Visiting Ancestral Homes

Posted by Courtney Blackmer-Raynolds on 7th Nov 2017

The Glen Canyon area, ancestral homeland of the Puebloan people, still harbors many of the belongings of its first inhabitants. We have been lucky to encounter some of this archaeological material in our adventures throughout the region.

On one of our hikes up a side canyon, we came across a granary tucked beneath a sandstone overhang. Moki steps–small hand and footholds carved into the rock–granted access to the storage structure, which sat a few feet above our heads. Marking the entrance was a solid white circle painted on the cliff. Within, a few parched corn cobs remained along with evidence of the packrats who had helped themselves to these leftovers from an earlier time.

We were delighted to realize that the sandy floor beneath the overhang was infused with artifacts. A bowling ball sized hunk of obsidian, likely the source of many a stone tool, poked out from the earth. Abundant pottery shards and the chips from making stone tools adorned the sandy ground. We spotted a rounded stick with a blackened tip tucked into a small crack in the sandstone. Next to it perched a second stick, whose charred black spots suggested that the two may have been used to start an ancient fire. As the sun began to sink low, we carefully replaced the items where we had found them and departed back towards camp.

Many contemporary indigenous people teach that the spirits of their ancestors continue to inhabit their homes, built centuries ago. Therefore, we should approach an archaeological site with the same respect as if we were entering the home of a living person. It is common to thank one’s host for inviting us into their house: a practice as applicable in honoring ancient homeowners as it is with our contemporary neighbors. We might admire our host’s home but we would never help ourselves to their belongings.

Though many Ancestral Puebloan artifacts, structures and rock art panels remain preserved above the high water line of Lake Powell, a vast amount has been drowned beneath the lake. What does the submersion of ancient communities say about our principles of respect? The water takes its toll as mortar dissolves and structures crumble. Pictographs fade and clay pots melt into mush. The lake is consuming the history of the first peoples.