WINSLOW – Wandering across her parents’ cattle ranch in the 1950s, Georgia Nagel often found pottery shards, petroglyphs and other remnants of an ancient Anasazi village along the Little Colorado River. Unfortunately for Homolovi Ruins and its treasures, so did a lot of people with less honorable intentions.
One time she spotted a fish painted on a rock wall, a find so interesting that she and her parents drove into town to report it. By the time they returned, someone had tried to pry off the painting.
“Of course, it fell into pieces,” she said.
That kind of damage was all too common as relic hunters and the curious descended on the site just outside of town with shovels and even backhoes.
“They did so much damage to it,” Nagel said, “and it breaks my heart.”
The problems eased when local leaders and the Hopi Tribe, whose ancestors lived here, rallied for the state to protect the area, which led to Homolovi Ruins State Park opening in 1993.
With the park closed as of Feb. 22 due to deep cuts to the Arizona State Parks budget, Nagel, her neighbors, archaeologists and Hopi leaders worry about a return to the free-for-all days at Homolovi.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be destroyed out there,” said Donna Guiher, who volunteers at Winslow’s Old Trails Museum.
Guiher said she used to pick up pottery shards before she learned more about the ruins. Now she advocates for protecting the park’s resources.
“My blood boils over the fact of what Arizona is doing here,” she said.
Jay Ream, assistant director of Arizona State Parks, said that staff would remain at Homolovi for 45 days to close and secure the facility. Officials weren’t sure what to do about security after that, he said.
“We’re looking for funding to keep someone at the park for increased law enforcement and patrol,” Ream said.
Hopi ancestors settled at Homolovi during the 14th century, farming on the fertile floodplain before migrating north to mesas after a few generations.
The many petroglyphs and relics those residents left behind make Homolovi a magnet for researchers such as Charles Adams, a University of Arizona anthropology professor who serves as the curator of archaeology at the Arizona State Museum.
Adams, who has written a number of books about Homolovi, urged the Arizona State Parks Board to keep at least one employee around to watch over the area.
“If there’s nobody there, it becomes open season again,” Adams said.
Susan Secakuku, the former project manager for the Homolovi Park Project, a partnership between Arizona State Parks and the Hopi Tribe, said Homolovi is in danger of the kind of vandalism that made it a state park in the first place.
“I fear for continued looting and disregard for the site,” Secakuku said.
The Hopi have worked on-site for years to help park staffers and visitors interpret the ruins and exhibits.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office, said the Hopi have a very keen interest in protecting the park’s cultural resources.
“It’s a great disappointment because there’s a potential of unmonitored visitation to these sites,” he said. “It’s in unison that we voice our concerns and will continue to voice concerns about the park’s closing.”
Walking around the park, it’s easy to see scars of amateur excavations. Backhoes left rows of trenches in ground filled with pottery shards. Many of the petroglyphs etched on rock faces are missing sections, and some are chipped off entirely.
“We have so many archaeological resources within the park that need monitoring and protecting,” said Kenn Evans II, a ranger at Homolovi. “Without our presence here, they are at risk of being taken and lost forever.”
Nagel said she’s pessimistic about the future of the ruins, given their past. But she still hopes they can be preserved.
“It was a beautiful place,” she said, “and it’s still gorgeous.”