Archaeologists work to save Indian artifacts from fire

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. – As fire ravages the southwestern Colorado wilderness, a team of archaeologists is working to preserve the world-famous remnants of an ancient culture.

Fire has consumed more than 22,900 acres of forest and brush, with most of the damage within Mesa Verde National Park, officials said. By Wednesday, nothing but carbonized trees and blackened earth remained atop many of the park's mesas and bluffs. The park was closed.

Two dozen archaeologists, part of a firefighting effort of 837 people, are using their training to identify historical sites that could be harmed by flames and heat.

The archaeologists, who are trained firefighters, accompany crews digging trench lines around the fire so that artifacts are not destroyed by human error. Some go ahead of the crews and flag sites with bright cloth and tape.

"Some of these sites are very fragile," said Faith Duncan, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

The sites are clusters of artifacts, ranging from small rubble mounds and garbage piles to elaborate shelters. There are at least 4,000 identified sites in the 52,000-acre park.

"This is really an extraordinary example of culture – in some places, it's a veritable city. It means an incredible amount to native people of the region," Ms. Duncan said.

Fire crews are stationed around the largest sites, which have not been damaged, said Justin Dombrowski, a fire team spokesman. He said some small rubble mounds and other minor sites have been harmed.

By late Wednesday, the fire had been 40 percent contained. Its western edge was only two miles from the park's showpiece, the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi people who lived there from around A.D. 550 to 1300.

Mesa Verde, literally "Green Table," attracts 650,000 visitors a year. The park is filled with ceremonial temples, pueblos and murals that are well preserved by the region's climate. Atop one mountain peak, fire had reached within meters of a circular ceremonial temple, more than 700 years old.

Some of the damage has benefited archaeologists, where flames have cleared brush and exposed new sites. Ms. Duncan said workers will assess the sites after the fire is out.

"It does give you an advantage because you have an ability to see the landscape immediately," she said, pointing to a treeless mountain ridge that had been covered with foliage a week before. "But look at the tradeoff."

For more than a century, archaeologists and ethnologists have worked to unearth secrets of the Anasazi culture and preserve its artifacts.

The Anasazi were a sophisticated tribe of farmers, artisans and builders who lived in cliff dwellings and in pueblos on the mesas. They abandoned Mesa Verde about A.D. 1300, probably because of prolonged drought, overpopulation nearing 20,000 residents and food shortages. Fire also could have played a part, Ms. Duncan said.

The city lay dormant until the mid-1800s, when cowboys and explorers discovered it. Neighboring Ute Indians told them it was a sacred place inhabited by the Anasazi, a word meaning "ancient ones."

In 1906, the government designated Mesa Verde a national park.

Smaller fires in 1991 and 1996 threatened Mesa Verde, but no major structures were lost. This fire has consumed nearly half of the park.

The townspeople of Cortez, a community four miles away, are concerned about their own property, if not that of their geographical ancestors.

From U.S. Highway 160 in Cortez, the fire glowed an eerie orange Wednesday, fingers of flame reaching over the mountain. The sky, otherwise deep blue, was black with smoke above the park's 8,500-foot peaks.

Bob Erner, a Mesa Verde fire watchman since 1969, monitored radio calls and looked for hot spots Wednesday from his Depression-era watchtower on Park Point, the highest peak in Mesa Verde. He said the watchtower would have been destroyed Sunday if he hadn't covered it with fireproof blankets before fleeing.

By Wednesday, the vegetation on the peak had been incinerated, the guardrails lining the access road melted off their moorings. But the watchtower remained – undamaged.

Teams in planes and helicopters dropped water and slurry in front of fire lines and attacked scattered flare-ups. Eddies of unstable air picked up ash and spun it like mini-tornadoes.

This, park official Bobby Kitchens said, is a sign that the atmosphere is still ripe for a flare-up. Weary firefighters and residents remained on edge.

"It was hot all day, and the fire was hard," said Greg Hafenfeld, a firefighter from Bakersfield, Calif. "I worked from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., and now today, I'm getting up in about two hours. It's going to be crazy."