Gila Cliff Dwellings
An Administrative History
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Chapter V:

Despite interest during the mid-1950s in the archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings and its vicinity, the first excavation did not occur until late 1962, more than 20 years after Charlie Steen had sampled the cliff ruins with two trenches. As before, this dig was very modest. Asked to mitigate a threat posed to visitors and the ruins themselves by a cracked slab of overhanging rock, Campbell—the custodian—built a short buttress wall of rock and cement in Room 31. [1] While excavating a short foundation trench all the way to bedrock, he screened the fill, collecting in the process seeds, fragments of cordage, 28 stone artifacts, corncobs, bones, and more than 100 sherds. [2] Only a very small portion of the fill had not been disturbed by pothunters in the past.


In October 1963, shortly before the completion of the paved road into the Gila forks, Gordon Vivian began a month's work of excavation and stabilization at Gila Cliff Dwellings, aided by Dee Dodgen and a crew of six San Carlos Apaches. The main purpose of the excavation was to salvage cultural material and to stabilize some additional structural features before visitor traffic to the ruins increased substantially. Unfortunately, Vivian died before he could formally report his findings. He did, however, write a summary of his excavations, and field notes for roughly a third of the project still exist.

In his summary, Vivian reported that the contents of Caves 2, 3, 4, 5, and "adequate" samples from Cave 6 had been hand-screened—33 rooms altogether, using three-by-eight- foot screens, with smaller and finer screens used occasionally. The excavations in Cave 3, apparently the only ones Vivian mapped, were done with seven trenches, and his field notes show generally shallow (0-30 cm) fill with deeper pockets (up to 82 cm). The location of a partial human burial, some pieces of turquoise and shell, and a stretch of clay floor were recorded. In Rooms 10 and 10a, Vivian observed that each floor rested on earlier cultural deposits. Room 1 had at least part of two floors, which rested on yet a third level of cultural debris. All excavated areas were backfilled, with the exception of Room 10, which had a rectangular firepit and parts of benches that made suitable exhibits.

A substantial amount of floor in Cave 2 was not excavated, however. Vivian observed that visitors were not admitted to that area anyway, and this justification underscores the essentially salvage nature of the operation, as well as the tight budget that forced Vivian and Dodgen to forgo per diem.

In his summary, Vivian listed 450 entries in his field catalogue and registered a special interest in the perishables. Among other entries in his field catalogue were painted sherds, the majority of which he tentatively identified as Tularosa. Unfortunately, the provenience for all the pottery has been obscured. The painted pieces from the entire site are now mixed together, and the plainware is segregated only by cave. In fact, problems in cataloguing the collection have prevented distribution plotting for most of the artifacts that he recovered, thus limiting the ability of subsequent researchers to make inferences.

After Vivian's death, the majority of his material was not analyzed for more than 20 years. A preliminary examination, however, of the tree-ring samples that he had taken—combined with samples collected previously by Richert, Steen, and King—did suggest a new chronology for the cliff dwellings, "placing the cliff sites in the Animas phase, in contrast to a rather complete and earlier sequence of the Mimbres branch of the Mogollon Culture in the Gila Cliff area." [3] With excavation, the true and anomalous nature of the cliff dwellings was beginning to emerge.

Highway Salvage

In 1966, construction of the final segment of the highway to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument generated salvage excavations at four other sites in the right of way: the West Fork Ruin (LA 8675), the Graveyard Point Ruin (LA 6536), a small masonry pueblo (LA 6537), and Diablo Village (LA 6538). Although none of these sites occurs on the expanded national monument, they are the only systematically recorded excavations for the area other than the cliff dwellings themselves. Consequently, these sites provide an archeological context for the monument.

The West Fork Ruin was known for a long time. It was first identified by Watson in 1927 as the Adobe Corrals Ruin and subsequently by Campbell as Site No. 2 and 3. Excavation there by Ronald Ice revealed three components: Three Circle phase pit houses, Mangas phase pit and surface structures, and a three-room adobe homestead. [4] Excavation by Laurens Hammack at the Graveyard Ruin revealed more historic buildings, and at the small pueblo he found a Mangas phase component, the site's only occupation and probably a seasonal one. [5]

In the years since these salvage excavations, the term Mangas phase has elicited considerable controversy. First proposed by Gladwin in 1934 as a transitional period during which pit house construction was gradually replaced by surface architecture and for which Boldface Black-on-white was the ceramic indicator, the existence of the Mangas phase as a developmental stage has been denied since the early 1980s by archeologists who cite evidence from the Mimbres Valley and insisted upon by others who have surveyed the Gila Valley. The latter researchers suggest that the Mangas phase reflects differences in settlement patterns or population dynamics between the two valleys. [6]

At the Diablo Village site, Hammack also excavated Georgetown phase pit houses, which he deemed similar in architecture to other contemporary Mogollon branches. A Mimbres phase ceremonial structure was unusual, however, being a large, rectangular, and distinctly isolated subterranean room with two small surface rooms.

