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Kansas Archaeologist Rediscovers Lost Native American City


An ancient battle, an eager teenager and a small iron ball have helped a Kansas archaeologist rediscover a lost Native American city. That city may have been the second largest in what is now the United States. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Pieces of this puzzle had been floating around for years before they synched up. In Arkansas City, in south central Kansas, Jason Smith grew up hearing legends of a Native American metropolis and plucking fragments of stone tools from the dirt on his parents' land.

JASON SMITH: Look at that. There's a piece right here. There's another - there's a little tiny piece right next to it. You can spend about 15 minutes out here and you'll have a whole handful of this stuff. It's just everywhere.

MORRIS: The artifacts have been tied to the Wichita tribe, but the tribe's cultural planner, Gary McAdams, says the full story of his people's history was largely legend.

GARY MCADAMS: Our history, you know, is in the ground, centuries of it, rather than being on written paper in, you know, some place.

MORRIS: Meanwhile, Donald Blakeslee, an archaeologist at Wichita State University, had for years been trying to pinpoint the location of a huge lost Wichita Indian settlement. But all he had to go on were records from a Spanish expedition 416 years ago.

DONALD BLAKESLEE: The ancient place was called Etzanoa.

MORRIS: As Blakeslee tells it, in 1601, about 70 Spanish soldiers into Etzanoa, fighting a pitched battle with Native American warriors. Blakeslee says expedition records describe an enormous farming and hunting village of 20,000 spread out over 5 square miles.

BLAKESLEE: The last, best days would be a way to say it, before the epidemics, before the warfare.

MORRIS: It was a full century before Europeans made it back to the area. Blakeslee says by then Etzanoa was gone. And over time, historians treated it more and more like a disputed myth. Then a couple of years ago, Blakeslee got new and much better translations of the Spanish expedition records. They led straight to Arkansas City.

BLAKESLEE: This was absolutely the clincher.

MORRIS: Blakeslee is standing on the edge of a rocky ravine.

BLAKESLEE: This place right here was involved in descriptions of the battle.

MORRIS: A ravine where Indians ducked Spanish cannon and musket fire. But Blakeslee needed iron-clad proof, and for that he brought in metal detectors, with a teenager named Adam Ziegler tagging along. Ziegler's grandmother lives on the property.

ADAM ZIEGLER: All they were finding were, like, old cans and, like, bottle caps and pull tabs and stuff.

BLAKESLEE: And finally, I realized I was torturing this kid. He was fascinated. And I said, well, would you like to take over for a while? And off he went. And gradually, the other two people stopped using theirs. And we were standing around talking, and then Adam said, well, what is this thing?

ZIEGLER: It just looked like a little ball of dirt, but for the size it was it felt heavy.

MORRIS: It turned out to be a piece of iron blasted from a Spanish cannon. Blakeslee has since discovered more Spanish ammo and other evidence confirming his finding that an enormous settlement thrived here for hundreds of years. Exciting stuff, but not news to Wichita tribe member Gary Adams (ph).

MCADAMS: It's not actually a new discovery. You know, it's a validation.

MORRIS: Validation that a tribe now reduced to about 3,000 members was once a major power at the center of the continent. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Arkansas City, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO SONG, "LOVERS' CARVINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
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