Discoveries, Greg Stark, November 2013
We take turns. Can I shovel faster than my partner Bob can shake the screen over the wheelbarrow? We laugh, make up stories, embellish. When it’s time to work close, I kneel and the trowel in hand makes a metallic sound. All around me coming from different rooms are the sounds of those trowels.
My hands have to learn to follow the dirt, until one layer ends and another begins. At first, the hands are stupid and willful, and can’t tell one layer from another, stopping too short sometimes, and scraping past the boundary into another layer at other times. But they learn. Then the trowel becomes tender, and as it follows the layers it outlines time, recorded in physical deposition.
The dirt becomes a composition. Here is a wall. Here is a window or doorway. Here a small niche in the floor. Floors have their own topography. In one room, little footprints; children tamped the brand new, wet floor. In another, there are floors below floors, one, two, three, four; below the last, a cyst in which a skeleton lies curled in the fetal position.
Guilt and shame are part of my experience. Growing up in Santa Fe my schoolmates taught me the rules: you are either a victim or an oppressor; there are no other choices. So the skeleton brings up inhibitions. I ask someone else to excavate, and go to another task.
I remember the first time I saw the inside of a kiva; up at Picuris, the walls painted with decoration. I looked as if through a veil, not seeing because, though invited, I felt I wasn’t supposed to. I looked through a lens of guilt and saw no details, only impressions. I am an outsider. I am not permitted.
At the dig we sleep in tents, eat, work, take showers in a common area, and the first to shower are not paying attention. The black pipe heating the water is too hot for comfort. You want the second wave. The third wave gets cold water.
On weekends we sometimes travel together in small groups to visit other archaeological sites. At Chaco an anthropologist takes a few of us up to the canyon’s edge at solstice’ eve. There are several 2” holes in the sandstone. At sunset he puts a stick in the westernmost hole, and the shadow from the stick lines up with the other holes. During this time major discoveries are being made about solar alignments at Chaco. This small discovery expands my sense of the ancient ones as careful, complex observers.
My comrades are college students, professors, professionals, or townies like me. All have some connection to archaeology, whether through profession, passion, or proximity.
As we work under the sun, breathing dust and laughing, we find a rhythm. Part of that rhythm is silence, except for the scraping of trowels, and whoosh of screens and thud of shovels. During silences, I muse: how was it here before the Conquistadores arrived, looking out over the plain toward Cerrillos where turquoise lay? In the early 1970s, there is open plain with few, if any, cars and houses; little between this site and those hills to suggest anything other than timeless existence. Just here… and there.
After supper we straggle out to the room blocks in twos and threes and watch the sunset. We sit at length in quiet reflection as the sky paints a story, subtle or glorious. When the afterglow is done we walk quietly back to our tents.
I ride my bicycle into town if I want to go to town, which I don’t. It’s quiet out here. There’s time to read; to get up early and bird watch. Cool air descends from the foothills. I picture the People heading up the arroyo to hunt, or returning, laden with game. Picturing becomes an act of identity.
Over the three summers I work at Arroyo Hondo I find only broken pottery and burned corn. Other items of importance are found, but not by me. But I discover something else.
Prior to the dig, my experience of contemporary Pueblo life is limited to childhood visits to dances along the Rio Grande; teenage trips to Zuni Shalako and Hopi Home Dances; and sitting next to a boy from Picuris in History class, joking behind the teacher’s back. My experience is affected by the ways Pueblo life penetrates social life in Santa Fe through interactions, markets, and commerce; and by my travels throughout the region, as imaginative participant in a landscape and ethos. For all this, I experience myself as an outsider.
But it’s difficult to feel distant from a culture when my hand has followed the contours of a room that ancestral peoples inhabited. An intimate knowledge of physicality has seeped in. Such closeness has allowed me to picture the People resting in sun, cooking, cleaning baby, smoking the pipe, building, gathering harvest, winter preparations, grief, laughter, and love.
I long for a simpler time. As rapid economic development descends on New Mexico, I find myself mired in nostalgia instead of youthful enterprise. Some years later, I have difficulty adapting. During the struggle I remember feelings at Arroyo Hondo – that there is another lived reality: Hardship. Necessity. Drought. Community. Celebration. I remember those quiet evenings of repose and reflection on the room blocks, watching the sky paint a story full of color and drama, never to be reproduced, yet recreated anew each night. I remember what it was to imagine harmony of body and mind, self and activity, culture and purpose. Those memories help me through.
Eventually I find a career as a craftsman, working with my hands, sharing in fellowship, apprenticeship and mastery, and the transmission of a knowledge earned through labor. Arroyo Hondo was a window into cultural wholeness, its darkness and light, a window that helped me toward my own. My imagination was given the gift of a fertile field. For that field and its fruit, I am grateful.