Broken Pots, Challenged Expectations

A LETTER FROM THE APACHE TRAIL

April 28, 1991|By KATHLEEN CAPCARA

At least 20 miles of the Apache Trail near Phoenix, Ariz., is unpaved, one lane wide and full of hairpin curves, winding over steep cliffs without guardrails. It can make someone who has never traveled west of the Mississippi nervous.

Purists about history and the environment like the trail this way because it preserves the original character of the road as it was dug out of the Arizona mountains in 1904.

We are startled by the sight of a road runner darting in front of our moving car and then making an equally swift retreat. It is a smaller bird than appears in the Warner Bros. cartoons.

Another challenge to expectations: Many of the enormous saguaro cactuses along the road are pitted and gray at their bases and punctured at the top by animal holes. These are not the pristine cactuses of the travel magazines.

I am traveling with my younger sister, Linda, because my staunchly East-bound husband refused to come along. He said he'd looked at a copy of Arizona Highways 20 years ago and therefore saw no need to visit. The smallish road runners and scarred cactuses will be my secret.

The Apache Trail was made for transportation of building materials in the construction of Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1914. We wind past the dam itself: at 238 feet, the world's largest masonry dam, higher than Niagara Falls. But this is not our destination. We have set out for an archaeological dig at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's eight-year research project on the prehistoric Roosevelt Platform Mound Site.

Opening the dig to novices has been a public-relations triumph for the Bureau of Reclamation. Raising the height of Roosevelt Dam by 77 feet over the next five years will put this 700-year-old native American site under water, so the bureau contracted with Arizona State University not only to study 29 agricultural and habitation sites around the Indian mounds, but also to increase public awareness of the importance of archaeology in the Southwest.

My sister and I are taking part in "salvage archaeology" in the second of six digs open to the public. Though eight years may seem a long time for excavation, these sites are so immense and full of ceremonial sites, granaries and living places that archaeologists will get only tantalizing glimpses before everything vanishes under the rising waters of Roosevelt Lake. They are determined to salvage what they can in this short time.

The day, at 40 degrees, is both colder and cloudier than a Baltimorean might expect from reading Arizona Highways. Surrounded by desert brush, 50 archaeologists are demonstrating everything from the techniques of excavation to the cleaning and processing of artifacts. It is apparently both colder and cloudier than Arizonans expected; there are only about 100 of us in the trenches, putting small shovels of dirt into large metal buckets.

As we move to the wooden-framed hanging screens to sift the dirt, Gianni, an anthropology student from Pennsylvania, helps us sort out our finds. He has dangling from one ear a metal earring in the shape of a human skeleton. He tells us that in addition to fostering public understanding of how archaeology is done, the Bureau of Reclamation hopes to educate people about the evils of vandalizing archaeological sites.

I wonder if the earring is some kind of warning.

The mandated education appears to work. A dozen children who might have been picking up stones to throw in a pond are instead treating them with an almost religious respect as they shake the dirt from them through the sifting frames. Eight-year-old Chris is rewarded with the knowledge that she has done grown-up work when she uncovers the rim from a clay pot.

Mr. and Mrs. Walker, from Massillon, Ohio, take photos of the find. They are "snowbirds" -- retired people who winter in the state. They first heard about the annual dig on television last year, when more typically sunny Arizona weather drew 1,200 people to the prehistoric site.

My sister and I sift out several pieces of multicolored pottery. Since this site, marked with wooden stakes and ropes, was chosen by the archaeologists as one particularly rich in artifacts, it would have been difficult not to find pottery shards. But the ease of discovery does not diminish the thrill. We stand, gazing in awe at the 700-year-old fragments of the past in our hands.

And I feel a surge of hope for the future as I hear one small example of the bureau's hoped-for ripple effect at work. One 10-year-old excavator says to her companion: "Get that piece of pottery out of your pocket! It is over 700 years old, and it belongs to all of us."

Kathleen Capcara grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where there are few, if any, hairpin curves.

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