Eight years later and a little up the road from Diablo Village, salvage excavation at the Lagoon site by Joseph Janes, a Gila National Forest archeologist, revealed another isolated communal structure. This architecture was designated Georgetown phase, and its presence demonstrates a long history of isolated ceremonial structures in this locale. [7] This history conflicts with later correlations of population dynamics and the evolution of communal structures in the Mimbres Valley, and the discrepancy may further distinguish archeological remains around the Gila forks. [8]

Of course, variations in settlement patterns and population dynamics in southwestern New Mexico and their challenge to normative extrapolations from the Mimbres Valley have been perceived only gradually and with debate over the last two decades as additional archeological work occurred in the Cliff and Redrock valleys along the Gila River, as well as in the Mimbres Valley. The issues themselves stem from a theoretical current in American archeology that began in the late 1930s in reaction to the apparently limited goals of mere chronological ordering. Analytical procedures developed for ethnography and social anthropology were applied to the study of prehistoric peoples, and topics of social organization, settlement pattern, demography, and ecological adaptation were increasingly weighted in archeological research.

To date material from the salvage excavations has not been analyzed. Since, for reasons that will be explained later, major excavation is no longer contemplated for sites in Gila Dwellings National Monument and additional salvage work is unlikely in the adjacent wilderness, the data from the highway project is a unique resource that may some day help to explain not just when people lived along the Gila forks but how and why.


On July 2, 1968, Don Morris, an archeologist with the Southwestern Center for Archeology, began supervising another round of stabilization work at Gila Cliff Dwellings. [9] Aided by a crew of ten Navajo laborers, Morris excavated four rooms (36, 37, 38, 39) in Cave 1, where "only a jumble of collapsed masonry indicated architecture." There he uncovered a slab-lined firepit, and beneath the foundations of Rooms 38 and 39, he found sherds and stone artifacts, a distribution that suggested occupation of the site previous to the wall construction.

To better support the sagging north wall in Room 27, Morris dug a trench for a foundation and uncovered another slab-lined hearth as well as an infant burial. Wrapped in cloth embroidered with red and blue decorations and swaddled in two other cloths, the body had been laid on two stone slabs, covered with twill matting, and buried in the floor. Above the floor was 14 cm of cultural debris that contained, among other things, seeds, string, bone beads, and cloth. Beneath the floor, at least along the north wall, was another 50 cm of refuse. In Room 40, which was filled with refuse, Morris found turkey feather cordage and a plaited yucca sandal with lacings. All of the recovered material was sent to the Southwestern Archeological Center.

The stabilization report, which Morris wrote as the project progressed, is the first detailed room-by-room description of the architecture and its condition. After completing the stabilization work and at the request of the superintendent of the expanded Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Morris conducted an "archeological survey of a circular area, one mile in radius from the Gila Visitor Center, located at the junction of the West Fork and Middle Fork of the Gila River." [10] Assisting this survey were staff from the monument and from the Gila National Forest, including Joe Janes.

Altogether 106 sites were located, 33 of which lay within the boundaries of the monument. Specifically, the survey located eight chipping areas, with one site containing artifacts that resemble Cochise material; 31 pithouse villages that ranged from Georgetown to Three Circle phases; 25 cliff shelters, including three sites (LA 10056, LA 10057, LA 10059) with Apache pottery and another (LA 10048) with what is presumed to be a disturbed Apache burial; 32 masonry units, none of which yielded any sherds of "Tularosa Fillet Rim and no appreciable amounts of Reserve and Tularosa Black-on-White...a startling contrast with the Gila Cliff Dwellings"; three checkdams; five pictograph areas, with no petroglyphs; two wall fragments; and three historic dwellings, including Grudgings' and Huffman's cabins, and another cabin foundation of unknown origin. [11]

Surface collections were made from each of the surveyed sites, and relevant information was recorded about their location, vegetation, architecture and other features, including the degree of vandalism. The LA numbered sites were tagged, and all the sites were plotted on stereo-paired aerial photographs or on sheets of preliminary USGS quadrangles (1:24,000). These records and all of the samplings were sent to the Southwestern Archeological Center.

In the summary of his report, Morris noted the great spread in dates for the monument and its vicinity. These dates ranged from possibly 1000 B.C. to the historic period and corroborated Richert's and Vivian's reconnaissances in the 1950s. Morris also noted the unique nature of ceramics at Gila Cliff Dwellings and of the late ceramics at the TJ Ruin. For the latter site, he suggested a "dominant Mimbres occupation, a hiatus during the Tularosa phase and a limited occupation during the Salado period." [12] In addition, he was interested in settlement patterns and noted two trends: (1) pithouse villages were more common on the north side of the West Fork while Mangus and Mimbres phase sites were more common on the south side, and (2) pithouse villages were located on ridge crests while the later habitations were usually located off the eastern side of crests, on ridges with "appreciable soil."

