Under a hard blue sky, I bumped down a red-dirt Forest Service road in the high desert near Sedona, Arizona, managing to maneuver my way over rocks and ruts to the base of a sandstone butte. My immediate goal was to reach the Honanki cliff dwelling, a short hike up a steep trail. I'd recently been bitten by the amateur archaeology bug and was intrigued with the history of this village site that once was home to some 125 people. My plan was to check out any volunteer opportunities.
I was in luck. As I scrambled across loose rubble and craned my neck to look at the crumbling rock walls marked with the soot of ancient cooking fires, I noticed something of more recent construction--a wood scaffold set around a fragile-looking wall fragment, The scaffold, it turned out, is part of an ongoing wall-stabilization project spearheaded by Coconino National Forest archaeologists, who oversee and encourage volunteers helping to preserve the site.
Honanki, occupied between approximately A.D. 1150 and 1300 by the Sinagua Indians, is one of many places in the West where amateur adventurers can help with supervised excavations, surveys, evaluations, stabilization projects, and lab work. These hands-on programs last from one day to several weeks, and are often free, requiring only that participants either bring along or pay for their own food and shelter in addition to providing willing labor. While it may sound like work, the programs are a great way to learn about history; spend time outdoors, and develop a few new friends and skills.
At Honanki, past volunteer activity has included excavation and stabilization, but in recent years archaeologist Peter Pilles has been teaching volunteers how to mix mud and reconstruct walls as the Sinagua once did. Working with volunteers in one- or two-week stints in spring and fail, Pilles spends the first day on the site pointing out the various masonry styles used during the dwelling's occupation. The next day is spent offsite, learning to mix the earthen mortar ("like a dry brownie dough," says Pilles) and to build sample walls by hand.
The balance of the project time is spent at the cliff dwelling, working on designated walls. Along the way, Honanki's treasure trove of archaeological history is gradually revealed. When the Sinagua moved on around A.D. 1300, the dwelling was occupied by the Yavapai and the Apache. Rock art left at the butte represents the different peoples who lived there.
Spurred on by the sight of the scaffold and the thought of playing in mud for a good cause, I vowed to come back to help work on the walls. …