'Digging for Home' by Diane Les Becquets


Late at night when hearts grew large and voices were not much more than a whisper, the drums would start up. Some said they were night hawks, others said they were oil pump jacks, but still others believed they were the voice of the Fremonts, hunters and gatherers who existed between the years 300 AD and 1400 AD, before vanishing without any trace of assimilation into other groups of peoples.

In August of 2001 I was invited to join a small group of archaeologists as they were to begin the second two-week, field-school excavation of a Fremont cliff dwelling in the East Douglas Creek Canyon of Northwestern Colorado. I had been living in a small ranching town about an hour and a half drive east of the site, and for the past year had been accompanying Glade Hadden, the area archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management. We’d spent days canvassing arroyos and boulders, climbing cliffs, studying rock art and astronomical drill hole sites and every kind of vegetation from shadscale that the Fremonts used for seasonings to Mormon tea. Glade, who’d grown up in Utah, understood not only the cultural and historical implications of the Fremonts, but understood the land and the Fremonts’ relationship to it. If it weren’t for the high volume of paperwork Glade’s job required, which he tried to push off to those days in winter when blizzards made field work prohibitive, he would have lived in the field, wearing through several pairs of hiking boots a year. He was a grizzly sort of man, with long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, full beard, bushy eyebrows, and large blue eyes that lit up when he told a story as if the whole world mattered. Actually, when I’d listen to Glade tell a story, the whole world “did” matter to me, and I’d find myself tethered to his every word.

I was at a crossroad in my life when Glade’s and my paths merged. I was coming out of a sixteen-year marriage, and had no idea how I was to support myself, much less support my three young sons. But that crossroad, as with most, was one of anticipation, and my emotional and spiritual longing stretched my senses to a painful point. I was paying attention to each and every road sign, extreme hunger for life seething in my muscles and thoughts. Having not tasted so much freedom and possibility before, even sleep seemed like a burden. But what was also at work, pushing the confines of my heart, was grief for what was lost, for the death of a vision, not just for me, but for my children. I was seeking solace, release, and answers in gnarled trees and smooth stones, worn earth, silent ancestors, and in loneliness like running water. What better place to expand my senses, to wash myself clean and learn myself all over again than in the wind-swept wilderness of the high desert, where some of North America’s archaic people had slept within the folds of the rocks and sand and brush, where big sky felt like eternity on my shoulders, vast with blue, brilliant with stars, electric with thunderstorms. I was digging, hiking, searching for home, and it felt very close.

The Fremont culture was first referred to as the Northern Periphery of the Anasazi. However, in the early 1930s more and more sites occupied by this group of gatherers were discovered along the Fremont River in central Utah. In 1932, Noel Moss named this distinct culture that of the Fremonts, after the river along which the sites were discovered, and also after John C. Fremont, renowned western explorer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for whom the river was named. I refer to the Fremonts’ culture as “distinct,” because the artifacts discovered at the sites were unique to these people: stone-walled architecture; rock art; one-rod and bundle basketry; thin-walled, gray-ware pottery; and narrow-stem projectile points. These cultural artifacts, or signature items, would keep archaeologists baffled, and sometimes haunted, as they tried to piece together the disappearance of what had been a flourishing community of people.

By 1000 AD, the Fremonts had reached their peak with settled communities in central and eastern Utah occupied by up to several hundred people at a time. The Fremonts were clearly flourishing with an economic base of farming and hunting. And yet, just 150 years later, they had completely disappeared from Utah. Interestingly, while archaeologists in Utah were approximating the disappearance of the Fremonts at 1150 AD, archaeologists in western Colorado were discovering isolated Fremont farmsteads and cliff dwellings large enough to contain four or five families, or extended families that dated as late as 1400 AD.

This particular Fremont cliff dwelling, in which excavation I would be participating, dated from around 1000 AD. Glade, and Dudley Gardner, an anthropology professor at Western Wyoming College, who was the other investigator for the excavation of the site, had compiled a research design upon applying for the excavation permit. They anticipated that the site would require four years of work, and that the excavation would include four summers of field school. Glade, Dudley, Martin Lammers (chief archaeologist for Fort Bridger Historic Park in Wyoming), a handful of college students, and I were about to begin the second field-school operation. We set out from Rangely, Colorado, in a caravan of three old pickup trucks and one flat-bed hay truck driven by one of the students. Each truck was laden with camping gear, ice, food, homemade insect repellent, ropes, lanterns, journals, tin foil, trowels, picks, dustpans, brushes, line levels, etc. We had packed carefully and thoroughly. We were going deep into the canyon, and should it rain, we might not be heading out for some time. We wove our way amid arroyos, rabbit brush and sagebrush, the trucks climbing up ruddy paths through the Pintada Draw toward the Cathedral Bluffs. We’d long since passed signs forbidding motorized vehicles from this part of the terrain. Up ahead was a steep pitch. Glade’s truck made it, as did the second truck in line, and so did mine, but the flat-bed truck spun out. It would have to remain parked at the bottom of the incline. From the top of the pitch, we watched the students load the gear onto their backs and hike the rest of the way up.