Before leaving the Gila forks area, Morris helped Superintendent Lukens draft an archeological management plan. Noting the monument's significance as the only unit in the national park system with Mogollon sites, they identified as a major interpretive theme the interaction of the Mogollon with their mountain environment and the evolution of "progressively more successful cultural adaptions." The archeological resources were outlined in the plan, as well, and the brief but dominant nature of the Tularosa occupation at the cliff dwellings was formally recognized. Based on Vivian's recovery of an atlatl fragment, the possibility that an earlier archaic component existed there was also reported—40 years after the Cosgroves' excavation in Cave 6. Regarding the TJ Ruin, an enclosed courtyard was recorded for the first time, as well as the presence of several pit structures that might be ceremonial. Other archeological resources documented the sequence of prehistory and history already in the report of Morris' survey.


On August 16, 1970, visitors to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument discovered a human skull and skeleton while climbing the designated trail to the ruins. Apparently the skull had been partially exposed by recent rains, and seasonal rangers Ronald and Pamela Everhart performed a salvage excavation of this burial several days later. [13] The burial, a primary inhumation flexed at its hips and knees and laid on its right side, was exhumed, bagged, and sent to Arizona State University, where the remains were identified as those of a robust female, aged 20 to 25 years old and typical of Southwest plateau Pueblo Indians. No artifacts were recovered with the burial. In their report on the salvage operation, the Everharts postulated that the talus slope southwest of the caves may have served as a cemetery. They noted that six other burials had previously been discovered at the cliff dwellings: two adults and four infants. [14]

Anderson, et al.

In 1986, Keith Anderson, Gloria Fenner, Don Morris, George Teague, and Charmion McKusick published The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, the first systematic report of the ruin that had been in scientific literature for nearly 100 years and that had been a national monument for nearly 80 years. Based on the salvage work and the reconnaissances of Steen, Richert, Campbell, Vivian, and Morris, the purpose of this report was to provide information for interpreting the site to visitors.

In the introduction, Anderson identified two primary components of the cave site: one prior to A.D. 500, based on archaic-style artifacts—including the fragments of Vivian's atlatl—and on heavy smoke-blackening that apparently preceded architecture; and a second of the Tularosa phase, based largely on the ceramic assemblage and supported by tree-ring dates that cluster around the mid-1280s. In addition, Anderson cautiously hedged that a few Mimbres Bold Face and Mimbres Classic sherds might indicate an earlier Mimbres phase occupation of the cave.


Anderson suggested that the cliff dwellings themselves had been built quickly—in perhaps as few as 11 years, according to the tree-ring dates. He reported that they had sheltered 40 to 60 people for about a generation and had then been abandoned. Without good provenience, artifact clustering could not be used to infer activity locations, but room size, floor and wall features, the presence of roofs, the number of openings, and the use of plaster were analyzed to determine the use of rooms (Table 1). The number of hearths, for example, suggested the number of households—eight to ten. Using an estimate of five to six people per household, Anderson arrived at a population figure.

Although the cliff site constrained the architecture and complicated comparison, Anderson observed that the proportion of apparent storage space to living space conformed remarkably with other excavated Tularosa phase ruins. [15] He inferred that the cliff dwellings were a complete village, with "all rooms and space necessary to sleep in privacy, work comfortably, store food, and hold communal gatherings and rituals." [16] Since the communal rooms had been built last, a conclusion based on the sequence of wall construction, Anderson also inferred that the cliff dwellings had begun not as a ceremonial site but as a new settlement. The lack of definable room suites, a trait shared by other Tularosa sites, in this case suggested further that the residents had arrived together and almost at once instead of gradually, family by family. Although the duration of Tularosa occupation at the site is unknown, its brevity was suggested to Anderson by the very small amount of architectural remodeling: no walls and only three doors had been modified. [17]

plan of Gila Cliff Dwellings
Plan of Gila Cliff Dwellings keyed to Anderson's matrix of room features represented on the following page.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Provenience problems hampered the analysis of artifacts. When possible, objects were associated with specific components, and a few inferences were made, but observations were often limited to noting similarities between specific assemblages and collections made at other Mogollon sites. Only a few new items were added to the Tularosa material trait list. Stone artifacts recovered at the cliff dwellings did substantiate two distinct phase assemblages: Archaic and Tularosa phases, with the more numerous, bigger, and presumably Archaic projectile points suggesting a large early occupation.

Since all materials for the stone artifacts were available within 40 miles of the cliff dwellings, elaborate trade networks were not conjectured. An unusual variety of shell artifacts, on the other hand, scarlet macaw feathers (Ara macao), and an anomalous spokeshave type of scraper made from a bison (Bison bison) rib did suggest trade with northern Mexico and the Great Plains. [18] In addition, stylistic analysis of the pottery suggested for the cliff dwellings slightly more contact with the Mimbres-Animas area than settlements along the San Francisco drainage apparently experienced.

