Nearly 30 years ago anthropologist Bill Lipe and about 25 of his Washington State University students and colleagues moved into a set of abandoned villages in a remote corner of southern Colorado. They spent their summer days there on a mission to uncover the stories of some of America’s oldest ghost towns.

As co-investigators with the University of Colorado on a Bureau of Reclamation project, Lipe’s team had just a few years to salvage important portions of the historical record before nearly 4,500 acres along the Dolores River would be flooded by the McPhee Reservoir.

Ancient Anasazi communities once lived there and throughout the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Some have collapsed into piles of rubble. Others still stand as awesome fortresses tucked in the cliffs below Colorado’s high mesas. And still others, like those along the Dolores, have been lost forever to development, farming, mining, and dams.

The WSU team focused on an area that had seen its largest populations from A.D. 600 to 900. As the project started, the researchers realized they were on the verge of discovering a large and complex society, with more than 1,600 sites in the Dolores River basin.

There was so much to learn and so little time to look.

Fortunately, Lipe knew the territory. As a graduate student in the late 1950s he was a crew chief on the nearby Glen Canyon project in Utah, salvaging material in areas destined to be flooded by Lake Powell.

As a senior scientist on the Dolores project from 1978 to 1985, the lanky professor brought students, faculty, and WSU resources to the largest federally-funded project of its time. There Lipe and his University of Colorado colleagues oversaw excavations at more than 100 sites, doing the exciting work of exploring village sites, recovering pottery and household items, and bringing new information from a period that hadn’t really been explored since the 1930s.

Lipe did a bit of everything. He synthesized the findings to provide an overview of the project. He provided basic training on the use of shovel and trowel. He even performed the unpleasant task of stirring the camp latrine with a pole so it could be pumped out at the end of the summer.

The researchers took on many roles, since their mission was urgent: to move in and collect information fast enough to meet the timeline of the dam. Still, they left a rich legacy of material for future archaeologists and the groundwork for understanding the early Anasazi communities.

Because of Lipe and the Dolores project, WSU left its mark on the Southwest. Lipe had recruited his colleagues, tapping Tim Kohler, a junior professor who had limited experience in the region, but brought expertise in quantitative methods and ecology. Today, Kohler uses computers to track and predict how and why communities move. His major focus is now on the Southwest at the time of the Anasazi.

Lipe also drew in students who would eventually become influential archaeologists in the region, among them Ricky Lightfoot ’92, now president of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Sarah Schlanger ’85, who today works for the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management, and Eric Blinman ’88, assistant director of the Office of Archaeological Studies at the Museum of New Mexico.

“The project was such a major formative part of our early careers,” says Lightfoot. “Also, you couldn’t pick another spot in the United States where there is as much archaeology going on as there is in the Four Corners area.”

A few years later, Lipe helped develop the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a private, nonprofit organization near Cortez, Colorado, that became not only a resource for scholars, but also a place for the public to learn Anasazi history and participate in field work. He served as the archaeological center’s director of research from 1985 until 1993, splitting his time between Colorado and Washington.

Lipe also built a legacy of conservation archaeology. Over his long career, he has encouraged researchers to approach their fieldwork with minimal disruption to a site. While the practice at the time of Dolores was to fully dig an area, Lipe argued that excavators should stop digging once they had enough of a sample to answer their research questions, thus leaving portions of the site untouched for future archaeologists.

The Dolores project was an exciting adventure, says Blinman, and the Mesa Verde region proved to be one of the best training grounds for future archaeologists, no matter where they ended up.

A legacy of archaeology

No one better exemplifies Blinman’s observation than legendary archaeologist Alfred V. Kidder. A century ago, he responded to an advertisement in the Harvard Crimson for students to photograph and note sites in southwestern Colorado. The future world-renowned archaeologist spent a summer climbing through ancient ruins and was hooked. His professors discouraged his interest in the Southwest, saying nothing new remained to be discovered. But Kidder knew better.

The early explorers, though they had cleaned the sites of hand-painted pottery and made note of hundreds of villages, hadn’t begun to discover the breadth of this civilization. Kidder pursued his archaeology doctorate at Harvard, and then pushed for more work in the Southwest. Guiding, collecting, and protecting, he set the standard for field methods for archaeologists the world over.

Hundreds have followed in Kidder’s footsteps, including WSU’s Lipe, Kohler, and Andrew Duff. Using a range of tools from the meager trowel to the high-speed computer, they’re eagerly pursuing their pieces of the mysterious history of this ancient civilization.

Anasazi farmers occupied the Mesa Verde region for more than 2,000 years. And many ideas have been argued about how the culture lived and why it vanished.

Some Native American tribes claim them as their ancestors. Archaeologists show evidence that they are among the predecessors of the modern-day Pueblo people of Arizona and New Mexico.

But the biggest mystery is why, in the late A.D. 1200s, they suddenly left large areas of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, abandoning fields, towns, and territories in the space of one generation.

Until recently, the general consensus was that a great drought drove them away. But that theory changed in 1990, when WSU graduate student Carla Van West presented a paper arguing that in spite of weather changes, the area could have produced enough food to sustain communities. The idea sent a shock through the field, but it got people past the “one big drought idea” and sparked thinking about other possibilities, says Kohler, her major professor.

Another hypothesis is that violence caused the departure. Attacks from nomadic tribes, like the ancestors of the Utes and the Navajos, might have driven the Anasazi away. But could small bands of hunters and gatherers really have threatened established farmers in large settlements? Maybe the communities fought one another. While some people see the cliff dwellings as architecture in harmony with nature, others believe they were fortresses carefully hidden beneath the hills, with treacherous footpaths for access making them nearly impossible for an enemy to reach.

