Today we rented a small plane – the smallest and scariest I have ever been in – from a private airstrip north of Tucson. Fortunately, the pilot stubbornly refused to comply with any of the appropriate stereotypes – not a slightly nutty veteran or a UFO abductee or an alcoholic, neither a barnstormer nor a cropsprayer. Indeed, Celeste bore no resemblance whatsoever to Randy Quaid. Just paying off her student loans as best she could. She was very calm, very professional, all business. She gave us a strict talking to about the differences between big-ass passenger jets and single props, and as soon as she realised we were not really interested in all the other tourist stuff, she flew us low and fast to the escarpment, and then climbed steeply up and over the Central Arizona Plateau. She know exactly what we wanted to see – something that can only be seen from the air.
These highlands are believed to have been occupied by a people the Navajo call Anaasází, which means ‘ancestors of our enemies’ but is now taken to mean ‘ancient people’ or ‘ancient ones’. The Anaasází date back to the 12th century BCE. The immense geoglyphs that adorn the Plateau are older even than that. There is no consensus among archaeologists about their age, other than that they predate Peru’s much better known Nazca lines by at least a millennium (that is, to the time of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom); but they may be far older than that.
They were discovered1 by a geologist called William Dyer during the Great Depression while he was testing equipment – aeroplanes and cold weather gear – for an Antarctic expedition, but little else is known about his subsequent career. He is said to have been sceptical about the patterns his pilot discerned – the designs are generally abstract, and there are certainly no zoomorphic or phytomorphic designs like those found in Peru – until he observed the regularity of the lines in the Triple Cross formation. Later expeditions, funded through Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, mapped some four dozen geoglyphs; excavation of several sites showed the figures, some of which cover several kilometres, to have been formed by digging shallow trenches into the surface rock so as to reveal darker rock below. To date, though, archaeologists have found few traces of the people who created the geoglyphs. Anaasází oral tradition offers no real clues, either.
We could only afford our pilot and plane for a few hours, so reluctantly we turned back in the early afternoon. I will post a full gallery of photos on Facebook when I get a chance, but here are a few more that we took.
1 Pueblo Indians claim always to have known of the geoglyphs, and there is no reason to doubt them. Although the forms are said only to be visible from the air, many of them can in fact be made out from the upper slopes of the Barrier Mountains at the north and east of the Plateau.