Friday, March 7, 2014

Rock art in the desert

March is Arizona Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month and I got to tag along on a hike led by the park's archeologist, one of the Bills. The other Bill is the paleontologist. They really are jointly known as The Bills. Archeologist Bill is leading four hikes to two different places this month, alternating between a site out in the Painted Desert that's down a mountain goat track, and the other to old Route 66 - two widely different destinations but if he's in charge they can be nothing but interesting. 

If I hadn't been on this hike I would never have seen the path that took us down from Lacey Point, a pullout on the Painted Desert that's named for John Fletcher Lacey. Lacey is significant in the history of the conservation movement for his role in writing (with the help of anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewett) and enacting the Antiquities Act. The Act has been pivotal to the preservation of major archaeological sites in the Southwestern United States. The path is down a mere sliver of ridge atop one of the sloping sides of the point, where I took no pictures as I was too busy watching my feet. A gazelle I am not, nor a mountain goat.

The distinctive banded reds of El Desierto Pintado, so named by Colonial Spanish explorers.

Petrified wood litters a ravine and has tumbled to the desert floor.

The truncated mound is our destination for petroglyphs. I've heard there are petroglyphs everywhere within park boundaries, and there are probably some yet unknown. The expansion lands span tens of thousands of acres and no one has been over every bit of them yet.

The rugged terrain of badlands:

One member of our party is on the hunt for rock art. We weren't told where it is but just given the direction to go look for it.

This is an impressive representation. The desert vanish in which the art is inscribed is dark and still intact, and the figures are sharply detailed. The human figure is sometimes called the Jitterbug Man.

You can see here how the desert varnish has chipped away. One rock I looked at from the side had varnish about 1/4 inch thick. I'd never realized it was that thick.

There aren't any codes or keys anywhere to say what the images mean. The archeologist told me he used to teach an undergraduate course and at the beginning of the semester took in a copy of Beowulf in Old English. When he asked students to read it they were generally unsuccessful, and that's how he introduced rock art. No one wrote a lexicon. Your guess is as good as anyone's, and even the Hopi and Navajo people, who claim this land as part of their ancestral heritage, don't have records handed down over the 50 or so generations since these messages were literally carved in stone.

Here's an example of rock art that will be lost soon. The desert varnish is flaking away in large spots, making the images harder to see. I saw this rock from a distance and couldn't tell if I was actually seeing something there, or if it was just a lucky confluence of spots. There is something there, an arrow sloping from upper left to lower right in the upper right area of the stone, and to its lower left, a couple of boxes. A few more chips falling off the rock and this image will be gone.

Archeologist Bill was standing to the left when I came across this rock and started taking pictures. When it seemed I was done, he nodded to the space between them and told me to look in there. Wow.

I could be entirely wrong but this looks like a kokopelli figure (the flute player) to me. To the left is what I called a ladder and learned that others call it a centipede.

There are lots of glyphs of big horn sheep in the park. See how this one is deteriorating? What a shame. There aren't big horn sheep in the park now.

A horse? A mule deer? Whatever it was, it was important enough to the scribe to chip it into the stone.

A sun and other images that are starting to fall away. It looks like there was a human figure on the right, now half gone.

 More animals and a human and a half.

I've read that meandering lines are thought to represent rivers, which is easy to interpret on some rock art I've seen. I don't know if this boxy meander means the same thing.

 This spiral is about perfect. I'm sure someone knows, but I wonder if it's a solstice marker.

Up around the hill to the right was a treasure trove of pottery sherds. This is maybe from ladle handles.

Wonderful detailing, and imagine how large the pot must have been, judging by the wide curve of the sherd.

The black is from the fire the pot was cured in, and the red was a glaze that was applied before firing. This would have been another large pot.

Bill talked about the difference in pottery decoration, depending on its use. A dish or bowl that would be presented to a guest during a meal could be decorated very differently from a large one outside the pueblo door that served an ornamental, rather than functional and intimate, purpose.

This part of the site was almost carpeted with broken pieces, as though it was the village dump. As much as one can tiptoe in hiking shoes, I was doing my best not to crunch the artifacts into crumbs.

The site is a couple of miles off the road. I couldn't see the pullout from the desert floor and would not have ventured out without someone who knew where he was going. But I now have, thanks to a good, good friend, a great GPS that will bring me home even if I can't make out a beacon on the rim. More discoveries await when I figure out how to use it.

Thought of the day:
Write what should not be forgotten. (Isabel Allende)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Volunteer, geriatric, trail tester

Last week, with the paleontologist and volunteer coordinator, I went on a hike to plot GPS coordinates and test the interestingness of a proposed new trail. They wanted to see what an unbiased visitor would think of it, so they lost out on the unbiased condition but did get the geriatric viewpoint, a bonus.

