Hey! Don't pocket that shard

Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 8:54 PM

In 1995, Bannister House ruin in Grand Gulch, in southeast Utah was littered with ancient pottery, many pieces the size of your hand, and a few nearly complete pots half-buried in sand.

In 1979, paths around a Chaco Canyon outlier in New Mexico were completely covered in pottery shards.

Ten years ago, the "secret" cave ruin at the backside of Sand Canyon in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument featured nice pieces of painted pottery with geometric designs.

Today, they are all nearly gone, a history pilfered by looters a piece at a time.

Local documentary film maker Larry Ruiz explores this sad loss of our collective human history in the film "Death of a Place," shown to a packed house at the Anasazi Heritage Center last week.

"I kept noticing a marked decrease in pottery at sites throughout the Southwest," Ruiz said. "I knew somebody had to start documenting this disregard for these places."

"Death of a Place" records the inexorable loss of culture and history when pottery shards are pocketed by visitors, a seemingly innocent, yet ultimately destructive hijacking of the past.

The film interviews archeologists, Native Americans and authors who all try to persuade the audience, and journalists, to leave alone and keep quiet about ruins they have visited or know about.

"Bringing attention to ruins is the kiss of death," warned Clyde Benally, a Navajo featured in the film who attended the showing. "People view ruins as entertainment, and disrespect the past when they take artifacts for personal trinkets."

Instilling in the visitor's mind the value of cultural resources creates an ethos of avoidance and protection, Benally said.

"As a site steward, telling people to be respectful isn't enough," he said. "But it is amazing when you sit on a painted pony with a .22 rifle in hand how fast people move out of the way."

Archeologist Winston Hurst says proper etiquette and awareness of preservation is missing in our culture.

"When droves and droves of people visit, it diminishes a place, and we lose the archeological record," he said. "Leaving it alone is how it will survive. We want it to be culturally uncomfortable for people to be abusive."


The film is philosophical about our ancestors and respect for place, but also points out the loss of scientific research when sites are recklessly looted.

Craig Childs, literary scholar and Southwest author, implores us to have a bigger perspective.

"Layer after layer, buried beneath our feet are generations of people going back 10,000 years," he says. "This was also their home; they had the same view. When walking through our cities, I always consider that below the pavement are our buried ancestors."

Jonathan Till, a Bluff, Utah, archaeologist, holds out a handful of nice pottery shards of different styles.

"With this variety we can determine a lot about a site - trading, pottery style, traditions, history," says Till. "Remove the variety, your left with a few corrugated pieces, and it is much harder to decipher a site."

Till refers to archaeology's 'elephant in the room.'

"The very nature of some of our work involves preservation and destruction. Excavation is destroying something. It is an irony we face," he said.

Adds Childs, "Let's not dig up everything. Let the past continue into the future giving us context of the larger human sphere."

The film laments that the destruction of ruins threatens to erase the wisdom of those who came before.

"Modern archaeology is a record that gives indigenous cultures credit for their knowledge of their surroundings, the Earth, astronomy," says Rich Friedman in the film.


Keep in mind that past cultures explored at ruins are still alive today, said Patricia Sandoval of the Laguna Pueblo.

"Archaeological records kind of puts us in the past, but we are not extinct as many people believe," she says. "We are alive continuing our traditional ways. That is who we are as a Puebloan people."

Rock art expert Joe Pachak said the messages and artwork scratched and painted on the walls of ancestors are fragile and need better protection.

"Rock art is their form of a newspaper. Keeping it alive, they ask we don't give it too much attention. It is a double-edged sword. We like people to see and respect the experience, but leave it unchanged, and that is hard to do."

Ingraining in people an attitude of respect for cultural sites is key.

"Instead of someone in a uniform informing and looking at them, people need to monitor themselves," Benally said. "Right now there is no commitment to save it for the next person, just an itch to stick it in the pocket and take somewhere else. Strive to be more harmonious and say thank you that you were able to see it."

"Death of Place" is a documentary film from Cloudy Ridge Productions, based in Durango.