Mesa Verde
Administrative History
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A. Discoveries survey needs

During most of the 1930s the archeological program in Mesa Verde was mainly concerned with museum development. Under Naturalists Paul R. Franice and Don Watson, the museum program was further improved and steadily refined. Seldom a year passed without accidental discoveries made in different parts of the park, though there was no regular program of excavations.

In the stabilization work that was carried on under Lancaster numerous artifacts were found. A certain amount of debris had to be moved in order to strengthen weakened walls and slipping foundations, and this resulted in various finds. Axes, bone arrows, sandals, pottery, planting sticks, and similar articles were most common, but a few burials were also located, In August 1934 the undisturbed skeleton of an old woman was found on the bare floor of a small ruin just across the canyon from the public campgrounds. This skeleton, of particular importance because of fusion of the spinal column, had apparently remained exposed and undisturbed through more than seven centuries.

Because no detailed, comprehensive survey had ever been made of the archeological resources of the park, the accidental finding of new ruins, artifacts, and human remains were more or less regularly reported at the museum. [1]

An important discovery was made by the CCC boys of Company 25, stationed at Mesa Verde, during a highway improvement project. They found a grave containing two skeletons, one with the right hand and both feet missing and other with all the extremities gone except the right foot. The only artifacts found were two bits of pottery and a well made stone ax. The grave, discovered when a power shovel began cutting away rock in an embankment along the north entrance highway a quarter of a mile from park headquarters, was five feet long and four feet wide. [2]

During the fight to check the 1934 forest fires a number of unknown ruins were found. In September 1934 Park Naturalist Franice, Museum Assistant Betty Yelm and Dick Franke visited Wetherill Mesa to locate and record new ruins which were disclosed by the fire of July 9-26. Eleven new mound ruins were located on a map, nine in the upper end of Long Canyon, and two on top of Wetherill Mesa, approximately one and a half miles and one mile north of Rook Springs cabin, respectively. The ruins of Long Canyon were situated on finger-like spurs, extending a few hundred feet out from, and below, the sandstone cliffs. Type sherds and artifacts were collected. [3]

On October 13, Mr. and Mrs. Franice, Bob Burgh, Morris Diamond, and H. Boyland went to the west side of the park. In the cave north of Mug House, three burials were excavated. This work had been begun the spring before by Lancaster, and permission had been obtained from Washington to complete the excavation. The three burials yielded one head with torso and limbs missing, and the body of a child. Artifacts recovered were one reed mat, one turkey feather robe, and one jug; the skeletal material was associated with Pueblo III textiles. Excavations were done by Lancaster and Burgh. [4]

All these accidental discoveries of ruins and artifacts suggested that the great archeological wealth of Mesa Verde was far from being known. No survey of the unexcavated sites had been made, and the total number of ruins was a matter of speculation. While many ruins had been discovered, many more would probably be found in the more remote canyons. Mesa-top ruins far outnumbered the cliff dwellings and dozens of them could be located in a half-hour walk over any of the mesas.

In 1935 Park Naturalist Franke proposed a special survey of sites within the park. It would supply factual information for educational work, for scientific investigations, and for the administration and development of the area for the public. The survey would locate, identify, and describe the archeological resources of Mesa Verde. This survey was not accomplished for lack of funds. [5]

It was unfortunate that the records of archeological sites of the Mesa Verde were inadequate. The existing data on the archeological resources showed, not the number or distribution of sites, but rather only the significance of their occurrence. One significant fact was derived from the collected data: that on Mesa Verde there were preserved, in caves and in mounds, at least ten centuries of history of the Indians of the Southwest. It was distressing, in the light of such knowledge, that the data concerning the sites themselves were so fragmentary and scattered. [6]

In reviewing the master plan of the park in 1939, a Washington official made the following comment in connection with the lack of an archeological base map:

It is generally conceded that the physical development of Mesa Verde has far outrun the scientific study which appears desirable in so large and outstanding an archeological area. The museum is an exception to this criticism, but even here realization of a full story is not possible for lack of adequate knowledge and interpretation of the prehistoric resources of the Park. [7]

B. Tree-ring chronology

Prior to 1929, it was impossible to give anything more than a very rough estimate of the antiquity of ruins in Mesa Verde National Park. Estimates of age had varied as much as several hundred years, even when referring to the most recent of pre-Spanish ruins. Such estimates were based on more or less advanced elements of culture. Hence, statements regarding the chronological position of the various ruins within the park area were at best very inaccurate.

