Raven Site Arizona Archaeological Adventure

Did you ever in your life want to participate in an archeology dig? To reach down in the earth and pull out 600 year old relics? To experience first hand the day to day lifestyle of a real archeologist? Have you ever wondered how to read a story locked deep inside the hundreds of pieces of broken clay pots, bone jewelry and stone tools? You can do all of this at the White Mountain Archaeological Center at Raven Site. All you need is a passion for adventure and learning, no fancy degree necessary.

Nestled on a hill overlooking the Little Colorado River lie the ruins of a prehistoric city that was abandoned over six hundred years ago. The ruins were left undisturbed until earlier this century, when the first wave of looters desecrated the site. The ruins are now run as a non-profit research project. But first a second wave of looters had to be foiled. This is a fascinating story of creative ingenuity in the service of our common heritage.

Discovering The Dig

Around 1900 an Indian woman gained permission from the owners of the land to loot the burials. Using Mexican and Navajo labor, she completely terraced the east slope outside the pueblo walls and removed thousands of pottery vessels. She sold these vessels to Santa Fe dealers. The skeletal material she discovered was also valuable. She sold it to Mexican witches, who ground it into potions.Then she left, and the site remained forgotten until the early 1980s, when the techno-looters moved in. Using backhoes, they again attacked the east slope outside the pueblo, digging trenches hoping to find valuable cultural material. But these new looters with their diesel powered scoops quickly discovered that the burials had already been removed. So they got their jollies by trashing the north pueblo and all the scientific information it contained. They would approach a room with the back hoe, scoop out the center, throw earth, rock, ceramic, beads, points, and anything else in their way, aside. They would then scratch around briefly before moving on to destroy another room.

This had to stop. A bold archaeologist, being careful not to get shot, peeked into one of the scooped out rooms. He saw over fifty different ceramic types in a single looter’s hole. This diversity of ceramics on a single site meant the ruins were old, and had been lived in for a long, long time. The technical term is temporal depth.

Realizing that Raven Site Ruins are an important and scientifically valuable part of Arizona’s prehistory, efforts were begun to save the site from further destruction. Wendel and Ruth Sherwood, the owners of the land encompassing Raven Site Ruins, contacted every university in the Southwest an attempt to have the site properly excavated and researched. None of these institutions expressed the means to take on such an enormous project. Ruth Sherwood took it upon herself to obtain some archaeological training in an attempt to excavate and curate the cultural material from the site. For many summers she excavated in the hot sun, her Boston terriers asleep under her screens. She recorded her information diligently, and catalogued the material she discovered.

The complete story of Raven Site began to emerge. . .

Who Lived at Raven Site 
The name Raven Site Ruins came from the abundance of bird iconography discovered painted on the ceramics from the site. And from an old raven who would often sit in a tree and oversee the work during the early excavations. Raven Site Ruins contain over 800 rooms, dating from at least A.D. 800. The site was never totally abandoned until well into the 15th century. For hundreds of years Raven Site was a thriving southwest community of several hundred people. The pueblo was totally abandoned sometime after 1550 by the prehistoric inhabitants, and the room blocks and Kivas silently fell into ruin over the next several centuries.In 1680 the Indians of Zuni Pueblo, rose in revolt against the Spanish and drove them from the area. Zuni Pueblo, where this history occurred, is less than one hundred miles north of Raven Site Ruins, and the principle route to Zuni Pueblo from the south passes within fifty meters of the site. The Spanish made repeated attempts to gain back their province. In 1692, Santa Fe Pueblo and several others were re-conquered by the Spanish, but much hard fighting followed. By 1695 peace was restored briefly, followed by another rebellion the following year. In the years that followed, the Spanish governed the area of Raven Site Ruins and introduced sheep into the region. These sheepherders built homesteads of local rock and timbers. Just a few meters south of Raven Site Ruins there can be seen one of these Spanish sheepherder homesteads. This small stone building is constructed from rock that was removed from Raven Site Ruins.

In 1860 the valley where Raven Site Ruins is located was homesteaded by the early Mormon settlers. The Sherwood family arrived in 1880 and re-developed the springs and irrigation systems that had been used by the prehistoric peoples of the site. The Sherwoods ranched in the valley, now called “Richiville” and they still raise cattle in the area to this day.

Founding The Center

The White Mountain Archaeological Center was formed with the sole purpose of preserving Raven Site Ruins and curating the cultural material. Rather than rely on spotty and often non-existent government money, the Center’s program allows anyone with an interest in archaeology to participate in the ongoing excavations and laboratory curation. Students now come from all over the world.All the ceramics, stone tools, and other cultural material from the ruin can be seen in the museum next to the site. It is a rare opportunity to view all the cultural material from a site displayed at the same location. The cataloging and reconstruction process is enormous. Every sherd, flake of flint and bit of bone must by cleaned photographed assigned a number and analyzed, then filed away in a system which is expandable and allows for quick access. To date literally millions of artifacts have been recovered from raven site ruins. Complete or nearly complete ceramic vessels are rare. The rooms of the ruin collapse and the vessels are crushed and scattered. Occasionally when a vessel is small and protected by architectural features it will survive intact. Complete vessels do reveal information that would otherwise be lost to the archaeologist such as true vessel form and volume measurements.

According to director James Cunkle, ” The most significant finds are the ceramic vessels that display meaningful icons. These symbols can be read and they reveal a wealth of information about the people who created these beautiful ceramics centuries ago”.