With the exception of the bison rib beamer or scraper, bone artifacts from Gila Cliff Dwellings were largely typical of Tularosa phase assemblages. Also typical for the same phase were most wood, reed, and gourd artifacts, cordage and fabric, as well as fibrous artifacts. New items for material trait lists included a worked mountain lion claw, wrapped and/or filled split tubes (bone), a fragment of tie-dye cloth, and embroidered cloth, which had swaddled the infant burial recovered by Morris. Wickerwork and multiple-warp sandals, an atlatl fragment and pieces of darts, bits of gourd vessels, a wood trowel, a variety of pahos, wood die, a bark pendant, and a juniper berry skewer were all attributed to the earlier occupation of the cliff site. Inadequate provenience records, however, complicated attributions for some artifacts that may represent early styles used through the Tularosa phase.


Faunal remains at Gila Cliff Dwellings, which could not be distinguished by component, suggested a heavy reliance on mule deer and—curiously—bison (38.76% of the meat consumed). The reliance on mule deer represents a subsistence pattern apparently basic to the Mogollon rim for perhaps 1,600 years. [19] Of special interest was the avifaunal collection, which accorded closely with that of the thirteenth-century Grasshopper Pueblo in Arizona as well as that of Zuni Pueblo during the historic period.

The use of wild plants could not be separately analyzed for the Archaic and Tularosa components, either, in part because the same seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, and leaves were in all likelihood used during both occupations. Only macrobotanical specimens were sought during Vivian's excavation of the cliff dwellings, among which twenty-four taxa of wild plants were identified.

The assemblage of domestic plants was typical of later San Francisco and Tularosa phases and, based on the volume and variety of remains (eight taxa), provided evidence of a well-developed agriculture that included maize, three varieties of squashes, and at least five varieties of beans. Historically, the most commonly reported item at the cliff dwellings was corncobs, which occurred in such quantities that Vivian stopped collecting them in 1963. Instead, he filled a room with the cobs as an interpretive display. Whether any of this assemblage stems from the Archaic occupation is unknown. In the absence of cultural association and without radiocarbon dates, the analysts merely observed that "Gila Cliff Dwellings maize displays a great deal of variability." [20]

Research Priorities

Anderson concluded the summary of his report with a recommendation that no further excavation occur at Gila Cliff Dwellings until seminal research questions are posed that cannot be answered without it. This recommendation underscores a shift in archeological priorities over the years since the monument was expanded, a change that has especially affected plans for research at the TJ Ruin.

When Vivian excavated Gila Cliff Dwellings in 1963, there had been two research priorities: excavation at the cliff site, in this case a salvage operation to prepare for increased visitation; and excavation of the TJ Ruin, which yielded in the budget to the imminent need of the cliff site. [21] In 1966, Superintendent Selznick began the long process of budgeting and planning the excavation of the TJ site. Later the 1968 archeological management plan for the monument, developed by his successor Bill Lukens in collaboration with Don Morris, listed excavation of the TJ site as the most important research need. In September of the same year, however, Lukens changed his mind.

Concerned about protecting an excavated TJ Ruin without enough staff to interpret that site and the cliff dwellings and to manage the visitor center, as well, he withdrew the request for excavation—a $100,000 project already scheduled for fiscal year 1970. Despite the expressed chagrin of the chief of the Southwestern Archeological Center, the regional interpretive archeologist in Santa Fe concurred—at least for "the next year or so."

To date this ruin has not been excavated, and large excavation is no longer even proposed in the resources management plans. Part of the reason is financial: each year the cost rises for a major excavation that includes analysis and a full report, and exposure of the TJ architecture for interpretive purposes would entail an additional and perpetual expenditure of funds for protection and stabilization of the open site. [22] Lukens, of course, had also been specifically concerned about having enough staff to interpret and protect the TJ site, an additional funding issue.

But money was not the only issue. Lukens' change of heart also reflects tension between the mandates to interpret and to preserve archeological sites. On the one hand, it has been observed, meaningful evaluation and interpretation of the TJ Ruin depends on a program of excavation. [23] The components of Gila Cliff Dwellings only emerged after Vivian's 1963 work, for example. On the other hand, excavation threatens the resource on two levels—the physical structure itself and the information the site contains.

First and obviously, architecture exposed through excavation must be stabilized—often at great expense at an open site. Otherwise the site must be reburied or it will decay, the unfortunate consequence of Wesley Bradfield's work at the Cameron Creek site. [24] Nor is weather the only concern. The mere passing footsteps of visitors—to mention the most innocuous impact—repeated thousands and thousands and thousands of times can destabilize ancient and fragile adobe-and-cobble construction that remains exposed for interpretive purposes.

