Colorado (USA) : archaeologists study the "living ruins"

Mad dogThe Mad Dog Tower standing in sight of the other sites, probably served a variety of purposes, from defence and messaging to observations of the sky and astronomical phenomena. Photo by A. Słupianek.

PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Szymon Zdziebłowski

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For six years, Kraków archaeologists have been studying 800 years old remains of houses, towers and stone circles in Colorado in the US. Indians believe that these buildings are still inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors, and should not be disturbed without good reason.

"When we are accompanied by the Indians, before each entry to a studied settlements they pray and offer sacrifice of flour made of sacred plant - corn. They encourage us to join this ritual" - head of the Polish project, Dr. Radosław Palonka from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków said in an interview with PAP.

One of the main objectives of the Archaeological Project Sand Canyon, conducted for six years (since 2011), is the analysis and reconstruction of the settlement model, as well as tracing the socio-cultural changes that occurred in the ancient Pueblo communities in the thirteenth century AD. The studied settlements are located in three picturesque canyons in Colorado in the Southwest of the United States, in Mesa Verde.

"The places we often call ruins, according to the Indians are not abandoned, spirits of ancestors still live there" - noted Dr. Palonka.

This means that archaeologists have to obtain permission to conduct excavations not only from local services responsible for the antiquities, but also from representatives of indigenous communities.

ColoradoConsultation with the Hopi Indians concerning potential information contained in the Indian spoken traditions regarding architecture, rock art and sacred landscape at the sites in Sand Canyon and Graveyard Canyon in 2016. Photo by R. Kozłowski.

"The meetings and conversations with the Indians are very valuable - they allow us to correctly interpret the remains of the old structures. This is possible in part because that many buildings similar to those we find in cities from before nearly a thousand years, are still being erected and used by the Indians today" - said Dr. Palonka.

During the last research season, Polish archaeologists cooperated with three Hopi: Leigh Lomayestewa, Ronald Wadsworth and Gary Nicholas, working at the Hopi Cultural Center. Their tasks include passing and keeping tribal tradition alive among young people and children. Their expertise proved crucial during the study of ancient landscapes. Discovered ruins are interpreted in a broader context - taking into account where and how they were built in relation to the surrounding area.

"The ancient Pueblo Indian settlements were parts of the network, which can be called the +sacred landscape+" - said the archaeologist.

The main role in the "sacred landscape" played the highest mountain peaks in the area and the characteristically shaped plateaus - according to interviews with descendants of Indians who lived in the area studied by the Polish archaeologists. Man-made structures formed part of this system, for example stone circles, entire settlements or selected buildings. Their location in relation to the surrounding landscape and directions of the world was also important.

"It turns out that even the orientation of windows and doors of buildings was often purposeful. They tend to be correlated with the point at which the sun appears above the horizon on the special days of the year - solstices or equinoxes" - said Dr. Palonka.

Colorado4Documentation and preparatory work before excavations at one of the sites in Graveyard Canyon, 2016. Photo by Michał Znamirowski.

Mountains play an important role in the beliefs of the Pueblo Indians - this is another conclusion from the conversations with the representatives of indigenous communities. "They mark the boundaries of their lands, they are associated with the creation of the first people and symbolize the directions of the world, they are places of ceremony" - said Dr. Palonka.

The highest mountain visible from the places studied by the Polish archaeologists (located at a distance of three to four kilometres), it is the Sleeping Ute Mountain (2996 m asl). The scientist noted that majority of the settlements studied by the Polish archaeologists faced the south or southeast, which in practice means the of the mountain.

Colorado 1View of the central part of Sand Canyon and preparation for laser scanning of selected sites in 2016. In the background, the highest peak in the area, in the mountain range Sleeping Ute Mountain (2996 m asl). Photo by Michał Znamirowski.

"Although a settlement facing south also has practical considerations - more heat enters the buildings in winter - it also must have had a religious and spiritual dimension, because three of the four stone circles, which are in the study area, also have openings to the south or towards the said peak or one of the plateaus, or facing the highest position of the settlement complex we studied" - said the archaeologist.

Without the help of the Indians, stone circles studied by Polish archaeologists in Colorado would be almost as mysterious as the circles known from Europe. Conversations revealed that they were the places of sacrificial offerings, celebrations and ceremonies, and perhaps in some of them the movements of the sun and other celestial bodies were observed.

Colorado2 1During the recent studies Polish archaeologists documented Indian rock art. Photo by Michał Znamirowski.

"The Indians explained that the paintings and rock carvings, which were often made in the vicinity of villages, could be +cheat sheets+ for astronomical observations" - said the researcher from Kraków. For example, the guides showed scientists a rock panel, on which the winter and summer solstices were recorded. "Perhaps it had been used not only for ritual purposes, but also to determine seasons and periods good for planting seeds and the harvest of plants" - he suggested.

Conversations with the Indians revealed that not only mountains or hills and structures, but even plants played (and still play) an important role in their culture.

"Our consultants explained the significance of individual plants in the old traditions. It turned out that some of them are still used today in beverages and foods, but also - more importantly - for medical purposes" - added Dr. Palonka. In addition to plants, which commonly occur in the area, such as yucca, prickly pears and cacti, the Indians showed rare plants. "They only knew the names of some in the Hopi language" - noted Dr. Palonka.

Polish scientists are very lucky to be able to conduct archaeological research in the area associated with the direct ancestors of modern Indians. "Many groups and Indian tribes are opposed to external interference in places that are important for them, such as holy mountains. This is not surprising, because, unfortunately, these places are often destroyed or used without listening to the protests of the indigenous people of America. They are sometimes used to build ski slopes" - concluded Dr. Palonka.

Colorado1 1View of the ruins of the tower at one of the sites in Sand Canyon. Photo by Michał Znamirowski.

In the project, Polish archaeologists are trying to understand why at the end of the thirteenth century the prosperous Indian Pueblo communities in the area of Mesa Verde were forced to leave their settlements, where they had lived for almost a thousand years. As a result of these changes the area was completely deserted and its inhabitants moved to the south, to the area of today's states of Arizona and New Mexico, where their descendants live to this day, cultivating traditions of their ancestors. Perhaps this change was associated with unfavourable set of circumstances - invasion from outside and simultaneous drought. Scientists hope that not only the typical archaeological work, but also contacts with modern-day Indians will help solve this puzzle.