This is the fourth episode
of four in my serial article about searching for Indian ruins in the New Mexican high desert...or it was supposed to be. But when I saw the size of the remaining narrative it was obvious there's going to be at least one, maybe two more episodes to tell the story. I apologize for being so windy; I'll try to do better. I also apologize for taking so long to return to the story. You see, we keep having these hurricanes...
In the first episode I discovered exciting old clues to the existence of pre-Columbian stone towers containing mummies and well-preserved artifacts! In the second, I began my first trip of exploration—but was I too late? In the third, I arrived in the vicinity of the towers and began my search.
In this episode:
After my first hike in the New Mexican high desert, I meet some interesting people who teach me some valuable skills and show me my first Perdiz ruin. I am convinced to move my search for The Towers closer to Perdiz Canyon.
If you missed Episode I, II, or III, find them in our "Backissues" page, accessible from our "Library." Then continue with this episode.
New Mexico's Mysterious Stone Towers,
(Travel/Explore #5: November 7, 1999)
Early on Sunday I crossed the highway and went into the little
Baptist Church. There were about fifteen others there, and we spent almost an hour studying Paul's letter to the Ephesians. I felt comfortable joining the class; Ephesians is one of my favorites.
In every congregation of Christians that I've visited the break
between class and morning worship is an almost mandatory get-acquainted time. In a few minutes I'd met all the class members, and they knew where I came from and why I was in town. One couple, Dorothy and James Johnson, said they'd like to talk a little more after church; and they invited me for lunch at their home. This is
another tradition in small town churches. I accepted.
Dorothy and James
Show and Tell
The Johnsons lived in a little frame house that I'd noticed
every day as I'd passed it on the way to Yabis. It was small and
neat, with a small garden alongside. James was a telephone company
engineer, and he spent a lot of time in the fields and forests of the
county. He'd found a great many Indian ruins and grave sites during
his work. Most had been on private land where he'd been allowed to
dig and collect. He was eager to show me things he and Dot had found.
After a blessing and the first mouthful or two of lunch, James
opened a cupboard and brought out two glassed frames full of tiny
arrowheads mounted on a velvet background. They were beautifully made
and in a variety of colors and shapes.
"These are just the best ones I've found. There are hundreds of
others that aren't so good."
As I looked at the tiny points I told Dot and James Hibben's story and showed them the copy of the article. James matched points in the article picture to some of those he'd framed. Then he made a macabre suggestion.
"You know, their enemies may not have been all from the outside."
"What do you mean?"
"We've often thought that they may have turned on each other when times got tough. And that would have been just about every winter, when food stores got low."
"But there's plenty of game in these mountains."
"That's true, but our growing season's short. People need more than meat. When there wasn't much to begin with, a cold snap even a day or two early could have spelled very tough times. Even Dot and I have problems with tomatoes and corn. We've got about sixty days from seed to harvest. That's all.
"I believe they lived on the ridges in very small settlements to protect themselves from their hungry neighbors."
I remembered Velma Wallis's Two Old Women, in which a nomadic tribe had to face just that kind of problem.
Most of the points were small triangles, about the size of a
dime; but many were long, slender, obsidian points, thin and very
sharp. He took one especially nice black one out of the frame and
gave it to me. It was black, lying in my hand; but when I held it up
to the window I could see light through it.
Obsidian projectile point
"It's beautiful," I said, and handed it back to him very
"No, no. It's yours. Please, keep it."
I protested, but it did no good; so I wrapped it in a paper
napkin and tucked it in my shirt pocket. I felt a little presumptuous
keeping the fine little point. After all, I hadn't found it. But the
Johnsons were generous people. For the next hour we alternately ate
and looked at James's and Dot's finds.
"Dorothy's the best at finding arrowheads. She has a real knack
for it. And beads; she's found a lot of beads. Tell 'im how you find
the beads, Hon."
"They're almost always lying in a circle around ant mounds. The
ants bring them up and push them out. They're just lying there...in
plain view if anybody'd look." Dorothy was Hispanic, and her slight
accent somehow seemed to credential what she said.
After lunch James brought out several of his special finds. One
was a set of tiny pots and bottles and bowls about the size of acorns. They were white clay with black painted designs.
"Some sort of ceremonial containers?" I asked. He shook his
"I don't think so. I believe they're the Indian version of a tea set. A toy for a little girl. I found them in the same spot as these..." He opened a shoe box and drew out a small pair of sandal/slippers, very beautifully made of what appeared to be pine needles, but pale yellow with black diamond shapes woven in. They looked remarkably modern. One corner of one sandal was badly frayed and smeared over with some sort of hard, black crust which looked familiar. They had a dull, stale odor.
"Rat manure. These were down about a foot and a half in very
hard clay. I had to chip them out very carefully. The rats got to
them before I did...about eight hundred years ago!"
There was also a very small shirt, light tan, woven almost like
coarse oxford cloth. All these were from a child's grave. The little shirt was beautiful; I tried to imagine what it would have been like in winter in this high desert.
There were white pots and bowls, regular size, with painted black designs; basically circles and rings, always broken at one place to prevent closed circles.
"The broken circles keep evil spirits from being trapped in the
One large pot had been carefully broken, the fragments
perforated along the edges, and then reassembled with cords. The end
result reminded me of "Shopping bag?" I joked.
"Helmet." He placed it over his head. It left his face free and
extended down over his ears and neck. "I've never seen another one
like it anywhere." He unrolled a paper bag next. "Now this piece is
fairly recent." It was a flat steel blade, obviously a spear point.
"Made from a wagon spring ground flat on a stone. About 1800 to 1850
or so, I'd guess. Another one I haven't seen before."
The house had a large garage, and about a fifth of it was filled with pasteboard boxes of large pottery fragments.
"Dorothy and I dig all summer. Then when the snow comes we hole
up down here and put the pieces together. It helps to pass the winter. In spring we go to the grade schools and lecture about this area's past. Show and tell."
"How do you locate the sites?"
"The best ones are on private land. Anything on public land we
leave alone. It's against the law to dig or take anything from public land. But if I'm on a man's land to fix his phone or his lines, it's easy to get his permission to poke around in a promising area. In fact, if you've got the time, we'll show you how to get started." I'd make time.
James went into the next room and came back with a long, slender roll of oilskin. I thought it would be more show and tell, but he
unrolled an old map from the telephone company. It showed the terrain
of the entire county. The margin notes dated the map well before
1964, the rough date of the first government maps of New Mexico. He
pointed to a place on a nearby highway. It was Yabis!