I'm experimenting in this issue by presenting Spider Cañon's first narrative adventure serial. I enjoyed the afternoon radio adventure serials when I was a boy, and I still do. So I'm doing something I always wanted to do—write one. This adventure is true; I just finished a trip to Northwest New Mexico that wrapped up the first stage of a 25-year infatuation with...well, you'll see. I hope you stay with it until the end in the fourth episode.
New Mexico's Mysterious Stone Towers,
(Travel/Explore #2, October 26, 1998)
Gods, Graves, and Scholarsby C. W. Ceram
In 1975 I became casually interested in archaeology again. I visited my library for a book or two on the subject. The first book I selected was Gods, Graves, and Scholars, by C. W. Ceram.
In this, his first book on the subject, Ceram (whose real name is Marec—clever, huh?) collected episodes that are considered milestones in archaeology: Schliemann's discovery and excavation of Troy, the discovery of Nimrud, in Assyria, by Layard, Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb, etc. Ceram was a good writer. He made those stories adventures by stressing the mysteries, the personalities, the discovery moment, and, of course, the treasure!
I had always been interested in finding treasure. The first book on that subject that I remember reading was Doubloons, by Charles Driscoll. I got it through a student reading program in the sixth grade. Driscoll retold all the old favorite stories: Oak Island, The Lost Dutchman, William Kidd's treasure, Cocos Island, and many others. In Driscoll's world treasure was everywhere. I could find it if I followed the clues. I never asked, back then, why Driscoll only wrote about treasure. Why he hadn't found all the treasures himself.(1) And I hadn't yet noticed the "search, find, lose" formula around which all treasure tales are spun.(2)
(1)The same pattern is found today in almost all treasure tales. In one extreme case, a recent website article I saw, a contributor claims to have developed a method that detects the "earth's reaction to the disturbance caused by the presence of buried manmade materials." With his unconventional method he had personally "found" more than fifty of the world's most famous treasures. Why hadn't he dug them up and become rich? "I've dedicated my life to the developing of my technology, not to the removing of the treasures I've found with it. You can lease my technology, if you want to." Really!
(2)In the "search, find, lose" formula, the protagonist searches hard for a specific treasure or accidentally stumbles on one. Just as he (almost never she) is about to remove the treasure for himself he is thwarted, either by the weather, an earthquake, marauding bandits, or some other intervention. When he returns to remove his booty it is gone, or hopelessly covered with rock, etc. Most collections of treasure stories depend on this device to absolve the author of the responsibility of verifying the truth of the story or having to answer precisely the question that needs to be asked: "Why haven't you...?" It's the rare treasure story in which the protagonist "searches, finds, keeps" his treasure.
|Ceram's reason for writing instead of searching was pretty clear. All the finds in his books were exactly that—finds. Ceram's strength was his skill as researcher/editor/storyteller. He had found his treasure in writing books about the discoveries of others.|
Gods, Graves, and Scholars was a great book, so I
looked for more. The next one I found was The First American, in which Ceram linked all the episodes to a single foundation theme question: "How long ago did man arrive in America?" It was a great device, and a great book, too, with very far-reaching episodes, all brought together by this quest for the first American.
One of Ceram's episodes was especially exciting for me. It was called "The Towers of Silence," and it didn't exactly fit into his organized pattern. It took place in Northwest New Mexico. To make it more interesting, it also seemed open-ended, unfinished. It was a good story; good enough to retell.
The First American
One day Joe set out for a few days' exploration in a remote area he had not visited before. Ruin sites are very common in that part of New Mexico, but deep in a canyon of the Perdiz River Joe found ancient ruins of a type he'd not seen before. He called them "torreones," towers, because they were large rectangular stone structures about twenty feet square and thirty or so feet high. There were no doors or windows in the towers. What was inside?
Areano found no gold around the towers, but he did dig up several colorful painted bowls, which he took with him. Their sale could, at least, pay some of his expenses.
Had Joe succeeded in selling his bowls the story of the towers might have ended there. But he didn't succeed. The land around the Perdiz River is public land—government land. Removing artifacts from government land without a permit is strictly prohibited. Joe was arrested in Santa Fe, and the government confiscated his bowls. But the account of the arrest brought a new character into the story.
University of New Mexico archaeology professor Frank C. Hibben's interest was piqued by Joe's description of the towers. Towers like this, looking almost medieval, had not been reported in New Mexico before. Could they be a new discovery for the ambitious young professor?
With Areano's description of the towers and their location, Areano as a guide, and a lot of student help, Hibben mounted an exploratory expedition. In June, 1933, (and today, to some extent) that part of New Mexico was primitive. There were few improved roads, and no accurate maps. (New Mexico was not mapped until 1964. Some of it has never been remapped. Roads in this area are still pretty basic.) The university team drove in by car as far as they could, then they used horse-drawn wagons to travel along the bed of the Perdiz River.
Hibben described the journey in a colorful article he published in a December, 1944, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. This article was the source of most of Ceram's information. He talks of the almost total lack of potable water in the canyon; the clouds of biting flies; narrow, difficult passes between canyon walls. Hibben is a good writer, too; and even Ceram's account of Hibben's article made my heart pound. I could easily form a mental picture of what the terrain must have looked like.
As the team rounded a very narrow bend in the river they encountered their first tower. It was perched on a ledge above them, silhouetted against the bright blue New Mexican sky. As their vision expanded they saw other towers on other ledges. Using their binoculars they could see many other towers. Some stood alone, some in clusters. They stretched away atop the cliffs overlooking the Perdiz River canyon.
