Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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A Trip to Piñon Canyon


You know you're in the right place by the big tank parked off to one end of the parking lot. It's cold and mostly cloudy. A hope of clearing skies lies off to the east. We are gathered with 21 members of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society for a tour of historic and prehistoric cultural sites in the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. We are to be guided by Mark and Pam Owens, Terry Moody, and Pam Cowen. They are part of the thirteen-member archaeological team at Fort Carson and Piñon Canyon. Mark gives a brief introduction and points to our first stop only a few hundred yards away. An Iraqi village.

The "village" is a grouping of plywood shacks, a kind of primitive stage set complete with houses, courtyards, walled streets, and even a mosque. Signs in Arabic identify the buildings. Before going to Iraq, many of our troops train here to become familiar with Iraqi towns and what they may encounter. During recent maneuvers, the town had a "population" of Arabic-speaking Americans who volunteered to be the townspeople. And to add a further touch of realism, the town included a herd of goats. We wander about in the surreal setting. Iraq in the vast golden prairie of southeastern Colorado.

Iraqi "village"

Mark Owens points out a petroglyph panel.


Across the "Savannah"

We drive nearly an hour out across the site. Plains give way to juniper-encrusted canyons, then back to plains. I don't know what I expected to find here, maybe land torn by mock battles, shattered buildings and shell craters. But not this. The land is almost pristine out to the horizon, marred only by occasional two-track roads. The clouds begin to break up and sun illuminates the land. It is a beautiful landscape much like the savannahs that coaxed our African ancestors into full humanity. Herds of pronghorn warily look our way. Mark points out that wildlife abounds here: deer, pronghorn, mountain lions, and some of the largest elk in the state.

We arrive at our first site hidden in a juniper forest at the rocky edge of a canyon. We cross under a fence. A sign warns, "Restricted Area No Admittance." Areas of cultural significance are off limits to military activity, carefully protected. Mark has been here since 1986. He put up many of these fences. Among the junipers, we find stone circles overgrown but distinct if you're looking for them. They are all that's left of Apishapa settlements hundreds of years old. Hide scrapers, and other lithics lie among the stones. Petroglyphs tattoo the blocks of stone that have broken away from the canyon rim on a slow motion slide to the bottom.

Mark speaks at length about the people who lived here, why they lived here (water close by, access to game nearby), how they lived (early horticulture, hunting), trade, and influence from neighboring cultures. As I listen, it amazes me that so much information can be gleaned from apparently so little evidence on the ground. "Look at the big picture," Mark says. Settlement patterns, land forms. This area is crowded with habitation sites, defensive sites, game drive sites. And these sites bare relationships with other, far-flung sites. Studied as a whole, patterns emerge. Archaeologists can discern the distribution of populations across the land, how they used the land and exploited its resources, how they moved about, how they traded. Still I marvel at the careful observation, the piecing together of abstract data gleaned from obscure physical evidence, the skillful reasoning that resurrects a living people from dead stone.

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