Moreover, excavation destroys stratigraphy and the contextual association and distribution of artifacts. Although that data is usually tabulated carefully, the record is inevitably limited by the current knowledge, interest, and perceptions—not to mention technologies—of the excavating archeologist. [25] The provenience problems of material from Gila Cliff Dwellings may stem largely from this limitation. The best records were kept for the articles that most interested Vivian, the perishables. Similarly the Cosgroves failed to keep samples of wood from the Swarts Ruin, unaware in the late 1920s that techniques of dendrochronology would soon be able to provide absolute dates for the Mimbres Valley site. That charcoal or undisturbed hearths could be dated were possibilities that rely on technologies unimagined at that time.

A partial response to these problems, to the rapid improvement in archeological technologies after the Second World War, and to the accompanying expectation of even greater advances in the future was a theoretical current that welled in the 1960s for the conservation of archeological sites—banking them for the future, so to speak, until better techniques, new questions and a new generation can elicit more information from a site than currently possible. Recently, Lukens said that interest in banking the TJ Ruin and concern about the still uncompleted report of Vivian's excavation at the Gila Cliff Dwellings had additionally contributed to his decision to withdraw Selznick's petition for excavation on the mesa. [26]

Also in the 1960s, influenced by the increasingly scientific orientation of anthropology in technique and theory, American archeology underwent another major change that—among other things—linked excavation to the testing of hypotheses. [27] In other words, specific questions were to govern which sites were to be dug and the kind of information sought. [28] One effect of this new orientation was to limit especially the scale of excavation, with a practical emphasis on just enough testing and sampling to prove or disprove a hypothesis and a reluctance to dig up an entire site.

Anderson's reluctance to see further excavation at Gila Cliff Dwellings reflects an additional need to weigh the value of a question against the scarcity and unknown potential of the resource.

As for the TJ Ruin, Lukens' concerns in 1968 stalled the momentum for major excavation just long enough for the proposal to be overtaken by rising costs and the new professional attitudes about scale, the purpose of digging, and the need to preserve sites for the future. In 1989, archeologists from the Region III office of the Park Service could "forecast no foreseeable excavate the [TJ] ruin." [29] In the same year, a study of alternatives to commemorate the Mimbres culture—noting the pristine nature of the TJ site and the scarcity of large Mimbres sites in that condition—recommended that "only limited research be allowed, with the major part of the site banked for the future." [30]

Of 14 research projects proposed for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1981, only one—next to last in priority—entailed even minor excavation, and four of the first five priorities revolved around the protection and preservation of the physical archeological resources. The most current plan places priority on protection and preservation, with limited testing and surface collecting ranked 11th of the 14 proposals.

Despite low priority, it should be observed that limited excavation at TJ Ruin is still primarily constrained by inadequate funding. If a university wished to make test excavations at the site or donated money were available, the regional office would approve an appropriate sampling project. [31]

McKenna And Bradford

Not all archeological research entails excavation, however, and in July 1986, Peter McKenna and Jim Bradford, Park Service archeologists with the Southwest regional office, began mapping the TJ Ruin, using an alidade and a plane table to record structural mass and individual alignments of the architecture. [32] Limited samples of ceramic sherds and lithics were collected, as well, to establish chronologies and material resources. The results were reported in 1986 at the Sixth Mogollon Conference and published in 1989. [33]

Five distinct roomblocks were documented at this open-air pueblo. More or less aligned along the steep southwest edge of a mesa, the prehistoric structures are oriented towards a plaza that was created by a partially enclosing wall. In the report, roughly 200 rooms were estimated for the entire site, a count that varied according to the measures used to make the calculation: wall alignment vs. rubble mass to determine square footage, for example (see table 4). The central roomblock is the largest structure, has the greatest variation in room size, and may even have had two stories. The peripheral roomblocks appear to be more regular and to have larger rooms. Although only 10 rooms were clearly definable, they averaged 20 square meters each—nearly twice as large as the 12-square-meter average proposed for Mimbres phase sites in the Mimbres Valley. Seven pithouse structures were also discerned, two or three of which appeared to be communal structures containing Mimbres phase refuse. Most of the masonry was cobble or slab set in adobe, and the architecture appeared to date from A.D. 900 to A.D. 1150. A single possibly Salado phase adobe structure was tentatively identified. Surface artifactual material was extensive and evenly distributed, and no definitive refuse area was located.

Ceramics provided evidence for 900 years of occupation at the TJ Ruin, ranging from Georgetown through Salado phases, with a major occupation during the Mimbres phase and the late Mangus phase. Reserve and Tularosa phase ceramics suggested greater contact with populations along the San Francisco drainage than was common for Mimbres Valley pueblos although without studies of ceramic sourcing it could not be determined whether those ceramics represented trade or occupation. All of the lithic material was available from immediately local sources, although some of the obsidian nodules recovered at the TJ site resembled Mule Creek samples.