The group set up camp and began to prepare for a survey of the extent of the towers. For the next several weeks they followed the canyon north and south. They scaled the cliffs and scoured the area above. They examined every side canyon. They mapped the location of every tower. Their final tally was more than five hundred towers, spread out over an area of thirty-five by fifty miles. The next obvious step was to dig, but it was too late in the season by then. A real expedition would be mounted the following summer. The team went back to Albuquerque without turning a spade.
The Secrets of The TowersThe following summer Hibben returned with the proper permits and a full-fledged expedition. Male and female students with shovels, trowels, and whisk brooms set up a tent city in the middle of the first towers found the year before.
The work began with an exploration and mapping more thorough and detailed than that of the previous year. Hibben indicates that even with this larger group working he was never sure that they had discovered the true extent of the territory covered by the towers.
Digging began on the first eight towers found in the original survey. Even with limited water, the continual nuisance of the biting flies, the scarcity of food supplies, and the lack of a proper place to wash, the team worked hard and cheerfully. They began to make extraordinary finds almost immediately.
The first tower had been entered by ladders, found still inside the tower, and through a trapdoor in the roof. Part of the roof of the first tower was still in place, which allowed the team to estimate its original height at twenty-five feet. Tree ring dating of the remaining roof timbers indicated it had been constructed between about 1150 A. D. and 1250 A. D.!
The tower was constructed of rough sandstone blocks and mortar in two layers. The builders used rubble to fill the space between them. This formed solid walls about six feet thick which supported the wooden and thatch roof. A stone parapet around the roof protected defensive troops during a fight. The parapet made the towers look somewhat like a castle.
The interior of the first tower was a single large room about twenty feet on a side. Paintings of plants and animals and symbols decorated the walls. Carefully fitted sandstone blocks made a solid floor. In one side, in the floor beside the wall, was a curbed firepit beside a ventilation shaft to the roof. Around the floor, at the walls, were several covered rectangular stone and adobe storage bins. Several were sealed.
When Hibben and his students opened the stone bins, sealed for almost eight centuries, they found many intimate, personal things: leather bags of face powder, prayer sticks, good luck ornaments, buckskin and feather clothing, and supplies of cane and flint arrows. But as interesting as these articles were, a bigger surprise was waiting for them.
Next the diggers pushed aside the charred debris of the fallen roof. As the last of the scorched thatch and timbers was moved they gasped to see the bodies of the tower's inhabitants—all murdered violently! There were sixteen in all, both men and women. They had been struck with arrows or axes. Many still had their weapons in their hands!
From the positions of the bodies the archaeologists surmised that the towers had come under strong attack from an organized and determined enemy. The defenders had positioned themselves around the roof to return fire, but enemy fire arrows had ignited the vulnerable roof thatch, which must have been very dry, and it had fallen in, taking the defenders and parts of the wall and parapet down with it. The attackers then scaled the walls and finished off the injured defenders where they lay. One body, a boy's, with an arrow in his hip, was stuck in the ventilation shaft. Had he been trying to escape the fire inside the tower?
Apparently the dry Southwest climate and the charring of the fire had preserved the bodies of the tower inhabitants, for they still had skin and hair intact, and their weapons and clothing were in relatively good shape.
Hibben says that this scene was repeated in every one of the seventeen towers he and his students excavated during that year and the few that remained before the start of World War II suspended the digging.(3)
|(3)Charles Gallencamp, also of the University of New Mexico, indicates that explorations of the pit homes near the towers told the same story. In his article he says that some of the bodies in the houses had fractured or severed fingers, as if they had been tortured before they were killed.|
As I read the end of Ceram's chapter on the towers my pulse was racing. The image of the discovery of those mummies was clear in my mind. I also saw the immediate mathematical implications: seventeen towers
dug out of five hundred. As many as 483 towers to go! What might I find if I could find the towers' location?
I found Hibben's Post article in only a few minutes. It had photos and a little more detail. Plus the open end. Had Hibben returned to the site after the war? Had the story of the towers been closed after all in an article Ceram had not mentioned? The possibilities gave me a headache.
The images of the article were very vivid. I could see myself clearly in the Perdiz River Canyon, retracing Hibben's steps, searching unopened towers. It would be a fantastic adventure. But who could I get to go with me? My own family was young, and we were too soft for a family expedition to wild back country. Up to now our idea of adventure had been trips to the zoo or theme parks, or to local malls.
In all my life only one person had ever been both a willing adventurer with me and personally compatible—my cousin Clyde. Clyde and I grew up together during the summers he came to Shreveport. We'd spent a lot of time together in our youthful "adventures." Our interests and skills, and our personalities were perfectly complementary. I trusted him. Perhaps again...as adults.
But Clyde was now a geologist starting his own oil company in Oklahoma City. His treasure was oil, and he was finding it. He and his wife were committed to the business. It would not be a good time for Clyde right now. I understood.
As quickly as the images had clarified in my mind as I read Hibben's article, they began to fuzz over. I wanted to go, but not enough to go alone. Not quite yet.
...to be continued.
In the next episodeI make my first exploratory visits: to Albuquerque for research, and to the vicinity of the towers. After so long a time could there possibly be anything left?
Gods, Graves, and Scholars, and The First American, both by C. W. Ceram, are available from our
Driscoll's Doubloons, unfortunately, has disappeared. If you find a copy, let me know.
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