Arizona fire clears land rich in ancient sites, artifacts

Flagstaff, Ariz. (AP) — As Jason Nez scans rugged mountains, high deserts and cliffs for signs of ancient tools and habitats unique to the US Southwest, he notes that they are part of a bigger picture .

And, fire is not new to them.

“He has been burned many, many times, and is healthy,” said Navajo archaeologist and firefighter Nez. “Many of our cultural resources are what we see as living, and living things are resilient.”

As a pair of wildfires in this mountainous northern Arizona town, flames permeate a land densely brimming with memories of human existence for centuries—multilayered stone houses, rock carvings, and pottery and pottery. Pieces that are well preserved in dry climates. Long before firefighting became a strategy.

Today, firefighters are working increasingly to avoid or reduce damage from bulldozers and other modern-day equipment at archaeological sites and artifacts, and to protect them on public display to ensure that future History should not be lost on generations.

“Some of those arrowheads, some of those pottery that you see, have that power to make the way we see how humans were here,” Nez said.

The crew’s efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife and habitat, air quality, and archaeology. In Arizona, a handful of archaeologists have mapped it in recent months to locate and protect evidence of meaningful past human activity in and around scorched areas.

Just last week, a crew spotted a semi-buried house known as the Pit House.

“We know this area is really important to the tribes, and it’s ancestral land for them,” said Gene Stevens, a US Forest Service archaeologist and tribal relations specialist. “When we do more survey work, it helps to add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what’s in the landscape.”

It’s not just scattered ruins that need protection.

The nearby Wupataki National Monument – ​​a center of trade for indigenous communities around 1100 – was evacuated twice this year due to wildfires. There are priceless items on display there, including 800-year-old corn, beans, and squash as well as intact clovis points, or stone arrowheads, that date back to about 13,000 years.

Before the first wildfires in April, hundreds of homes outside the monument and Flagstaff were forced to evacuate, said the monument’s chief interpretive ranger, Lauren Carter, with no set plans on how to quickly retrieve the artifacts. Was.

“The tunnel fire made it a pretext to finalize the plan – the fire issue,” she said.

Memorial curator Gwen Galenstein assembled nested boxes with cavities for larger objects and foam pouches for arrowheads and other smaller artifacts. She said she had photos for each item, so whoever was tasked with the packaging knew where to put them, she said.

Before another major wildfire broke out on June 12, Galenstein was able to train a man to pack ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, garments woven from cotton grown in the area, and more. The monument was closed again. No one expected this plan to be implemented so quickly.

Fire has avoided the facility until now. Several boxes of objects that archaeologists say were taken to a museum in northern Arizona to preserve different indigenous cultures.

Some Hopi clans consider the people who lived in Wupataki to be their ancestors. Navajo families later settled the area but gradually left, either voluntarily or under pressure from the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private use of the land after it became a monument in 1924.

The monument contains approximately 2,600 archaeological sites over 54 square miles (141 square kilometers), representing the convergence of cultures on the Colorado Plateau at the four corners where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. The region includes the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Hopi Mesa, the volcanic cinder field, the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the Americas, and the peaks of San Francisco—a mountain sacred to 13 Native American tribes.

“It gives you an idea of ​​the density of the cultural history here, and it continues into the national forest outside the boundaries of the national monument,” Carter said.

Stevens said the Coconino National Forest on the southern edge of the plateau has surveyed only 20% of its 2,900 square miles (7,510 square kilometers) and logged 11,000 archaeological sites. Forest restoration work that includes mechanical thinning and prescribed burns has given archaeologists the opportunity to map sites and log objects. Stevens said more discoveries are expected because of the current wildfires, especially in more remote areas.

The dry climate has helped preserve many artifacts and sites. But it’s also the type of environment that’s prone to wildfires, especially with the mix of fierce winds and heat that were so common in the US West this spring as climate change-linked megadroughts baked the region. .

Stevens remembers a prison crew working on a wildfire in eastern Arizona’s White Mountains in 2006 and coming across a great kiva—a spherical stone carved into the earth and used for ceremonies. “That was something that was really remarkable,” she said. “Where we’ve been on fires lately, we have a lot of surveys and a lot of knowledge, but we’re always up for that new discovery.”

Nez has also made rare discoveries, including two Clovis points and village sights on a hill that he hadn’t expected to see.

“There’s going to be pieces of pottery, there’s going to be projectile points,” he tells firefighters and managers. “In native cultures, those things stand out, and we honor them by leaving them alone.”

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Fonseca is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. follow him on twitter

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