After 1929 the dating problem was solved by the system of tree-ring chronology established by Dr. A. E. Douglas, Director of Steward Observatory, University of Arizona. Major ruins throughout the Southwest from which beam sections could be obtained were thus accurately dated. From available pine and fir sections, Douglas established dates for the major ruins of the pueblo period of the Southwest, including many ruins in Mesa Verde National Park.

The tree-ring specimens which yielded the dates of several of the park ruins had been collected by the National Geographic Beam Expedition of 1923. Presuming that the year of the cutting was the year of actual use in construction, the following dates were established from selected beams in these major cliff dwellings:

Cliff PalaceA. D. 1073
Oak Tree HouseA. D. 1112
Spring HouseA. D. 1115
Balcony HouseA. D. 1190-1206
Square Tower HouseA. D. 1204
Spruce Tree HouseA. D. 1216-1262

Until a thorough study was made it was impossible to ascertain the inclusive dates for the construction of a particular ruin and the time involved in its construction. From evidence gathered by Douglas, Cliff Palace was the oldest cliff house of the pueblo period. Spruce Tree House had long been held as one of the oldest structures.

From Douglas' record of tree-ring chronology, it was known that a great drought commenced in 1276 and extended for a 23-year period to 1299. With no flowing water available, the effect of a 23-year period of drought on the inhabitants of the Mesa Verde plateau can be readily imagined. Undoubtedly the great series of prehistoric dams found within the park area indicated the desperate efforts made to meet the abnormal conditions prevailing at that time. It was logically presumed that the prehistoric population was gradually forced to withdraw from the area, as the period of drought continued, and establish themselves near more favorable sources of water supply.

Tree-ring research in the ruins within the park was begun again in the summer of 1932. During that summer season H. T. Getty of the University of Arizona, with the recommendation of Douglas, collected additional tree-ring material from the major cliff dwellings and surface ruins in the park, and from a number of the smaller ruins. As a result of the new research the dates for the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings were extended to cover the period from 1066 A. D. to 1274 A. D. inclusive.

Of special interest was the information obtained by this research relating to Cliff Palace. The one date of 1073 A. D. which had been given for Cliff Palace was supplemented by a concluding date of 1273 A. D., substantiated by a large number of intervening dates. This revealed the remarkable fact that this cliff dwelling was inhabited and in a process of construction for a period of at least 200 years.

Again in 1933 tree-ring material was secured from test pits sunk in surface ruins—Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, and the like—in an effort to establish dates for the purpose of correlating these surface pueblos with the cliff dwellings and for use in the park educational program. This work was considerably handicapped by the difficulty of securing good, datable specimens, as the timber was for the most part deteriorated in the surface ruins. [8]

In the fall of 1941, Gila Pueblo Archeological Foundation, Arizona, collected tree-ring specimens in the park and obtained new dates. [9]

Tree-ring dates will never be definite final as long as specimens can be found.

C. Research program

1. Pit House No 1

After 1938 a program of research was carried out by the park staff to fill the many gaps of knowledge about the ruins and broaden the scope of interpretation. This was accomplished through emergency or salvage archeology and the selection of specific mesa-top ruins for excavation and stabilization. During the subsequent period of about 20 years, and under the guidance of Park Naturalist and later Archeologist Watson, the Mesa Verde museum and interpretive program became one of the best of the National Park Service.

Research was also accomplished by Gila Pueblo Foundation and the Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado. What follows is a summary of the major developments.

