Wildfire exposes ancient homes of Indian tribes

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The Independent US

Archaeologists are hoping that a giant wildfire in the Mesa Verde National Park in south-western Colorado will unmask some of the secrets of the Indian tribes who lived there 1,000 years ago, and whose cliff dwellings attract tourists from around the world.

Archaeologists are hoping that a giant wildfire in the Mesa Verde National Park in south-western Colorado will unmask some of the secrets of the Indian tribes who lived there 1,000 years ago, and whose cliff dwellings attract tourists from around the world.

While firefighters are battling yet another blaze in a summer of disastrous outbreaks across the American west, the fires are providing scholars of the Anasazi Indian an opportunity for new discoveries.

By daybreak yesterday, the fire had doubled in 24 hours and charred an area of 17,000 acres, but had caused no destruction to property. But by clearing the dense vegetation from the craggy terrain in the park, the flames are revealing previously unidentified dwelling sites.

Archeological experts travelling with firefighters had already spotted about a dozen new sites, officials confirmed. The fire is now within three miles of the Cliff Palace, a labyrinth of tunnels, rooms and terraces cut into a sheer wall of sandstone that receives thousands of tourists daily.

"It's a bit of a trade off," Jane Anderson, an archaeologist with the National Park Service said. "It's exciting to see the new ruins and get that information, but at the same time, fire can destroy these sites. Sandstone explodes when it is heated."

It has been about 100 years since cowboys first stumbled upon the palace and other dwellings, apparently built by Anasazi, who lived there from 550 to 1300 AD.

There are about 4,000 identified sites in the park, of which 400 were discovered after another forest fire in 1996. It is by far the largest archaeological preserve in the United States, and one that still holds many mysteries.

While archaeologists thought for years that Cliff Palace had been a complex of dwellings, other theories now suggest it may have served as a transitional shelter for homeless people, or that it was an arts and crafts centre. The region is also immensely significant to American Indians. It is believed that about 24 tribes living in New Mexico and Arizona are directly descended from the Anasazi, who are thought to have abandoned the Mesa Verde region in about 1300 AD.

"As more sites are added, it becomes clearer as to what happened," Larry Nordby, an archaeologist at the Mesa Verde Park noted. "It allows us to get a snapshot at what the landscape looked like and we hope to expand that over the next several years".

A more systematic approach to excavation and the analysis of material means that archaeologists may now move more quickly to finding the missing answers. It has long frustrated experts that all the original material inside Cliff Palace was disturbed at the turn of the century.

"Part of the reason we didn't know what this site was used for is that it was excavated in the early 1900s," Mr Nordby explained. "They didn't look at things as systematically as we're doing. In addition, there is always room for interpretation".

For firefighters, meanwhile, the Mesa Verde blaze remains relatively minor. When the US Energy Department was forced a month ago to temporarily close the Hanford nuclear reservation in southern Washington, the fire had covered 150,000 acres.

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