Updated: Dec 22, 2022
From where they sat they could see for miles in every direction. Far to the north a low and dark mountain range was semi visible through the sweltering summer haze that hung motionless over the desert floor. A shattered black shale outcropping, scorched from eons in the sun was at their back providing shade. They took slow pulls from their water bottles and tried to recuperate from the steep hike. They had begun their trek in the pre-dawn darkness with headlamps lighting the way. Cautiously they’d picked their way through the creosote bushes and chollo cactus, ever watchful for rattlesnakes. They carried buckets, screen boxes, small hand shovels and their food and water. Every two or three hundred yards they stopped and took a short break. Aaron, the taller man, was in better shape, lean, sure of his steps, ready to push harder, but Kelly was shorter and heavier, and wasn't in particularly great shape. His steps were slower, uneven, and often unbalanced. They had driven just over two hours, the last 45 minutes of which were over desert roads that could barely be called anything but goat trails to get to the site.
They had met three years before at a lecture discussing indigenous people of the southwest and found that they shared a deep interest in Native American culture and amateur archaeology. They were vastly different, but that one hobby bonded them. They had attended many lectures, museum events, fundraisers and other functions together. The trip they were embarking on was their first solo foray into the field after hours of research and scouting.
Aaron watched Kelly for clues as to when he’d sufficiently caught his breath and was ready to move on. Sweat glistened on the back of his neck and his white t-shirt showed dark patterns of perspiration on his back and armpits. “That’s one hell of a climb getting in here, I hope it’s gonna be worth it” he said. Aaron stood and rotated his trunk, “We won’t know until we try, but hey, we’re finally out here doing it. I’m excited about that.”
They followed along a little trail that was about two hundred yards long and packed with javelina tracks. The trail came out onto a small and barren flat that butted up against a hill of rotted red granite. They stood and looked at it, each waiting for the other to give the okay. Finally, Kelly spoke, “Think we should give it a shot? I mean what the hell, it doesn’t look any different than the places I’ve seen them dig in videos.” Aaron shrugged, “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
They assembled a black metal tripod that had a hook at the top and then suspended one of the screen boxes which was a 24-inch square wooden frame with fine gauge mesh stapled across the bottom. “Now I’m getting excited, maybe we’ll find our first artifact today. It would be so awesome to walk into the museum with an actual native relic,” said Kelly. It was decided that Aaron would fill the bucket and haul the material to Kelly, who would shake and sift it down. They started working in the morning calm, the heat rising by the minute. There was absolutely no breeze, and it was eerily quiet, only the metallic ‘chunk’ of the shovel slamming into the soil and the rhythmic maraca sound of the sifter could be heard. The desert is a sterile place, the sun is the great purifier, annihilating everything but the very strongest and worthiest of plants and animals, even the stones seem to be repenting of whatever great sin they did to deserve being exposed to the merciless sun. They worked quietly, toiling in the middle of that sun baked and purified surrounding. They had sifted 6 boxes when they decided to take a break. Nothing but stone and a few broken pieces of wood had turned up in the sifter. They sat cross legged in the shade of a twisted nurse tree and drank water. They looked to the north down the little canyon and out across the vast expanse of the desert. “I wonder if any natives ever sat right here where we are and looked out across this same chunk of land. If they did, it probably looked almost exactly like it looks now,” said Aaron. Kelly took a big drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well, if they did, they did one hell of a job cleaning up after themselves because we haven’t found squat in those boxes.” Aaron smiled, “No, not yet, but the next bucket might turn up something amazing. Have you ever hiked in this kind of heat before? It definitely takes a little time to get used to.” Kelly took a few seconds before he responded. “I have, but it’s been years. Honestly, I’m not really into hiking, but obviously I’m into archaeology, so to get to some of the cool spots it’s a necessary evil.” He paused again for a moment and Aaron could see him rolling a pebble he’d picked up between his thumb and index finger. “When I was in grade school my stepdad used to take me up to Superstition peak and we’d hike around there. I actually enjoyed that a lot because he’d always bring a cooler full of soda and after we were done hiking, we’d sit on the tailgate of his truck and drink one when we got back. It was like a little reward.”
“Did you like him? Your stepdad I mean?”
Kelly shook his head, “Yeah, actually he was a good dude. He always treated me fairly. I think he was the main reason I got into history and archaeology. He always told me about the legend of the lost Dutchman’s mine, and how cool it would be to find it. I still think about it all the time.”
“Are your mom and him still together?”
“Naw, they split when I was in 8th grade. My mom was struggling at the time, and I don’t think he knew how to deal with it. I came home from my grandparents’ house one day and he was just gone.” Aaron watched him roll the little pebble, “Are you still in contact with him?”
“No, he died in a car accident in 2013. Fell asleep at the wheel. I still miss him, he’s really the only dad I ever knew.” They sat pondering for a moment, and then Kelly slapped his knees and got to his feet. “Those artifacts aren’t going to find themselves.”