Cunkle is a rare blend of scientist, artist and adventurer — the perfect contender for creative challenge of running the Raven Site dig. Since a boy on exploring adventures with his father, he has traveled into remote areas of the southwest and discovered the west’s unspoiled natural beauty. When James was in his early teens, he would leave the east the day that school ended in June and hitchhike to the west. With a bedroll under one arm, and a suitcase swinging at his side, he crossed hundreds of miles of wilderness and discovered prehistoric caves, petroglyphs, and archaeological sites that were unrecorded. He entered Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti in 1969 and completed two years of study. In 1971, Cunkle left school and became an artist for the next ten years, creating sculptures of glass and bronze. But then adventure called and Cunkle traveled to the headwaters of the Amazon River in Columbia, where he and a team of entomologists collected insects. Along the way, Cunkle became a pilot, a scuba diver, a sky diver, a cave spelunker. And he learned to sail.

In the 1980s, James traveled to the Yucatan jungles of Mexico to record the vanishing life ways of the Maya Indians. Also during this adventure, the team explored the depths of Mayan caves and cenotes using scuba gear and metal detectors. Cunkle dreamed of making a personal contribution to the sciences and the study of humankind. Toward that end, in 1988 he graduated cum laude and received a B.A. in anthropology/ archaeology from Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio.

As coordinator and director of research, Cunkle, is devoted to preserving, protecting and discovering the past through education and a hands-on exposure to field archaeology.

Life At The Dig

The center is a very comfortable place to stay thanks mostly to John’s wife, Carol Cunkle. “I like to say I’m everything but the archaeologist, but of course wouldn’t want to put anyone off with my hubris. My one responsibility is to bring in people who in turn, through their participation fund this project. This entails PR, marketing, promotion, and administration. My second job is overseeing operations of the kitchen and bunkhouse, and sharing the cooking duties.”The research at Raven Site is supported by guided tours of the site, participation in excavation programs with the on site archaeologists, guided hikes, and the gift shop revenues. All proceeds go directly into the research. Participants ranging in age from 7 years to 90 years old have excavated and worked in the labs. School groups, senior citizen groups, elder hostles, graduate students, foreign students, anyone with an interest and passion for archaeology is welcome. After a day of participation you will know if you are cut out to be an archaeologist. Many a graduate student has changed his/her major after working in the field a day or two.

Hikes out into the canyon to visit the petroglyph and shrine sites usually begin from the White Mountain Archaeological Center at 1:00 PM daily. Morning hikes and all day excursions are also available by reservation. The rock art of the Southwest reveals a wealth of information for researchers to investigate. Most of the petroglyphs that you will see were created by the prehistoric shaman to draw the sympathetic magic from the stone to heal, protect, insure successful hunts and crops and to bring the rain. Your guide will discuss the nature of these depiction’s, why they were created and what several researchers have interpreted and translated the symbols to mean. Be sure to bring your camera. The canyon and river present a majestic back drop for the wildlife that you will encounter. The daily afternoon petroglyph hike is a moderate two mile excursion. The pace is slow and there are many stops along the way at different petroglyph panels. Mid way through the hike there is a stop at the river to relax and enjoy the scenery. Shrine sites that are rarely seen will be respectfully visited during this trek.

The White Center haas flexible accomodations: you can stay in the bunkhouse, pitch a tent, or stay in your own RV (as long as it’s self-contained). Three square meals are provided, and the kitchen will try to accomodate any dietary request. In season, most of the vegetables come from White Mountain’s own garden. If you play a non-electrical instrument you’ll want to bring it along. The evening campfires seem to draw the music out of everyone.

Directions To Raven Site

If there are two possible routes, we’ve listed the scenic first. That’s just the kind of folks we are . . .

From New Mexico
Scenic and windy: Driving from the east on I-40 in New Mexico, there is a dramatic shelf cut. Before reaching Grants, turn south on Route 117 until reaching Quemado. Head west on Route 60, through Springerville. Four miles outside of Springerville, turn north on Routes 180/191.
Direct and simple: The more direct, but longer route from the east on I-40 is to continue on through to Arizona, turning south on Route 191 at Sanders, through to St. Johns.
From Tucson
Driving from the South from Tucson, take Route 89 north to Route 60. Driving from the east or west on I-10, there is the option on taking Route 666 North. This is a beautiful drive, but slower.
From Phoenix
Scenic routes: The most scenic drive from the Phoenix area, and the easiest access from the Phoenix airport is through the Salt River Canyon. Take the Superstition Highway (I-360) through Globe, then north on Route 60. This is about a 4 1/2 hour drive. Another beautiful route—Route 87 through Payson, then Route 960 to Showlow. Some highway construction may slow you down either of these ways.
Direct routes: The most direct route from the Phoenix area is to take I-17 north to Flagstaff, then I-40 east to Holbrook. From Holbrook, pick up 180 East to St. Johns. Then south on 191/180 approximately 16 miles.
From the West
From the west, it’s 1-40 through Flagstaff, I-10 to Phoenix, or I-8 from Yuma. Fast and simple.

For more information call (520)333-5857.If You Want to Read More:

“Talking Pots”, deciphering the symbols of a prehistoric people, James R. Cunkle $19.95
“Treasures of Time”. A guide to prehistoric ceramics of the southwest, James R. Cunkle $14.95
“Development of the Katsina Cult”, Charles Adams $13.95
“Spider Woman Stories”, G. M. Mullett $ 9.50
“Dictionary of Prehistoric Indian Artifacts of the American SW”, Franklin Barnett $12.95
“Pages from Hopi History”. Harry James $12.95
“Arrowheads and Stone Artifacts”, C. C. Yeager $11.95

“Zuni”, Frank Hamilton Cushing $11.95

These excellent books provide an overview of southwest prehistory. Some are accounts by early ethnographers whose stories and legends from the Zuni and Hopi Indians (who are the best candidates as the ancestors of the prehistoric cultures under research) provide an insight into the lifeways of the people we are researching. All listed books can be mail ordered from White Mountain Archaeological center.

Kathryn Vercillo

The author Kathryn Vercillo

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