C. Graham of Durango. A canyon named in honor of McCloyd holds remarkable ruins today, but the irony is rich because these ruins were plundered by McCloyd himself.

The most widespread excavations were made later that decade by Richard Wetherill, a rancher from Mancos, Colo. I once saw signatures from members of Wetherill’s party on the ceiling of a remote overhang, scrawled in charcoal.

Graffiti from Wetherill’s explorers has become almost as historically valued as Anasazi graffiti, which is widespread through Utah’s canyon country. In some places, Anasazi rock art has been vandalized by bullet holes or some idiot’s initials. Some drawings have been enhanced with white chalk applied by well-meaning park employees. In the more remote places, it remains faded but authentic.

Wandering the canyons today, one may stand before a pictograph or petroglyph and study the handwriting of a culture that connotes mystery. Since there was no written language other than pictures and symbols, piecing together the lives of the Anasazi is pure speculation; like trying to piece together a complete pot from random shards.

Still, we try to understand them by gazing at their ruins and their picture galleries, holding a piece of pottery or a chert cutting tool chipped by hand. Surrounding us is the utmost serenity of a canyon wilderness with perhaps a dripping spring, the croaking of frogs or the distinctive warbling of canyon wrens.

The first time I visited this particular canyon was about 15 years ago. There were piles of pottery shards displayed around the ruins, providing the rare atmosphere of an open air natural history museum. Today, most of those pottery shards are gone. Piece by piece they have been picked up.

Last weekend, when we climbed to a high granary, our son found a small pot shard marked with a paint stripe. He begged to take it home and an emotional discussion ensued. “If you take it, then there will be fewer for the next people to see,” I tried to explain. “When you come here with your children there may be none left at all.”

The Anasazi probably never dreamed that a broken pot had any value, so they tossed them into trash heaps called middens. That a father and son would square off over a pottery chip a thousand years in the future would seem incomprehensible.

My son took the shard, carried it for a day, then, after thinking about it, left it at another ruin. We congratulated him for not carrying away the past, and he seemed to understand that the moment of finding a relic is more important than the possession of it.

[Paul Andersen thinks it odd that future backpackers will have to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York to see Anasazi pottery. His column appears on Mondays.]

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