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Seek and Ye Shall Find: "Staircase Site" in Bears Ears National Monument

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

A random exploration of a canyon we had never seen before led to a couple of nice Ancestral Puebloan archaeologic sites.

We parked the car off the side of a gravel road, shouldered our backpacks, created a "car" waypoint on the GPS, and headed down the two-track path over sand and slickrock. An old 4WD drive road, it was easy to follow on the sand, but we lost it when it went over the naked sandstone—which was most of the time.

Not that it mattered. We were on a level, but gradually narrowing, sandstone plateau, or bench—a level upside down "V", and we were heading towards its apex. Deep canyons bordered the "V" on both sides, intersecting at the point to form a right angle.

From near the point of the "V" we picked our way carefully down the steep slick rock and into the canyon. Bordering the overgrown canyon floor was a wide ledge of sand. Walking was easiest to the right. so we walked the wide ledge in that direction for a short distance through tall, dry yellow grass. In 30 yards, we came to an alcove. .

Alcove encountered on our exploratory walk. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The alcove was remarkable for the heavy coating of soot that made patterns on over-arching walls. No structure was visible, but there was a wall remnant and littering of stones and mortar. on the alcove floor—presumably from a structure that had collapsed or had been destroyed.

Wall patterns made by soot and exfoliating sandstone. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The wall in the photo above continued to the right and revealed a number of faint pictographs and petroglyphs. Some of the petroglyphs were interesting in that they appear to have been stippled with black after their creation.

Petroglyphs of geometric forms and horned animals co-mingle with an older, brick-colored pictograph and a more modern addition in black. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Leaving the alcove, we retraced our steps, on to the sandy ledge and back to the point where we first entered the canyon. We dropped down from the sandy ledge and reached the canyon floor. We were discouraged from turning right because of thick vegetation, so we went left into the canyon.

The canyon was high-walled, but the bottom was full of sand, covered in thick brush and scrub oak, There was a deep, sandy channel—formed over time by intermittent floods—that snaked its way more or less down the center of the canyon. We followed the deep gully as well as we could, hopping over the occasional large boulder, and bypassing fallen trees and branches brought here by intermittent water.

It was difficult to see the canyon walls from within the channel, so every once in a while, we climbed the steep sandy slope—one step up and half a step back. Once up and out, and on the sandy bench, we thrashed our way through the dense brush closer to the canyon wall to scout for sites. The bench was dissected by numerous deep ravines In places where water would pour off the canyon wall during heavy rains. We were forced to regularly negotiate these deep channels and the topography and tangled brush made the going difficult, tiring, and slow.

After a couple hundred yards, our efforts were rewarded. We spied the upper part of.a large alcove on the left wall (looking up canyon) and headed towards it.

Soon, we came to an impressive alcove, perhaps 100 yards wide, 50 yards deep and perhaps 60 high. A sandstone ledge on the left was occupied by a sprawling site, now mostly in ruin, There was one partially intact structure and many walls in various states of collapse. Soot on the alcove ceiling above the site indicated that people lived here for quite a while.

Unnamed site in a large alcove, with a soot-stained ceiling and a set of stone stairs in the lower left of the image. Photo: Donald J. Rommes

The sandstone ledge was fairly level while the alcove floor dipped towards the canyon. That put the ledge higher off the alcove floor the closer one got to the canyon. Towards the back of the canyon, the ledge merged with the alcove floor.

Of interest to us were the stairs carved into the sandstone ledge that were designed to create easier access to the site. There were also Moki steps up the wall, but since these wouldn't have been necessary once the stairs were carved, I suspect the Moki steps predate the stone stairs.

Direct view of the stone stairs (lower left) and the Moki steps (center and lower right) leading up to the site on the main ledge. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

From within the alcove and looking back along the site, a series of grooves in the sandstone indicate places where corn was ground into flour. It is possible to imagine twenty people, side by side, simultaneously grinding corn and creating these grooves. More likely though, a few people ground corn over many years and they moved their grinding spot as the groove they created got too deep to grind effectively.

Although we thought we might find some rock art, none was apparent.

From a spot deeper in the alcove and looking toward the canyon, one gets a good view of the ledge, the structures, and the grinding grooves (metates). Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

After about an hour exploring the "Staircase Site" (our name) we left the alcove and re-entered the canyon. We knew from looking at the map that the canyon was fairly short—less than half a mile in length—and ended in a cul-de-sac and probably a pouroff. We decided to push on to the end to complete our survey. Deep ravines and thick vegetation forced us back into the canyon's main channel. We followed that (with occasional thrashes through brush) to the end.

The end of the canyon was indeed a high-walled cul-de-sac with no way out. Water stains indicated this was a pouroff during rains and the dry pool at the base confirmed out suspicions. Seeing no rock art or structures, we turned back to leave the canyon and return to the car. After a couple of steps though, we noticed a small masonry structure poised high on a sandy ledge, close to the pouroff.

Structure at the end of the cul-de-sac, sitting atop a pile of sand, close to the pouroff. The dry pool below the pouroff is just to the right of the photographer. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Nancy climbed closer to explore, while I photographed the site from below. Nancy reported nothing remarkable, and we turned back.

All in all, it was a fairly typical day—one of many—where we have no destination in mind but just head out to explore. Such is the density of archaeological sites throughout Cedar Mesa, that if you know where to look you will likely find something ancient and interesting.


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