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Those Sophisticated Cave Men--Ancient Floor a Work of Nature, Not Nurture --Page 26

By GARY HARMON, The Daily Sentinel
August 15, 2005

Here at, whenever the Western Investigations Team makes a nature/nurture pronouncement, we have a tendency to go along with them. In any case, the floor is what it is. Whether or not they really are experts on ancient tiled floors--we here at most assuredly are not.

But we had a thought; what if the Western Investigations Team believe, for example that you and I are also the products of nature? If they can't get the important things right, how can we trust them on the little things?

Also, we've got to ask; couldn't an ancient man made tile floor consist entirely of natural materials found in the surrounding environment, like stone and rock? Couldn't even the mortar between the tiles be completely natural?

The 67-year-old western Colorado mystery of the cellar with a tiled floor has an explanation now, and the Western Investigations Team has a new notch in its belt.

The Western Investigations team, a group of archaeologists, peers into the natural brick road on Battlement Mesa, discovered in 1937. The road was originally thought to be built by a prehistoric civilization but has since been determined to be nature's doing. (CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel)

The solution is that the seeming inlaid-tile floor discovered in 1937 by Collbran-area rancher Tom Kenney was one of nature's little twists. It was not, as had been speculated, placed and fitted by man thousands of years before. Rather, it was the handiwork of nature.

For years, though, said members of the investigations team made up of the Museum of Western Colorado and Mesa State College, the tiled floor was the stuff of archaeological dreams.

It began in 1937, when rancher Tom Kenney decided to build an outhouse and started digging into the soft earth of Battlement Mesa. Kenney changed goals when he struck an impermeable layer of rock, which, on closer inspection, looked like a tiled floor buried under 10 feet of boulders and clay. Instead of an outhouse, Kenney decided he would have a tiled root cellar.

His curiosity aroused, though, Kenney summoned some Grand Valley experts to look at his tiled floor. A delegation examined the floor and decided, according to The Daily Sentinel of May 3, 1937, that there was "not the slightest doubt but that the work is of some prehistoric civilization."

So compelling was the floor that Denver archaeologists went to visit. They concluded the tiles were laid somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000 years earlier.

To learn more, the Denver archaeologists approached the Archaeological Society of London, which sent an Egyptologist, who pronounced the floor a geological phenomenon.

And there, for the next seven decades, the matter stood, with adherents on both sides, until the Western Investigations Team took on the mystery.

Led by forensic-history veterans, David Bailey, curator of history at the museum, and Rick Dujay, director of the Center for Microscopy at Mesa State, the team expanded the pit to expose a 40-foot-by-40-foot expanse of the floor to two of its edges.

Using a backhoe and front-end loader, they excavated 2,000 cubic yards of earth and boulders deposited there by glaciers to unveil the plaza.

"It looks like a beautifully laid masonry floor," Bailey said.

Geologist Joe Fandrich said it "looked like a dance floor."

The "floor" once was exposed to the elements and "that's what gave it that polished look," Fandrich said.

His first impression was that it could have been man made, given its inlaid appearance.

Closer inspection, however, showed it to be part of an entire outcrop that Fandrich hopes to study in greater detail.

The "joints" in the outcrop were most likely formed by stress and weathering, said Fandrich and Bill Hood, another Grand Junction geologist. Both also are adjunct professors at Mesa State College.

Some could have been caused by frost wedging, or by the pressure of debris dumped suddenly atop it. Whatever the cause, the rock underlaying the "tiles" had the same orientation as the surface, Hood said.

What seemed to be mortar in the joints is nothing more than underlaying material squeezed up by pressure from the overburden, he said.

That material remains to be tested in Dujay's college lab.

Grand Junction resident Mary Lane, Tom Kenney's granddaughter, said she always thought the floor which was opened again in the 1980s was the work of ancient man.

She's looking forward to learning the results of the tests of the material in the cracks, Lane said.

"It's still soft" and resilient, like a man-made material of some sort, she said.

Though not the paleo-Indian plaza some had hopes of finding, the mission was a success, said Mesa State President Tim Foster and museum executive director Mike Perry.

"We were kind of crestfallen" that the floor was a geological phenomenon, not an archaeological wonder, Foster said.

Nonetheless, "It was a great opportunity for us to interact with the community," with a variety of scientific and academic disciplines, Foster said.

In addition to the geologists, archaeological experts John Lindstrom and Phil Born were ready to dig into the possibility the floor was man made.

"It was really neat to be able finally to solve a mystery that had been out there for so many years," Perry said.

Once the examination was complete, the outcrop was buried again. Jim and Karen Kirchner, who now own the ranch, said they were glad to have the work done and their lives returned to normal.

Karen Kirchner, who had her hopes pinned on an archaeological explanation, said it was just as well that the outcrop was a work of nature. Otherwise, she said, there might have been a flood of investigators studying the floor.

Not everyone will be convinced, Lane said.

Her mother, Mary Lou Ridenour, believes the floor is an ancient artifact and "I doubt she'll ever change her mind."

The Western Investigations Team scrupulously marked the site with global-positioning satellite coordinates, so the mystery is buried, but not lost.

That way, Jim Kirchner said, "Sixty years from now, our grandchildren can dig it up another time."

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