The Anasazi Treasures of Canyons of the Ancients

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[April 26, 2017 update: The Trump administration is placing Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites. The Bureau of Land Management still allows for grazing and oil and gas development on parts of the monument, just as it did before President Clinton designated the federal protection of this land in  June of 2000.]

Ten miles from Cortez, Colorado, is the Anasazi Heritage Center, the visitor’s center and museum for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This first-rate museum should be the first stop for every visitor who wants to understand the archaeological treasures of the Anasazi. (The Anasazi are now called Ancestral Puebloans because these ancient people were the ancestors of current Pueblo tribes.)

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

First, some background on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Declared a National Monument in 2000, this unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

I’m a museum buff, and this one lets you see the best of the artifacts—which you won’t see in the field. I learned about kivas (ceremonial, subterranean, circular rooms) and how corn was ground by hand with stones. I even eye-balled some pottery sherds under a microscope. And I marveled at beautifully preserved examples of 900-year-old pottery and tools.

I also loved the philosophy of education and cross-cultural understanding here. There’s a children’s discovery center where you can touch a dog-hair weaving and grind corn between rocks as the Ancestral Puebloans did.

“In archaeology, a rock’s not just a rock,” says Victoria Atkins, the Heritage Center’s interpretive specialist. “It tells a story about what people in the past ate, how they lived, how they spent their time. We try to add a human touch to understanding the past.”

A 10-minute film, “Visit with Respect,” does just that. It outlines rules for preserving ancient sites: Don’t climb on or eat near the ruins, never disturb or remove bits of pottery or rock that you find, and stay on paths. It also illustrates how the ruined villages are sacred to today’s Pueblo tribes—Hopi, Acoma, Laguna—who believe the ruins are home to their ancestors’ spirits. These people ask the spirits’ permission before entering sacred spaces—and offer thanks when they leave.

My husband and I got our first chance to greet the spirits of the ancestors at Escalante Pueblo, located just up the hill from the Anasazi Heritage Center. From this height, we surveyed McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde.

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also admired the rocky profile of Sleeping Ute Mountain, a range of peaks resembling a fallen warrior with his arms crossed over his chest. He wears a different blanket each season: white in winter, green in spring and summer, and gold in fall. The legend says the warrior will someday rise again.

One note for visitors to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: there’s no fee to visit, but no water is available, and there are no campgrounds (primitive roadside camping is allowed).

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published October 2008

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

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