Inside the dark, cliffside cave last occupied by the people of Frijoles Canyon some 500 years ago, is evidence of more recent human activity: graffiti proclaiming "2008" and "I love you" carved into a wall.
"Oh, man," art conservator Larry Humetewa muttered as he bent to inspect the damage in the "cavate," a large, cave-live room.
Vandalism is just one of many threats to the fragile archaeological sites that are the heart of national parks and monuments in the arid West.
They're hammered by sun and rain, freezes and thaws, wind and the abrasive sand it carries. They're invaded by pests and human visitors who can't resist touching.
In short, the ruins are in ruins.
For the past decade, a special program within the National Park Service has been struggling to combat the deterioration.
At 45 parks in eight states stretching from Texas to California, the Vanishing Treasures program has assessed and documented the damage and made repairs.
"What we're really doing is prolonging their survival as long as we can, so people can see and learn from them," said Jerry Rogers, who helped launch the program when he was a Santa Fe-based regional director for the park service. "They're very precarious."
Multitude of artifacts
At the Grand Canyon this summer, archeologists stabilized a two-room ruin on the North Rim that was likely the seasonal home of a farming family about 900 years ago.
But it's not just ancestral Puebloan dwellings that need help. Other parks in the program have forts, missions, cabins, ancient trail systems, wooden fences, mines, and sweat lodges.
At the Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas, Vanishing Treasures helped restore an old adobe hospital and trained people in historic plaster conservation.
In California, the program has underwritten some excavation of the community garden at Manzanar National Historic Site, where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II.
Though historic or prehistoric architectural sites are the reason some parks exist, the bulk of park budgets must be spent instead on accommodating visitors. So worried park staffers lobbied for a program aimed at preserving the sites themselves.
'My ancestors were here'
Since 1998, Vanishing Treasures has put about $1 million a year into park projects — just a drop in the bucket when it comes to preservation needs, program managers said.
"To people that are culturally related to the sites, they're still very significant in terms of spiritual connection, the ancestral connection to those places," said Vanishing Treasures program coordinator Virginia Salazar-Halfmoon. "Their relevance is more than just as an exhibit."
Humetewa, the art conservator, is just such a person.
"My ancestors were here," he said, adding that grew up in Santo Domingo Pueblo, just down the Rio Grande from Frijoles Canyon.
"It's a national park," he said. "But it was a place where people lived, and I'm pretty sure the spirits of the people are still roaming, you know. And I'm pretty sure they don't like it either."
Volcanic eruptions more than a million years ago left deposits of soft tuff that cover much of northern New Mexico's Pajarito Plateau. The residents of Frijoles Canyon — an estimated 800 people by the late 15th century — excavated into the tuff to create rooms, many of them fronted by big masonry pueblos.
There are nearly 1,100 such cavates in the canyon, and Vanishing Treasures has funded their first-ever extensive documentation, in addition to the graffiti removal.
Humetewa and fellow conservator Conor McMahon use a variety of methods to get rid of graffiti.
In Cave Kiva, accessible by ladder and the largest of the cavates on the public trail, they re-soot the ceiling about twice a year to obscure the vandalism. They close the cavate, don respirators, and burn small pieces of wood to create the smoke and soot that blackens the ceilings.
They painstakingly fill in graffiti carved into the mud-plastered lower walls of cavates, using natural materials — tuff, silt, clay-like soils dug from washes and creek beds and mixed together to match the color and texture of the walls.
Getting rid of graffiti not only helps stabilize the walls and enhance the visitors' experience, it also deters other would-be vandals.
"People are much more likely to graffiti an area where they already see it," McMahon said.
Roger Kennedy, director of the National Park Service from 1993-97, views the Vanishing Treasures effort as capturing the spirit of the conservation programs initiated by the New Deal during the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
"It says, as those programs did, it's time to pay attention — and more than pay attention — to help sustain our common heritage," he said.