Mesa Verde National Park, Colo. There's nothing new at Spruce Tree House. The yucca shrub is still everywhere (the roots make for an efficient soap), and so are the pinyon pine (for centuries a source of delicious nuts) and the juniper, too (be sure to save that bark for diapers). For eight centuries the stone dwellings have sat here in a remote corner of southwestern Colorado, 114 rooms nestled in a protected alcove under a giant mesa.
Nothing new here at all. There are eight kivas, ceremonial chambers that evoke a spiritual power even now. The buildings run to three stories, some rooms for habitation, some for storage, some for assembly, some for worship.
The original inhabitants - Native Americans with an acumen for architecture and with a taste for a spectacular view - have long since departed, leaving a site full of silences. Silences - and mysteries, and something of the mystical. There is, wrote Willa Cather, who knew this part of the Southwest well, "something stirring about finding evidences of human labor and care in the soil of an empty country."
And yet, in the middle of Spruce Tree House, there may be something new after all. New details of how the Ancestral Puebloans lived. New details of how the stone dwellings were built. New details of how these structures - once teeming with life, now filled mostly with the squawking of turkey vultures - were used.
A young archeologist named Kay Barnett is here with a small crew, and this summer they are filling what Cather called the area's "blue and gold days" by taking measurements, making maps, searching through the dust, examining the traces of the people who filled these cave dwellings and then, somewhere around the year 1300, fled for places still unknown for reasons still unknown.
Spruce Tree House isn't the biggest alcove dwelling of the sky villages of Mesa Verde, but it may be the most interesting and almost certainly is the best preserved. It dates to the late 1100s, and tree-ring dating tells us that the newest wood used in the structure was cut around 1275. Now, 730 years later, archeologists are determining the function of each room of the structure.
They follow simple rules: If there's a hearth, then the room was used for living. If there's no hearth, look for racks and wall pegs, clues that might suggest that its purpose was storage. Those simple guidelines and others have permitted archeologists to determine that Spruce Tree House was home to 19 households. And, applying mathematics to logic (they figure three to five people per household), they have determined that there were about five or six dozen people in the settlement.
Digging into details
There's nothing invasive about this work, just a detailed look at the surface of these alcoves of the ancients and a willingness to question their own convictions. "Without digging another hole we can find a lot," said Linda Towle, an archeologist who is chief of research and resource management for the National Park Service here.
In the depths of the alcove, archeologists climb through a hatch about the size of a window into interior rooms. These chambers show suggestions of once having held an altar (evidence: a raised platform at the rear of the room) or having been used to grind corn (evidence: an actual 800-year-old corn husk, sitting right there amid the dust).
Such inquiry has already led archeologists to question the decades-old theory that Cliff Palace, the biggest and best-known cliff dwelling, was a huge apartment complex. Now they believe the site may have been a giant administrative center that, during seasonal celebrations, doubled as a venue for harvest festivals.
Overall, some 5,000 people once lived in a series of cave dwellings here on the Great Sage Plain above the Montezuma and Mancos valleys - more than live here today. They ate corn, squash and beans, all cultivated on the mesa above. They fashioned stone and bone into tools - and weapons. They made baskets but perfected the pottery arts. They cooked their meals indoors; the smoke stains on the ceilings tell us that. They had a gift for engineering; these homes are in some ways more efficient than our own.
Then, no one knows why, everyone departed. Maybe because of an outside threat, maybe because of drought - we can only guess, as no written records survive - a great migration began. The place was left for empty, and empty it remained until the Utes wandered through briefly in the early 1700s and whites turned up late in the 19th century. Some 99 years ago Mesa Verde became the first national park dedicated to the preservation not only of nature but also of the work of humans.
It remains a remarkable place today - a place that becomes ever more remarkable with every big fire. Like the fires at Yellowstone, the fires at Mesa Verde have been episodes of great destruction and great revelation.
Since the fires of the recent past - and by recent we mean 1989 - archeologists have discovered some 1,200 new home sites here.
So in a place where there is nothing new, or hasn't been for eight centuries, we still make new discoveries. Mesa Verde tells us that, whether studying ancient civilizations or our own, or whether examining ancient peoples or ourselves, there are things still hidden, insights still to uncover, things still to learn. We think we've learned everything. We've only begun.