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Intensive field research reveals more secrets of the Anasazi

Peter Monkmeyer

Peter Monkmeyer (large image)

For some emeritus faculty, retirement is something best left for others. Such would be the case for Professor Emeritus Peter Monkmeyer. When he retired, former department chair Monkmeyer was not about to stop working or let his curiosity and sense of adventure wane. In May, the retired professor hopped into his car with his wife Mary and headed for Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park to meet UW-Madison graduate Kenneth Wright of Boulder, Colo., for intensive research on a prehistoric reservoir archaeological site dating from AD 800 to 950. What they found startled even seasoned archaeologists long associated with the National Park Service.

The site, known officially as 5MV4505, was named Box Elder Reservoir by Wright after a nearby stand of trees. The reservoir was built and operated by Pueblo Indians 700 years before Columbus sailed for America. Over the 150 years of its functioning to provide domestic water for nearby Pueblo settlements of some 300 people, the reservoir grew in height 21 feet due to sedimentation.

Monkmeyer helped in the field research in remote Prater Canyon by assisting in deep coring of the sediments, defining prehistoric groundwater availability, and providing his engineering expertise to Wright's research team that numbered 23 scientists, engineers, and technicians.

What they found at the site was a large mound about 300 feet long, with the remains of a feeder canal upstream. It was a reservoir that started out as a hole in the valley bottom, but after years of diverting water into it, sediment dredging could not keep up with the sediment deposition. As a result, the reservoir grew in height some 21 feet. Periodically, the canal had to be rebuilt and extended upstream.

"Water for the Anasazi," a book detailing the Mesa Verde engineering public works, will soon be published by the Public Works Historical Society. It is their 22nd publication in the series on Essays in Public Works History. Its author is Wright, who graduated from UW-Madison in 1951 with a BS in civil engineering and a BBA from the School of Business.

Later, after serving in Saudi Arabia with the Arabian American Oil Company for five years, Wright returned to the campus for his master's degree under Professors Arno T. Lenz and James Woodburn, both former department chairmen. Wright said that his interest in prehistoric civil engineering stemmed from his days on the campus and his two enlightened professors in civil engineering. He now serves as chief engineer for Wright Water Engineers, Inc. of Denver which specializes in hydrologic engineering. He was a recipient of the 2002 College of Engineering's Distinguished Service Award.

According to Wright, Monkmeyer's contributions to the study of paleohydrology at Mesa Verde were of inestimable value in analyzing the great public works of the long ago — but not forgotten — Anasazi of Mesa Verde National Park.