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Fun Follows Function

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

While this utilitarian granary in Bears Ears National Monument served its basic function of safely storing grain, the structure appears to have been embellished by its ancient and (perhaps) playful builders.

Over many years of visiting the structures and rock art in the canyons of the Bears Ears National Monument, I have slowly learned to look beyond the obvious to see the little things I probably would have missed before. These details were always there of course, but the experience of finding a "cliff dwelling" in the wilderness is exciting, making it a challenge to slow down enough to be mindful of what might be below the surface.

GRANARY This 800-year-old structure is presumably a granary due to its solid construction and the absence of soot on its ceiling. Spider webs nearly fill the entryway that in the past was probably covered with a rock slab and sealed with mud to keep rodents from getting to the stored grain. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The structure in the photo above is one of several at a remote site on Cedar Mesa. It was probably a granary. Constructed of stone and mortar, it is well-built and appears to have been tightly sealed against animals and weather. Small stones are used as chinks to support the mortar and a large flat slab was used for a portion of its right side. The stacked stones on either side of the doorway were placed with obvious care, and the door frame and lintel were well-made, but it is hard to say that either of those elements were expressly decorative,

On the same ledge, but further to the south, is another, similar structure. However, on the exposed side of that granary are what appear to be decorative and playful elements that were mixed with the stone and mortar..

It is common to see impressions of fingers in the mortar of these structures. After all, hands were used to compress the mortar and secure the placement of the stones. Full handprints are not commonly seen though, and the impression of a foot is a rarity!

FOOTPRINT Side wall of the second granary. The impression of a foot is clearly seen in the mortar at the junction of the ceiling and the wall—about head height. Fingerprints are found throughout the mortar, as usual, but in addition there are a series of small, flat stone chinks arranged in linear patterns. While It is impossible to know the intent of the builders, using a foot to tamp down wet mortar at eye level suggests a certain playfulness (and youth!). The linear arrangement of chinks implies a decorative bent in the builders.

The structures on this site were strung out on a ledge of a cliff. A large overhang sheltered the structures from the weather and provided shade. On the warm day I visited the site, shade was a good place to be. While resting and eating my lunch in the cool of the overhang, I studied the structures at my leisure.

In the second granary, the geometric arrangement of flat rocks in the mortar clearly seemed purposeful and decorative—an act I interpreted as an expression of the builder's artistic sensibilities. Supporting that notion were associated patterns on the wall made by pressing or rolling corn cobs in the mortar when it was wet. Perhaps corn cobs can be a useful tool in compacting wet mortar, but here I believe the practice was more fun than function—particularly in association with the other "artistic" elements—decorative rocks and the footprints.

DECORATIVE STONES AND CORN COB PATTERNS. A line of vertically-placed flat stones at the base of this granary is more fanciful than functional—as are the patterns created by rolling corn cobs in wet mortar. Taken together, these decorative elements imply an aesthetic possessed by the people who lived here 800 years ago. There is also a certain playfulness and whimsy at work here—characteristics that effectively communicate the humanity and personality of these ancient people, and transcend time.

While I admire the ancient Ancestral Puebloans for their building skills, ingenuity, and rock art, these little insights into their aesthetics and playfulness really help communicate their humanity to me. I find that connection across time to be more profound than the thrill of discovery (as exciting as that is) and is part of the reason I make an effort to slow down and be mindful while visiting a site.


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