In high school, I spent a summer vacation with an archeological dig being conducted by the University of New Mexico, just outside of Gallup.
The dig was of an Ancestral Puebloan ruin on a hill just north of town. Specifically, a great kiva (a large, circular and half-buried ceremonial structure) had been constructed there sometime between 900 and 1150 AD.
Because of the great kiva’s important function in pueblo culture, a small community developed around it, so the dig included the kiva, pueblo rooms and what had been the town’s garbage dump on one of the hill’s slopes.
During the time I was there, I slept in a tent at nearby Red Rock State Park, a place with gorgeous hiking trails and a restaurant that used excruciatingly hot chilies.
That part of New Mexico is the land of extreme weather. Generally, we experienced crystal clear, cobalt blue skies, but when the weather got rough, Biblical rain and deafening thunder were common. Once, hailstones dropped in chunks so big they utterly flattened my tent.
In the Dumps with the Great Kiva
The great kiva was located on the edge of the town dump, adjacent to the dead animal pit. I saw the stiff legs of cows and horses sticking straight up from behind dirt mounds as we drove by, and the smell of decomposition drifted over our site whenever the wind blew wrong.
The items we found were not earth shattering to a teenage boy: mostly broken bits of pottery and soil striations. Probably the most exciting things for me were burnt roof beams from when the kiva had been destroyed and the rattlesnake that slid past my hand while I leaned against the side of a trench. This was disappointing, because of course I had been hoping to find hoary weapon caches, forgotten treasures and the headless, reanimating corpses of Kachina shamans.
My Oh-So Brief Indiana Jones Moment
One day it looked like it was going to rain, but we decided to gamble on getting some work done and headed out. From our place on the hill, we had a panoramic view of the dump and dramatic weather seemed more and more likely. The clouds were rolling and gray, with hints of black turbulence buried within. That’s when one of our people found the first burial, a baby. The second came just minutes later.
The workers at the city dump were all Navajo, and the Navajo are extremely careful regarding those they call “Anasazi,” or enemy ancestors. That day, just minutes after the first find, a bulldozer in the dump cut across another burial site and every city worker walked off the job. I stood on the hillside, staring at the abandoned tractors and bulldozers beneath a lowering sky while archaeologists hunched over a baby that had been dead for a thousand years.
This was 1981 and I had just seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It felt as though I had walked into the scene where Indiana and his allies uncover the Map Room of Tanis and I remembered the curse that supposedly fell on those who uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. As my favorite fictional New Mexican, Jessie Pinkman, would say, “That was messed up, yo.”