The circle of stones sits in the Utah desert, on a bench above the murky waters of the river. Nearby, more stones are strewn about in an orderly fashion. And everywhere, pieces of gray, red and corrugated pottery lie scattered.
Hundreds of years ago, this was a sacred Puebloan site. The circle, about 50 feet across, is what remains of a great kiva, most likely used for dances or other ceremonies. After decades of worshipping here, the people moved on. Their descendents now live in the Pueblos along the Rio Grande, or at Hopi, Acoma or Zuni. For centuries, the kiva and its attendant structures sat here, undisturbed. Eventually, however, a new wave of settlement crashed over the landscape. Right next to the kiva, Mormon pioneers built a wagon road, now passable by car. Today, hundreds of people raft by on the river each year. It was inevitable that this place would be looted, its artifacts carried away.
When I visited the kiva earlier this month, I considered all that had once been here and was now sitting gathering dust on some shelf somewhere. Like Craig Childs in this issue's cover story, I felt sad, even a bit outraged. But I also felt a twinge of guilt.
A long time ago, when I was just a kid, my family spent a lot of time cruising around the canyons of the Four Corners region, looking at the remains of ancient communities. My brother and I also picked up a lot of pottery and arrowheads we found scattered around the rubble. It was just what folks did in this part of the world. It never occurred to us that with each artifact pilfered, we were carrying away part of the past. Then, when I was about 8 or 9, an archaeologist informed us that what we were doing was wrong. We quickly changed our ways, and I never took another piece of pottery home again. The damage, however, had been done.
Now, I see the world quite a bit differently. Not only do I no longer pick up artifacts, but I have begun to question why archaeologists take so many. Which is why I found Craig's story intriguing: He wonders just how much archaeology differs from pothunting, and comes up with some interesting, unexpected answers.
Serious archaeology is on a far different plane than my juvenile arrowhead-gathering. However, I sometimes wonder whether enough digging has been done, enough artifacts collected. It seems an archaeologist could learn more about the great kiva I visited from just looking around it, at its geographical context, than from removing and analyzing the material remains. (The kiva sits in the center of a spectacular landscape, at the nexus of ancient Puebloan worlds, and you simply cannot put something like that in a museum storeroom.) An archaeologist could learn even more from talking to today's Puebloans, the descendants of those who once lived here. And, of course, he could leave something for future archaeologists, who may regard our scientific methods the way we do the pothunters' digging. Artifacts are fascinating, but they are increasingly secondary when it comes to gaining knowledge of the past.
That doesn't mean they aren't important, however. And it's heartening to me to watch my daughters walk carefully across the rubble, searching intently for pieces of pottery. When one finds a shard, she picks it up, turns it around in her little hands and memorizes the ancient design. Then she gently puts it back, right where she found it.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.