Many Questions, A Few Clues, Emerging Answers
THE GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS NATIONAL MONUMENT:
ARCHEOLOGICAL GEM OF SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in the center of the Gila Wilderness at the end of NM 15, 45 miles north of Silver City. The site is open year-round, and this year is celebrating its 108th year as a U.S. National Monument. Within the 533 acres of the Monument are 45 archeological sites spanning over 2,000 years of Prehistoric American cultural history. Two of these sites—the Gila Cliff Dwellings (open to the public) and the nearby large and mostly un-excavated TJ Ruin (occasionally open to the public)—establish the Monument’s recognition as the premier archaeological site open to the public in Southern New Mexico.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings are hidden within six south-facing shallow alcoves or caves located about 200 feet up on the northwest side of Cliff Dweller Canyon, about a quarter-mile above the canyon’s confluence with the West Fork of the Gila River. The Dwellings, while relatively small in extent and size, are well preserved and similar to the numerous Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings found throughout the Four Corners Area of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. The Dwellings, built and occupied in the late 1200s, consist of some 40 rooms of various sizes and are constructed of small flat stones set in adobe mud mortar. The alcoves or caves in which the Dwellings are constructed were formed several million years ago by stream action within Cliff Dweller Canyon as it cut downward into the Gila Conglomerate Formation.
FROM DISCOVERY TO U.S. NATIONAL MONUMENT
By 1878, mining was booming throughout the Silver City area, and the local Wild West was now, with much boot dragging, in the process of being tamed. In a strategic move to avoid jury duty, mining entrepreneur Henry Ailman and four other potential jurors left the mining community of Georgetown near Silver City and headed north for the headwaters of the Gila River on what they purported to be a “prospecting trip”. Upon their return, they reported that they had discovered some stone ruins in caves, the first recorded visit to what later was to become known as the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Six years later, in 1884, the site was visited by Adolph Bandelier, one of the earliest anthropologists to work in the Southwest. Bandelier wrote extensively about the Gila Cliff Dwellings, as well as about numerous other cultural sites in the area, including the first description of what is now called the TJ Ruin, a large 200-room village site located at the top of a mesa on the north side of the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River near the present-day Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitors Center. Looting of artifacts at the Cliff Dwellings was prevalent even in the early days of the Cliff Dwellings, as reported by Bandelier, who described the damage already done to the site at the time of his visit by relic-hunters and vandals. These vandals, according to U.S. Government literature, had burned the roofs of the buildings, torn down walls, and carried out extensive excavations in their search for pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts.
For the next 23 years various accounts remain of occasional visits to the Cliff Dwellings by professional archaeologists, soldiers on patrol or mapping expeditions, curious prospectors, cowhands, and the general public. As might be expected, and as was certainly the case throughout the cultural sites in the Southwest, most of these non-professionals took the opportunity to do a little digging on their own for pots and other artifacts, thereby doing incalculable damage to the potential archaeological knowledge that could have been obtained from this unique site.
By 1907 widespread concern over the ongoing destruction of cultural sites in the Southwest had reached sufficient levels that on November 16 of that year the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established through Presidential Proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt and was placed under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. In 1933, administration of the Cliff Dwellings was transferred to the National Park Service. In 1962, following years of additional archeological research, discoveries, and surveys in the area, 373 acres were added to the Cliff Dwellings National Monument, including 53 acres around the huge TJ Ruin. Eventually, in 1975, a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service was signed, assigning administration management of the Monument to the Gila National Forest. As a result of more recent archaeological surveys and studies in the area, it is now known that the 533 acres of the Gila Cliff Dwellings Monument contain 45 archaeological sites of various types.
THE GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS
A SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS OF DATA RESULTING FROM ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS OF THE GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS AND WHAT THEY SUGGEST ABOUT ITS HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT
Primarily from Anderson et.al., 1986 1 and Bradford, 1992 2
- Field study of the Gila Cliff Dwellings and analysis of the artifacts found in them show two periods of use: a pre-500 AD Archaic/Cochise Culture use as a cave shelter and a much later habitation in the Tularosa Phase of the Mogollon Pueblo Culture (1125–1300 AD).
- Tree ring analysis of logs, specifically the date that they were cut for use in the roofs of the Dwellings, gives dates ranging from 1276 to 1287 AD. The results of this research suggest the Dwellings were constructed in a relatively short time, perhaps in as little as 11 years.
- Pottery recovered from the Dwellings is almost all Tularosa Phase, and nearly identical to the Tularosa Phase collections reported from the Reserve, NM, area, which date from 1100–1300 AD. This corroborates the tree ring data and suggests limited contact with other areas. Tularosa and Tularosa/Reserve Phase pottery are by far the dominant pottery types recovered in the various archaeological excavations at the Dwellings, suggesting limited contact with other areas. A small amount of Classic Mimbres Phase pottery was also found within the Dwellings, however.
- Of special note in the Bradford report is the statement that surveys of sites other than the Cliff Dwellings within the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument land and adjacent areas of the Gila National Forest showed little or no evidence for Tularosa Phase occupation of the area.