During the spring of 1939 the digging of a trench for pipeline exposed a Developmental Pueblo pit house, the existence of which had not been suspected. No surface indications of the ruin had been discernible. It was located 100 feet south of the new 1,000,000 gallon storage reservoir. Excavation was done mainly by Ted Smiley, under the direction of Superintendent Franke and Park Naturalist Watson, in order to save anything of archeological value in the site. Since the pit house was in a very poor state of preservation no effort was made to preserve it as a public exhibit. Naturalist Watson summarized the importance of this accidental find as follows:

Although Pit House number 1 was not a large or important site its excavation has been of considerable value in the development of the archeological story of the park. It proves that Mesa Verde contains Developmental Pueblo ruins that are practically identical with those that have been excavated in surrounding regions by Morris, to the south and east, Martin, to the west, and Brew, in southeastern Utah.

No ruins of this type had been excavated in the Mesa Verde before this time and although their presence was indicated by surface pot sherds their exact details were not known. Since the pit house is so similar to those in other regions it can be assumed that the house structures as well are similar. [10]

2. Pit Houses B and C (Site 60)

During the months of August through October 1941, excavations were carried on by Archeological Foreman Lancaster, under the supervision of Superintendent McLaughlin and Park Naturalist Watson, with a small crew of CCC enrollees. This was the first time that CCC labor was used in archeological work in Mesa Verde and the results were highly satisfactory.

The primary objective of the excavation was to gain knowledge of the Modified Basket Maker culture and obtain well-preserved ruins for presentation to park visitors in the form of exhibits. Only one excavated ruin of this culture—Pit Lodge A—was open to visitors and this was a poorly-preserved ruin that had been excavated by Fewkes in 1919.

Two ruins were excavated, and designated Pit House B and Pit House C. Both were typical Modified Basket Maker structures and both contained artifacts characteristic of the period. In addition to their formal excavation, certain testing was done in order to determine the best sites for future excavations that would carry on the archeological story in chronological order.

Pit House B, located on the Square Tower House road, was a well-preserved ruin consisting of a large room with a smaller, connecting antechamber; Pit House C was located on the Cliff Palace road about one-fourth mile north of the latter, and also consisted of a main room with a smaller connecting antechamber. Artifacts were similar in both houses and consisted of manos, metates, cooking stones, work stones, hammer stones, problematical clay objects and pottery. Pit House C turned out to be a splendid example of a slab-lined pit house. [11]

3. Gila Pueblo excavations

During 1947-48 Dr. Deric O'Bryan, Assistant Director, Gila Pueblo Archeological Foundation, excavated an extensive series of ruins at three different places: Twin Trees Site, about 200 yards south of Twin Trees Site, and on a steep hillside slope, near the head of Soda Canyon. The following sites were excavated: one shallow pithouse, one deep pithouse, two slabhouse villages, two small pueblos, one large canyon-head pueblo. Building dates ranged from about A. D. 572 to about A. D. 1200. [12]

O'Bryan's excavations were the first steps taken to provide visitors with a series of exhibits-in-place representing basic stages in the development of Pueblo architecture and culture. [13]

4. Sites 353 and 354

During the construction of protective shelters at the Twin Trees Site excavated by O'Bryan, it became necessary to widen the road near the site for building a new parking area. Two pit structures were excavated by Lancaster in 1948 during the course of checking the parking area for archeological remains. Site 353 "was a square pithouse typical of early 8th century times; the second, Site 354, was an unusual type consisting of a small D-shaped pit adjacent to a circular clay-packed basin." Both sites were backfilled to widen the road. [14]

5. Sun Point Pueblo

In 1950 request was made to excavate several ruins on the Square Tower House—Sun Temple Road. When excavated, they would fill gaps in the archeological story, and in a two-mile section of the ruin roads, visitors would see ruins of seven types that covered a period of seven centuries.

