When graffiti takes on historic value
Historian says inscriptions reveal much about ruins' early explorers
AZTEC — Fred Blackburn moved carefully on the makeshift scaffold set up in one of the dark, dusty and small rooms that make up the West Ruin at Aztec Ruins National Monument one morning earlier this week. In his left hand, he held a portable light, and with his right hand, he lightly traced the side of a viga supporting the roof of the ancient structure while squinting at the faded handwriting barely visible on the log.
The wood was covered in signatures and dates, all of them extending back at least 100 years, if not longer. At one end of the viga, a lengthy message had been scrawled and signed by a Phila Bliven, and dated 1894. The 130-word essay extolls the wonders of the ruins, with the author marveling at the apparent engineering genius of the builders and gushing about their significance.
Blackburn turned to the visitor standing on the scaffold next to him, his face breaking into a broad grin.
"That's gold to us," he said.
The Colorado historian, author and researcher is leading a team that includes his archaeologist wife Victoria Atkins and two interns in a comprehensive exploration and survey of the historic inscriptions on the ceilings of the 900-year-old ruins. Eventually, Blackburn will document the team's findings in a paper designed for an academic audience, then publish another version targeted for a public audience.
But first, he'll reveal the preliminary results of his study during a presentation at the park this weekend called "Handwriting on the Wall." Blackburn is hoping to attract to that lecture the members of several longtime local families because he needs their assistance in completing his project.
Many of the names he has found scrawled on the ceilings of the ruins, he said, are the ancestors of people who live in the area today. Just cataloging those names isn't enough — Blackburn wants to know the stories of those folks and add historical contest to their inscriptions in as many cases as possible.
"We want families that have been here for generations and can shed some light on what this place was like 100 years ago," he said. "They were the keepers of that early history, but sometimes those families can be reluctant to turn over those stories and photographs."
Blackburn emphasized he isn't interested in trying to shame anyone into returning any artifacts their ancestors may have removed from the ruins before the site fell under the protection of the American Museum of Natural History and the National Park Service. It's information he wants, not relics.
In most cases, the inscriptions the Blackburn team is researching are short and sweet. But he said they still leave some clues the nature of the people who wrote them.
"You get a real feel for the people," he said. "Most of them are smaller signatures. They're non-intrusive but in beautiful script."
Occasionally — "About as often as you find gold treasure," Blackburn said — the team discovers something like Bliven's essay, and the 100-year period between the time when it was written and the present seems to just melt away.
"Those are the ones that bring you to the humanity quickly," he said. "They're lovely."
Standing atop the rubble
Amateur explorations of the ruins began shortly after Anglo settlers began moving into the area in the 1870s, said Blackburn, a former Bureau of Land Management ranger who spent years working in the Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah before helping establish the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez, Colorado, and the White Mesa Institute at the College of Eastern Utah.
Those early visitors often gained entry to some of the sealed rooms at the ruins by knocking down bricked-up windows or doors, leaving debris scattered several feet deep on the floor. They would stand on that rubble while leaving an inscription with a quill pen and ink or lead pencil on the vigas or latillas that make up the ceilings.
Much less often, they would etch their name or initials in the wood with a metal tool. In any event, Blackburn noted it is easy to tell the direction from which that entry was gained because most of the inscriptions are on one side of the vigas in each room.
Most of the inscriptions range from 1878 to 1915, when much of the floor debris was removed, making it much more difficult to reach the ceilings, Blackburn said.
"All of the early excavations were done by locals and a few archaeologists who came through," Blackburn said. "They hold the key to that information. An inscription is a primary historic document. They're a connection to dates and events in history."
The survey is being conducted on a scale that has never been attempted at a similar site, Blackburn said. The thing that makes Aztec Ruins unique is that it is a major archaeological site that has existed in the midst of a community that has grown up around it since 1878.
Blackburn's team plans to examine 23 of the original and intact rooms at the ruins, and was working on its sixth room earlier this week, a process that got underway in May. He estimated his team would not finish its work until December.
The project is being funded by federal money in the form of a Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit grant that is funneled through the firm Archaeology Southwest in Tucson, Arizona. Blackburn is an independent contractor working through the firm, and Aztec Ruins is cooperating with him in the project.
The work itself is painstaking, tedious, repetitive, dirty and sometimes even a little unnerving. Blackburn said his team typically encounters plenty of black widow and brown recluse spiders until it gets its portable lighting operating, and in one of the rooms, he chuckled as recounted how a bat took up residence for a few days.
Blackburn's crew carefully goes over every inch of the interior, documenting and measuring every inscription it finds through photography, hand-written descriptions and even hand-drawn reproductions. Later, those photographs will be enhanced by software that allows researchers to observe details they could never see with the naked eye in the harshly lit, dusty confines of the ancient rooms, he said.
But it is also very rewarding, he said — a sentiment echoed by 14-year-old Flora Vista resident Moriah Sonnenberg, who serves as one of the interns on the team. Sonnenberg, who is home schooled, said she was visiting the ruins earlier this year with her mother when they encountered Blackburn and Atkins, and they quickly established such a rapport, she joined the team.
Sonnenberg helps with spotting the inscriptions on walls, doing drawings of them and taking notes while Blackburn describes the material he finds on the ceilings. But she likes to joke that her main job is deciphering Blackburn's handwriting.
Her most significant discovery so far, she said, is the signature of a J.R. Wyatt that is dated 1904. The last name of the pastor at her church is Wyatt, she said, and she is hopeful a connection between the two men can be established — providing exactly the kind of historical context to an inscription that Blackburn would find so valuable.
Atkins, Blackburn's wife, has been deeply involved in archaeological activities in the Southwest since her late teens, volunteering for excavations at what is now Chaco Culture National Historic Park when she was 19. But she has grown anything but jaded about her work, explaining that she treasures the opportunity to spend so much time in the individual rooms at Aztec Ruins, examining tiny details that the vast majority of visitors never see.
Atkins is most pleased about finding a signature from Harry Goulding, who apparently spent a lot of time exploring the ruins with his teenage friends before moving to Monument Valley, where he opened a famous trading post and lodging establishment.
Historic inscriptions vs. mere graffiti
Since they have been in place for 100 years or more, the inscriptions are considered to have considerable value, although Blackburn acknowledged that it can be difficult for strict preservationists to view them as anything but graffiti.
"That is our cultural view of it," he said. "But these inscriptions are now historical. They're protected."
That is the perspective from which Blackburn conducts his work. But he said he also allows himself the luxury of wondering what motivates so many people to leave proof of their presence behind when they visit a place like Aztec Ruins.
"I think about it all the time," he said. "What we correlated it with is, it's an absolutely human thing to do. There's no difference between this and prehistoric rock art except context."
That doesn’t mean Blackburn is OK with any contemporary visitor doing the same. Minus historic context, any such present-day graffiti would unquestionably be an act of vandalism, he said.
Blackburn's presentation will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 in the visitor center theater. Admission is free, but attendance is limited to 60 people. The gates will open at 6:30 p.m. The park is located at 725 Ruins Road in Aztec. Call 505-334-6174 ext. 0 for more information.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.