When a Voice Becomes an Echo*:
Connecting with ancestors in Dinosaur National Monument
(*you can click on images accompanying this essay for larger viewing too)
Last Sunday at dawn, while camping in Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, soft thunder and lightning woke me up. By the time my parents and I broke camp an early morning rainstorm had set in. We threw our wet and muddy tents and dirty breakfast dishes in the back of my father’s pick-up truck and headed out. Infamous for becoming hopelessly mired when wet, the road out of Echo Park was still quite passable. So when we reached the turn off to Castle Park and Elk Springs beyond, we were still tempted to press on and take the Bench Road east out of DNM as we had originally hoped to do. Surveying the sweep of mesas faulting into the sandstone ribbon of Yampa Canyon, however, something in the darkening sky told me that the road to Elk Springs was not a safe option today. So we took the same road out as we did coming in – through the park’s headquarters outside of Dinosaur, Colorado, except this time in a rain-clung landscape. As we ascended to the main road, we saw the flash of a bull Elk between the fog, junipers, and the red slashes of the switchback road ahead of us. Cows, horses, sheep camps, canyons and mesas were blanketed in the last storm of the summer. The possibility for snow to follow rain soon could not be taken for granted as winter approached in fall’s rusty folds.
For four especially yearning years, I had wanted to journey to Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado to visit the archaeology sites my grandfather had explored as a student at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in the 1930s and 1940s. There was one especially poignant site I wanted to visit the most: “Mantle’s Cave,” as I call it, for on park maps, official plaques and guidebooks it is labeled “Mantle Cave.” This variation in spelling and punctuation makes me speculate that those who visit the site – mostly rafters and kayakers – might mistake the cave being named for an actual “mantle” that accompanies a fireplace. The flying, giant curve of the “cave,” topped by a sandstone bench sprouting with juniper, sagebrush, Mormon Tea, could suggest the analogy – but the site is actually named after the Mantle family upon whose homesteaded ranch property the “cave” exists. The word “cave” is also a misnomer, for the site is more like a gigantic enclave that has been impressively wind-and-water carved into a hefty, north-facing stratum of Weber pink sandstone.
While the whole of Dinosaur National Monument is a testament to the passionate-yet-destructive relationship between water, wind, geological time and matter, Mantle’s Cave stands apart. Unlike countless other arroyos, draws and canyons in the region, the shallow box canyon that houses Mantle’s Cave terminates grandly in the sweeping, sudden presence of the unusually large enclave. When we visited the site just before the fall equinox in September 2009, autumn-colored trees and bushes literally spilled out the cave and down the draw, obscuring the true presence of the cave save for its sandstone ceiling soaring breezily in pink and white swirls above the tangle of vegetation and erosion. A “talus cone,” now anchored by microbial soil, junipers, sage and wildflowers, piled high directly in front of the cave’s mouth also helped conceal the full might of the place from our approach below. We followed a sketch of path through bramble, fallen trees and smaller, exposed sandstone walls, skirting the fresh and unstable red earth canyons forming in the draw. A rain that had “dropped buckets” on Monday – according to the volunteer guide at the entrance to the Monument – had left its mark in freshly cut rivulets everywhere, sinking clumps of red earth, rippling pliable sandy soil, and scattering run-off debris everywhere. To my amazement, just before the mouth of the cave, I bent down to excavate what looked like the white spiral of a shell on the trail. It was a shell, no bigger than my biggest fingernail, and suddenly they were everywhere. I looked up at the palate of the cave and the sky beyond, and tried to imagine the waterfall that must cascade into the cave and down the draw when the bench above weeps from a powerful rainstorm or snow thaw.
When I finally summitted the trail into Mantle’s Cave itself, I stood for a moment to grasp how massive and open it actually is. I even read somewhere that it is large enough to fit a football field. Testing the acoustics from various locations “inside,” the rich echoes and reverberations I felt grow from my own voice sent my analytical imagination spinning about what this “place” must have been like for the prehistoric people whose archaeological traces my grandfather had only begun to explore before he was drafted into World War II. Archaeologists have gone on to consider these “people” affiliated with Basketmaker and then Fremont cultural traditions; but as ever-changing as these terms are, coupled with the uniqueness also demonstrated in the cultural traditions excavated at Mantle’s Cave, I advocate not yet corralling Mantle’s Cave – much less Castle Park and Yampa Canyon – into any hard and fast categories.