- The duration of occupation of the Cliff Dwellings beyond 1287 is unknown. Evidence of a relatively short duration is suggested by the lack of post-construction modification. There are unfinished floors and no layered, multi-level floors. In addition, there is almost a total lack of room remodeling.
- Hearths used for cooking and other purposes found in various rooms of the Dwellings number 8 to 10. Based on an assumed number of 4 to 5 people per household, Anderson et.al. suggest a total population at the Gila Cliff Dwellings of between 40 and 60 people who “had abandoned small pueblo settlements to take advantage of the sheltered dry cave near a year-round spring”. On the basis of this and other data, their 1986 report also suggests that “the cliff dwellings housed a relatively isolated settlement, during a time of harsh climatic straits—the well-known ‘Great Drought’ of 1276-1299—when cliff dwellings in other parts of the Southwest, notably the Anasazi area (i.e. Chaco Canyon Culture), offered a haven to refugees in similar circumstances”.
- In a related part of their project, Anderson, et. al. conducted a study on the ratio of storage space to living room space within the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The study yielded a ratio of 1:1.9, which was essentially the same as the calculated storage space to living room space ratios from several other known Tularosa Phase pueblo sites existing about 50 miles to the northwest. On the basis of this similarity, Anderson et. al. suggested that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were “a regular village with all rooms and space necessary to sleep in privacy, work comfortably, store food, and hold communal gatherings and rituals.” Further analysis of various room use and the determined sequential occupation of the various rooms led the researchers to further suggest that “the cliff dwellings were taken over by a whole community at once, rather than a move by one family after another”; and further, “supports the inference that the Gila Cliff Dwellings was intended at the outset as a settlement relocation and did not begin as a ceremonial location to which dwellings were appended”.
- Horticulture and farming of domesticated plants were of great importance to the Cliff Dwellers. This is based on the great diversity and sheer volume of plant remains left behind, which include several varieties of maize (corn), three types of squash, and several types of common beans and tepary beans. The great volume of corn cobs left behind was so impressive that it often received special mention in many of the early studies and reports.
- Artifacts other than pottery collected over years from the Gila Cliff Dwellings have yielded data typical of similar collections from other sites within the area of the same time period and portray all aspects of village life in the late 1200s. Notable anomalies in the artifact collections from the Gila Cliff Dwelling are the following:
Marine shell artifacts: An exceptionally large diversity of marine shell material, used primarily as ornaments, such as beads, pendants, tinklers (bells), and bracelets, was found. These ornaments represented 11 species, 10 genera, and 1 family, almost all of which represent marine species. Taken as a whole, the shell artifacts exhibited a much greater faunal diversity than from similarly aged archaeological sites in the surrounding area.
Marine shell material, used primarily as body ornaments, i.e. jewelry, is found in prehistoric archeological sites throughout the Southwest, indicating long-term and widespread use as a trade item. The three possible original source areas for this marine shell material are the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, and the Pacific Ocean. Archeological studies of the Casas Grandes (Paquime) Ruins in Chihuahua, Mexico, have shown that this very large prehistoric city (1130-1450 AD) was a major manufacturer and distributor of these types of shell ornaments.
Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) feathers: A total of 28 Scarlet Macaw feathers are reported from the Gila Cliff Dwellings and have been interpreted primarily as socioreligious objects. In discussing the provenance of the Scarlet Macaw feathers, Anderson et.al. state “the obvious source is Casas Grandes (called Paquime in early Spanish reports), by far the largest center of macaw aviculture in the Greater Southwest, located less than 200 miles to the south”. In addition to the feathers, a single Scarlet Macaw cranium and mandible was found in one of the rooms, indicating the presence of at least one live macaw.
THE TJ RUIN
The largely un-excavated TJ Ruin is located 1.5 miles east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings at the edge of a 100-foot-high bluff of Gila Conglomerate overlooking the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River. A thick stand of saltbush and native grasses covers the mesa top, obscuring the low mounds of the adobe and stone ruins. The limited research that has been done on this large pueblo complex site indicates that there are some 227 rooms in 5 separate apartment-like room blocks, 3 Great Kivas, 4 communal pit structures, and a partially enclosed plaza.
A SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS OF DATA RESULTING FROM ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS OF THE TJ RUIN AND WHAT THEY SUGGEST ABOUT ITS HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT
Summary primarily from McKenna and Bradford, 1989 3
- Large scale formal archaeological excavations have not been done at the TJ Ruin. All data, synthesis, and conclusions to date are based on surface sampling of ceramic and lithic (stone) materials and mapping of the exposed adobe and masonry structures done during the 1986 field season by archaeologists Peter McKenna and James Bradford of the National Park Service.
- Ceramic evidence indicates 900 years of occupation at the TJ Ruin from 500–1400 AD, and that the “majority of the visible site is probably Late Mangus Phase through Classic Mimbres Phase (900-1150 AD).” Towards the end of the Mimbres Phase (1000–1150 AD) there is a suggested increase in Reserve/Tularosa Phases ceramics (1000-1300 AD), followed by a possible minor occupation during the Animas/Salado Phases of the Salado Culture (1150–1450 AD). For reference, in terms of regional archaeology, the type locality for Reserve/Tularosa cultural sites is found in an area lying about 50 miles north of the TJ Ruin and the Gila Cliff Dwellings, while the Animas/Salado Phase type localities lie well to the southwest of the TJ Ruin, suggesting a small in-migration up the Gila River.
