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In Search of Ancient Traces Part Two

In Search of Ancient Traces Part Two
Posted on 07/12/2018
A Jeffco Open team navigates by four-wheel drive through Tsegi Canyon in northeastern Arizona at the start of another day of surface archaeology work.The Navajos have a saying: “Be still and the Earth will speak to you.” In northeastern Arizona, a group of students and educators from Jeffco Open School were doing just that, as part of their surface archaeology work in the Tsegi Canyon system, just a few miles at a time. It was part of what Jeffco Open calls its walkabout philosophy of experiential learning, giving students the chance to immerse themselves in environments far from any traditional classroom.

“What I think Dave [Harmes] and I, and the larger high school community, is trying to do, is show, in a research kind of basis, and in a real-world application how to put art and science and mathematics and outdoor skills and group building and cultural awareness all into a genuine experience and, there aren’t many places that can pull that off,” explained science teacher Jacob Sleimers.

Thanks to a unique relationship with the Navajo Nation, different classes of Jeffco Open students have spent nearly a decade chronicling the lives of Tsegi Canyon system dwellers.

“We have the only permit in the nation given by the Navajo Nation to allow us to come in and to come back here and to document the human movement,” said advisor Dave Harmes.

Sometimes the discoveries are from recent habitation, like a lean-to, but other times, the traces they find, are ancient and astounding. Just a few hundred yards from where they found pieces of common early pottery known as grayware, the Jeffco Open team found the archaeological equivalent of the motherload. A field of beautifully decorated potsherds and other items likely indicated a settlement of Ancestral Puebloans. High above it all were evidence of living and storage spaces.

“I had no idea this stuff was here. None,” said historian Fred Blackburn. “A very rich site and a very late site compared to what we’ve been seeing. This is the equivalent to Mesa Verde black on white pottery. It’s the ultimate.”

The students group together and sketch their findings, taking special care to reproduce the evidence in color, along with notes about where the items were found.

“To actually be able to hold a piece of it in your hand and know that somebody put a lot of, like, love and time and care into that piece, is just, and you have the honor to be able to look at it and draw it is just really breathtaking,” said student Leala Pourier.

A photographer commissioned by the group also recorded the evidence. What they left undocumented, out of respect, are burial sites, of which there are many scattered throughout the Tsegi Canyon system.
When finished, everything is put back where it was found. The sketches and other information were then compiled for use by the Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Land Management, and researchers interested in Ancestral Puebloan culture. One student, Jessy McClelland, was even writing a book about her Tsegi observations.

“My advisor Jacob was like, ‘You’re going to be the first published author in our advising,’ said McClelland. “And I just sort of looked at him and [said] ‘I’m not going to be published’ and he [said] ‘Yeah, you are.’ And I’m like what? And I just sort of freaked out thinking that other people are going to use my book for their research.”

Before moving on, they made another stunning discovery: a negative handprint, etched on a rock face in white, reaching out across time.

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

“You get such a weird feeling in your gut,” added student John Eckes. “It’s just like you found a treasure or something. It’s almost addicting.”

“I was up that way and I came up and around and I was like wow. I’ve never seen, I mean I’ve never seen anything like that before, I mean, it’s my first trip,” said student Tomas Glauthier.

While there was initial excitement in these discoveries, documenting their finds may be even more important.

“The importance of the documentation of what these kids are doing won’t hit them till they are 30 or 40 years-old because it’s very likely the detail of documentation that they’re doing here may be the last that is ever done on this site,” explained Blackburn.

“They’ll understand how to do research and what that means to research in the field,” Harmes said. “But then also when they get back to school let’s find out the documentation and pulling together various archives and writing a report, helping to write the report.”

“What these guys are doing is going to create a whole perspective. And, if it is presented right, it’s going to bring up a whole bunch of questions, as archeologists like it black and white, and this is anything but that,” added Blackburn.

“It’s incomparable to any other experience I’ve ever had,” said Harmes.

See the JPS-TV version of this story here.
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