Memory In Situ: Re-examining the Archaeological Record of Mantle’s Cave Through a Post-Processual Lens
For the last term paper I wrote (title above) as a student at the University of Colorado pursuing an M.S. in museum studies (2005) from the same museum my grandfather worked in, I re-visited his report on the archaeology of Castle Rock, a picturesque and intriguing region of the Yampa River before it merges with the Green tumbling down from the Gates of Lodore, and where the Mantle ranch and cave were located. I combed his personal archives – field notebooks journals, letter and drafts of the report The Archaeology of Castle Park, Dinosaur National Monument – visited the artifacts from Mantle’s Cave now still in storage at the CU Museum, and read widely in the archaeological cannon. As a cultural anthropologist focused on contemporary Tibetan culture, venturing out in such a different branch of anthropology was exciting and humbling. I analyzed my grandfather’s work anew, situating Castle Park in a larger archaeological record than what was available in the 1930s and 1940s, and suggested a different hypothesis as to the function and meaning of Mantle’s Cave by calling into account issues of community, cultural identity, sacred spaces and practices that storage places as gathering places can imply.
I even took it a step further and suggested that Mantle’s Cave provided evidence of histio-cultural rupture, a break in time and tradition significant enough to harbinger the end of one “people” and the beginning of a new order of things. I based this conjecture on the material evidence my grandfather unearthed when he shot a test trench across the powdery sand floor of Mantle’s Cave. There was plenty of visible storage in the cave in the form of masonry bins and hand-dug pit cists (commonly found in canyon country from the western Great Basin to southern Colorado Plateau), and the contents still within these prehistoric storage unites were exciting and promising enough to be accessioned in the museum’s collection. But to find “things” hidden, cached, stored in non-visible storage so, well… underfoot was not just anomalous – it was mysterious and exceptional…. What was going on here? It is a debate still up for grabs. In my paper I argued that the items in those caches literally unearthed by the test trenches were evidence of people either (A) desperate to hide something that could not otherwise be stashed and found in visible storage or (B) there was some reason other than desperation as to why these items were buried in the floor while so close to readily available storage units.
Furthermore, the items recovered from the test trenches were anything but mundane materials placed in mysterious depositions. Judging from the elaborate flicker feather “headdress” (petroglyphs around DNM would suggest a collar or necklace instead) protected inside a buckskin pouch pulled from just one of the many caches, such cultural material could be called “prestige items,” and with that a whole new field of questions opens up about social status, hierarchy, and leadership. My grandfather mused that these could be “votive offerings to the dead” and I like hitching rides on that symbolic, spiritual bandwagon too. But just the basic “facts” are endlessly intriguing – in a place people obviously used for food storage, why would they bury delicate, exquisite items in the floor?
Following my hypothesis that these caches were made out of desperation, I looked to events going on around Dinosaur National Monument and allowed that they could have had some impact on the people of Castle Park and Mantle’s Cave. Numic-speaking people from the north had been steadily immigrating into the region, stressing the horticultural Fremont peoples of the Great Basin. Then the massive drought that forever altered the Puebloan communities in present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado hit the region (AD 900-1300; off the top of my head), and the Fremont existence in Dinosaur National Monument was forever altered too. Like their Puebloan counterparts, DNM Fremont lost dominance in the region: cultural traditions came to an end, a rupture in the known life ways had occurred. I hypothesized that the people who “used” Mantle’s Cave fell victim to any or all outside forces – cultural invasion, climatic catastrophe – combined with the already exceptional and difficult life ways of subsisting, at least part of year, in Yampa Canyon country. And before they fell victim, they tried to hide and thus preserve material evidence of themselves, what they believed in, and what they felt they could not take with them, wherever it was they went… Utes came to claim DNM historically, along with outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and homesteaders like the Mantles, Chews and Browns. By the time my grandfather had reached the region, the United States was only beginning to realize its claim over such tracts of land, and fights over dams, private ranch lands, wildlife, and federal management of national parks were yet to fully ignite in post-WWII America. Go here for more information about how Yampa Canyon was almost flooded.
