The Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet) is an historical and archeological treasure chest, pure and simple. The area includes thousands of ruins of settlements by people now referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this region for over 8,000 years.
They dispersed to other parts of the region – central Arizona, the Rio Grande of New Mexico, western Colorado among them – all around 1,300 AD. The current thinking is climate change, possibly soil depletion and/or political conflicts may have been the cause.
I had always thought this was the home of the “Anasazi” but that term has apparently become controversial and the newer term, though not immune from controversy, seems to be holding its own.
We have spent the past five days touring ruins, cultural centers, and museums all focused on this remarkable human legacy. Mesa Verde National Park stretches across 20+ miles of a mesa top and the ruins there begin in around 550 AD when the people built what is called “pit houses”, structures dug into the earth leaving just a few feet above the surface. Up until then, the people lived a nomadic life as hunter/gatherers. The single room pit house dwelling had a hole in the roof which allowed smoke to escape and the residents egress via a ladder. Eventually, clusters of these pit houses developed into above-the-ground structures first of one level clustered around a common courtyard, and then into multi-storey buildings (think Taos Pueblo). Around 1,200 AD some structures started to be built up in the cliffs, against the rock and in alcoves with extremely limited access to the communities.
Peter took the Mesa Verde National Park tour up into a structure called Balcony House, which has been preserved and which is perched in an alcove high above the valley floor. It was built and occupied for less than 100 years and consisted of living areas, food storage structures, and ceremonial and community round structures, called kivas. He climbed up a 32 foot ladder (which was the factor that kept me from going up) to reach the plaza and then crawled out through two sections of tunnels cut through what had been the only access to the site. He said the energy in the place was powerful.
We later visited the Anasazi Heritage Center, created by the Bureau of Land Management in the mid-1980s when the McPhee Reservoir was being constructed. The short version of the story is that before the Reservoir could be built, the entire canyon was surveyed in what is called the largest archeological dig in the country’s history. The findings and the items recovered from the canyon are now on display and in storage for future research in the Center. It was an astounding collection of human habitation and for all its scientific results, I do confess to a bit of sadness that the entire canyon has been flooded and filled to provide water for 21st century habitation. We watched a beautiful short film in which members of current pueblos commented on their ancestral ties to this area. One woman, a PhD, said that in their cultural perspective, there is no concept of future, rather there is the past that wraps around you like a blanket as you live each day.
And then another said that the Four Corners were not abandoned, it’s just that the spirits dwell there now which explains their reverence for the place. And then this, from another elder, who said we believe you don’t inherit the land from your parents, you borrow it from your children. Think about it…
The synchronistic event on this trip came when we realized that one of the early archeological digs in the region occurred in the 1920s and a Harvard-educated archeologist led the dig. His grandson, who we knew in Keene, bears a shocking resemblance to the man whose photos were very present throughout the museum.
The Canyon of the Ancients, a national monument, was the location of the partially conserved Lowry Pueblo. Remotely sited on a mesa about 30 miles from Mesa Verde, the morning we visited we were the only guests in the sacred place. These ruins were built over several hundred years, expanded, remodeled, renovated and re-designed by the inhabitants. We were able to enter the underground central kiva, which holds to a very constant 54 degrees. The walls included banquettes for seating, and a central fire pit. At one time, the walls had been painted. We were able to spend a good amount of time in solitude and reflection in the kiva.
Our last hike took us further out into the wild country to an unpreserved ruin called Painted Hand Pueblo. The ruin includes a round tower structure, and cliff houses for about 20 people. We were able to spot a few pictographs (of human hands, and of a human figure with upraised hands). One of the elders from the Laguna Pueblo, which is descended from these Ancestral Puebloans has written, “We come here to visit our ancestors. They are all around. We ask that you come with good thoughts.” These are sacred places that we felt privileged to be able to visit.
We head next to New Mexico where we took our wedding trip over 26 years ago and look forward to re-discovering and newly exploring its wonders.