Vaughn popped the question – lunch or pot?
I was pleasantly surprised. Not for being obnoxiously offered weed, but for the enormous leap of faith Vaughn was taking. He barely knew me and here he was offering me an admission ticket to his Outdoor Museum.
I had read about the outdoor museum in Davis Robert’s In Search of the Ancient Ones. After several years of excavating Anasazi artifacts in the southwest, a closed knit group of archeologists had grown disillusioned. The artifacts either sat in federal warehouses gathering dust waiting for funds or were slid under glass cases in museums waiting for tourists – in either case, the artifacts lost their essence. Now when the members of the group find artifacts during their backcountry jaunts, they do not call the BLM. Instead they leave the artifact in situ. As David Robert describes it succinctly in his book, “The artifact stays united with the landscape and the modern visitor had to do his homework to find it and appreciate both.”
The pot Vaughn was alluding to had to be part of this premium museum.
We bundled into Vaughn’s truck and drove a few minutes. We pulled alongside an unnamed trail in southwest Utah. The canyon surprisingly had ankle length grass. Yellow and red wild flowers swayed to the tune of the late afternoon breeze. We must have walked just under half an hour, me judiciously following Vaughn’s long strides.
We turned a corner and stopped. Somewhere up in the canyon, a raven soulfully called his mate.
“We are there.” Vaughn said. I looked around. It looked like any other canyon we had been walking for the past two days. If I had happened to wander into this canyon by myself, I would not even have remembered it.
“This is an unexcavated Anasazi site.” He put up a placating hand as my eyes grew wide. “It is no Cliff palace. It is up there on that ledge.”
I noticed the ledge for the first time. Behind it was a small alcove under a small overhang. Exactly the kind of spot Anasazi would chose.
“Nobody has mentioned this site to me. I have not mentioned it to anybody. It has a living room, a few storage rooms around a central courtyard. Probably housed one family - 5-6 people. Pueblo 3. Dilapidated. One can barely make out the masonry amidst the dirt. For now, it is not worth the climb.”
“Did you notice the pot shards” He pointed at my feet and I jumped back as if I was told I was standing on a red ant nest.
I had seen museum rocks in Mesa Verde, never pot shards on the ground. At my feet, on the sun dappled ground was a gorgeous spread. A Pueblo 3 Mesa Verde black on white. Besides it a redware. A dimpled pecked piece. Yonder a few pieces of corrugated pots!
We squatted. I dared pick one up only when he did. It was not the first Anasazi pot shard I had picked. I have a few at home, bought on eBay a long time ago. But this one was special. I never had goose bumps when I picked that pot shard out of the UPS package. Right now, I was prickled like a a jackfruit. I picked each piece to flip it in my fingers. I did not know what to say. I did not know what to do.
Vaughn gave me a few minutes to get over it. Rising, he said, “Over there is their trash heap.” Vaughn walked up to a pile of dirt directly under the ledge. I remembered reading Anasazi dumping their refuge over the ledge of their alcoves. Sometimes they even buried their dead in the trash pile. The trash piles are a huge source of archeological artifacts.
I slid alongside Vaughn. I looked at the pile of dirt, my eyes desperately furrowing the surface trying to find an artifact before Vaughn pointed it to me. I saw dirt, stones and more dirt. I looked at Vaughn desperately. Help!
“Here is a fragment of a stone axe.” He bent down and picked up a black heavy rock. “See this groove? This is where it would be tethered to a stick. These are the striking edges.” He handed over the hammer to me. “Here is a pendant. And a hammer stone. This one hand held, for chipping. There’s a metate, the stone base used to grind corn. Here’s a piece of the Anasazi mug handle. They probably used the mugs to drink corn beer.” By now, I was barely breathing.
He was finding artifacts faster than my mind could register. He could pick out an object in the dirt with his eyes and somehow see them in its full form. It felt like he opened an Anasazi attic for me.
I turned around looking for Vaughn. A few feet away, he was supine under a canopy formed by three rocks that were somehow supporting each other. I joined him. I heard the sound of a rock slab being moved, a hand scratching an adobe hollow. Then he turned around and sat before me, crossed-legged. In his gentle hands hands, he was cupping something red.
“A redware.” He said “A seed jar. The Anasazi would store seeds in this for their next planting session.”
I went down on my knees. He was cupping the pot as if he were holding a caterpillar, afraid to drop it, afraid to crush it. The red jar stood out on his pink palms. An intricate black geometrical design had been flawlessly executed by a steady hand. The jar is in mint condition. It could sit on my dining table and meld in with the contemporary. Gently I pinched the rim. It was as thin as chinaware.
The dots connected. I had seen umpteen such pots behind glass panels in museums. One pot after another, each with a little placard that tried to convey in ten words a story of a life time, a history, an adventure, a legacy. I imagined the little museum plaque for the historical piece.
|MV Redware. |
C 1150-1300 AD. Excavated in Cedar Mesa, UT.
VH Collection. Donated in 2012
And sitting in Vaughn’s palms, a few meters away from where it was born, lived and served, it’s story needed no plaque.
“Very few people have seen it in the past 800 years.” Those goose bumps again.
A fly buzzed around my head. The heat grew stronger as the afternoon grew older. Vaughn had crawled back to put the pot back. I trudged to the trash pile. A shadow caught my eye. Under a bush I saw a shard sticking up. I reached across and gently teased it out of the dirt. It was the largest shard I have ever seen, almost the size of my palm. I spat on it to get rid of the dirt. It was a curved ceramic, probably a bowl, painted in the Anasazi black on white style. It had the classic Anasazi design - a black staircase that climbs 4 to 5 steps and suddenly falls, the climbs again until it circles around the pot. I turned it over in my fingers. Smooth glazed finish. I turned it over. Dabs of black on the rim. I had never held anything so inanimate in my hands so beautiful.
Up on the ledge, I heard the patter of scampering tiny feet. Twack! The unmistakable sound of a human body bumping into another, a sharp cry of anguish and a splatter as an earthen pot met slickrock. The anguish was replaced by fury and another twack, this time a hand, on its downward swing, met a rump. As a tiny chest heaved and little lips quivered, scratch-scratch- scratch, a yucca broom scrapped against the rock. A shadow appeared on the ledge. Pieces of painted and fired earth cascaded.
The shard lay where it should. On the pile of dirt, as it had for eight hundred years.