History comes to life
December 3, 2015
Rocky Moss loves being the manager of the Dolores, Colo., Visitors Center on 201 Railroad Ave. "Dozens of cars stop here daily during the summer," she said. "Most people are looking for information on the Mesa Verde National Park, though," which is actually 20 miles away outside of the town of Cortez.
Since the Park was established in 1906, millions of visitors have travelled to see the ancient, man-made cliff dwellings it is known for. Built between 550 and 1300 A.D., they were once the homes of Anasazi Indians, ancestors of modern day Pueblo and Hopi tribes.
The Four Corners area — where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet — was where they originated. They lived in pit dwellings, but also created architectural wonders along steep cliffs which could only be reached by climbing. This allowed a great defense system against marauding travelling enemy tribes.
Cortez, called the archaeological center of America, often overshadows tiny but scenic Dolores, which is only three blocks wide. However, "Dolores is a secret treasure," Rocky continued. "Our population of (approximately) 900 ranges from newcomers to families who homesteaded the area generations ago."
Surrounded by National Forest, with beautiful sandstone views and the McPhee Reservoir, Dolores is also a great place to go camping, fishing, kayaking, hiking, and snow-shoeing. It was the Reservoir — and what it uncovered, left behind by the Anasazi — which helped put Dolores on the map. During the process of excavating, workers "found so many artifacts that we had to build a place to house them." Named the Anasazi Heritage Center, the adobe-styled building was completed in 1984.
According to the Center's website, "between 1978 and 1984, researchers mapped about 1,600 archaeological sites including hunting camps, shrines, granaries, and households along the river in the Reservoir area."
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The Center is the perfect place to learn about and experience the ways of this ancient culture first-hand. The gift shop has hundreds of books, posters, and photos to choose from. Lectures, demonstrations, and special events are held throughout the year. Visitors are encouraged to handle artifacts or try loom-weaving and corn-grinding.
They can also watch educational movies or take part in special computer programs which allow them to experience what it's like to be an archaeologist on a dig.
Hand-made tools and utensils, plus a full-sized replica of a Pit house (circa A.D. 800s), help one get the feel of what it was like to live off the land so long ago. Carved out by hand with wooden digging sticks and stone axes, these partially-underground structures were made mostly of logs, poles, and mud.
They had hearths, partitions, storage "cists," and timbered roofs that were covered with brush. (Some even had finished walls!) The only way out was a hole in the roof that additionally served as the smoke exit for the fire pit.
"The Anasazi culture really took off when they learned how to domesticate corn, beans, and squash," according to David Kill, museum specialist. "They also harvested native plants like pinon and yucca. There were between 30,000 and 40,000 inhabitants in the valley at one point. Scientific data shows that they left after resources started to dry out."
In addition to the public, museum-style area, The Anasazi Heritage Center is a federal repository with 3.6 million artifacts. Anyone doing research is welcome to pour through them. It is also the headquarters for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, 178,000 acres of BLM land that reaches the Utah border and is a multiple-use area open to outdoors enthusists.
It might be worth it to take a hike through that area after you've enjoyed the Center; no telling what else the Anasazi may have left behind. ❖