Her favorite piece in the collection is easy to choose.
Even though Wendy Bustard manages more than 1 million artifacts from 120 sites in Chaco Canyon that are in the custody of the National Park Service, it takes her just a few seconds to come up with it.
"Probably, at the moment, the badger," she says.
Bustard is talking about what researchers call a "ring pot," a fascinating archaeological object in that they're rare—only 20 are known to exist—but widespread, as in they're scattered around the entire Southwest.
Some look like snakes, but others don't seem to have an animal motif. No one has a solid theory about what they were used for. And this badger ring pot is even more rare still because of its artistry. Its distinctive face with vertical black lines leaves no doubt that it depicts the predator that still lives in America's grasslands.
Yet today's visitors to New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park have a much better chance of seeing a live badger than this object of art.
That's because he currently lives in a locked cabinet in the basement of a building on the University of New Mexico campus, where tours are by appointment only.
"He is absolutely unique," Bustard says, holding him gingerly. "He came to us through the mail. The US Postal Service."
Bustard has been the collection's curator since the mid-1990s. And although the vast majority of the items she takes care of came from archaeological excavations in the 1970s and '80s, in a joint project between the Park Service and the university, some of them were collected much earlier and in less official ways. The badger was among other objects in a box that once belonged to people who had lived and worked at the Chaco trading post in the 1920s.
“It was only a few years ago, I think five, that a grandson found them in the attic and realized what they were,” she says. “And he realized that they should not be in the family attic.”
No one knows how much of Chaco's treasures ended up in private hands. Even the vast number of artifacts now in the Park Service collection pales in comparison to the rich material from the region that's been sitting for almost 100 years in museum vaults back East.
When Bustard and her colleagues complete a plan now in the works to mount a new exhibit at the park, they'll be bringing at least some of it back.
There's almost too much to see in Chaco. Once you make the long trek down a dirt road, past Navajo hogans and grazing sheep and long stretches of uninterrupted landscape, you could spend days and still not lay eyes on every excavated structure in the canyon, not to mention what it would take to identify all formerly occupied places that no one's touched for centuries. You could walk for miles and miles and view only a fraction of the petroglyphs etched roughly 1,000 years ago.
Line up on a crisp morning to stand next to a green-clad park ranger as she talks about how 19th-century looters poked holes in the great houses and emptied rooms of their carefully stored caches. They hauled out baskets preserved away from the elements. They blew the dirt from huge pots and hand-sized bowls. They pocketed effigies and beads by the thousands. And many of them were paid to do it (some even directly or indirectly by the US government), their booty landing in two venerable museums.
Chacoan communities have worldwide fame for the curious value system apparently at play. While life was no doubt difficult and farming time-consuming, we know from the objects left behind that the people who lived here spent great portions of their waking hours devoted to creating things of beauty.
Yet you won’t see any of them on display at the park. The closest you can come to viewing its distinctive black-on-white cylindrical jars are replica coffee mugs for sale in the gift shop. As a film that depicts the cultural crossfire over the land flickers with the image of a turquoise-inlaid frog made of black stone, there’s not one bead, one basket, one sandal physically present. Not one shred of yucca cordage behind fingerprint-smeared glass. Just an empty room in the visitor’s center that’s temporarily used to show the film. Otherwise, there’s a shiny white floor and water bottles emblazoned with the park logo. It’s dry out there. Drink up.
So where can you find the artifacts from Chaco?
Outside of the National Parks storate facility in Albuquerque, visitors to the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe can see beadwork and pots from Chaco in its dated central display—almost exclusively collected from the Chetro Ketl site, which was partly excavated between 1930 and 1948 by the students in the UNM Chaco Field School. A loan on its way to the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces contains a woven headband and other items from Chaco. But the bulk of the state-held materials are in locked basement cabinets.
The frog from the movie, for example, is often pictured, but seldom seen. Its image appears in a recent blog post about the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall inside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The exhibit honors Roosevelt's efforts to protect the area with the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1907 to slow the plunder and vandals—or at least redirect most of it through official channels, which ensured that recovered items landed in public museums. But the frog isn't actually on display with Teddy's stuff. It's in storage, too.
Mostly, the artifacts from Chaco are in the dark and far away. They’re filed in wood and metal cabinets in places like the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, resting in narrow drawers, labeled with numbers and letters.
Steve Plog, a researcher who has assembled a comprehensive online repository of Chaco material over the last 15 years, says there's deep significance in the part of the Parks Service plan to access the other major collections.
Between the late 1800s and the 1930s, artifacts steadily left Chaco at the hands of amateur and professional archaeologists, who collected them for the likes of the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society. Their names, like Wetherill, Hyde, Pepper and Moorehead, sometimes come out of modern mouths with a bitter tone. Together, those men oversaw the complete excavation of Pueblo Bonito, the iconic great house that now appears on the US quarter depicting the park.
"Even back in the early 1900s," Plog says, "New Mexicans were upset about the fact that all these eastern museums were coming out not just to New Mexico but to Colorado and Arizona and excavating these sites and taking all the materials away."
The new exhibit, Plog says is, "sort of like bringing part of your heritage back to where it originally belonged."
