In 1958, a 10-year old girl and her best friend watched their parents unearth amazing Native American artifacts as part of the Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project.
Growing up at Mesa Verde National Park, the two did not fully appreciate the historical significance of the excavations going on around them, which included Long House, the second largest cliff dwelling in the park.
They simply enjoyed their historical front-row seat, reveling the chance to examine ancient pottery, stone tools and textiles, some dating to an era 800 years previous.
The youngsters sometimes assisted archaeologists as they carefully washed, catalogued, packed up and put into storage artifacts from the ancestral Puebloan people, then called Anasazi.
Now, a lifetime has passed, and one of those girls, Trina Lindig, of Mancos, is experiencing a sort of ancestral déjá vu from her childhood.
She is part of a volunteer group of specially trained history buffs helping to move those same artifacts from the Wetherill Lab to the new Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at the entrance to the Park.
“It has been really fascinating and a real honor to have the chance to handle the same items I remember as a child,” Lindig recalled in an interview at her home with views of Mesa Verde.
“Seeing the artifacts with an adult mind, compared to my child’s eye is a unique and exciting perspective.”
Back then, a tight-knit community of archaeologists, Native Americans, park employees and their families lived at the park, excavating ruins, conducting new research, and preserving collections now famous around the world.
Lindig, and her best friend Frieda were the only two in third grade at the Park’s one-room school house, which featured 12 students in all, Lindig said.
Life revolved around archaeology. Meals were eaten under canvas tents. Adults busily worked the dig sites, and the local kids soaked it all in.
“I realize more now how special it was to have that experience as a kid,” she said. “We could go into the ruins, and they would give us little jobs to keep us out of the way.”
National Geographic helped introduce the human history of the park with an article in a February 1964 edition titled “Wetherill Mesa Yields Secrets of the Cliff Dwellers.”
In one photo, Lindig’s mother, archaeologist apprentice Sue Waite, is seen gluing sherds together reconstructing a large cooking pot. Frieda’s father, chief archaeologist Dr. Douglas Osborne, is shown among a huge collection of decorated bowls, jars, dippers and mugs laid out on the ground.
“I was always impressed how my mother could put those pots back together so well,” Lindig said. “It was like a puzzle.”
Another find, a backward-footed Kokopelli painted on ceramic, was described as a demi-god who kept a protective eye on the daughters of men.
In all, 3 million artifacts will be carefully moved from storage on Chapin Mesa to the modern storage facilities and labs at the new visitors center, said park curator Tara Travis.
More than half have been successfully moved, with the remaining to be relocated by fall.
“We have a very procedural system, where everything is accounted for at any given time — from the shelves at the Tin Shed (the nickname of the Wetherill Lab) to the packing boxes, into the U-Haul and finally to their new home,” Travis said. “We packed and moved things based on material type” — ceramics, perishables, rugs, textiles, books, photography, documents, natural history, etc.
It’s hard not to ask: Were any priceless ceramic pots dropped? No, Travis said.
“It has been nervewracking, but it has gone very smoothly, and we are learning a lot.”
Errors in the collection catalogue reference numbers that have been a mystery for years were solved, she said, and pottery conservation issues were revealed.
“For example, 50 years ago archaeologists used cellulose nitrate to glue pottery back together, and we could see it was breaking down so that is something that may need to be rethought.”
During the packing process, the room takes on a silent, spiritual aura, observers say. In one instance, the contemplative mood amplified the unexpected clattering of a rattle hidden inside the handle of a ladle, as if it were a signal emanating from the ancient past: “We live on.”
And in more ways the one, the stored collection does have an afterlife.
Thanks to the move and the new visitors center, the public can view more artifacts than before, Travis said.
“There is an exhibit at the new center, and visitors can look through windows into our research and processing rooms. We encourage the public to come over and watch us unpack and to appreciate the beauty of this collection.”
For Lindig, who has spent her life exploring Mesa Verde National Park, including as a park ranger, the experience is like going home, completing the circle.
“To be one of the first to touch these historical treasures was very special, and it is a real honor to return all this time later and help put them in a permanent home.”