4-Corners home to primitive cultures

Cooper and I have been to the 4-Corners area of the US many times before, visiting national parks that interpret the migration and innovation of Native Americans. The last time was in 2006, when Mesa Verde was celebrating it’s 100th birthday. (In case you have been living under a rock and don’t know this terminology, 4-Corners refers to the place in the Southwest where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona come together.)  This area of the US has been inhabited by humans for the past 10-15,000 years. Architecture in the 4-Corners area can be traced from about 550 AD to 1290 AD, before the area was vacated, for whatever reasons.  Living in Arizona last winter, I became even more fascinated with Native American culture than I had been before, since examples were all around me.  Although it started slowly, with visits to museums and the University of Arizona (Arizona State) Museum in the Tucson area, I have now become obsessed with answering more and more questions about the anthropology and archaeology of this part of the country.  It is a fascinating story evolution of civilization, something still taking place today.

At the beginning of the summer, a friend suggested that I read a book, House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest  by Craig Childs.  He let me know that his wife tried to read it and it just didn’t grab her attention, but that was definitely not the case with me.  Although the author is an archaeologist/anthropologist/writer, and has years and years of experience of discoveries in this part of the US, he is foremost an author and is able to tell a story about the the people he camped with, the weather he had to deal with, and initiating his son at a very young age to the world of archaeology.  This book became the guide to our circuitous trek toward Tucson (a two-month trip) for the winter.  We wanted to revisit the parks we had visited in the past, but with the information and perspective from House of Rain.


The book that inspired our current tour of the Southwest.


Our base of operation for the first part of our exploration was near Cortez, Colorado.  Mesa Verde RV Park, basically across the highway from Mesa Verde National Park  was well located and we had stayed in the park 10 years before.  We were surprised that the park was so busy for this time of year, which wasn’t the case the last time.  We didn’t make reservations and mistakenly thought, by checking in on a Sunday night, we would have no problem getting a site for a week.  (Tip:  The cost for a week is generally less than paying the daily rate and staying a month can generally save even more.  Staying a week also affords you plenty of time to get to know a place, talk to locals to find hidden gems.) After spending one night in a temporary space, we finally moved to a great space (although it was a more expensive “premium space”), where we could stay for the rest of our time in Cortez. (Tip:  Reservations near the most popular attractions of an area are a good idea.  This reinforces the same lesson we learned earlier this summer when we didn’t plan far enough ahead to get reservations anywhere along the Oregon coast during the last two weeks of August.  More and more people are RVing, but there are few new RV parks being built and some are closing.)

House of Rain started its story in Mesa Verde.  We all know about the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, whole communities built into the sides of sandstone mountains, complete with many rooms, kivas, storage rooms, handholds built into vertical walls and more.  They are the most famous prehistory communities across the Southwest.  But, before there were cliff dwellings, there were pit houses.  Following the big fire in 2002, archaeologists discovered several pit houses that had been buried in the overgrown brush in the area.  Pithouses were depressions dug into the ground that had also had a roof built over the top and were covered with clay.  Extended families lived in these houses and sometimes there were other pithouses grouped together in an area, the beginnings of “communities”.  Cliff dwellings may have been created as a means of defense or a way to get out of the heat of the southwest.  Did the dwellers climb up to get off the canyon floor or did they climb down to get to the cool shelter of the rocks?  YES.  Both.  So much more has been learned and interpreted in the 10 years since we last visited.  Obviously, just because you have visited a place in the past, doesn’t mean it will stay static.  These places and the knowledge are always evolving.


As more and more people gathered together to live in communities, whole villages were constructed, using more sophisticated building forms


As people moved from a nomadic existence to a more semi-permanent one, they would dig shallow pits and erect a roof over the pit, covering it with clay and to keep out the elements. When it was time to move, they would just abandon the pit and build another one in another location. Many of these were discovered after the fire of 2002 in Mesa Verde.

Inside those cliff dwellings were walls built of stone and mortar, with windows, doors and roof beams, the evolution of architecture.  In the Cortez area is also the Hovenweep National Monument, a great example of how architecture evolved to more actual construction of walls and buildings scattered along a (often dry) creek bed.  These buildings are independent of each other but loosely make up spaced-out community.  It wasn’t that far to visit others in the community, but they weren’t right on top of each other.  That happened later.