The mapping project also sought to weave the TJ Ruin into a more subtle regional context than was conceived in the mid-1950s, when the site was definitively recognized by Vivian, Richert, and Steen as an important multi-component Mimbres site. The new context had been initially proposed by James Fitting. In 1982, based on his work in the Cliff Valley and on perceived differences between the archeologies there and in the Mimbres Valley, Fitting had suggested parsing the Mimbres branch into three distinct cultural sequences identified by watersheds—a San Francisco branch, a Cliff-Gila branch, and a more circumscribed Mimbres (Valley) branch. [34]

plan of TJ Ruin
Plan of TJ Ruin as mapped by Peter McKenna and Jim Bradford in 1986.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The distinctiveness of the San Francisco sequence, which culminated with the Tularosa phase, had long been observed in various and confusing ways, of course, but the Cliff-Gila branch was essentially new. [35] Fitting's distinctions were used in 1986 for studying the TJ Ruin.

In 1955, ceramics from the TJ site had already suggested substantial northern contacts, and the 1986 study proposed that surface architecture further reflected the site's boundary position between Mimbres populations and those in the San Francisco drainage, combining elements characteristic of both areas: scattered roomblocks, for example (Mimbres branch-Mimbres phase), with an enclosing wall at least partially around the plaza (San Francisco branch-Reserve/ Tularosa phases).

Based largely on the prominence accorded the cliff dwellings, Fitting had recognized the boundary position (Mimbres branch/San Francisco branch) of archeological sites at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, and he consequently concluded that they were very different from those in the Cliff-Gila Valley. McKenna and Bradford, on the other hand, suggested substantial archeological continuity between the Gila forks area and the lower Gila valleys around Cliff and Redrock. They based their suggestion on phase sequences and settlement patterns: 1) Mangus phase, which is apparently present in the Gila forks and Cliff-Gila Valleys and is absent in the Mimbres Valley; [36] and 2) concordance of the TJ Ruin's size and location with the "Gila River pattern of greater aggregation and more widely spaced large sites than is found in the Mimbres Valley." [37]

In addition, the presence of communal structures at the TJ Ruin—features presumed to have been abandoned in the Mimbres Valley during the Mimbres phase—also link the national monument site with the Woodrow and the Cemetery sites farther down the Gila River, where communal structures appear to have continued through the Mimbres phase. The study noted, however, that the congruity of the communal structures is not complete. Those at the TJ Ruin appear to be circular and those at the Woodrow and the Cemetery sites rectangular.

Of course, other differences between these archeological sites along the Gila River were observed, as well. Aside from the Tularosa phase encroachment into the Gila forks area, which did not apparently occur in the Cliff-Gila and Redrock valleys, there is a substantial disparity between Salado phase manifestations along the river. The TJ Ruin is one of only two sites on the Gila forks with a possible Salado phase component, [38] an apparent fact suggesting a large decline in population similar to one proposed during the same period for the Mimbres Valley, which has few Salado phase sites. In the Cliff-Gila sequence, however, "[t]he Salado phase is the most spectacularly evident archeology." [39] In short, the TJ Ruin appears to be a unique site, with a mix of traits that suggest affinities to cultural sequences in each of the San Francisco, the Cliff-Gila, and the Mimbres valleys.

To clarify the significance of the TJ Ruin, McKenna and Bradford recommended an archeological reconnaissance to provide a gross overview of settlement patterns along the river between the national monument and Turkey Creek, which flows into the Gila just a few miles above the Woodrow Ruin. In addition, they recommended a remote sensing survey of the TJ Ruin with magnetometer and with areal imagery; the salvage of vandalized rooms—one in Roomblock 5 and another in Roomblock 1; [40] limited testing with pits and trenches to help delineate the basic site structure and to provide materials with discrete proveniences; and an archival search as well as local interviews to establish the history of activities at and collections from the ruin.

National Historic District

In 1986, the entire national monument was documented as an archeological district in the National Register of Historic Places, [41] with the preparation of forms contracted to Southwest Archaeological Consultants, Inc, a firm located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1987, the documentation was approved. Based on Morris' 1968 survey and a draft of The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, the inventory of sites for the proposed district included a brief chronology of cultural history for the area around the Gila forks. The chronology relied largely on the phase sequence worked out by Fitting for the Cliff-Gila Valley, and included summaries of diagnostic architectural and ceramic traits and of population dynamics for each phase. Where possible, phase descriptions were linked to representative sites in the national monument. As of 1991, this brief overview is the most complete account of cultural history specific to the Gila forks since Vivian's in 1956.

