Junipers twist in the drought and grow green when it rains and snows. Their roots buckle up through the ground, lifting stone walls into the light, breaking open the chambers of an underground kiva. The chamber they expose, now filled with centuries of dust and soil, had been a ritual space built during early Pueblo occupation of the Four Corners from 800 to about 1,300 years ago.
A site like this is not unusual. Some of the hilltops between Mesa Verde and canyons of Hovenweep below the southern flanks of the San Juan Mountains are heaped with ruins, mostly buried, some you’d walk right over and scarcely notice. The people who erected these sites and lived in homesteads and small mud-walled villages moved south now take up the mesas of Zuni and Hopi in New Mexico and Arizona.
Pottery coughs up from the ground, sherds of corrugated jars and brightly painted black-on-white ceramics broken to pieces by the ages. They are reminders of what happened here, signs of civilization.
The rivers that flow out of the mountains have their own people, their own histories. The tributaries of the Gunnison flow north, passing
through ancient hunter-gatherer territory, rock art up in the canyons belonging to early Utes. Rivers that flow south enter Pueblo country, a drier landscape of cliff dwellings and masonry villages left in ruins many centuries ago. The flanks of San Juans stretch to the towns of Dolores and Cortez, leading to circular towers of mud and rock perched on boulders and mesa tops, or ringed around the heads of canyons, looking out on ancient farmlands, their walls half crumbled like turrets of Scottish castles.
Signal systems laced the land from Comb Ridge in Utah to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, high points on which fires were lit, each in view of at least two others. Messages could have raced across the desert in minutes, fire hearths and broken ceramics left at these hilltops and ridges as evidence.
You can pass through and never notice. At highway speeds, archaeology slips by unseen. The country might seem like a blank slate, nothing but geography, and whatever we most recently laid upon it. What we don’t see are the fortress pueblos now buried into hills, a few of them trenched by archaeologists, most pothunted and half forgotten.
Look closer. The rolling bean fields, what was one called the Great Sage Plain, have shapes in them you might recognize, islands of junipers where the plow sometimes goes around, humps in the ground lined up like walls and rooms. In the northern shadow of Sleeping Ute Mountain, one of these pueblos was massacred. Archaeologists found human bones chopped apart, skulls penetrated by what appear to have been stone axes. Women, children, and men died in what might have been a surprise attack, kivas burned, human bones charred. A child was left with a broken limb in a firehearth, head trauma suggesting blunt impact, possibly an axe.
The worst of the worst happened here. It’s worth stopping on the side of the road, perhaps offering a small prayer, like the ones you offer when you see a cross or a death marker on the side of the highway.
It did not all end this way, however. Many of these beanfield pueblos were abandoned in what appears to have been a more peaceful manner. Archaeologists found burned kivas, but without clutters of charred human bones. Objects in the kivas had been placed like offerings before fires were set, as if in a ritualized departure. A large painted bowl was placed upside down on a burned kiva floor, and when archaeologists peeled it up, they found protected beneath it two small baskets stacked on each other. The lower basket held coarsely ground corn meal. The basket above it held a carbonized pile of corn as fine ground as pastry flour. These people appear to have prepared their exit, said their goodbyes, and burned their homes as they left, as if the rising of smoke was a signal, yet another pueblo left behind.
These were times of droughts, which came regularly in the Four Corners, a marginal place to live to begin with. The region had been abandoned before, homes left in ruins in the same way. Some of these kivas had been built, abandoned, and several hundred years later returned to, opened up, and rebuilt. Occupation comes in layers, not what you can see when your eye is on the windshield, the hulk of Sleeping Ute and the long serrations of Mesa Verde flying by.
Where some see a mysterious disappearance, the ground tells a different story. The people who lived here came and went like weather over many centuries. If you talk to their descendants, the modern Pueblo people, you will hear that the story is not over yet. Like they have so many times before, they may again someday return.
The land has not forgotten who lives here. Archaeologists find it all the time. You can hardly walk to a hilltop without encountering some Pueblo remnant, a glassy shard of flaked rock, a sherd of fired, painted, or pinched clay, or the bread loaf rocks of a kiva wall buckling up with the roots of a gnarled juniper, brought back to daylight.
—By Craig Childs
Craig Childs is a renowned author who has written extensively about the natural world and ancient civilizations. His recent books include Finders Keepers, The Secret Knowledge of Water, House of Rain, The Animal Dialogues, and Apocalyptic Planet. Childs lives in Norwood, Colorado and when he is not camping or exploring the region, he can often be heard offering commentary on NPR.