Over the course of the next hour they shoveled and sifted, clouds of yellow dust rising up a few inches and then sinking back to earth in the still air. They found two corroded shell casings from a .22 rifle and a wad of tinfoil the size of a marble, but nothing else. Finally, Kelly said, “We can keep beating our heads against the wall in this spot, or we can try somewhere else. I hate to waste time packing up and moving, but this seems like an exercise in futility.” Aaron wiped sweat from his eye with the sleeve of his t-shirt, “Where should we try?” Kelly pointed to a flat about 25 feet from the top of a little peak behind them. “That spot might have been used as a lookout, and we could be over there and set up in 20 minutes.”
They picked their way along an almost invisible trail that quartered its way to the spot they’d identified. Pieces of black shale lay here and there amongst the broken-down granite, having fallen from a crest on the ridge above them. The saguaro cactus was blooming, each arm capped with exquisite white flowers that seemed too soft, and too delicate for the harsh desert landscape. About halfway to their destination they rested in the shade of a big red boulder. Directly in front of them was a large ocotillo bush in full bloom. The tip of each branch was a torch of stunning bright red fire. The dagger-like thorns of the stalks were somewhat obscured by fresh green leaves. Aaron took out a pocketknife and cut a foot long piece from one stalk. He sat back into the shade of the boulder and began plucking the leaves off, exposing the inch long thorns. “I’m gonna dry this and keep it as a memento of this day...unless we find something better.” Kelly was sweating profusely and taking big gulps from his water bottle. He watched Aaron pluck the leaves from the thorn covered stalk, “What the hell is that it’s Nasty looking.” Aaron held it up so Kelly could see it better. “It’s an ocotillo branch, they grow all over in the desert. Ocotillo are covered in thorns. They’ll stick you if you aren’t careful. I have always imagined that this is what the crown of thorns on Jesus’s head must have looked like. Can you imagine how bad these things would tear you up if they were jammed down onto your head?” Kelly sat cross legged in the dirt, his big water bottle resting on the ground beside him. He reached out and cautiously took the piece of ocotillo and balanced it with a single finger on each end to avoid the thorns. After a few seconds he handed it back. “Do you really believe in God, or Jesus? I mean…” he paused for a moment. “...like a real God that made all this?” He waved a pointed finger out over the expanse in front of them. Aaron laid the ocotillo in the dirt in front of him. “Are you asking if I believe in a real creator God? Yeah, I guess I do.” Kelly looked at Aaron, “Really? That surprises me, it honestly does. I’ve never heard you mention anything about God before. You sure you want to be out here with a heathen like me?” he hooked a thumb at himself. Aaron laughed, “A heathen like you? You obviously don’t know me very well, because I’m right there with you in heathen-hood.”
Kelly shook his head. “I don’t know why that surprises me so much, but to each his own I guess.” Aaron laughed again. “So, you don’t believe in a God?” Kelly arched his back and laced his fingers behind his head and talked through a stretch. “When I was little, we went to Sunday school a little bit, but I always felt weird there. Like, do I have to go to this certain building and hand over my allowance, that’s what God wants?” He brought his hands down in a questioning manner to emphasize his point. “When I went to college, I was a good student, I studied hard, and there wasn’t a single piece of evidence I ever saw to prove the existence of God. I’m really not trying to shit on what you believe, but I’ve seen too much scientific data to believe it myself, I have other reasons too I guess, maybe I’m biased. I don’t care if other people believe it though, as long as they don’t push it on me, and you never have. I didn’t even know you believed in God until a minute ago. This is kind of a weird question, so ignore it if I’m being too nosy, but why do you believe in God? I mean, have you ever really asked yourself that?” Aaron looked out over the desert and was quiet for a few seconds. “It’s funny, but I guess I never really have…I will now though…” He got to his feet and brushed dust from the seat of his pants, “...but right now I’m going to try to find my first actual native artifact if that’s alright?’ He smiled down at Kelly and offered him a hand up.
They climbed another ten minutes and then repeated the setting up process they’d gone through at the first site. The spot they picked was shaded by a large palo verde tree in full bloom. The blossoms were thick and brilliant yellow, and vibrated with thousands of honeybees, their back legs crusted with pollen. Aaron shoveled and hauled, and Kelly worked the screen box. Even though the heat was rising, the shade of the palo verde and a slight breeze that had picked up made it feel cooler. Bucket after bucket they shook through the sifter. They found a piece of modern glass, two rusted beer bottle caps and the brass head stamp from a shotgun shell, and nothing else. After an hour of steady work they sat down to their lunch. Kelly finished eating and leaned back against the trunk of the palo verde. “I gotta tell you man, this is exhausting. I’m about ready to bag it. My hands are sore as hell.” He held up his hands and showed the palms to Aaron. They were red and blistered from shaking the box. “I know we put a lot of time and effort into this, but holy shit, I’m beat, and we haven’t found jack.” Aaron nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I’m with you. Plus, this heat is really sucking it out of me. Why don’t we run 3 more buckets of material and if we haven’t found anything by then we’ll pack it up and go?”