We spent the next few hours setting up camp. Then it was time to get things ready at the site for the excavation, which meant lowering gear by rope, and some of us rappelling down the rock face to the cliff dwelling. From there, we set up an easier path that wound about a half a mile along the side of the rock face and up to the edge of the cliff, just wide enough for us to make it single-file, and sometimes on all fours. We would begin the official excavation the following morning. The rest of the evening would be spent unwinding and settling into our camps, which were spread across the bald top of the cliff that jutted out into the canyon and would expose us to the wind and sky and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets.

As we sat around the fire that night, the drums started up, at least that’s what some of the crew members called them. We hadn’t seen any oil drills in the canyon. We hadn’t seen any sign of civilization. Whatever the sound was, it felt spiritual, rhythmic and steady, like a voice of the past. Darkness had settled upon us like a sheath of fine silk, giving us a sense of anonymity, and the glow of the flame lent comfort to our voices, removing us from ourselves. Slowly, lives began to unfold. Stories were shared, and all the while, the drums continued to play in the distance. Eventually, one by one, we would walk away from the fire and retire to our own tents, and in the morning, it would be as if the evening had never been. We would perform our tasks. Our faces would be lively and focused, closed off from the musings that had transpired only hours before. We all knew this. Yet, still, we allowed the evening to happen, and it would continue to happen each night, transforming our discoveries from the day into something personal and lasting, and transcending our individual lives.

Even after just one night, I was climbing to a different place of existence. That afternoon I had sat at the cliff dwelling. I had observed the pictographs, “white birds,” as our group referred to them, for they looked like silhouettes of white wings against the sky. I had seen the handprints made by the children who had lived there, had felt the breeze from the canyon brush up against my back and the heat of the warm sand beneath my bare feet, and I knew that in exploring the lives of our ancestors I was exploring greater depths of my own life. I had not only lost a family. I had lost my perception of love. A friend of mine who is a forester, who has spent over thirty years of his life walking alone in the woods, has told me that love is a reflection of how you think about yourself. I understand those words now. But at that time in my life, in losing my sense of family and marriage, I had also lost my fulcrum, and in redefining love, I was also redefining the person I was.  As Glade has said of archaeology, “It is the purest study of man. We want to find out who we are.”

As I made my way down the narrow path the following morning for my first day of work, I came upon Dudley.

“You know, I was thinking about what you told us last night. I was thinking about your story.”

I was standing on a rock that jutted out about three feet. Dudley was standing a few feet below me, a smile carved into his craggy complexion, his eyes an incandescent blue. He was a small-framed man, lean and muscular, and when he smiled, there was something mischievous and daring and wise about him that made me want to listen to what he had to say. But Dudley moved fast. It was a rare thing for him to stay in one place for long, and I hoped he would finish his thought before he moved on.

“You’re the eagle,” he said. “An eagle has to fly. But what is most important to an eagle is its nest.”

Dudley didn’t wait for me to say anything. He was gone, a light layer of dust kicking up behind him. And in his wake, I took a deep breath, looked out at the canyon, then continued on to the site. I’m the eagle, I thought. Yes. I had one more defining piece of the woman I was, and something else. I had understanding, and at the moment, that meant the world to me.

It was not an easy decision to leave my home, my husband. And it was not a decision that the people of the all-American town in the heart of the West understood. I’d felt the shunning; I’d heard the gossip. I was no longer part of their fabric. I had not only been cast out, I’d been cast aside. I’d been disposable. But what they didn’t understand was what had always been most important to me, would always be most important to me was my family, and in one evening, Dudley, a stranger had seen enough to make that connection.

One night in the middle of the previous winter, Glade and I were making the hour drive to a community college where we taught anthropology and creative writing respectively. He talked about how cultural understandings and truths are always evolving. “We think a family with a mother and father is the norm because that is what we’ve understood to be the norm, and that if we don’t fit that norm we have failed or we are doing something wrong.” He went on to explain the norm as being defined by a person’s or a group’s behaviors at a given time, which are largely dictated by socio-economic factors. But socio-economic factors are constantly changing. “The range in human behavior is so broad. There really is no such thing as a norm. We create the behaviors we need in order to survive.” Glade had wanted me to see that what I was doing should not be subject to anyone’s judgment, including my own. I would be provider and mother of my children. I would be head of a single-parent family. That was all good because that was what I needed to do to survive. My life had evolved to require different behaviors, and I should feel strong and secure in that knowing.

