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  • Robison Wells

The Sucked Orange


If you haven't been to visit the magnificent archaeological sites of majestic Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, or Mesa Verde in Colorado, you may not understand the true glory that existed in the Americas long before Europeans ever set foot here. In these two places, the Ancestral Puebloans built massive structures, buildings and plazas with hundreds of rooms. Communities that could house as many as ten thousand people at the time. For reference, in San Juan County, Utah, there were more people living there a thousand years ago than there are now. And in Montezuma County, Colorado, home of Mesa Verde National Park, there are more archaeological sites per square mile than anywhere in the world except for Egypt.


But in 1907, before much of any of this had been discovered, an archaeologist by the name of Alfred V Kidder left from Harvard to set his sights on the Southwest. But he was warned by one of his mentors that the area was "a sucked orange. There was no juice left in it."


Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as Kidder went on to learn in a long career.


When I was an undergrad student, many many years ago, I got to go on an archaeological survey of a section of land near Newspaper Rock (between Moab and Monticello). The survey consisted of a lead archeologist walking in the middle, and then every five meters out from him to the left and right were staggered archaeology students. We would walk in perfectly straight lines for hours, eyes scanning back and forth at our five-meter-wide area of responsibility. If we'd see something--anything from a tin can to a piece of barbed wire to a potsherd--everyone would freeze in place and the archaeologist would come over, place a red flag in the ground and mark the spot on his GPS. This went on for a week and we never found anything.


Until...We were on a slope, all of us getting annoyed with each other (it was over a hundred degrees and we'd been doing this for six days) when one person called out. She was really excited. It was a rocky hill and it was difficult for us to walk in a straight line, and by that point none of us was too interested in whatever had been found: no one had found anything of value all week. It had been a bust.


But then the archaeologist told us to break ranks, and he called us all over. As we tiredly approached, he removed his backpack, sifted through it, and opened up a Ziploc bag with two white gloves. Whatever had been found was significant.


At first it looked like nothing more than a rotten piece of dry cloth. It was in the shadow of a rock, and there was nothing particularly special about it that we could see. The archaeologist instructed an assistant to start photographing everything. And then, gingerly--oh so gingerly--he picked up the cloth, turned it over in his hands, and laid it back down on the rock.


And there it was. This was no ordinary cloth. This was a bag. A woven cotton bag. And, unlike anything I'd ever seen in an Ancestral Puebloan museum or textbook, this was brightly colored in red, blue and yellow stripes.


I'm still in contact with that archaeology professor, Dr. Fritz. He still claims, twenty years later, that this cotton bag, twelve hundred years old, was the most magnificent thing he'd ever discovered in his career. He'd written 5 papers on it.


The southwest, 114 years ago, was declared to be a sucked orange. Nothing left to study or discover. How wrong we can be when we think that we know everything. When I was studying archaeology in 2000, there was something called the "Clovis First Theory" which stated that the first group of people to reach North America were the Clovis people around 13,000 years ago, who migrated across the land bridge from Asia. You probably learned this in school. But in just the last five years we've learned that there were humans in North America (and South America) as long as 33,000 years ago.


There is just so much we're learning, and at such an incredible rate. Textbooks are being rewritten.


Did you know that a new particle was found two weeks ago that throws the Standard Model out the window? We have no idea what this thing is, what it does, or where it fits in the makeup of an atom, but we've measured it. Imagine if we learned the Periodic Table of Elements was wrong. This is that big.


Carl Sagan, the great astronomer, once said of space “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”


We live in a world where we are flooded with information. Any fact we want is at our fingertips. Are we going to turn off our brains and let the internet think for us? Are we going to be content knowing only what we know?


Abraham Lincoln said “I don't think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday." Learn something today, however small. And then do it again tomorrow.

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