As I'm getting to be more of a hiker I look for more challenging trails, and .3 miles just doesn't cut it. Even 1.5 miles are generally not enough unless there's some elevation change or ravines to leap over, or eroding paths with vertical chasms to fall into. This new trail, called the Red Basin trail, is going to be about 7 miles long and the test hike was great.

The Red Basin trail starts at a service road on the way to Blue Mesa. We wanted to get photos of what hikers will see along the way and while I wanted to keep the photos in chrono order, my processing software and Blogger are having issues. I do know, though, that this is the first photo taken after we parked and started walking.

 Yes, this is really the color of the petrified wood.


Another piece of petrified wood, this time just a shard. Amazing color.

 There was a mixture of dry washes and mesas/buttes.

Does this look like a sphinx to you?

One of my favorite things to see: pedestals under pebbles and petrified wood. Those are big chunks in the background, of course, but the ones up front are just tiny pebbles.

The barbed wire fence marks what used to be the boundary of the park. In 2011 and 2013, more than 30,000 acres were added to the park, about 25% of the previously existing acreage. The land on the other side of the fence used to belong to the Bureau of Land Management. When the hike is up and running, there will be steps up and over the fence, but we had to crawl under it. It was not one of my more graceful moments.

We weren't on the other side of the fence thirty seconds before the paleontologist spotted this bottle just sitting on top of the earth. It was quite a find, in perfect condition, not a scratch or chip on it. Usually the rule is to leave things where they're found, but after a call to the archeologist and marking the exact spot with the GPS, the bottle was safely stored in a backpack. It was packed with dirt and some of it was left for testing; it's possible they'll be able to say where it came from.

I didn't have similar luck when I spotted this jar a little while later. It was gleaming so white, partially buried, that I thought it was modern plastic and was going to pocket it to throw away later. It turned out to be a partial glass jar that made me immediately think of Vicks. Sure enough, there were enough letters on the bottom to cipher out Mentholatum. I put it back where I found it.

This landscape of ball bearing pebbles came and went. They rest on packed earth and are just as slippery to walk on as their name implies.

The hike passes what's known as the Clam Beds. This is just a small part of a boulder made of the fossilized clam shells. I know it's not PC but I think if they were cut and polished they'd be gorgeous.

This formation looks just like what's found on the Blue Mesa trail. It probably is the same and if I paid better attention when the paleontologist is talking I'd be able to say so with certainty. They're such beautiful, rich colors.

This does not show as well as I'd like. What I'm trying to show is the mud pattern in the dry wash, and how, when the water was flowing, it gathered the pebbles into the compact, nearly-diamond-shaped pattern in the middle.

 Odd phenomena.

The boulders are conglomerates, sedimentary rock consisting of individual rounded fragments within a finer-grained matrix that has all become cemented together. We stopped for a loo break here and I swear I'm going to get one of those gadgets that lets women stand to pee.

Nothing to say other than I just like this photo.

The Sand Castle is the turning point on the hike. A hard left here leads to the Red Basin, but first,


traversing Blue Mesa-style badlands.

Finally, into the slot canyon that marks the beginning of the Red Basin.

 This would be impossible to describe in a believable way.

I first thought that was petrified wood on the crown, but now think it's another rock layer.
 There's a lot of meandering through the basin.

 The view at the other end.

We climbed this hill to have lunch, which would have been great except someone told me the hike was four miles and I thought, "Piece of cake!" A piece of cake or a sandwich would have been nice, and my two companions offered me part of their lunch, but I offered it up for all the poor souls in Purgatory.

 A little more eye candy.

The paleontologist led us to a spot that's thick with fossils, including the next couple of photos. Once again I didn't pay attention and don't know what these are. He has job security, that's for sure. There are fossils like these in a layer all around the hill.

Bones or plates of something. I really have to start taking notes.

This one is exactly what it looks like and its fancy name is coprolite. There's a layer in the hills all around the spot we were standing that's 3 or four inches thick and is commonly known as The Poop Layer. 

One of the Law Enforcement Rangers met us a couple of miles from the end and saved us some steps. She and her truck were a welcome sight. We'd done a lot of backtracking to avoid taking hikers to archeological sites and probably hiked close to the seven miles the final trail will be.

One of her friends, another Ranger stationed at Canyon de Chelly, took our picture. I got his card so I could get a custom tour into the Canyon. I knew I'd be going back and that offer is too good to miss.


Thought of the day:

Do not follow where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)