More or less as Vivian had argued 30 years earlier, the significance of the archeology was attributed to the uniquely undisturbed presence of Mimbres sites that ranged in size and phase sufficiently to encompass nearly every manifestation of that cultural branch—although in this case the anomalous and intrusive nature of Gila Cliff Dwellings was noted. Also included was a summary of the monument's research potential, the most important federal criterion for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places according to Stuart and Gauthier, who wrote the book on the subject—at least for New Mexico. The list of research potentials included 19 general problems of chronology, settlement and subsistence, social organization, and demography.

Archeological Survey

In 1988 and 1989, Bradford resurveyed archeological sites in the national monument, using techniques that have improved since the 1968 survey, as well as standardized site forms and photo documentation. His intention was to produce a more detailed report than Morris had and to draw a base map on photogrammetric or orthocontour projections. His report will be forthcoming in 1992.

Other Archeological Research

In her 1980 study Indian Rock Art in the Southwest, Polly Schaafsma included brief allusions to pictographs in the caves of Gila Cliff Dwellings. [42] She dated the designs to the thirteenth century, believing them to have been drawn by people standing on roofs. Schaafsma classified the images as a Mogollon Red, which is a style that appears most commonly in the drainages of the San Francisco River, the upper Gila River, and in extreme south-eastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

In 1988, Dr. Steven Lambert of Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, offered to analyze several samples of geological substances present at Gila Cliff Dwellings. The proposal originated informally during a passing conversation with the ranger on duty at the cliff site, and the analysis was funded by Sandia Laboratories. In March 1990, Dr. Lambert reported the results of his studies. [43] Two samples of the black coating on a cave ceiling—one shiny and one dull—were analyzed by x-ray diffraction. The shiny sample appeared to be "rich in amorphous carbon" and was presumed to be soot from resinous smoke, confirming previous suppositions. The dull substance did not contain enough carbon to show up in the x-ray, but was also presumed to be the product of smoke. A sample of the shiny coating found on many of the rocks in the caves contained weddellite (dihydrated calcium oxalate), whewellite (monohydrated calcium oxalate), and uric acid hydrate, a layered mineral assemblage that was presumed to be the product of repeated human urination. An alternative suggestion was that human urine may have been applied to hides stretched on the flat rocks during the tanning of leather, a processual technique known to occur during the historic period. Finally, a powdery inflorescence, collected farther up the canyon from the cliff site, was analyzed. This sample was largely quartz and trona, which is a mineral commonly formed by the weathering of silicate rocks such as the local conglomerate.

Another laboratory project initiated in 1988 was the radiocarbon dating of one of 11 Metcalf bean (Phaseolus metcalfei) found during Vivian's 1963 excavation of the cliff dwellings. First proposed by Karen Adams, who had written the ethnobotanical section of The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, the project was intended to reveal whether or not the beans dated from the prehistoric period, a possibility that would represent the second known occurrence of that bean at a Southwestern prehistoric site. Submitted by Terry Nichols, at the time park ranger for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the dating project was financed by the Southwest Regional Office's Division of Anthropology, coordinated by the Western Archeological and Conservation Center, and performed by staff at the University of Arizona.

The bean sample (#72A) was given a C-14 age of 670+/-45 years BP (before present), with a 95% probability for a calibrated age of A.D. 1261-1394, [44] a date that Anderson of the Western Archeological and Conservation Center observed to be "suspiciously in perfect accord with the age of the cliff dwellings." [45]

A second bean (#44-39-7B) from the same group was dated a little more than a year later and broke the synchronicity. That sample was given a C-14 age of 405+/-60 years BP, with a 95% probability for a calibrated age of A.D. 1410-1640, a time substantially later than that proposed for the abandonment of the cliff dwellings.


Questions of research and issues of research potential lead to the first of two concluding observations about archeology at Gila Cliff Dwellings. The first observation hinges on a remark about public archeology made in the Prehistory of New Mexico. The authors, Stuart and Gauthier, noted that archeological sites fall into two categories: "those that contain information and those that are susceptible of being preserved and interpreted in place." Sites in the second category are more self-explanatory and consequently more interesting or pleasurable to the general public. Obviously, there may be considerable overlap between these categories; nevertheless, and without laboring over the precision of fit, the distinction is useful, helping to explain the long popularity of cliff dwellings with their sheltered and therefore well-preserved architecture and their romantic locations. [46]

At Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the interpretive value of the cliff dwellings is apparent. In 1990, 55,000 people walked through the ruin, a number that compares favorably with visitation at the equally isolated but many times larger Chaco Culture National Historical Park. In addition, the popular and historical interest elicited by all cliff dwellings helps to account for their early designation within the national forest system as national monuments: the decision was based at least initially on the recommendations of local forest supervisors, who were untrained in archeology and who would naturally share the popular bias. All four of the national monuments set aside to protect archeology in the Southwestern national forests were cliff dwellings or had a major cliff dwelling component. [47]

