National Geographic : 1964 Feb
Solving the Riddles of Wetherill Mesa The resilient crown of Al's Stetson absorbed most of the impact of the football-size stone. "That saved me," he said later. "I had my head pulled down so far my hat brim was resting on my collarbones!" The trip was worth the strain. The Anasazi had built 13 rooms on the butte. Three jars, a ladle, and an ax had been left behind. These added to the story of Wetherill Mesa. A dwell ing site-what a site!-a kind of pottery, and a kind of ax all tell us something of how these people lived, how far their ceramic work and stone shaping had progressed. Our preliminary survey of Wetherill Mesa was completed in August of 1960; no fewer than 806 sites were found. Grandest of all is Long House, second larg est cliff dwelling in the park (after Cliff Palace on Chapin Mesa). Long House grips you. I have heard many a man gasp as I led him to the cliff edge above the ruin (pages 166-8). George S. Cattanach and Art Rohn started digging in Long House in the spring of 1959 the first time a full-scale dig had been attempt ed there. Just clearing away the rubble was a tremendous job. Our next move was to search and excavate the talus slope-an incline of soil and rock de bris-that stretched away below the dwelling. Here we found garbage, sweepings, discarded building material, potsherds-all the trash that might be thrown away by aboriginal vil lagers, turned into compact earth by the cen turies. Here, too, were skeletons. I doubt if the Anasazi had any particular reason for burying some of their dead in, so to speak, the village dump. The skeletons from the Long House trash slope were as carefully buried and had as many objects with them as did burials in rooms or rock crannies-per haps even more. The ancient Mesa Verdean did not mind having his dead close by; maybe he preferred it that way. We found some 40 burials below Long House; in fact these were the most exciting and important of our discoveries there. Step with me out of the shadow of the cave like alcove, skirting the walls and rooms, and walk down the trash slope. Ignore those protesting ravens croaking at us. They think they own Long House because they nest in the cliff. Watch your step here; it is steep and the footing is loose. We walk down to a pair of men troweling the earth beside a sandstone block. One rises from his knees to say, "Bur- ial 16 is ready for photographing and draw ing." He wipes sweat from his sun-bronzed face while we look at the skeleton, still lying in its 700-year-old bed. It is on its side, knees drawn up, arms folded. Worn Teeth Provide Clue to Diet You may be impressed with the size of the bones and teeth and wonder whether it was a man or woman. I show you the characteris tics of the skull and pelvis that tell us this was a man who died in his mid-forties. See how worn the teeth are, how smooth the grinding surfaces? These people ground their corn on sandstone slabs; grit was pres ent in every meal. You think this person was a large man? Not at all. The right thigh bone, matched against my own upper leg, is at least an inch and a half shorter. The other bones are all smaller than mine. I am 6 feet tall; this man could not have been taller than 5 feet 5 or 6 inches. Picture a small, dark man, strongly yet lightly muscled, lithe. His face is weather beaten, his hands gnarled from hard work. He was laid to rest with tools and pots of food; his people believed in an afterlife, and prob ably expected to meet him again. There were no signs of violence on the skeleton. He died naturally. Probably 40-odd years of life in the canyons and fields were enough for any man. He needed rest. Trash Dump Traces Unwritten History The trash slope also yielded several inter esting sequences of pottery types. If an Indian woman broke a pot, swept it up swearing un der her breath, and threw the pieces in a de pression where erosion would not move them, she had started what we call a stratigraphic column. More breaking and sweeping, and more debris piled on as decades passed eventually several feet of material, largely returned to the soil from which it came. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the sherds at the bottom of the column will be different from those on top. Pottery fashions and techniques change, slowly but inexorably, and furnish major clues toward the prehistory we are trying to write. Probing into the series of ruins, both cliff dwellings and those of the mesatop, we could watch, in effect, the Indian women perfect their ceramic art. We found a growing sophis tication, both in the decorations and in the shape of the pots themselves.