Given the complex histories of this “place,” my analysis of Mantle’s Cave and the surrounding region has also been generously influenced by my personal history with my grandfather, for his life and death are both glory and tragedy in my family’s history. Born in Bridgeport, Nebraska on a windy July night in 1914, Charles R. Scoggin went on to study geology and archaeology at the University of Colorado despite the Great Depression and his father’s reticence (he was a small town dentist who wrote a column for the paper, “Teeth Truths.”) After working many summers for the Smithsonian Institute at a buffalo jump site outside Greeley, Colorado, my grandfather’s career took off when he was assigned to Yampa Canyon. It was not only a new field site for the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History that had gained the attention of the Carnegie Institute, it was an exceptional discovery at a time when little was known about the prehistoric life of DNM in comparison to its world-renown dinosaur discoveries.
The assignment also brought my grandmother into his life. A self-described “spoiled girl,” she was a flame-haired coed on a field trip to Yampa Canyon with the CU archaeology club when she first laid eyes on my grandfather. They married in the Episcopal church of Goodland, Kansas, my grandmother’s hometown, in the shadow of Pearl Harbor on December 28th, 1941. They made it to Yampa Canyon one last time before my grandfather began his military service. She and my grandfather had taken a bus to Elk Springs and walked two and a half days into to the Mantle Ranch on the Bench Road. It was in the fall of 1942, around the same time of year when my parents and I visited almost seventy years later, and my grandmother remembers how the buzzing of grasshoppers sometimes tricked her into fearing a rattlesnake was nearby. When they rode out on horses, it was the last time they were to visit Yampa Canyon together. My grandfather was killed in action on Anzio beachhead in Italy on February 2nd, 1944. He was a first lieutenant in the First Special Service Force , a then-secret outfit of Canadian and American commandos he had joined to earn extra money to buy a ranch in Dinosaur National Monument after the war. (You can see a preview of the documentary I am making about surviving FSSF veterans by clicking HERE.)
Because I only knew my grandfather in traces – the high forehead and curly blond hair I inherited, the blue eyes that shone from my father’s face, a trunk in my grandmother’s basement full of his letters, journals, and FSSF uniform, artifacts and field notes ensconced in the CU Museum – and this due to the rupture in our relationship wrought by invasion, war, ethnic hatred and death, I was inspired to “read” Mantle’s Cave in a similar light for this kind of light had not been shone before. According to existing interpretations of the archaeological record, Mantle’s Cave only functioned for storage – but what humans store and why they do it can be so much more than simply functional. Why do we keep things around? Because (and to answer my own question), perhaps at the most basic but profound level we cannot live without their specific presence in our lives. This can go for Mexican pyramidal corn (one of the species found in visible storage in Mantle’s Cave) as it can for a dead soldier’s uniform – both speak to the complex production and destruction of life, culture and consciousness. Yet we can never recover exactly what was said and why – only permit such “inaccessible blankness” (Spivak) of the past to exist without undue insult and exploitation by the present.
Deep In the Canyons
So yes, after revisiting my grandfather’s analysis in this one term paper, I yearned for four years to visit the actual site of Mantle’s Cave. For while I had written and researched about the site, I had not done the one thing I actually advocated most in my paper: phenomenologically “experience” the place of Mantle’s Cave. This meant taking nothing in the local landscape for granted. To read signs and suggestions everywhere – petroglyphs, paths, vegetation, a bend in the river, a significant rock formation, the slant of the sun, the number of echoes one can throw off the canyon walls… By the time I made it to DNM, Echo Park, Castle Park, and under the sandstone buttress of Mantle’s Cave – four year’s worth of yearning swelled in every sense perception I had. When I inhaled juniper and sagebrush, I knew I was smelling the same kind of smell my grandfather had, and most likely of the other historic and prehistoric people who had gravitated here. When I regarded the pecked pointillism of the myriad petroglyphs I found everywhere, I knew my eyes traced the same bumpy curves my grandfather’s had while knowing I was also looking at the symbolic creation of a human being alive thousands of years before me. When I slept under the Milky Way, I knew the same observation I made of its rotation in the sky throughout the night had been made for thousands of years by people drawn to the canyon for reasons I would never know. The interconnection was profound, and I felt like something was talking to me the whole time, wanting to show me things I would not otherwise see, teach me things I would otherwise not learn.
In a perfect secluded place, deep in the mountains,
Everything one does is good.
~The Moon Lamp Sutra
In a perfect secluded place, deep in the canyons…
Peace be with you.
Tamar Victoria Scoggin
September 2009 / updated October 2010