Exploring Archaeological Sites in the Desert Southwest

Who Passed This Way?  Any archaeological site needs to be treated with care. They are fragile and irreplaceable. They represent our nation’s past, our heritage. And, for many, are the main reason to travel to the Four Corners region. Many of the sites in the southwest are maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). Others are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or US Forest Service. The rules for visiting archaeological sites located on public lands are the same: take as many pictures as you want; do not take any artifacts or relics from public land; do not make rubbings of rock art or make any marks of any kind on a rock art panel; if a site is barricaded, view it from outside the barricade; if there are signs asking you to Keep Out, respect the sign; when visiting habitation sites, do not walk on the midden.

Common sense also goes a long way when visiting an archaeological site. If the ledge holding that granary looks like it could come down at any second, it probably will – just stay on the ground and enjoy the view from there. You don’t have to climb/jump down into the kiva to get a feel for it’s history. Do not make little “Museum Rocks” at a site. Piling up the pottery, flakes, corn cobs, etc. doesn’t help anybody. By collecting and piling artifacts, you take materials out of their context, expose them to the elements more than they would be if left where they are and, very likely, you had to trample across the midden to get them in the first place. As you explore a site, the sense of discovery and exploration is going to be much better if you can find the artifacts hidden about on your own, not bunched together on a slab, where they wouldn’t normally be. And, yes, it will matter if you take just one potsherd. If every visitor to a site takes just one potsherd or flake or corn cob, there will be none of those materials left for others to see, or for archaeologists to use in interpreting the site. Besides, taking artifacts from public lands – even that “arrowhead” you found on a hike – is violation of Federal Law (Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979).

Domestic dogs and archaeological sites generally don’t mix. In the heat of the summer, and often just because they can’t help it, dogs will dig down into the soil to make a nice, cool spot to lay down. This can be disastrous inside an alcove or rock shelter site, not to mention the impact Fido has when he lifts his leg on a granary wall or room-block corner.  I have witnessed both. If you bring your dog, secure him to a tree or rock in a nice shady spot, with a bowl of water, outside of the archaeological site.

Any water-source you encounter in the desert is a matter of life or death to the birds and animals living within miles of it. Whether it’s a spring, pothole full of water or running stream, please treat it with care. Don’t bathe in it, wash dishes in it, answer the call of nature, cook or camp within 200 feet of it. And, please, under no circumstances allow your pets or stock animals to walk/play in it. Secure your llama, horse or dog, away from the pool or spring, and bring them a bowl of water. Human and domestic animal waste will ward off wildlife from, what may possibly be, the only water source within miles, as will sun-block, bug repellent, soap or other detergents – even the “bio-degradable” ones.

One last note: if you plan to explore archaeological sites in the Four Corners area, observe where you put your feet. Stay on slick rock or established trails. The crusty, black soil you will see there is alive. Composed of living organisms, “cryptobiotic soil” is the thing that keeps this region from blowing/eroding away. It fixes atmospheric nitrogen, helps retain moisture for the plants around it and stabilizes the soil/sand. One crushing boot print or tire track will take years to re-establish.

Why so much information regarding what you should not do? Simply put, the desert, and all that live in it, is incredibly fragile. The rules are there to protect it. If a few careless visitors violate the rules, or cause unnecessary damage, stricter guidelines will be made and enforced or, even worse, areas will be closed to access entirely. Take the approach that you are a guest in someone else’s house. You wouldn’t steal, leave a mess or be disrespectful. Look at all that you get to see and do during your visit.

DSC_0120

DSC_0041


Posted in Archaeology, Conservation, Desert, Southwest, Wilderness and tagged , , , , , , , by with no comments yet.