Joe Pachak walks slowly through a fine drizzle, long goatee brushing his Patagonia jacket as he scans the rain-plumped red earth. Pausing, he kneels down, running his fingers over a protrusion of chert, a jagged scarlet patch of hard stone in a sea of soft limestone. He explains that these pockets of acidic chert formed in the basic limestone back when the crest of earth we are standing on now was at the bottom of an ocean. Picking up a piece of chert no larger than my thumbnail next to his knee, Joe’s hands mime the movements a flintknappers hands would make while forming a point.
Joe is an artist residing in Bluff, Utah, and has long been obsessed with discovering rock art and artifacts created by native peoples. Today, we are walking with him along the rim of a dried oxbow of the San Juan River just outside of Bluff, in southern Utah. He stops, showing us shrines, rocks that were used to knap flint, flakes, and potsherds ranging in color from yellow to red to black and white. We carefully place each artifact back in the spongy soil, tucking them under bushes and overhanging stones, but never burying them. We are in an area where archeologists from the BLM have removed many artifacts, and I ask Joe what his thoughts are on scientists removing artifacts versus leaving them in the field. He responds with a story-told softly through his white beard.
Growing up in Colorado, Joe followed his father in practicing a “finders keepers” methodology when they encountered artifacts and accumulated a huge collection of arrowheads. Obsessed from this young age, Joe eventually transitioned into a “finders leavers” mentality and practiced it so adamantly that his own father did not give him their arrowhead collection, for fear Joe would toss it back out into the sagebrush whence it was found.
Joe knows the power of an artifact left in place, from his many times guiding artifact hunting trips and witnessing the transformation of a person after finding an artifact. He also knows that many people don’t have the same mentality he does and would rather see artifacts safely scooped up by archeologists than in the private collections of people like his father. Throughout our drizzly walk, Joe encouraged us to feel the power of the pieces we found and their ancient spirits, and how we would like to continue encountering artifacts in their “native” environments.
By Clara Hoffman