Mystery of the past |

Mystery of the past

The mysteries of the past are very appealing to those of us living in the present. Author Craig Childs revealed his lifetime fascination with past civilizations at his talk I attended last week in Edwards.

He is as good a storyteller as he is writer.

The stories he told about his journeys across the Southwest among Anasazi ruins brought back memories of my own adventures in search of clues from “the ancient ones.”

One site that fascinated me was on a high mesa in west-central New Mexico called Cerro Colorado. Far from any modern civilization, this impressive red hill rose high above the pinon and juniper lowlands surrounding it.

Though the mesa top was no bigger than a football field, the inhabitants had picked a place to live which they hoped would offer refuge from their enemies.

Whether their strategy had worked or not will forever remain a mystery. The site was excavated in the 1950s by Harvard professor William Bullard, but refused to yield all its secrets.

The village of round dwellings 25 to 30 feet wide and 10 to 12 feet deep were dug into the earth and called “pit houses.” The village had burned with people trapped inside their homes.

The mystery arises from the question of whether the houses burned by accident or by evil intent.

With roofs of beams overlaid with smaller wooden cross-members topped by dirt, there was only one way in and out. A ladder once extended from the floor through the smoke-hole above the sunken fire pit where the daily meals were cooked.

The ceiling of wood dried out during the years the pit houses were inhabited. An accidental fire would quickly engulf the sunken dwellings.

It has been more than a quarter century since I hiked to the top of Cerro Colorado with two friends. When we stood looking over all that was left of the village-sunken depressions which looked like bomb craters, there were more questions than answers.

We had the advantage of having read Bullard’s report on his findings. Though the excavators had back-filled the pit houses with dirt, I could imagine the horror of one account which stood out from all the rest.

On the floor of one of the excavated pit houses, an entire family was found huddled together trying to escape the intensity of the fire burning around them. Two adults and their two children sought refuge in each other’s arms.

Pulled tightly to her chest, the daughter was found holding the family dog.

Whether by accident or the result of a raiding war party, no one will ever know what caused the fire.

But the prehistoric tragedy tugged at my heartstrings the day I stood on the site, trying to figure out another mystery of the past.

They were people like me, struggling to make it through another day. Humans being human … laughing, crying, living and dying.

The next column will tell of my trip to Harvard’s Peabody Museum to try unraveling the mystery.

With over 30 years experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his stories with readers every other week.

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