They slogged through the first bucket and Aaron was getting lightheaded from the heat and work. “Hey Kelly, if you don’t mind, let’s change our plan to make this the last bucket?” Kelly nodded. “I’m all about being done…”
They saw it simultaneously, poking out of the stones left at the end of the sifting process. “Is that what I think it is?” Kelly’s voice quaked. Aaron reached down and pulled out a delicate little butterscotch colored arrowhead that could easily have sat on a dime and not touched the sides. It was perfect in symmetry and not much thicker than a man’s thumbnail. He dropped it into Kelly’s open palm, who brought it up to eye level and looked across its surface. “How in the hell were they able to make these so perfectly with no modern tools? The only instruments they had were rock and bits of antler and bone. I can’t imagine the level of artistry these people possessed. I couldn’t replicate this simple work of art with a garage full of modern implements, no way. Absolutely the most amazing thing I’ve ever found.” They slapped each other on the back.
They stowed the arrowhead in a clear plastic case filled with cotton to hold it in place. The excitement of the find gave them a shot of adrenalin, but three more buckets didn’t produce any more artifacts. The heat had taken its toll and it was getting late, so they decided to pack up and make the hike out. High thin clouds had moved in from the north and as the sun began its descent the temperature fell slightly. The way out was downhill, and it felt good not to be fighting gravity. Dust rose from their feet and hung in the air, and if it were 100 years earlier and they were dressed differently, they’d have looked like a pair of desert prospectors. They took a break on the other side of the same black shale ridge they’d used for shade on the way up, but this time the shadow spread out to the east. They sat shoulder to shoulder, using the ridge as a backrest. Aaron took out the plastic box and snapped the lid open and held it up to Kelly as if offering him a smoke from an old-fashioned cigarette box. Kelly took it out and held it on edge like a coin. “I think this is what’s called a ‘bird point’ but we’ll find out for sure, I’m no expert.” Aaron watched the side of Kelly’s face, he could see the amazement, he asked him, “How do you think it got here?” Kelly thought for a moment. “I’m sure it came from a hunter; this isn’t the type of point they used in battle. I can imagine a lone man working his way up this draw, stalking a quail, trying to get close enough for a shot. Who knows, maybe this point actually found its mark? Maybe he got the bird but lost the arrow?” Aaron took the arrowhead back and held it in the palm of his hand. “Where do you think it came from?’ said Aaron. Kelly stared at the little point in Aaron’s palm. “Well, this is an area known for Hohokam artifacts, I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but it’s probably Hohokam.” Aaron opened and closed his palm turning the arrowhead this way and that. “But before that, where do you think it came from?” Kelly glanced at him, “What do you mean?” Aaron looked back at him, “Where do you think they got it from?” Kelly thought about the question for a few seconds, “I suppose they got it from a deposit of obsidian somewhere. It’s not black, so it isn’t made from Apache tears or black obsidian. It was probably acquired through a trade or brought in some other way. This color of obsidian isn’t common down here.” Aaron placed the arrowhead back in the box on the white cotton. “So, you don’t think there’s any way this was formed by nature? Like…maybe through thousands of years of moving through the earth it could have been accidentally chipped into this form?” Kelly laughed, “Dude, are you being serious? You’re trying too hard. It’s a real artifact, you and I really found it. Enjoy the moment.” Aaron snapped the box shut. “I’m just curious though, you really don’t believe this could have happened in nature?” Kelly laughed and shook his head. “There’s no way in hell.” Aaron looked at his friend “You do realize that it could have been on that hillside for millions of years. Don’t you think there’s any chance it might have been the one piece of obsidian in the world that was formed that way?” He stared at Kelly deadpan, and Kelly searched his face for a hint that he was joking. He took the box from Aaron and unsnapped it and removed the arrowhead. “Aaron, seriously, you’ve gotta be shitting me.” He held the arrowhead up at an equal distance between his and Aaron’s eyes. “Look at this workmanship. Perfectly beveled edges, thin and absolutely lethal, the tang here at the base is ideal for hafting. I can’t understand how you can look at this flawless work of…of art, and go out of your way to invalidate it? I’m at a loss for words, we should be celebrating the fact that all of our research and hard work has paid off, and the evidence is tangible, it’s right here.” He held up the arrowhead and shook it to emphasize his point. Aaron nodded in agreement, “So you’re convinced this point was made by human hands?” Kelly laughed and dropped his head to his chest in exasperation before raising it again and saying loudly, “Yes…It’s ridiculous that you’re even questioning it.” Aaron smiled and took the arrowhead back. He sat quietly for a moment and admired their find, then he turned to Kelly, “So you believe something as simple as this arrowhead needed someone to make it, to craft it out of a shapeless chunk of obsidian, but you don’t believe that something as complicated as a human being, let alone the entire universe, needed a maker?” Kelly raised his eyebrows first, then looked up from the arrowhead at Aaron. Aaron slid the arrowhead into his pocket and used the shale ridge to push himself up. “Anyway, you asked me a couple of hours ago why I believed in God, and if I’d ever really asked myself why I chose to. The reasoning I just explained to you is one of the things that convinced me that there must be a God.” He reached down and offered his hand to Kelly, “Let’s get out of here, it’s starting to get pretty dusky.” As they walked into the deepening red dusk they thought about the day and what it had held.