Uncovering Secrets of the Desert
By Ron Dungan – The Arizona Republic
WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT – It’s midafternoon on a hot summer day, and ranger Chuck Sypher is talking about farming.
Volunteers at this park northeast of Flagstaff have planted a garden, Sypher says, to see how Pueblo farmers made a go of it in this bare, windswept country that, in some years, gets less rain than Phoenix does. It doesn’t look much like farm country.
The terrain is dry and rocky, with vast stretches of saltbush and broom snakeweed growing in the shadow of a volcanic mountain range.
Sometime around 1064 one of these volcanoes erupted, and the tribes that had lived on the edges of the volcanic field were later drawn toward it. Some archaeologists believe the cinders acted as mulch that kept water from evaporating, making farming more productive.
Today, the extinct volcano and the ruins of the tribal culture can be seen along a long asphalt loop road. Wupatki and neighboring Sunset Crater Volcano national monuments encompass a great deal of the area’s scenery and history.
As you drive the road, it’s hard to imagine this landscape dotted with plots of corn, beans and squash. The tribes irrigated some crops with water from the nearby Little Colorado River, but many crops were planted far from any water source. The people planted a wide variety of seeds, although not every crop flourished.
Sypher says the volunteers used native seeds to start their little garden plot at the Wupatki visitor center, and they have used a hose to help water the crop.
“We’re finding out we’re not as adept as they were,” Sypher says. “They were really in tune to the Earth. They knew where to plant and what to plant.”
Sunset Crater erupted at a time when many influential Southwestern tribes were moving and changing. Then a drought hit the region around 1130, and clans that lived near the volcano, people we know today as the Sinagua, Cohonina Anasazi and Kayenta Anasazi, moved closer to it. Perhaps they had noticed that the grass grew a little thicker, the trees a little taller, Northern Arizona University archaeologist Christian Downum says.
“That drought in the 1130s sort of scrambles the landscape,” Downum says. “People were on the move.”
There is evidence of violence as the groups lived in closer proximity, but they learned to coexist, and a great melting pot of cultures emerged.
The center of the culture was Wupatki ruin, which appears to have architectural aspects similar to Chaco Canyon, about 200 miles away in northwestern New Mexico.
Near the Wupatki ruin is a structure that appears to be a ball court, indicating influences from the Hohokam, who lived in what is now the Phoenix area.
The Hohokam played games in structures similar to this one, but there is some question about whether the structure really was a ball court. The Hopi, who are descendants of the people who lived here, dispute that it’s a ball court, but artifacts recovered throughout the monument show a variety of outside influences, including Hohokam shell jewelry and macaw feathers, and many styles of pottery.
“The reason it’s called a ball court is that it’s oval, about a 100 feet long and 50 feet wide,” says Bern Carey, a volunteer for the park and the neighboring Coconino National Forest.
This blend of cultures makes the site interesting, but hard to interpret.
“They call archaeology argue-ology,” says Nichole Murphy, a Student Conservation Association worker at the park.
Whatever life was like at Wupatki, clearly people from different cultures were blending together.
“We have these places where people really hadn’t lived side by side bumping up against each other,” Downum says.
At the society’s peak, thousands of people lived here. By the early 1200s, the people started to leave. Archaeologists don’t have a definitive reason, and theories range from environmental factors such as drought and declining soil quality to social change.
Many people see the park by driving the loop road, starting at Sunset Crater and winding up at Wupatki. There are scenic overlooks along the way, with picnic areas and views of the Painted Desert.
As you enter Wupatki National Monument from Sunset Crater, the first ruin you come to is Wukoki Pueblo.
Richard Morgan of Flagstaff grew up around here and used to come to the park often. Morgan lifts his son onto his shoulders to see the Painted Desert, as the rest of his family takes in the views that Wukoki offers. They climb among its walls and circle the ruin along the path below.
The next stop along the loop is the main ruin, Wupatki, which also has a small museum, bookstore and gift shop. Other ruins that visitors can explore include Citadel Pueblo, a mesa-top ruin close to the road; and dwellings in Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblo, both reached via a short trail along a wash.
Guided backcountry tours allow backpackers to experience things that most visitors don’t see. One, an overnight trip, goes to Crack-in-Rock pueblo, as well as a number of petroglyph panels. There really is a crack in the rock at this ruin, and you must climb through it to see the crumbling walls of the structure and the view of the Painted Desert beyond. The hike is offered in October and April, and hikers are selected through a lottery.
The park also offers occasional moonlight backcountry tours.
Each ruin offers views of country the people who lived here must have enjoyed as much as we do.
“It’s such a spectacularly beautiful area,” Carey says. “As I learn more about archaeology, I ask myself, ‘Where would I put a house?’ And invariably I find a pueblo there.”
The fact that many cultures converged here makes it difficult for archaeologists to understand what life was truly like, but this blending is what makes the place unique.
“It looks like Wupatki was a great meeting place,” Downum says, “where people did coexist. . . . I like to think we still do that.”
And we do. On my visit, about half of the cars at the visitor center were from out of state.
Reach the reporter at 602-444-4847 or [email protected]
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