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In Search of Ancient Traces Part One

In Search of Ancient Traces Part One
Posted on 07/10/2018
Students and staff from Jeffco Open School pose during a break from their surface archaeology project in Tsegi Canyon, Arizona.These beautiful formations and formidable canyons of northeastern Arizona are a sacred home to the Navajo Nation. Their heritage is measured in millennia, and many of the ancient traces of their intriguing ancestry still lie undiscovered in places. Tsegi Canyon, not far from Kayenta, Arizona is one of them.

Tsegi, which means “in between the rocks” in Navajo, is deep, rugged, and largely inaccessible. A team of educators and students from Jeffco Open School has been given the rare privilege by the Navajo Nation of helping document Tsegi’s past. In fact, they are the only public school in the country that has a permit to do so. The only way in, is by a teeth-rattling, four-wheel drive trip.

Jeffco Open School science teacher Jacob Sliemers was at the wheel. Next to him was former Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger, historian, and guide Fred Blackburn who lives in the Four Corners area.

“Today, we’re in search of Puebloan sites, actually any site, Navajo included, modern, historic, prehistoric, doesn’t really matter.” Explained Jeffco Open School teacher Jacob Sliemers. “In the big picture, we’re surveying the Tsegi Canyon system which comprises of several different canyons that come together right here.”

“I think we have very few places left for discovery of this nature,” added Blackburn.” It’s unique. It’s why I don’t want to go back to those areas that are covered with people and it’s why I am very grateful to the Navajo nation for limiting people.”

The drive ended near the Jeffco Open campsite where the educators, students, and an area photographer commissioned to document their findings prepared to head out. The group had to do their work in all kinds of weather, including spring snowstorms. Fortunately, the latest one had moved out, leaving the canyon bathed in warm sunlight.

This was no mere field trip. Jeffco Open has been surveying the Tsegi Canyon system for eight years, with each successive class of students building up a body of surface archaeology that is shared with the Navajos, the BLM, and others interested in the Tsegi Canyon system story.

The kind of work these students were doing in this canyon was comparable to what college-level archeology students are doing who are in pursuit of master’s degrees.

“Sometimes we get more canyon searched because we don’t find as much so we are able to move faster, and other times we may only able to get a mile or two searched because we find a lot of stuff,” explained Sliemers. We never really know what we’re going to find until we’re standing there looking at it.”

“We spend quite a bit of time before we even come into the field making sure that students understand what the proper etiquette would be,” added Jeffco Open School advisor Dave Harmes. “We talk about reverse archaeology in the sense that we’re going in and we leave no trace.”

They scanned rock faces, trying to distinguish natural weathering from what could be an ancient inscription.

“How do we do this, how do we solve what we’re looking at? Do we care whether it’s a letter or not? What do we do?” Blackburn asked the students.

“We copy it down exactly as we see it,” responded one student.

The job was simply to survey, document, and report. Early on, the team found bits of grayware, common early pottery, scattered at the base of a boulder.

“It’d be from the Pueblo One era, which is from around 950, if I’m not mistaken, that normally says the first level of advanced habitation,” said student Eli Uszacki.

It was just a tease of what awaited them, just a few hundred yards away.

“I had no idea this stuff was here. None,” said Blackburn.

“Amazing,” said student Jessy McClelland. “It’s like thrilling to know that you’re the first person to discover this in almost a thousand years.”

See the JPS-TV version of this story here.
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