A desert’s stolen secrets

  It caught my eye, like a ruby someone had dropped on the ground. I was already looking for something, a handhold maybe, a place to step as the two of us scrambled up this route of cliffs and ledges in the Utah desert. I squinted into the shadow of a leaning boulder and saw the smooth ceramic shoulder of a vessel. It was a pot - a pot seven or eight hundred years old.

There was once a civilization here, of people who built stone pueblos and hives of cliff dwellings. Most of what we know of them now is told through extremely rare objects scattered in the desert. The shape of this pot, its type of clay, its pigment and temper contain tales of migrations and trade routes and the daily lives of people long-dead. Walking in this country, I have occasionally found these rare intact elements: baskets hidden in crevice and cave, a painted black-on-white pot in the shelter of an alcove, multi-story towers striking up from canyon rims in the far away.

My partner and I crouched in front of this pot. Its clay was red. Deep, tomato-red. In those first moments, we did not speak. We only hovered, absorbing this shape with our eyes. Such a find is so rare that we will remember each of these details - the color of the boulder, the angle of light, the position of the pot - for as long as we live. We were not here to steal it, or even touch it for that matter. We watched it like a comet in the sky, something far beyond our grasp.

Desert civilizations are fragile. We know this culture that lived in the American Southwest mostly through bits and pieces, through pots and shields and shell ornaments. I think of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, recently looted as police forces there crumbled. With carts and wheelbarrows, looters entered the museum, wrecking the largest repository of Mesopotamian artifacts in the world. Clay tablets bearing thousands of years of written records have gone missing, and archaeologists fear that a civilization's entire history is at risk.

The world is rich in lost civilizations. We build subdivisions atop ancient hunting camps. Desert cities stack on each other like books in a pile. I find the seed-scatter of broken pre-Columbian pottery in places where I camp. Coming upon this pot was no coincidence. People come to the same places, following each other across the millennia.

Beneath a coating of windblown sand, I saw on the pot the faint tracks of a design. I leaned forward and blew on it. The sand scattered. An intricate, geometric pattern of black paint became visible, scribed all the way around the pot. I studied the motifs, imagining them to be a language of symbols that, if deciphered, could explain much about these people. Such a language might only be understood if this pot were transported to a museum and scrutinized by the wisest and most learned of archaeologists. Or perhaps it might only be understood if left right here, in its context of wind and land.

Deserts hold their secrets well, but once we begin gathering them from the field, working either as illegal pot hunters or as archaeologists, the artifacts lose their context. They become even more rare, more fragile. This pot that we suddenly came upon, if it were collected and stored by even the most fastidious of curators, what would happen to it in a thousand years? What will happen when 21st century English is an arcane language studied only by scholars, and the ancient records of archaeologists are crowded in dusty, forgotten rooms? What will happen when the looters come and ravage our museums? We brushed sand away from the pot's front, revealing an original repair to a crack where holes had been drilled and secured with a delicately braided cord. We could see where this crack had fanned across the lower curve of the pot. If we attempted to move it, the pot would fall apart. The sand in which it had rested for centuries was the only thing holding it together.

I have walked the back rooms of museums, standing in awe before shelves of thousands of pots. I recently spent several days photographing collections of central Arizona ceramics dating from around 1300 A.D., wearing white cotton gloves as I lifted the vessels from a museum's storage, carrying them to observation tables. In these rooms, the humidity is not allowed to vary by more than 1 percent.

I carried one pot after the next, thinking of how we struggle to hold onto these vanishing civilizations. But they are made of ghosts. They slip through our fingers. We steal treasures from the desert, and hoard them in museums. The desert returns, and steals them back.

Each clay tablet that goes missing from the Iraqi National Museum steals centuries of knowledge. Countless generations dissolve into history when artifacts of gold and silver are melted down and sold for their metals. In the far future, when names like Iraq or United States are little more than terms of antiquity, Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, might finally be lost because of what is happening at this moment in Baghdad. Its name will no longer be spoken.

What, then, should we do with this pot in the desert of Utah? It might someday be stolen by pot hunters. If not, it will eventually fall prey to erosion, looted by wind and rain. This ancient civilization will become legend, and legend will finally slip from all memory.

After some time, we stood up and walked away. We knew that, if we lifted the pot from the sand, we would only hold it for one brief moment, before it fell apart. So, we left it to the desert, where it still sits, untouched, eroding back into time.

Craig Childs writes from Crawford, Colorado. He is author of The Secret Knowledge of Water and Soul of Nowhere.