B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
BRUSHING AWAY THE loose soil, I see a fragment of a 700-year-old red bowl.
I hold it up to catch the light slanting down into the pit I'm digging in. An intricate pattern of black lines reveals itself. After placing the fragment in a plastic bag alongside similar pieces, I stretch and look around. Dozens of partially excavated rooms of a Pueblo Indian town cover this entire bluff overlooking the Little Colorado River. The sounds of digging and sifting resonate from several nearby pits.
This is Raven Site, a Pueblo village abandoned nearly 500 years ago. The excavations here afford a unique opportunity for archaeology students and ordinary folks who want to get a hands-on feel for what exploring the remnants of ancient cultures is like. The White Mountain Archaeological Center, located nearby, was established in the late 1980s to protect and excavate the Pueblo ruins.
Rather than depend on what Director James Cunkle calls "spotty and often non-existent federal and state money" to finance the dig, the center's board of directors decided to allow the public to help excavate the ruins, paying $83 a night (including lodging, food and all programs) to do so. Now, under the supervision of Raven Site staff, anyone can do this kind of work.
Cunkle considers Raven Site to be one of the most important excavations in Northern Arizona.
"Many pueblos were inhabited for 50 or 100 years," Cunkle says. "At Raven Site there were seven centuries of continuous occupation. The population fluctuated, but the site was never completely abandoned."
The abundance of plants and animals, combined with the presence of year-round water, kept people from moving away entirely, Cunkle says. The population would drop when supplies of firewood became exhausted, but otherwise Raven Site was a successful long-term village.
Other archaeologists agree Raven Site is an important archaeological find, but feel Cunkle overemphasizes its size and period of use.
Chuck Adams, Arizona State Museum Curator of Archaeology, believes there are 250 rooms there, at most.
"He's doing the best job he can," says Adams, "I think he's sincere, but he simply doesn't have the training to go about doing these things properly."
Adams says Cunkle is not really a professional archaeologists and lacks sufficient training, claiming he fails to employ modern techniques. Specifically, Adams objects to Cunkle's method of excavation, saying it doesn't take into account the complexity of how artifacts accumulate.
For instance, the roof of a pueblo might collapse on one side, in the center or around the edges, Adams says. In order to excavate a site properly, you need to determine how it was filled in and dig accordingly. Taking meter-square transects and digging horizontally through a room (as Cunkle does) might be unearthing several time periods at once, Adams says. When all these artifacts become jumbled, there's no means of determining relative ages or other data.
"Because we're destroying things as we excavate," says Adams, "we need to get the best possible information from them, and I don't think Mr. Cunkle does that."
Adams adds that Cunkle is getting better at what he does each year and might eventually become proficient at properly excavating sites. In any event, exposing the public to archaeology and getting them interested in protecting these sites is a laudable goal, Adams says.
Cunkle says he earned a B.A. in archaeology from Ohio State University and has worked with renown archaeologists on several other sites. He says Adams is basing his assesment on rumors. Cunkle says his methodology works just as well as Adams' and that his system of indexing artifacts is, in fact, superior.
Whether Cunkle conducts the dig with sufficient professionalism depends on who you talk to, but everyone agrees having caretakers near the site has put a stop to the wholesale destruction of the area's historical treasures by looters and vandals.
In the early 1980s pottery thieves came to the site with back hoes and wreaked tremendous damage, says White Mountain Archaeological Center volunteer Kristy Roser. They ripped up the ground looking for pots and then redeposited it in a jumble.
"You'll dig down to a level," Roser says "equal to 1300 A.D. and find an Orange Crush can."
In the room I dug, we found only the kind of garbage we were hoping to: animal bones, pottery fragments and bits of charcoal. After an excellent lunch (matching the fine food served all weekend) we went out for a petroglyph hike in a nearby canyon. Hundreds of boulders were covered in vivid designs pecked out of the stone. They depicted spirals, tobacco blossoms, human and animal figures, and many designs whose meanings remain a mystery.
Properly excavated or not, Raven Site will get your imagination whirling about ancient peoples and the cultural remnants they left behind. Combine this with a little modern-day controversy and you have the makings of an interesting couple days up on the Colorado Plateau.
Getting There:Take Highway 89 north to Highway 77 toward Globe. At Show Low, take Highway 60 east until you intersect Highway 191. Turn left (north) here and turn right at the Springerville Generating Plant Road on your right. Look for a dirt road and Raven Site signs which lead to the White Mountain Archaeological Center. Reservations are required for overnight stays and requested for tours.
If you're going to stay a couple nights it's best to start your trip a couple days before the weekend, as there are no programs on Sunday.
Call (520) 333-5857 for information; or write White Mountain Archaeological Center HC 30, Box 30, St. Johns, AZ 85936.
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