Al Lancaster and Philip F. Van Cleave excavated a small pueblo near Sun Point, consisting of a kiva and a round tower partially surrounded by a number of large rooms. The kiva was of the standard Mesa Verde type and size; the usual features were present: six pilasters, bench, southern recess, ventilator shaft, wall niches, fireplace, deflector and sipapu. In addition the kiva had a tunnel leading to the round tower. [15]

6. Site 16

After the completion of Sun Pueblo, the excavation crew moved to a pueblo ruin in the Twin Trees area—Gila Pueblo Site 16. This excavation was done by Lancaster and Jean M. Pinkley. As excavations proceeded in the pueblo ruin, the site indicated a long occupation with ruins of three types sitting one on top of another. Further testing in the Twin Trees area revealed an early eighth century pithouse, that in both type and location fitted nicely into the architectural development sequence planned for the Square Tower House—Sun Temple road. [16]

7. Basket Maker III Pithouses

As part of the same research program, Lancaster excavated in June 1950 two deep pithouses dating about A. D. 700, located in the Twin Trees Site. Three of these pithouses had been excavated before but none could be used in the interpretive program due to their locations. One was excavated in 1939 by Smiley after it had been cut by a pipeline; a second was excavated by O'Bryan in 1948, located one fourth-mile south of the Twin Trees Site. A third pithouse of the same type had been partially excavated by Lancaster in 1948 during road widening operations at the Twin Trees Site.

The three excavation projects of 1950 closed a ten-year effort to excavate ruins in the proper sequence along the Square Tower House—Sun Temple road to show the various stages in architectural developments in the Mesa Verde. [17]

Both the pithouses and the pueblo ruins were integrated into the park's interpretive program. It then became possible for the first time to utilize a number of actual field sites in unfolding the story of approximately 1000 years of pre-cliff dweller Indian life. These new developments required alterations and additions to the museum exhibits to conform to the major changes in the archeological story of Mesa Verde.

Dr. J. O. Brew, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, inspected the newly excavated ruins and the artifacts recovered from them. His interpretations were of great value to members of the park archeological staff. [18]

8. Fire Temple

During June-August 1951, field investigations were made at Fire Temple by Ranger-archeologist Francis E. Cassidy. This project was under the general sponsorship and supervision of the University of New Mexico field sessions in anthropology, directed by Dr. Paul Reiter, in cooperation with the Park Service. Lancaster directed much of the dirt removal from the structure and offered numerous suggestions concerning structural features of Fire Temple. Located in Fewkes Canyon, this ruin had been excavated by Fewkes in 1920, but he had not left notes pertaining to what he did in the way of stabilization. Several features obviously were rebuilt during the 1920 excavations. Since Fewkes had removed the bulk of fallen structural debris, there was little remaining to be uncovered in the 1951 excavations. Evidence showed that Fire Temple was a Modified Chaco-type of great kiva. [19]

9. Sites survey

In 1951 Park Archeologist Don Watson instituted an archeological survey of the entire park as a long-range program that still goes on today. Without doubt, it was one of the most important archeological projects undertaken up to that date. The eventual aim of the project was to locate, list, mark and describe all archeological sites: pithouses, pueblos, cliff dwellings, dams, canals and pictographs in the park. Especially important was the listing of the stabilization needs of all the ruins. Photographs and sherd collections were part of the program.

As planned, the survey would be a continuous project with various staff members, especially Lancaster, working on it whenever possible. The first efforts would be mainly concentrated on Chapin Mesa since it probably had more ruins than any other mesa and these ruins included all types known in Mesa Verde. A complete survey of the archeological sites in Chapin Mesa would provide an excellent cross-section of the entire Mesa Verde.

Whenever possible, the sites surveyed were tied to permanent road survey reference points. In areas where these were missing, additional permanent reference points were installed. Mesa-top ruins were marked with numbered steel stakes. As a final result the survey would be an archeological base map showing all sites and a 5x8 card file containing all pertinent information.

During the survey a complete check was made of all sites surveyed by Dr. Harold Gladwin, of Gila Pueblo. In 1929, Gladwin surveyed 103 mesa-top ruins. According to Watson these were poorly marked and described and were difficult to find.