As building methods improved and evolved, structures many floors high could be constructed.

As building methods improved and evolved, structures many floors high could be constructed.

One of the new things we did, while in the Cortez area, was to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center just outside of Dolores, CO (about 15 miles from Cortez).  What a fabulous interpretive center to give one a very clear idea of what it was like to live during the 700 years of Ancient Puebloan occupation of the 4-Corners area! (We learned that the correct terminology for what we have called Native Americans is Ancient Puebloan.  Anyone born in the United States, regardless of when, is actually a native American.)  We spent more than four hours in this museum, totally engrossed. Examples of the evolution of black-on-white pottery, weaving of fibers of all kinds (cotton, turkey feathers, leather, and grasses) for clothing, and pre-pottery baskets with pitch or clay on the inside for cooking and water/seed/food storage, and a replica pit house to see how it was made, how the ventilation works, and how easily they were accidentally or intentionally burned.


This museum is a “not to be missed” attraction for anyone interested in the culture of the Ancient Puebloans between 550 to 1290 AD

For me, probably the best part of the Anasazi Center was the special basketry exhibit they had going.  Those who know me, know I have recently become fascinated in pine needle baskets and am learning to make them.  I spend a fair amount of time on Pinterest and You Tube, getting inspiration and learning techniques.  Several of the people I have been learning about who are traditional basketry rockstars are represented in the exhibit at the Anasazi Center. Mary Holiday Black is considered the matriarch of the Navajo basketry revival, with 9 of her 11 children following in her footsteps.  Before this resurgence, the craft (as well as rug weaving and spinning, and pottery making) had almost died out due to a lack of interest by young Navajos.  Chris Johnson is one of these young basket weavers making very contemporary, non-traditional baskets.  I watched a video he made about the steps necessary for collecting and preparing materials, designing, and actually coiling a basket.  Lots of work.  They don’t use pine needles.  They use willow, yucca and sumac, which they collect by the truckloads in the fall.  Preparation of the raw materials is a very labor intensive process.  Now knowing what it takes to make one of those baskets, I have a whole new appreciation of the craft.


This is a sampling of the new contemporary designs being made today. Chris Johnson made the bird basket on the lower row, really breaking outside traditional symmetrical design. Many artists are now following his lead.


These artists have revived the traditional Navajo basketry techniques, still gathering and using native plants as the ancients did thousands of years ago.

This is only the first part of our trek to discover what happened to the Anasazi.  We have several other stops along our planned route to learn more about the Ancient Puebloan culture as it has evolved to present day.  Parts two and three of this trek will follow in the next couple of weeks. We are spending a week in Aztec, New Mexico, and another week in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area visiting great houses and pueblos along the way.

Cortes has more to offer than just ruins.  If you know us well, you know Cooper is into micro-breweries.  We seek them out in every town we stay in.  In Cortez,  we found Main Street Brewery.  There might be others, but we only had one opportunity to indulge.  We went for lunch, which was really tasty.  Cooper sampled a couple of beers, which he proclaimed to be good, and I had a glass of wine, also good.  I tried the Brew City fries, topped with their beer-infused green chili and cheese (chili-cheese fries), and Cooper had a burger on their homemade foccacia bread.  We were both pleased.  They aren’t open for lunch Monday through Thursday, which we discovered on Thursday when we first tried to go, so we went back on Friday.  It was worth the wait.

Cooper believes this to be true. He was doing his part.

Cooper believes this to be true. He was doing his part.

The other thing we did, other than touring ruins, was to visit the Ute Mountain Trading Post.  It is full of all kinds of Indian crafts for sale, but the coolest part is to be able to watch pottery being decorated by artisans in the back of the store.  The artists are behind glass, painting and engraving already prepared pots.  We didn’t see them making the pots, but watching the painting and engraving was pretty cool.

You can watch the artists creating traditional pottery

You can watch the artists creating traditional pottery at the Ute Mountain Trading Post.

Stay tuned for the next two installments of this trek through the 4-Corners of the Southwest.