Rock Art Ranch, Homolovi and Hopi Pueblos…oh, and Pottery

Petroglyphs, Pueblos and Pottery

This particular outing was one of the field trips sponsored by the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe. Unlike most of the trips I drag Jeri on (she has to come ‘cause she’s married to me…it’s somewhere in the contract), a SAR trip is a class act. They stay at great lodgings and the guides for each trip are especially chosen due to their specific knowledge of the site. These trips are small in size and hard to get on due to demand. But they are absolutely killer.

But this trip was lofty even by SAR standards. It involved traveling from New Mexico by train and staying three nights at the famous La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. Having never been to La Posada, but wanting to, Jeri and I really were looking forward to it.

Our SAR “chaperons” for the trip were Dr. John Kanter, archaeologist and Vice President of SAR and Janie Miller, SAR’s field trip coordinator. They had the tough job of herding us cats and making sure all went right.  They don’t get paid enough.

On Friday afternoon, after getting the usual late start with Amtrak, we took about 5 hours or so to get to Winslow arriving after dark. Along the way we had a pretty good meal in the Southwest Chief’s dining car, while watching the sun set somewhere around Gallup.

Once off the train at Winslow, La Posada is just…well, right there. You walk from the train into the hotel. This is the upside. The downside is train noise, which bothered some of our party. But by the second night, everyone slept well.

La Posada is a really amazing place, once the hangout of politicians, celebrities and movie stars when train travel was at its height. The structure was designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (who did a number of buildings at the Grand Canyon) for Fred Harvey of Harvey House. As train travel tanked, the place fell into disrepair until it was purchased in 1995 and restored. Now it’s popular among rail fans (AKA “foamers”) and Route 66 buffs. The decor is very nice southwestern, with the exception of some rather discordant and disturbing paintings on display throughout. Turns out the artist is the wife of the guy who brought the hotel. I expect she let him buy the place only if she got to hang her art there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting stuff, but VERY out of place.

Saturday morning, we were given a quick briefing by Dr. Charles Adams and archaeologist with the University of Arizona. After that we were off to our first destination.

Rock Art Ranch and Petroglyphs

Rock Art Ranch is a private ranch that happens to have an absolutely stunning collection of petroglyphs on its property. The ranch owner, Brantley Bairds has turned it into something of a tourist destination, and he seems to be a very good custodian of it. The ranch is also the location of numerous Basketmaker pit house villages. Many of these have been mapped and some excavated by Dr. Adams who ran an archaeological field school this past Summer for the University of Arizona.

First stop at the ranch was at sort of a museum. In reality, it was what the ranch owners had collected over several generations of living there. While it could have been a lot of old junk (and that was there, of course), they had some really interesting items. Their pottery collection was just amazing and equal to many museums.

Leaving the ranch HQ, we bounced along some dusty roads until coming to a narrow, vertical walled canyon in an otherwise flat terrain. This was Chevelon Canyon, home to literally thousands of petroglyphs. The petroglyphs dated from both Basketmaker and Archaic periods, which meant the locals had been scribbling on these rock walls for several thousand years.

The Rock Art Ranch owners had constructed a really neat overlook that cantilevered out over the canyon. There was a steep set of stairs that descended to the canyon bottom in a manner that reminded you weren’t in a national park. This was, in fact, a good thing.

The petroglyphs covered the canyon walls for hundreds of feet in each direction. Dr. Adams pointed out the various types of petroglyphs to us and gave his opinion of what they could mean. In some spots it appeared as if someone had hammered into the stone faces to obliterate the glyphs, or dug divots into the faces. Dr. Adams suggested this could be one of two things. The obliteration could be an attempt to “undo” some particular bit of magic that might have been implied by an image. The divots could be the locals “collecting” part of the “power” of certain images.

This was very apparent in the case of a petroglyph of a clearly female figure (due to the hair buns) appearing to have a small figure dropping out below it, between the legs. This has been taken to represent some sort of birthing petroglyph (and one hopes it’s not a literal image).

After getting all glyphed out, we climbed back up to the canyon overlook for an excellent meal prepared and packed for us by the La Posada kitchen. Yes, this is what’s known as roughing it.

The museum at Rock Art Ranch.

Some of the inside of the Rock Art Ranch Museum. Looking at this you might think some of this is sort of schlocky. You would be wrong.

Like this stunning collection of pottery. Some really amazing pieces.

OTOH, Jeri is checking out a fish. So there’s a wide gamut here. But this is just the appetizer.

THIS is why we’re here…The Chevelon Canyon overlook built by Rock Art Ranch. What, this doesn’t look impressive?

How about now? Yeah, I thought so.

Looking up Chevelon Canyon from the overlook. Those canyon walls are covered with petroglyphs.

And looking down Chevelon Canyon from the overlook. Yup, more petroglyphs down there.

Now in the canyon bottom, Dr. Adams is explaining a panel including what appears to be a birthing scene.

A closeup of the birthing panel. The holes are not vandalism but are thought to be removals of the rock face material to be used in ceremonies, as it would have been believed to have had power.

Dr. Adams explaining more petroglyphs behind him.

Yet another panel. The thingamabob that looks like a woman in a ball gown is very unusual without a good explanation. Typically the “skirt” with the five points is taken to be a bear paw.

More rock are panels. These would be considered “anthropomorphs”, that is depicting somewhat human figures. Or maybe they were just built different back then.

Anthropomorphs galore.

Animals, anthropomorphs and what looks like a star.

