Must Reads: Archaeologists explore a rural field in Kansas, and a lost city emerges

Professor Donald Blakeslee in one of the pits being excavated in Arkansas City, Kan.
(David Kelly / For The Times)

Of all the places to discover a lost city, this pleasing little community seems an unlikely candidate.

There are no vine-covered temples or impenetrable jungles here — just an old-fashioned downtown, a drug store that serves up root beer floats and rambling houses along shady brick lanes.

Yet there’s always been something — something just below the surface.

Locals have long scoured fields and river banks for arrowheads and bits of pottery, amassing huge collections. Then there were those murky tales of a sprawling city on the Great Plains and a chief who drank from a goblet of gold.

A few years ago, Donald Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeology professor at Wichita State University, began piecing things together. And what he’s found has spurred a rethinking of traditional views on the early settlement of the Midwest, while potentially filling a major gap in American history.

Using freshly translated documents written by the Spanish conquistadors more than 400 years ago and an array of high-tech equipment, Blakeslee located what he believes to be the lost city of Etzanoa, home to perhaps 20,000 people between 1450 and 1700.

They lived in thatched, beehive-shaped houses that ran for at least five miles along the bluffs and banks of the Walnut and Arkansas rivers. Blakeslee says the site is the second-largest ancient settlement in the country after Cahokia in Illinois.

On a recent morning, Blakeslee supervised a group of Wichita State students excavating a series of rectangular pits in a local field.

Jeremiah Perkins, 21, brushed dirt from a half-buried black pot.

Others sifted soil over screened boxes, revealing arrowheads, pottery and stone scrapers used to thin buffalo hides.

Blakeslee, 75, became intrigued by Etzanoa after scholars at UC Berkeley retranslated in 2013 the often muddled Spanish accounts of their forays into what is now Kansas. The new versions were more cogent, precise and vivid.

“I thought, ‘Wow, their eyewitness descriptions are so clear it’s like you were there.’ I wanted to see if the archaeology fit their descriptions,” he said. “Every single detail matched this place.”

Kacie Larsen of Wichita State University shakes dirt through a screened box to see what artifacts may emerge.
(David Kelly / For The Times)

Conquistadors are often associated with Mexico, but a thirst for gold drove them into the Midwest as well.

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado came to central Kansas in 1541 chasing stories of a fabulously wealthy nobleman who napped beneath trees festooned with tinkling gold bells. He found no gold, but he did find Native Americans in a collection of settlements he dubbed Quivira.

In 1601, Juan de Oñate led about 70 conquistadors from the Spanish colony of New Mexico into south-central Kansas in search of Quivira in the hopes of finding gold, winning converts for the Catholic Church and extracting tribute for the crown.

According to Spanish records, they ran into a tribe called the Escanxaques, who told of a large city nearby where a Spaniard was allegedly imprisoned. The locals called it Etzanoa.

As the Spaniards drew near, they spied numerous grass houses along the bluffs. A delegation of Etzanoans bearing round corn cakes met them on the river bank. They were described as a sturdy people with gentle dispositions and stripes tattooed from their eyes to their ears. It was a friendly encounter until the conquistadors decided to take hostages. That prompted the entire city to flee.

Oñate’s men wandered the empty settlement for two or three days, counting 2,000 houses that held eight to 10 people each. Gardens of pumpkins, corn and sunflowers lay between the homes.

The Spaniards could see more houses in the distance, but they feared an Etzanoan attack and turned back.

That’s when they were ambushed by 1,500 Escanxaques. The conquistadors battled them with guns and cannons before finally withdrawing back to New Mexico, never to return.

This bluff overlooks the spot where many believe Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate met a delegation of Etzanoans.
(David Kelly / For The Times)

French explorers arrived a century later but found nothing. Disease likely wiped out Etzanoa, leaving it to recede into legend.

Blakeslee enlisted the help of the National Park Service, which used a magnetometer to detect variations in the earth’s magnetic field and find features around town that looked like homes, storage pits and places where fires were started.

Then, relying on descriptions from the conquistadors, he discovered what he believes was the battle site in an upscale neighborhood of Arkansas City.

