Historic graffiti survey at Aztec Ruins yields interesting results, research will take years
Fascinating stories already emerging as work continues
FARMINGTON — The defacement of an important archaeological relic is something Colorado historian and author Fred Blackburn likely would be appalled by today.
But when it comes to the folks who left reminders of their presence all over modern-day Aztec Ruins National Monument at the turn of the 20th century, Blackburn tends to cut them a little slack.
"If I'd seen that big ruin, I would have been right there with them," he said, tilting back in his chair and smiling while sitting in his home office in Cortez, Colorado, last week. "I would have wanted to know what that was about."
Blackburn and his team of researchers began their survey of historic inscriptions — a fancy way of saying graffiti — at the famed, 900-year-old ancestral Puebloan settlement last year, completing much of their work by the middle of fall, when cold weather and a lack of daylight forced them to knock off until spring. Blackburn said the team — which includes his wife Victoria Atkins, who is an archaeologist, and two teenage students — has cataloged the inscriptions in nine rooms and the Visitors Center, and has 11 rooms to go. He hopes to resume work on the project in early April.
"Then we'll fight the bugs again," he said, referring to the countless insects who make the dark, dusty confines of the ruins their home.
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The survey focuses on the century-old signatures and messages scrawled on the vigas supporting the ceilings in the ancient structures. Their age separates those inscriptions from modern-day graffiti, as the specifics of the inscriptions reveal a great deal about the people who scrambled around Aztec Ruins in the early days of white settlement in the area, Blackburn said.
Most of the inscriptions were left between 1878 and 1915, Blackburn said, long before the site had any federal protection. They were left on the vigas because explorers typically gained access to the sealed rooms by knocking a hole in a wall or roof, then standing on the rubble to do their writing.
Funding for the project has come through a federal Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit grant funneled through the Archaeology Southwest firm in Tucson, Arizona. Blackburn works as an independent contractor through the firm, while the National Park Service and Aztec Ruins are cooperating with him. He emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the NPS or Aztec Ruins.
Stories behind the signatures
After Blackburn's team has finished registering, photographing, sketching, measuring and writing a detailed description of every inscription it finds at Aztec Ruins, he will organize the material and begin his research phase, which involves tracing the personal stories of those who left the inscriptions. Already, some interesting revelations have come to light, he said.
One of the individuals who visited the site in the early 1900s left behind two inscriptions, and that evidence opened the door for an online sleuth to dig up an extensive family history of the man. One of the inscriptions bears the name Arthur C Sheppard, a date of Oct. 7, 1907, and a hometown of Davenport, Iowa. A second inscription, which appears to be in the same handwriting, features the name A.E. Sheppard, also of Davenport, Iowa, but it also includes an address — 514 Div. St.
Blackburn shared that information publicly. Shortly afterward, he said, he was contacted by an Aztec woman who had used online public records to compile a comprehensive history of Sheppard's life. The most notable piece of information, Blackburn said, was that Sheppard worked as a railroad porter.
His occupation makes perfect sense, the historian said, as the arrival of the railroad in San Juan County corresponds with a substantial increase in the number and diversity of the historic inscriptions at the ruins.
"You can tell when the train hit by the change in names in 1905 and 1906," Blackburn said.
Another inscription demonstrates that at least one of the people who made their way to Aztec Ruins during that era — maybe a bored teenager on a family excursion? — had a sense of humor. It features the unlikely moniker Hezekiah Gizzardwurtzer — an apparent, early 20th century version of a joke name, Blackburn said.
Other inscriptions demonstrate that Aztec Ruins quickly found itself on the radar of individuals closely associated with the early exploration of many of the region's more well-known archaeological sites.
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Blackburn displayed an image of an inscription dated July 4, 1907, that includes the signature of a Geo. Jones. He theorized it was left behind by George Jones, who was a member of the first group of white explorers that likely saw the famed Cliff Palace at what is now Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.
The signature apparently was made with a quill pen and was left on a flattened section of a viga. Blackburn said it wasn't unusual for visitors in that era to shave off a rounded section of wood before they made an inscription, especially if they were using a quill and ink instead of writing with a pencil or using a knife to carve their name.
Another inscription features the name E.H. Knowles, which Blackburn believes was left by Emory Knowles, who was part of the team that explored the Anasazi settlement Grand Gulch in southeast Utah in 1884.
A secret meeting place
Blackburn's team also has discovered ample evidence of a strong socialist presence at the ruins in the early 1900s, a reflection of the movement's surge in popularity across the country in that era. He said members of the movement often found themselves harassed by law enforcement officials as well as their fellow citizens in those days, so they tended to meet in secret, rather than run the risk of being jailed or assaulted.
Aztec Ruins would have been the perfect spot for local lefties to gather, he said, explaining that they likely would enter the abandoned site from the north after nightfall, gain access to one of the rooms via a hole in the roof or wall, and conduct their business privately and safely.
They left behind many inscriptions reflecting their political agenda and even some stickers that were attached to the vigas, he said. Blackburn is still analyzing the faded inscriptions and trying to make out whether there are any names featured. But he theorized there likely wouldn't be, given the fact that the authors would have run the risk of discovery and exposure by signing their work.
As Blackburn makes public more names and inscriptions, he encourages people with deep family roots in the Aztec area to come forward with information about those individuals. Those details will add context and meaning to his survey, he said.
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"The point of all this is, each one of these people has a story," he said.
Blackburn emphasized he has no interest in seeking the return of items that may have been taken from the site decades ago.
"I'm not looking for the return of artifacts," he said. "I'm looking for stories and photographs."
That material is like gold to Blackburn, a former Bureau of Land Management ranger. When he is presented with background stories like the one he received about Sheppard, he feels like it validates his work and contributes greatly to a fuller understanding of Aztec Ruins, which is unique among ancestral Pueblo sites, given its location in the middle of a subdivision instead of a remote, hard-to-reach area.
"It's worse than opiates," he said with a grin, describing how rewarding that experience is.
A years-long process to complete
The final phase of the project will involve the writing of two reports detailing the team's findings, Blackburn has said. The first will be targeted largely for an academic audience, while the second will be geared for a public audience.
Blackburn is deep enough into the process to understand the work probably will consume the rest of his life. He hopes to finish documenting the inscriptions at the ruins by the end of the year, but he expects the research and writing to take an additional nine years.
For now, Blackburn appreciates the fact that he may have captured lightning in a bottle. After the first media reports of his project came out last fall, including a November story in The Wall Street Journal, he said interest in his work exploded.
He spent three weeks at one point just dealing with requests for interviews from media members, an indication of how the survey and its initial discoveries have struck a chord with the public. While that kind of attention can be distracting, he said, it also opens the door to his hearing from more people with valuable information to share.
He anticipates the best material is still to come.
"We want to keep repeating the stories of the families (associated with the site) because we know they haven't been told," he said. "When those stories start coming out, wow — it's going to be fun."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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