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Structures and Look-Alikes in Bears Ears

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

You'd think it would be easy to identify ancestral puebloan masonry structures from a distance, but sometimes it's not

In the lower portion of Comb Ridge, Butler Wash has cut a deep, steep-walled gully in the Navajo sandstone. Recent heavy rainfall had swollen the intermittent stream when I was there recently and made the wash difficult to cross.

I was photographing the cross-bedding in the sandstone and the broader landscape of Comb Ridge and Tank Mesa. Afterwards, I strolled to the edge of Butler Wash and scoped the far side with my binoculars.

A grouping of ancient, mud-colored, man-made structures on the far side of Butler Wash. Closer inspection reveals stacked stone and plaster. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

A series of masonry structures occupied the stream bank on the far side. Everything was the same drab color of dirt, and the mud and stone buildings were slowly melting with the centuries of intermittent rain. With my binoculars, I could make out stacked stone and plaster in the structures and knew I was looking ancient dwellings and granaries.

After a while I drifted down canyon, walking the canyon rim. A few hundred yards away, I spotted another possible site. This one had multiple-story structures—resembling a city skyline—hugging the far canyon wall. Or at least that's what it looked like.

After sitting down, pulling out my binoculars, and studying the far wall, my cityscape turned out to be a slumping of mud on sandstone.

Multiple-story structures on the far wall, or deposits of mud and silt? Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

This sort of thing has happened to me often. I don't know how many times I have seen something that looked like a structure, or rock art, and gone to investigate. Often, that meant climbing a hillside, or cliff, or getting into a canyon. Usually, it was a natural feature,

Which, of course, is why I now bring binoculars on my hikes.


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