Volunteers using metal detectors found three half-inch iron balls under the field. Blakeslee said they were 17th century Spanish cartridge shot fired from a cannon. A Spanish horseshoe nail was also found.

It all lent credibility to the detailed accounts left by the conquistadors.

The battlefield sits in Warren “Hap” McLeod’s backyard.

“It’s a great story,” he said. “There was a lost city right under our noses.”

McLeod, 71, offered a quick tour of the area.

He started at Camp Quaker Haven overlooking the spot where Oñate would have encountered the Etzanoans. McLeod then drove up to the country club, the highest point in the city of roughly 12,500 people.

“Lots of artifacts have been taken from here,” McLeod said.

(Los Angeles Times)

In 1994, thousands of relics were unearthed during road construction. In 1959, the renowned archaeologist Waldo Wedel wrote in his classic book, “An Introduction to Kansas Archeology,” that the valley floor and bluffs here “were littered with sherds, flints, and other detritus” that went on for miles.

“Now we know why,” McLeod said. “There were 20,000 people living here for over 200 years.”

Local rancher Jason Smith, 47, said he had seen collections “that would blow your mind.”

“Truckloads of stuff,” he said. “Worked stone tools, flints. One guy had 100 boxes at his house.”

Russell Bishop, 66, worked at the country club as a kid.

“My boss had an entire basement full of pottery and all kinds of artifacts,” he recalled. “We’d be out there working and he would recognize a black spot on the ground as an ancient campfire site.”

Bishop, who now lives outside Denver, has coffee cans full of arrowheads. He spread some on his counter.

“I don’t think anyone knew how big this all was,” he said. “I’m glad they’re finally getting to the bottom of it.”

Kansas State Archaeologist Robert Hoard said that based on the Spanish accounts and the evidence of a large settlement, it’s “plausible” that Blakeslee has found Etzanoa.

Still, he would like more evidence.

The early Great Plains had long been imagined as a vast empty space populated by nomadic tribes following buffalo herds. But if Blakeslee is right, at least some of the tribes were urban. They built large towns, raised crops, made fine pottery, processed bison on a massive scale and led a settled existence. There were trade connections all the way to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in Mexico.

"So this was not some remote place. The people traded and lived in huge communities," Blakeslee said. "Everything we thought we knew turns out to be wrong. I think this needs a place in every schoolbook."

And that may just be the beginning. Blakeslee has found archaeological evidence in Rice and McPherson counties for other large settlements extending for miles, which he believes existed around the same time as Etzanoa.

He has published his findings in the peer-reviewed journal Plains Anthropologist, and next spring he will present his evidence for Etzanoa at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. A bigger excavation is planned for next summer.

The Wichita Nation, based three hours south in Anadarko, Okla., is watching all of this carefully. Experts believe the Etzanoans were their ancestors.

“The accounts of Oñate and Coronado have been interpreted for years,” said Gary McAdams, cultural program planner and historic preservation officer for the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, which number about 3,300. “We had a suspicion it was settled like this, but now it’s starting to be documented, which makes it feel more real.”

In the meantime, Arkansas City is trying to determine how to promote its new claim to fame. Etzanoa remains mostly underground or on private land. Yet that hasn’t deterred interest.

“We get about 10 calls a day to see the lost city,” said Pamela Crain, director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The vision is to have a visitors center. The other key is to persuade landowners to allow people onto their property.”

Professor Donald Blakeslee of Wichita State University shows a black pot unearthed by student Jeremiah Perkins, behind him.
(David Kelly / For The Times)
Russell Bishop still has the arrowheads he collected as a kid in Arkansas City.
(David Kelly / For The Times)

Limited tours began last spring, focusing on key historical and archaeological sites. Town leaders are hoping for a UNESCO World Heritage site designation.

Back at the dig site, all eyes were on Jeremiah Perkins as he lifted the hefty black potsherd from the dirt.

Blakeslee dropped into the pit for a closer look. It was the largest artifact of the summer, perhaps 12 inches high.

“That’s a nice big cooking pot,” he exclaimed.

Yet many mysteries remain about the people of Etzanoa.

“How were they organized? How did they farm the bluffs? How did they maximize bison herds?” Blakeslee asked. “The questions go on and on and on.”

And the thought of that made him smile.

Kelly is a special correspondent.


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