While the artifacts and the information in reports about how and where they were found are still providing researchers with important data, vaults aren't the ideal resting place in all circumstances.
"Anytime you have materials from archaeological sites sitting in a storage cabinet on a shelf, in some ways, is unfortunate because it's been removed from the context," Plog says. Without knowing, for example, that the rooms of Pueblo Bonito contained skeletons of macaws, birds that were likely transported from hundreds of miles away in Mexico, it's hard to fathom that the great houses of Chaco were hubs for trade.
"It doesn't allow the people to understand how remarkable that was," he says.
Park caretakers never intended for this to happen, explains Bustard.
Objects crafted by the people in and around Chaco had been displayed for visitors formally at the park since about the 1950s. Building renovations at its visitor's center in 2010, however, revealed that the exhibit that had been doing the job since the 1980s had a big problem: no foundation; built on shifting sand.
So rather than shore up the bad construction, they removed the exhibit, tore down the building and put up a new one. Yet since no one had planned that wrinkle, the bureaucracy didn't have funding to restore the exhibit or design a fresh approach.
Six years later, the wheels are in motion. And what's on the way promises to be a first-of-its-kind display, bringing together the Park Service collection and items on long-term loan from the big museums.
"Right now, if everything aligns properly in the universe, there will be an exhibit opening probably sometime around February of next year," Bustard says as she's wrapping up a tour of the Park Service collection this winter. Then she backtracks a bit. Well, at least the plan is to start installing the exhibit then.
"What we're trying to do—and why it is so complicated and it has taken so long and will be very expensive—is that we're trying to bring back some of the Chaco material from the institutions back East. And that is a challenge."
Negotiations with those "back East" players started in earnest several years ago, and Bustard travelled to New York and Washington DC to shop in the vaults for objects that would fit her vision of the best Chaco showcase.
Of the 450 artifacts now slated for the exhibit, about 175 will make that 2,000-mile journey.
It's not as simple as choosing the items and ordering extra bubble wrap before the FedEx guy comes. The process of getting fragile artifacts from point A to point B, in good condition, requires what curators call conservation, which entails a careful examination for structural integrity, preparation of extensive paperwork required for the transfer of custody, and, of course, packing, which might include using specially constructed cases. The transportation and conservation alone will likely cost over $100,000, Bustard says.
Even the items in possession of the Park Service need attention before they go on display. Over the last year, curators have moved almost all of the material for the exhibit from Albuquerque to its Western Archeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, driving van-loads of them at a time. There, specialists will also make mounts to hold artifacts securely in place for the upcoming decades inside the Chaco visitor's center.
While the exhibit from the '80s focused on daily life, the new plan will cover different territory, touching on the rare and intricate decorative objects, the artistry and the vast trade networks at play.
The Park Service partnered with the School for American Research to hold talks with interested parties in 2010; participants included members of local Native communities. The floorplan of the new exhibit includes a section called "Tribal Connections," which is part of the result of that outreach.
Many are waiting with interest to see what happens with the exhibit.
C L Kieffer, for example, is a doctoral candidate who works as the archaeology collections manager at the Center for New Mexico Archaeology in Santa Fe—a long-term research repository for artifacts found on state land and other special collections. Boxes containing pot sherds and stone tools from Chaco, along with drawers of ancient yucca fibers and feathers, and several manos and metates (flat rocks used for processing food there) are in her care.
"Chaco is one of those sites that they tell you about in school," Kieffer says. "There's always been hype behind anything that comes out of Chaco, and what we've always been taught is to save a little [untouched] because the techniques will get better. I am sure that Chaco will be talked about 100 years from now."
Maxine McBrinn, her colleague who curates the Museum Hill archaeology collection and is planning to revamp its feature exhibit soon, says she’s been watching for the re-establishment of the display at Chaco, too.
"In 2011, when I took a field school out there and they had just opened the new facility, it was like, well this is really nice but there's all this space. I heard they were thinking of putting an exhibition in, but then I went back in 2012 and 2014, and there was still nothing there," she says.
McBrinn oversees the storage of enough Chaco material to concentrate on the site if she wanted to, but with a mission to cover the greater Southwest and its diversity, her scope is more broad. Just this year, though, the museum showed a series of new aerial photographs of the Chaco park, next to similar images taken in the late 1920s.
"There are more scholars working on Chaco than on any other place and period in the Southwest," she says. "What is really interesting is that we still have widely divergent ideas about what Chaco is and who the Chacoans were and even who are all their descendants."
Just being able to walk through the towering structures that still stand strong against the wind in the canyon is stirring, she says, but getting to see the art the people made, the clay that carries their fingerprints, the impression of a foot in a sandal, that's getting closer to human connections.
“It helps create that knowledge that these were complete people who lived real lives, and it gives you a little more insight into what those lives were,” McBrinn says, “and then you can see that incredible masonry in those huge sites and start to fill it in, in your head.”
And about that frog. Dave Thomas, curator at the American Museum, tells SFR that the iconic effigy is among items heading for the new exhibit—the first time it's been loaned out from the institution.
Welcome home, little guy. It’s about time.