Homolovi Ruins

Back on the road again and off to Homolovi State Park, located on the north side of I-40, almost across from Winslow. In the 1980s, the Homolovi ruins were considered to be perhaps the most pothunted and vandalized of all ruins in the Southwest, and maybe the country. Arizona was considering whether or not it was worth creating a state park to protect what little was believed to remain. To help clarify the situation, a series of excavations were performed at the site to assess the condition. These excavations were headed up by Dr. Adams. He and his team found there were substantial cultural resources still at the site and convinced Arizona to move forward and acquire the property as a state park.

The Homolovi site consists of four villages designated I, II, III and IV. Not too poetic, but clear. They were occupied by what are commonly referred to as the Anasazi, now known by the more politically correct (but mouthful) as Ancestral Pueblo peoples. There is an occupation period of between 1250 and 1500 AD for the Homolovi villages. According to Hopi oral history, the Homolovi residents then migrated north to join the Hopi in their villages on the Hopi mesas.

The visitor center at the park was small but quite nice. It was an interesting experience to have Dr. Adams pointing out the various items on display and how he unearthed them. Not your usual park ranger spiel.

We then headed out to Homolovi II and walked the site with Dr. Adams pointing out items of interest. I was surprised to see the kivas here, as well as at the Hopi pueblos, were rectangular. All the kivas I had seen in New Mexico were some sort of round. Dr. Adams, who had lived at the Hopi Pueblo of Walpi for over a year had asked them why they built them that way. Their response was one of befuddlement, as if everyone knew that was exactly the way one should build a kiva.

Another unique feature to Homolovi and Hopi kivas is the inset at one end. This is where the women sit. As far as I know, women are not permitted in any other pueblo kivas I’ve heard of, other than Hopi. And in the case of certain dances, the Hopis permit outsiders into the kivas to watch. That’s very unusual. Hopis are way cool.

It was hot, it had been a long day, so it was time to head back to our primitive accommodations at La Posada for an evening of meager food and all the deprivations that accompany being in a remote spot in the desert.

Dr. Adams pointing out features in Homolovi II rooms he and his team excavated in the 1980s.

Dr. Adams explains the function of the Great Kiva excavated at Homolovi II. Note recessed end. This is where the women would sit.

The Hopi Pueblos and Rachel Sahmie’s pottery

Sunday morning we headed to the Hopi reservation. The Hopis are scattered in pueblos across and below three mesas, known as First Mesa, Second Mesa and Third Mesa. Our first stop was the Hopi Cultural Center located on Second Mesa.

Turns out they were holding some sort of event that day, the first annual something or other. I didn’t note the actual name, and was unable to find any mention of it online. They were trying something new, and I guess didn’t get much out in the way of publicity. Perhaps that was why our group was one of the few non-locals there. It was mostly Hopis, enjoying the day. There were vendors selling food and crafts. The paper-thin Piki bread was very tasty and something I hadn’t seen before. All the people there were very friendly and welcoming. To our surprise, they had no problem allowing photography of the dances being held at the event. Jeri got a few pics of the dancers, but I can’t recall just what sort of dance it was.

Dancing at the Hopi Cultural Center. This really wasn’t for the tourists, as they were serious about it. And they were really cool to let us take pictures.

Leaving the Cultural Center for a while, we visited the pueblo of Old Oraibi on Third Mesa. Normally you can’t wander around these pueblos without a Hopi guide, but presumably due to  Dr Adams previous residence with the Hopis, he acted as our guide. He showed us the layers upon layers of dwelling construction, dating back to 1050 AD.

After departing Old Oraibi, we returned to the Cultural Center for lunch. It wasn’t too shabby, but being used to the much more chile-fied food of New Mexico pueblos, it seemed a little bland. But nothing some chile couldn’t fix.

After lunch we headed off to the main destination of the day and a highlight of the trip, a visit to Rachel Sahmie’s home to watch her fire some of her pottery. Rachel, who lives below First Mesa, is an award winning Hopi potter (potteress??) that makes Hopi pottery in a traditional way. This means forming the pots through coiling and firing them outdoor inside a burning pile of sheep dung. (Although the pre-Spanish, very early Hopi pottery was fired with coal….sheep shit is just easier!). She digs the clay herself from a spot beneath First Mesa, grinds local minerals for the paints and colors and decorates her pottery with brushes of yucca leaves.

Rachel is well known and has won many awards, the most recent being a lifetime achievement award at the 2012 Santa Fe Indian Market.

As with all Hopis we met on the trip, Rachel was very warm and welcoming. We all clustered around her outdoor workshop as she built up a pile of dried sheep shit around a very beautiful bowl. Once the smoke started there was considerable jockeying of position to avoid being downwind. While the bowl fired, we all went into Rachel’s home to look at the limited wares she had available. No two pieces are alike. Jeri and I may have spent too much money. I’m not sayin’. One of our group arranged to purchase the bowl currently being fired, sight unseen. Rachel and her husband graciously agreed to deliver the finished bowl to La Posada that evening when it was cooled. While I didn’t get a picture of the finished product, it was amazing.

The next morning (Monday) we got up at a ridiculously early hour to catch the 5:46 AM Amtrak eastbound Southwest Chief, which of course didn’t show up until more like 6:30. But the ride back to New Mexico was enjoyable, even with an Amtrak breakfast.

Rachel Sahmie preparing to fire a large bowl by creating a hot bottom surface and bed of coals.

The bowl Rachel is about to fire in a traditional outdoor kiln.

Rachel’s bowl in place prior to building the sheep shit pile around it.

Rachel piling the sheep shit,…uh..dung, around the bowl. This will all burn away during the firing process.

The sheep shit piled high and smoking away like mad. This will take several hours to burn down and complete the firing. It smells about as bad as you would think. Don’t try this indoors.

The current Hopi pottery wares Rachel Sahmie had on hand during our visit. Note the large pot on the left?

Yeah, that big pot. It’s no longer there. It has a new home…..