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Southwest Colorado's Crow Canyon Is An Archaeological Center Once Inhabited By Ancient American Indian Tribes.

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Exploring The Sustainable Past: Crow Canyon

Living Structures And Farming Techniques Of Ancient American Indian Tribes Are Examined At This Archaeological Center In Cortez, Colorado

Susan Ryan, Director of Archaeology At Crow, Literally Buried In Her Work [Courtesy/ Crow Canyon Archaeological Center]

Don’t mind a little dirt and sweat? Fascinated by the past? Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado might be the right destination for scientists and explorers alike.

For thousands of years, the American Indian tribes of the Southwest managed to live in conditions of drought that many people today would consider impossible. “Not only were they able to survive, they became a big success in this harsh environment,” Paul Ermigiotti, an educator at Crow Canyon, tells The Buzz. “These people have been growing things here since about 1,000 B.C. We’re trying to find out how they lived the way they did, and what made them so successful.”

Crow Canyon’s research takes two approaches. Archaeological digs, mostly at sites on private land, explore the habitations of early settlers in the region, and examines artifacts they left behind. Scientists from the center are joined by amateur archaeologists participating in one of the research programs offered year-round.

The other prong of the research examines methods used by Pueblo farmers to get the most out of their environment. “Right now we are working with Hopi native farmers on five experimental gardens,” Paul says. “The Hopi are the last of the traditional dry land farmers, planting by hand with just a digging stick, and using no water except what falls from the sky.”

“Crow Canyon’s Native American Advisory Group was formed in 1995 for the purpose of fostering constructive dialogue between Crow Canyon staff and American Indians,” Susan Ryan, director of archaeology at Crow, says.  “We are the only archaeological center in the nation producing top-notch research that involves descendant communities in every facet of the work.”

Since its founding three decades ago, Dr. Ryan considers the most significant finds that Crow Canyon researchers have made to be ones that have deepened our understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment and how it developed through time. “It’s not some exotic artifact or rare find that we are looking for,” Ryan says. “It’s information on how people in the past organized their households and communities, how groups made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, and the results of those decisions on their social, ritual, and economic lives.”

Saying Hi From The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center [Courtesy/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center]
Archaeological Digs Take Patience And Knowledge Of The Land [Courtesy/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center]

Dr. Ryan says the ancestral Pueblo people were incredibly resourceful, intelligent, and adaptable. “We can learn a great deal about ourselves, and where we are at in our society, by understanding the decisions they made and the way they structured their lives.”

Located just outside of Mesa Verde National Park, Crow Canyon provides hands-on education programs in both the field and lab, in both indoor and outdoor settings. While many of the center’s programs are geared to school groups, it also offers research programs open to individuals and families from 8 to 80, and scientist-guided tours that take people interested in archaeology to significant sites both in the U.S. and abroad.

Visitors stopping by the center can get an overview of its projects during a free one-hour walking tour tour. “We give people an introduction to the history and prehistory of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners region, then a tour of our facilities and an overview of our current projects,” Paul says. The tour includes the Pithouse Learning Center, a replica of a seventh-century Pueblo Indian dwelling, and the Pueblo Farming Project’s demonstration gardens.

Ermigiotti says that for the last half dozen years the center’s research has focused on Basketmaker sites. “These people lived in the area from about 500 to 700 A.D.,” he explains. “Now we’re moving into sites that are part of the North Chaco Canyon outlier communities, villages that had a connection with the main Chaco Canyon civilization 125 miles south.”

Although people tend to think of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings as the main American Indian habitations in the area, Ermigiotti explains that the same people lived in villages spread out over thousands of square miles for several thousand years. “The cliff dwellings are just the last 100 years of their history.”

Those who want a deeper dive into archaeology and the region’s prehistory can sign up for a one-day sampler or five-day immersive experience. “This is a good place for an educational vacation,” Paul says. The one-day program offers an introduction to the scientists’ methods in both the field and laboratory, including a tour of the current archaeological dig. 

Children Can Take Part In Digs Supervised By The Staff [Courtesy/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center]
Researchers Looking For Artifacts [Courtesy/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center]

The five-day program is more immersive. After a tour of the facilities, participants spend a day in the lab learning to identify and classify artifacts and a couple of days digging. At the end of the program, first time participants have the option of taking an in-depth tour of Mesa Verde, guided by Crow Canyon archaeologists.

“We teach each person what they need in order to assist us in our data collection activities,” Dr. Ryan say. “Participants work side-by-side with our professional archaeologists and educators in the field and laboratory.”

A visit to Crow Canyon enhances visits to Mesa Verde, the Anasazi Heritage Center, Chaco Canyon and other Pueblo sites around the Southwest, Dr. Ryan says. “Participants in our programs have a greater understanding and respect for the cultural history of the region.”

Paul Ermigiotti says many participants return for multiple sessions. “People enjoy working with us, and making a personal connection,” he says. “And they like doing real research, something important, rather than taking just another vacation.”

Ermigiotti points out that the sustainable techniques practiced by the native farmers may have consequences for our own society. “The genetic diversity of their crops, something we are losing, may be what allowed them to survive.”

Dr. Ryan says every discovery is important: “Each and every artifact that we analyze, as well as non-portable items such as architecture and stratigraphy, are puzzle pieces of information that we need to put back together in order to tell the story of the people who came before us.”


Renee Wright 

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping. 

Cortez/Mesa Verde KOA

Make Sure To Stay At:

Cortez/Mesa Verde KOA is only 15 minutes away from Mesa Verde National Park.  After visiting the 700-year-old cliff dwellings in the park's canyon walls, return to your own high desert oasis. Swim in the heated pool or round up a game of basketball or horseshoes.


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