Probably the best evidence that warfare and violence affected at least some Anasazi communities in the 1200s comes from excavations at Castle Rock Pueblo, directed by Ricky Lightfoot and Kristin Kuckelman in the 1990s. There they found that a small village of perhaps 75 people had been massacred in the late 1200s, not long before the depopulation of the region.

Other researchers are looking at whether a new religious system came into place, causing people to move to a new spiritual center. They are also considering whether dense population and aggressive farming practices wiped out the natural resources.

“People have been working in the Southwest for a hundred years. You’d think there aren’t any surprises left,” says Kohler. “But there are.”

The last few weeks of digging season in mid-July, before the summer rains drench the remote open mesa south of Gallup, are the most exciting. Students working at the Cox Ranch Pueblo with archaeologist Andrew Duff have taken more than a month to excavate down two meters from ground level to the floor of a large round meeting room, while another student in a pit a few feet away has found carvings on the lower stones of a wall. Two women excavating nearby have discovered a beautiful mortar and pestle.

The village doesn’t much look like the majestic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde eight hours to the north. But there is a connection.

Here Duff, a 40-year-old assistant professor at WSU, has found an outlying settlement where the Anasazi met up with another culture in the latter days of the civilization. The site is near the Zuñi reservation and just a few miles from a small salt lake that is sacred to the tribe. Duff theorizes that Zuñi Salt Lake was also a special site for the community in the Cox Ranch area from A.D. 1050 to 1150.

Remnants of clay pots are everywhere. Sherds of red, black, white, and brown scatter through the soft earth. But Duff and his students leave them in the middens outside the dig, and focus instead on the rubble remains of a large community. Time and weather have collapsed the walls roofs. The damage was worsened by a backhoe a few decades ago that Duff believes was brought in by someone hunting for pots. The looter probably didn’t find any intact artifacts where he was digging, says Duff, but he did harm the site.

One windy morning, Duff hikes the quarter mile from the rocky road through brush to check on his field school, an assemblage of about 20 students who have already lifted the blue tarps off their excavation areas. He drops to his hands and knees and peers into a long, narrow hole that runs along the back wall of a room. Duff cautions the students to trade their whisk brooms for paint brushes as they uncover the floor. “It’s hard to know what to expect down there,” he says, adding that artifacts in the floor area will explain the last use of a room before it was abandoned. His advice pays off. About a half hour later, the students come across an almost intact pitcher.

It’s not an easy summer job. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s hard labor, as sunburns and bruises testify. Sleeping in tents and washing their clothes in buckets, most of them are disconnected from their families and friends for the first time in their lives.

“During the week, we work them to the bone and send them to bed early,” says Duff. At the start Duff assesses their skills handling shovels and trowels. If they are careful and precise, they win prime spots on delicate portions of the dig. If not, there is still plenty to do, especially when it comes to moving fill—the years of rocks and soil that have fallen into the room blocks. “Some days it’s fun, some days you get really tired,” says WSU student Jarod Stone, who seems always ready to move heavy buckets of rock and earth.

At the end of the day, the students load up their clipboards, buckets, and backpacks and board the white vans back to the camp. There they converge on a shed where trays of artifacts wait to be washed clean of dirt and ash. They work shoulder to shoulder and, under the watch of graduate student Jen Mueller, slosh and scrub pieces of stone and pottery picked out of the excavations.

“You could say we’re over-educated garbage collectors,” says one student to laughter. “Naw,” says another, dipping into his archaeology terminology. “I’d say we’re a subset of garbage collectors.”

A large chunk of the Southwest can be found in Tim Kohler’s College Hall laboratory in Pullman. It’s reflected on computer screens and stored in databases. And it grows by the day, as Kohler and his students busily collect centuries of information. Environment, rainfall, geography, deer populations, plants and trees, mortality rates, and signs of human occupation all factor into a virtual Anasazi world.

Kohler wants to know why the people built their villages where and when they did. He’s looking at 1,800 square miles northwest of Mesa Verde, land known to have supported a high concentration of villages. Breaking the area down into 200-square-meter cells, Kohler and his students input data for households built near water, good farmland, and wood for fuel. The program even considers the degradation of the soil after years of crops, the deforestation of an area for firewood, and trade and gift-giving practices.

Kohler conducts his work in close connection with the real-life archaeology at Crow Canyon. “They’re our reality check,” he says. “We build our models and play off our models against their findings.”

Agent-based modeling is not a big niche in archaeology—it never has been, says Kohler. But an ever-increasing amount of data and improved technology allow him and his graduate students to focus on very specific areas, with the idea of gaining an understanding of how communities developed.

His collaboration with another archaeologist and a computer science expert was featured in a Scientific American magazine article last summer. Titled “Simulating Ancient Societies,” the piece suggests that something besides, or in addition to, environmental issues caused the Anasazi to leave.

The beauty of focusing on the Southwest is that there is so much data available, both archaeological and environmental, to factor into and check against the computer simulations, says Kohler. Though the simulations seem to mirror the actual population location and growth up to the 1200s, it doesn’t reflect the dramatic depopulation late in that century. There’s more to be done.

“Work like this is really cumulative,” says Kohler. His research builds on the research of others going back more than 100 years. “This gives us a way to put the empirical findings into context,” he says. In the long run, “I think we’ll debunk some theories.”

Recognizing the value in simulating the lives and environments of civilizations, the National Science Foundation has provided Kohler and his colleagues a $1 million grant to support the archaeology and computer work.

“The Southwest [because it contains so much information] is an area in which ideas can be tested,” says Kohler. “It’s not as easy elsewhere in the archaeological world.”

Too many people resort to describing the story of the Anasazi as a great mystery, says Lipe. But archaeologists, including those at WSU, have learned a lot about the past in this region, and much of it is more interesting and surprising than fiction.