And so, as I sat for hours each day at that summer’s field school, excavating flakes of chert and pieces of pottery and bones from the family hearth, including a bison femur, and sifting through fine dirt to filter out chenopodium and amaranthus seeds (part of the Fremonts’ diet), I thought of this particular family that had vanished from its home and the changes that had been inflicted upon the family’s members. Had they been driven from their home by disease, famine, or other outside forces? Had socio-economic factors or threatening impulses caused this family to change its behavior in order to survive?

We did not learn what happened to this particular Fremont family, but we did discover something interesting about the site itself. Outside the dwelling, one of the students uncovered a second hearth. Radio carbon testing dated it to 2000 BC. This site had not just been used by one family. In fact, there was no telling how many lives had breathed, eaten, laughed, slept, made love, borne children upon this dwelling’s soil.

Two summers later, Glade, Dudley, Martin, another group of college students, and I returned to the site to finish excavation and to close up. But there was one new member of our crew that year: my oldest son, Nate, who was fourteen at the time. Evening rituals around the fire resumed: stories were told and songs were sung, and I would watch the face of my son and wonder in what ways his life was being transformed. Age did not matter in our group. Nate was treated no differently than anyone else. He kept up with the logs, drew maps, hauled five gallon pails of dirt for sifting, and dug and brushed his way through the grids of sandy earth like the rest of us. But there was a different spirit bearing upon us that year than in the previous summers’ field schools. Perhaps it was the finality of things, the closing of a civilization’s story, at least for the time being, the closing of our own story at that place. There was a sadness that clung to our thoughts, and no matter how much we soaked our feet at night or tried to laugh and make jokes, we felt it. We slept little. When we weren’t digging, we were taking long hikes, oftentimes alone. We didn’t want to let go of what we knew was slipping away. We tattooed our arms and backs with permanent markers, carefully choosing our totems, something to signify what we had taken from our experience at this place we now called our sacred ground. My totem, of course, was the eagle. My son chose a mountain goat.

The morning of our last day we cleaned up the site for pictures, which would be included with our logs. While the rest of the crew packed up their tools and sat on rocks outside the dwelling eating lunch, I stayed behind, carefully brushing the dirt floor, wanting everything perfect, not able to pull myself away. It was then that I noticed a change in the soil. I had begun to expose a new layer, and in doing so, had found ash. With a trowel, I dug into the dirt a little deeper, and sure enough, I knew I was onto something.

“Glade,” I yelled. “I think you need to get back in here.”

I brushed more dirt away.

Within minutes Glade had climbed back into the site and was crouched beside me. He, too, began brushing aside dirt and gently digging with a trowel. Then with a gleam in his eyes and a huge boyish grin he said, “You’ve discovered another hearth.”

Though we took samples from the hearth and would later learn that it dated to 600 AD, we would not be excavating any further. Our permit was up, and we would not be applying for another for that site. We would follow archaeologists’ code of rule to leave something behind for a future excavation, understanding that we did not know all of the right questions to ask, understanding that we might draw the wrong conclusions. All of the soil that had been removed over the past four years would be returned, covering up another layer of residual life and artifacts, records of another community that had existed within this dwelling, another family, another people who, at some point, had moved on.

In the archaeological logs of that field school, my name – Les Buckets, as my field school crew called me – is associated with the discovery of that hearth. But for me it meant beginnings, possibilities just waiting to be unearthed.

Two nights before I had discovered the hearth, a thunderstorm had moved in. We watched it approach, travelling across the floor of the canyon. While others retreated to their tents, I moved to a flat ledge of rock about a five-foot drop from the top of the cliff where our camp was situated. I lay on my back, arms outstretched, watching the electricity rip through the sky, sending bursts of light in all directions. Then the sound of rain slapping on rocks and dry earth, and wind as it tore through pines. I opened my mouth wide, waiting for the drops to hit. Within minutes water splashed across my face. “I could be anywhere,” I said out loud to myself. “I could be on a cliff in Scotland. I could be on the edge of an ocean.”

“Yes,” a voice answered.

Though I could not see his face, I knew the voice. It belonged to Martin, a quiet man, the chief crew supervisor who slept in the large canvas tent with the artifacts.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just watching the storm.”

“You’re not afraid?”

He laughed a little. “No.”

“It’s magnificent.”


My heart swelled with infinity. There were no other words.

This essay first appeared in Amoskeag (spring 2009).