By May 1954 the park staff had already surveyed 724 sites: [20]

38cliff dwellings
661mesa-top sites
18group of dams
1group of terraces
1group of pictographs

10. Site 80

This site is located a short distance to the northeast of the Twin Trees Site. Following the salvage excavation of a refuse mound in Site 80 in September 1952, Lancaster examined a nearby shallow depression and exposed an unusual pit containing an even more uncommon pottery vessel. [21]

11. Site 391

In the fall of 1954 Lancaster and Leland J. Abel undertook a test excavation of Site 391, located a short distance south of the Cedar Tree Tower road. This was a typical "burned rock area" on Chapin Mesa. The survey initiated in 1951 had turned up evidence of a considerable number of these sites. In this connection Professor Lister, of the University of Colorado, noted:

In view of the evidence from the testing of Site 391 and the surface indications at a number of similar appearing sites in the vicinity, it would seem that the "burned rock areas" are remains of an elementary type of habitation, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they may be of Basketmaker II age. The careful excavation of additional examples of this rather insignificant-looking sort of site will be necessary before more definite statements can be made about them. [22]

12. Kiva E — Far View House

Lancaster also excavated in April 1954, Kiva E at Far View House. This kiva, which had been missed by Fewkes in 1916, was discovered and partially excavated in 1934. Visitors were beginning to scratch in the unexecavated portion, so complete excavation was desirable. The kiva had been filled with trash during the latter part of the occupation of Far View House and the most important material recovered during excavation was several hundred turkey bones. The number and condition of the bones indicated definitely that turkeys were eaten by the Pueblo Indians of the Mesa Verde. [23]

13. Site 52

Dr. Ralph Luebben, seasonal ranger-archeologist, assisted, by other seasonal archeologists, excavated a small mesa-top ruin, Site 52, working in the evenings and on lieu days. This site was selected because it was a small pueblo which seemed to have a kiva. The ruin proved to be a baffling structure consisting of a number of very small, oddly-shaped rooms for which there was no sensible explanation. [24]

14. Sites 1030 and 1066

In 1956 a considerable amount of testing was necessary along the Prater Canyon section of the new tunnel approach road. While only one ruin was actually cut by the new road, the grading did cut into large areas of refuse below some talus sites. Test pits showed the trash to be as much as five feet deep in some places.

The steep slope between the Prater maintenance camp and the Knife Edge was searched for ruins, and when earth moving operations began the ruins of three houses (Site 1066) and a kiva (Site 1030) were found. Two of the houses were single-roomed structures of crude masonry, while the third had four rooms. All structures were Pueblo II period, the kiva having no masonry lining and a four post roof support. The various ruins were excavated, mapped, photographed and described, then destroyed to make way for the road. [25]

15. Site 981

During the summers of 1957 and 1958 an unusually situated pueblo ruin was excavated, on a site near the east rim of the mesa, about one quarter of a mile south of Cedar Tree - Tower (Site 397).

A small Pueblo III structure had been built into, rather than on, the sloping mesa-top. Distinctive architectural features included partial subterranean construction, bedrock incorporated as part of some of the floor walls, crude massive stone construction, and floor level doorways. An elaborate petroglyph on a building stone was found in the site fill. The ruin possessed neither a kiva depression nor a trash mound. [26]

16. Site 1060

In September 1959 a trench for a new pipeline on the southern part of the Mesa, near Site 16, disclosed the presence of a buried site. Salvage excavations were done by Lancaster and Alden C. Hays. A Basket Maker III pithouse was excavated. After mapping and photographing the completed excavation, the pithouse was lined with heavy cardboard and backfilled. [27]

17. Navajo Hill area

A site in the parking area location of the present Navajo Hill Visitor Center was salvaged in 1963. It was a one-room masonry structure with a probable second room consisting of jacal walls with heavy slab bases. Possibly this was a partially walled-in work area. The site was apparently a maintenance hut for the terraces in the drain below.

