The nearby Lukachukai, Chuskas and Corrizo mountains in Navajo Country conjure up the sanctified spirituality that defines Native American culture, past and present.
Appropriately, within these desert ranges towers Prayer Rock, a distant eminence surrounded by ancient cave dwellings, extinct bears and three very famous musical instruments.
After the exodus by Ancestral Puebloans in the 1300s, the secrets of the Prayer Rock District in northeast Arizona remained hidden. Then in the early 20th century, the site beckoned explorers Earl Morris, John Wetherill, Charles Bernheimer, Zeke Johnson and others, drawn by an apparition from the past and the fame of discovery.
Last week in Cortez, historian Fred Blackburn presented the first of a two-part series, Prayer Rock: In the Shadow of the Bear. The event was hosted by the Hisatsinom Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society.
In front of a packed house, Blackburn focused on the location, photographs, people and personalities of early 20th-century expeditions to the little known area.
“Everywhere, there are petroglyphs of bears on the cliff walls,” he said. “This country is rough with almost no water.”
For 11 years, Blackburn conducted reverse archaeology at Prayer Rock to find 30 ancient sites excavated on the early expeditions and to make sense of the Basketmaker III discoveries. He made numerous camping trips to the area, investigating the past cooperatively with students from the Jefferson County Open School.
“The students did interviews and research. They never complained, even during vicious weather,” he said.
A 1930 trip was the last of the great packhorse expeditions for archaeology, Blackburn explained. But it was time when technology sometimes clashed with traditional ways.
“Morris arrived with an entourage of the automobiles he loved. He hated mules and horses and saw the guides as competition,” he says. “Morris chose to rename and renumber all of the sites recorded previously. He did not make note of the changes, causing huge confusion in the reconstruction of the locations of the archaeological sites,” Blackburn said.
Bernheimer was in his late 70s, but it didn’t damper his enthusiasm for Southwest archaeology. “He was a dandy,” smiles Blackburn. “He put on a pressed, freshly starched shirt every day. We found one of his old shirt boxes in an alcove with field notes on it.”
On the other hand, Wehterill, a traditional cowboy and guide, appreciated packhorses for expeditions. He led his string of 14 horses and mules into Boiling Over Wash and viewed a high cave, according to journals of the time.
“After his brother’s (Richard) death in Chaco, John made a shortcut through the Lukachukais and recognized that the alcoves were Basketmaker communities,” Blackburn said.
The 1930 expedition started from Shiprock, N.M., progressed into the Red Valley, and onto Prayer Rock, Ariz.. They camped at the Rancheria of Blackhorse, Navajo band leader and guide.
“Everyone participated in the ceremonies,” Blackburn said. “There was lots of fun that went on. They tried to get Zeke Johnson to dance with a Navajo woman, and he went and hid.”
Blackhorse and Ute guide Eugene Cappahusa helped to show the way.
They followed the trail through a gap in the ridge to Atahonez Canyon. From here, they could observe the famous alcove that would provide a unique view of the life of the Basketmaker people.
One of 15 caves explored, Broken Flute Cave is legendary for it’s cultural history and namesake artifacts.
During a 1925 expedition, three wooden flutes were found in the cave in near-perfect condition. The extremely rare instruments are dated between 620-670 A.D. and are considered the oldest flutes of their type made in the Americas. Unplayed for millennia, Morris embraced the moment, as relayed in his journal, and later in a National Geographic magazine.
“The body was that of an old man, surely once a priest or chief. There lay above his buckskin wrapping a flute, one end beneath the chin,” Morris writes.
“I picked up one of the flutes shook the dust and mouse dung out of it and placed it to my lips. The rich, quavering tones which rewarded even my unskilled touch seemed to electrify the atmosphere,” Morris writes.
“In the distance Navajo workman paused with shovels poised, seeking the source of the sound. A horse neighed, and two crows flapped from a crevice overhead.
“Our little group was motionless for a dozen heartbeats. In the weird silence, it was as if time had been halted in its flight.”
The rare flutes are on display at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.
Blackburn emphasizes the Native American contributions to the early expeditions and the cultural variety that continue today at Prayer Rock.
“What we are really looking at is the diversity of the cultures that are in Lukachukai in modern history and prehistory,” Blackburn concludes. “It was a natural attraction for large groups of people: Navajo, Ute, Pueblo, Hispanic.”
His findings are in collaboration with local tribes, and are presented at local Chapter Houses.
“In this country, you have to earn people’s trust,” Blackburn said. “The bands and clans have carried the stories with them over generations.”