Heritage Center is treasure trove of history
AHC curator tour shows off millions of stored artifacts
An underground bunker filled with well-organized artifacts from a bygone era hides beneath the main galleries of the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Special curator tours are now available to take a peek at the collection and learn about research efforts. The collection is public property, and its contents are accessible by appointment to anyone with a research question to address.
“Even locals mostly have no idea it is here,” said volunteer tour guide Marti Costos.
The center’s catacombs reveal the working end of museum science. Conservation labs and offices produce new research and restore pieces of the past. Rows upon rows of shelving stacked to the ceiling are packed with every imaginable relic of the Ancestral Puebloans who thrived in the area for 1,000 years before disappearing by 1300 AD.
Costos paints a picture of prehistoric society as tour participants look over ancient pottery, hundreds of years old and in perfect condition. She explains the utilitarian designs.
“The corrugated sides absorb the heat, and the opening is shaped to prevent boil-overs,” she said. “Imagine 60,000 people living in this region, cooking and burning wood. It was a more smoky atmosphere than today.”
Large cooking pots and woven yucca sandals are among the fragile items permanently preserved for research. Costos shows off a collection of large fractured pots researchers believe were failed experimental designs.
“It was trial and error. A lot of pots probably broke from the heat of the fires,” she said.
Dippers and ladles with well-preserved geometric designs were surely used to dish out rabbit stew with corn, beans, and squash. Rows of ancient pitchers and drinking mugs with black-on-white designs seem to call out for everyday use. But they are instead destined for imprisonment on a shelf for eternity.
Largest dig in U.S.
Most of the collection was rescued from the Dolores River Valley before it was inundated by McPhee Reservoir in 1987.
“There is much more, but it is all underwater,” Costos said.
From 1978 to 1986, the Dolores Archaeological Program (DAP) employed more than 500 people and retrieved artifacts from 1,600 prehistoric households and villages in the Dolores Valley. The DAP was the largest public archaeology project ever undertaken in the United States.
In the Dolores Valley, research revealed that people began settling in small villages around AD 500. The settlements were heavily populated between AD 600 and AD 900, when conditions were most favorable for agriculture.
By by the 1200s the Four Corner settlements were in decline, the people migrated to southerly areas settling in the Rio Grande pueblos, and those of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, Costos explained. The Hopi people also say that their clans came from this region.
In the basement, a researcher is absorbed in his studies with flood lights, magnifying glasses, notebooks, and white gloves (to handle items).
Jonathan Schwartz, of St. Cloud University, examines a collection of pottery and indulges the tour regarding his research.
“I’m comparing basket designs with paintings on ceramics to try and determine patterns in teaching traditions,” he said. “I’m expanding on archaeologist Scott Ortman’s research of conceptual metaphor that pottery designs were conceptualized as textile fabrics. Container imagery played a key role in cultural tradition and learning.”
On a table sits a tiny animal fetish. Nearby lies an impressive arrow quiver, made from animal hide, and adorned with nine small arrowheads and five large ones. An atlatl reveals ancient hunting technology used by Ancestral Puebloans. The spear throwers are made of wood with a hand grip of leather on one end and a notch on the other to hold the end of the spear.
Atlatls work to make the hunter’s arm much longer, allowing him to throw the spear with great force and distance. Researchers believe the technique may have come into North America with the first immigrants 20,000 years ago.
A unique collection is the many game pieces found during the DAP excavations at a site called Grass Mesa Village, a pueblo village inhabited AD 700-925 that was home to as many as 184 households.
Shaped, decorated bone may have been used for gambling or games of entertainment, but exactly how they were used is a mystery. The flat, ovoid pieces are usually engraved on one side with incisions, smooth on the other, and measure one inch long. They were discovered in sets of seven, eight, or nine, and often accompanied by one or two circular disks with a hole through the center.
James Enote of the Zuni tribe, descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, examined the pieces and reported they reminded him of games his tribe played.
“We have a game my grandparents and uncles used to play, ‘Dasholi:we,’” he said in an archived interview. “It’s a stick game, you drop it, and you add them up, and the stones move around in a circle.”
Enote speculates that the cross-hatch incisions on the pieces may have been symbolic of corn.
“I am corn clan, my mother’s side. Almost everything had corn, either hatching like this, or deliberately carving each kernel,” he said. “A lot of things had some sort of corn symbol, fetishes ... representations of something in the world. If I was going to carve something like this, I would be thinking corn.”
Because so many of these gaming pieces were found at Grass Mesa, researchers speculate that it may have been a gambling center, or the items were made and traded from there.
The archives of the Anasazi Heritage Center are always expanding, explained museum technician Liz Quinn. Occasionally the museum offers amnesty for drop-offs of relics illegally collected from public lands by people who feel guilty and want to turn them into the museum.
“They’ll come in with boxes of artifacts from their grandmother’s attic and say ‘please take care of them’,” Quinn says. “They have a guilty conscious.”
Public tours of AHC artifact collections and curator sections are held every Thursday at 2 p.m., May 2-Oct. 31. Space is limited; call 970-882-5600 to reserve a place. The tours are not appropriate for young children.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal A duck bowl from the collection at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal File Some of the seed bowls from the million artifacts at the Anasazi He
Sam Green/Cortez Journal
Sam Green/Cortez Journal Part of a woven sandal is one of the artifacts on the basement tour at t
Sam Green/Cortez Journal CLAY DIPPERS are part of the collection at the Anasazi Heritage Center.