Site 5 in the concession development on Navajo Hill was partially salvaged also. There were three or four rooms, a couple of storage rooms, a kiva and a large, curving wall starting at the southeast corner of the pueblo, extending east for several feet, that appeared to have served as a windbreak for the plaza area. Pottery was predominantly Pueblo III. [28]

Twenty-two ruins were located in the above Navajo Hill-Upper Chapin Mesa, many of which lie within the concession and Visitor Center areas. Furthermore, the most complex prehistoric water catchment system yet defined in the San Juan Anasazi area is located here. This is the feeder system for the Mummy Lake Reservoir located in the Far View area. The system consists of five main and several lateral feeder ditches which were used to drain the broad upper reaches of Chapin Mesa south of Navajo Hill itself into a concentration basin at the constricted neck of the mesa north of Mummy Lake. Here the water was channeled into a broad intake ditch leading to the reservoir which, it was estimated, could have held over 660,000 gallons of water when full. The reservoir was constructed in such a manner that only when it was full would the surplus water overflow into still another ditch to convey it farther down the slope to the pueblos of the Cliff and Fewkes Canyons area, some five to six miles south of the concentration basin.

Although Richard Wetherill late in the 1880s, F. H. Chapin in 1890, G. Nordenskiold in 1891, and Fewkes during his excavations at Mesa Verde had seen remnants of reservoirs and ditches in the neighborhood of the large ruins, it was Superintendent Rickner who called attention to the broad intake ditch in 1914. In 1931-33 Lancaster rediscovered it when he was assistant director of the Alkali Ridge Expedition under the direction of Dr. John Otis Brew of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.

For Brew, the reservoir and ditches were evidences of the fact that dry "farming, ordinary flood-water farming, and irrigation were practised by the ancient Pueblo inhabitants of the San Juan." [29]

Site 1914, located on the southeast side of Navajo Hill, was excavated in 1964 as a salvage project by Lancaster and Decker with the ruins stabilization crew. The ruin had been noted in 1962 after completion of the preliminary survey for the new road location. This ruin contained sixteen rooms, one kiva, a large circular firepit within the kiva fill and a series of low retaining walls. Architecture and artifacts indicated a late Pueblo II-early Pueblo III, or McElmo Phase, and dated about A. D. 1050 and 1150. [30]

18. University of Colorado excavations

An archeological program was undertaken by the Department of Anthropology of the University of Colorado during the seasons of 1953-56, under the direction of Dr. Robert H. Lister. In four sessions of fieldwork three sites were excavated: 499, 875 and 866. The clearing and pick and shovel work was accomplished almost entirely by students. Archeologist Lancaster assisted throughout the excavations.

Site 499, excavated in 1953, was located in the Far View area, at the northern end of the mesa. The site contained 12 rooms, two kivas and a round tower; it yielded six burials, several thousand sherds and a large number of bone and stone artifacts. This pueblo belonged to the Pueblo II-III period. As the purpose of the excavation was to use the ruin as an interpretive exhibit, the park staff stabilized the ruin after excavation. [31]

In August 1954 the students from the University of Colorado returned to continue the excavation program. Under the direction of Lister they partially excavated Site 866 in the Far View Group. Surface evidence indicated a small Pueblo III structure consisting of a one or two-room house of double-coarsed masonry and a kiva. Upon excavation, it was found to consist of one very large room and a six-pilastered kiva. Under this ruin was found an earlier ruin consisting of 10 single-coarsed masonry rooms and two kivas. This site was backfilled after excavation. [32]

Site 875 was tested in 1954, and excavated in 1955 and 1956. It was also located in the Far View group of ruins. It originally consisted of ten surface rooms built in a double-rowed unit, and three subterranean kivas. During the excavation the stabilization crew worked with the excavators in order to save leaning walls and loose stones and at the conclusion of the dig, the ruin was completely stabilized, to be used as an exhibit. [33]

The work accomplished by the University of Colorado Field School more than met expectations and the research and interpretive programs received considerable benefits in making the Far View group an important interpretive area.

Two salvage projects were also undertaken by the university group in 1965.

Site 1088 is located in Morfield Canyon, near the newly established campground area. Its excavation was forced by the opening of the campground in 1965 and unauthorized digging by visitors in the trash mound of the area. Work at the site was initiated by Lancaster, working then as research archeologist of the University, with a crew of Navajo laborers. Later students supplemented the crew. At least seventeen surface rooms and two subterranean kivas were found in the site, which was occupied during late Pueblo II or early Pueblo 111 times. [34]

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Last Updated: 21-Aug-2004