The TJ Ruin, on the other hand, is still uninterpreted and largely unvisited although so prominent an authority as Stephen Lekson suggests that it may be the more significant unit of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. [48] In this case, significance clearly means research potential. Only as this potential came into resolution did the rubbled site become important. Visited in 1884 by Bandelier, who did not bother to include its description in his formal report, the ruin was not even worth looting by the men who culled mummies and corncobs from the nearby cliff dwellings, and even as late as 1937 Erik Reed had dismissed it as not very important. Only twenty years later, after rampant pothunting had destroyed most large Mimbres phase sites, did the size and—by then—uniquely pristine condition of the TJ Ruin as well as the efforts of Campbell, Richert, and Vivian lead to a reassessment of the site, to its inclusion in the national monument, and possibly to the very preservation of the monument itself, considering the first MISSION 66 prospectus that proposed abandonment.

For reasons already explained, the TJ Ruin was not excavated and now appears too valuable to substantially excavate, at least for interpretive purposes. As an ironic result, although expanded to include a nearly unbroken sequence of the Mimbres culture, the monument is represented by an intrusive architecture that was occupied for perhaps 50 of the nearly 2,000 years of prehistory protected there. This irony contributes towards the previously noted tendency in archeological literature to mistakenly perceive the entire monument as a predominantly Tularosa phase archeological district. It can only be hoped this error will be allayed by the published report of the TJ Ruin mapping project and, in the near future, of Bradford's resurvey of archeological sites in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

The second observation acknowledges the tremendous effect of isolation on the evolution of Gila Cliff Dwellings as a public archeological site. Although these cliff ruins were among the first of the prehistoric sites to be set aside in this country under the Antiquities Act, their interpretive value was a long time being officially recognized. In large part, this delay stemmed from isolation. By the time the Park Service assumed responsibility for Gila Cliff Dwellings in 1933, the site's isolation in the heart of the 750,000-acre Gila Wilderness had been mandated in presumed perpetuity, with only a nineteenth-century wagon road leading in from the rest of the world. In 1941, the regional director of the Park Service, who had ridden horseback to the ruins, observed that he "would not consider it worthwhile to visit them in view of their inaccessibility and the cost and time involved," [49] and soon afterwards the cliff dwellings were designated a reserve unit, an uninterpreted category of national monument for which visitation was discouraged.

Visitor access was not the only issue, of course. Not only were they difficult to reach, the ruins were small compared to those at Mesa Verde, Tsegi Canyon, and Frijoles Canyon—other cliff dwellings representative of what was for a long time thought to be a single Cliff Dweller Culture. An apparent consequence was the presumption not long after their protection that Gila Cliff Dwellings was of little significance. In 1911, at the national park conference held in Yellowstone, the site was deemed not very important, and 30 years later the regional director valued it not worthwhile—or more precisely not worth the effort to see. As late as 1955, John Davis, the general superintendent of Southwestern Monuments, suggested in the first MISSION 66 prospectus that the cliff dwellings were more significant for their remote beautiful setting than for their archeological attributes, and Charlie Steen observed a year later that he had always believed that "attractive and pleasing as they are, the cliff dwellings are of insufficient importance to warrant the development of an interpretive program." [50]

In the last instance, the confession was a prologue for Steen's new professional—as opposed to aesthetic—enthusiasm for prehistory on the Gila forks. This enthusiasm that had been elicited by Campbell's maps, Richert's grab samples, and Vivian's tantalizing vision of the entire Mimbres cultural sequence corralled in a single monument.

This epiphany had been a long time coming. The problem was that very little archeological work had occurred on the Gila forks. Only the Cosgroves had dug more than two trenches in the area for scientific purposes, and their interest focused on Archaic populations. Furthermore, their analyses had been limited by the taxonomy of that day, which was inappropriate to the locale. Although the Cosgroves reported trouble fitting artifacts excavated from sites near the cliff dwellings into the Pecos Chronological Sequence, they wrongly attributed this difficulty to a local lag in prehistoric development; [51] in other words, they perceived the upper Gila to have been a backwater even in Archaic times, and that is a perception that lingered. [52] Even after a separate Mogollon sequence was first proposed in 1934, debate continued over its various manifestations and even its very existence well into the 1940s. Haury, Martin, and Danson, the pre-eminent Mogollon authorities in the three decades after Gladwin's framework of classification, never surveyed along the isolated Gila forks; after Haury's work at the Harris site in the Mimbres Valley, the cultural area of what became the Mimbres branch was largely abandoned by archeologists as a known area.

In short, not only was the archeology of the Gila forks barely studied, the entire Mimbres cultural area was neglected, as well, and it was not until 1955 that a general synthesis of the Mogollon culture was produced. Coincidentally, 1955 was the year the first MISSION 66 prospectus triggered a reassessment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Finally and with fortuitous timing, a conceptual framework was available to begin evaluating the monument's significance.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001