Best American Heritage Image in Caleb and Linda Pirtle Travel Photography Contest


They were the Anasazi.

They were the Ancient Ones.

They came during the first century, migrating from Asia, crossing the Bering Land Bridge during the Ice Age. By the 1300s, the Anasazi had moved slowly southward into a land of canyons, settling down in a harsh landscape now known as Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

They left no messages, no written recordings, of their arriving or their going.

But the Anasazi did leave archaeological traces of their existence.

Broken pottery shards.

Ancient stone tools.

Ancient stone weapons.

And the crumbling ruins of their villages.

John McCutcheon had been hiking the rim of Canyon de Chelly with his camera, watching light and shadow dance across and upon the sheer walls of rock that fell down to the banks of a slender river as it slowly threaded its way through the great sculptures of stone.

On the far side, barely visible in the afternoon light, he saw the shadows quietly veil the stone outline an Anasazi ruin.


And stoic.

The color of the earth itself.

And defiant.

McCutcheon removed his long lens.

And prayed the light would hold.

An instant was long enough.

The Canyon de Chelly National Monument cuts a gash in the earth of Northeastern Arizona as it reaches out to touch Utah.

It holds the intriguing remains of four Anasazi ruins.

The Mummy Cave Ruin is tucked back beneath the stone ledges of Canyon del Muerto, the desert of the dead.  It has a three-story tower and is the most extensive of all the ruins from the Pueblo period.

The Junction House Ruin is wedged into the great walls near the confluence of de Chelly and del Muerto canyons. It was well protected and could only be reached by hand- and toeholds carved into the cliffs.

The Watchtower and Antelope House ruin has an underground kiva where the Anasazi society held its religious rituals and ceremonies.

And the Rounded Corner ruin in Canyon del Muerto was a small storage structure built high upon canyon walls that turn from sand to red to gold depending on the time of day and angle of the sun.

The colors never remain the same.

Never for long anyway.

Sometime during the 1300s, the Anasazi, the Ancient Ones, quite suddenly and mysteriously, abandoned the canyon and vanished. Some believe that a severe drought parched the landscape and forced them to move elsewhere, searching for water and a more hospitable environment. Some believe that a great war swept across the Anasazi and decimated a peaceful people who were content to be left alone and weave their baskets. Others say that the non-violent people simply walked away from their homes to prevent bloodshed. And New Age theorists are convinced that the Anasazi came to earth aboard a great spacecraft and departed the same way.

No one knows.

The ruins remain mute.

According to Hopi legends, their ancestors landed in Central America by boat. The clans went their separate ways and agreed to gather again sometime in the future. The different clans scattered to the four winds and left behind their signs to mark their precarious travels – among them Kokopelli, the flute player, and the Snake.

The Anasazi may have been one of those lost and wandering clans.

They did not vanish at all.

There was nothing mysterious or sudden about their passing.

They simply became a part of Hopi society when the tribes, after so many centuries, all knew it was time to come together again.

The wait had ended.

And the Anasazi ruins in Canyon de Chelly were little more than stone testaments to their journey from one existence to another.

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