- In their summary regarding the TJ Ruin, McKenna and Bradford conclude that “the Reserve/Tularosa Phase may have seen an initial period during the late 12th century,(and) perhaps a short, late 13th century occupation like that at the Gila Cliff Dwellings”.
- Data from the 1986 mapping and surface collections show that the architectural style and village layout demonstrate features that are more typical of northern Mogollon cultural sites, such as presence of circular-shaped ceremonial Great Kivas and a walled plaza. Of particular archaeological interest is the largest room block, Room Block 1. Room Block 1 measures 60m x 40m, or 2400 sq.m., and is thought to contain 120 rooms. This room block rises 2 meters above the surrounding ground level, leading McKenna and Bradford to suggest that Room Block 1 “may be two stories in places”.
INTERPRETING THE GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS
A visit to the 700-year-old time capsule of the Gila Cliff Dwellings can be an incredible experience for anyone having an interest in America’s Prehistoric past. Today, unlike many of the larger cliff dwelling cultural sites in the four corners area, where the structures can only be viewed at a distance, the Gila Cliff Dwellings still permit an up-close and personal experience, where the visitor is allowed to walk through the different caves at one’s own pace and peer into the various rooms, nooks and crannies or take guided tours at various times during the day. In addition to the guided tours, Park Rangers are generally present within the Dwellings to point out various aspects of the structures and to answer questions.
While much is known about the physical structures and age of the Cliff Dwellings, many questions still remain about the Cliff Dwellers themselves. Much potential information about the Cliff Dwellers was irreplaceably lost by vandalism and looting of artifacts before 1907, when the Cliff Dwellings were at last set aside and protected as a National Monument. Also, many of the early archaeological investigations did not utilize today’s standards for formal excavation and artifact collection, and thus much potential information was either never recognized or was subsequently lost. At this point in time, however, very little of the Gila Cliff Dwellings remains un-excavated, so not much additional information is likely to be forthcoming from the site itself. Thus, numerous intriguing questions remain, questions which perhaps can only be answered from research dealing with the broader regional context of events that were taking place at the time of the occupation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Fortunately, the large 200-room TJ Ruin, located only 1.5 miles from the Gila Cliff Dwellings, remains essentially untouched and un-excavated, except for minor digging by early pot hunters in just a couple of the rooms. Undoubtedly the TJ Ruin will contain much important information that would be useful in the interpretation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings when it is finally excavated.
Most archaeologists who have seen the site have extolled the great value of the TJ Ruin, but not simply because of its possible connection to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Rather, the greater perceived value of the TJ Ruin is that 1) it is the last large un-excavated and un-bulldozed Mogollon Culture, Mimbres Pueblo site that remains in an essentially pristine state, and 2) perhaps even more importantly, because of the indicated 900 years of continuous occupation from 500-1400 AD.
THE GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS AND TJ RUIN IN THE CONTEXT OF THE “COLLAPSE” OF THE ANCESTRAL PUEBLO AND MOGOLLON CULTURES
The last part of the 150 year time period, between 1150 and 1300, has long been considered a time period critical to the understanding of two of the greatest mysteries in the archaeology of the Southwest. These mysteries, sometimes referred to as The Great Collapse or The Great Abandonment, concern the time period when two of the three largest and most evolved Southwestern Native American Cultures, the Mogollon and the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), experienced major change and societal upheaval. This upheaval was both widespread, long-term, and chronic throughout their domains, ultimately resulting in the eventual collapse of these two advanced cultures’ social structure, and the subsequent abandonment of their large villages and cities. The cause or causes of this collapse and abandonment has been the subject of strong and often vitriolic ongoing debate for decades. It is in this context that the TJ Ruin is thought to offer critical data new information useful in solving this debate.
THE GILA CLIFF DWELLERS: REMAINING QUESTIONS, EXISTING CLUES, AND SOME SPECULATION
During and following a visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, most visitors are likely to be left with a lot of Who, Why, and Where questions. The Cliff Dwellings most certainly are impressive and obviously were not a simple undertaking to construct. Below is a short list of what could be considered key questions, with a brief summary of answers based on existing data, some clues that might lead to answers from further research, and some speculation about what further research might show.
Who were these Cliff Dwellers anyway and what were they like?
Archaeological data suggests that the Cliff Dwellings were constructed for 8 to 10 families that moved in as a group, probably at the same time, and built the Dwellings within an 11 year time frame, between 1276 and 1287, based on tree ring data. The Dwellings were well built and designed for all aspects of comfortable, year-round residential village living. The Dwellers seem to have eaten well on a diverse diet of local game and wild plants, but also enjoyed a locally grown abundance of domesticated vegetables, such as maize, beans, and squash. They had children while they were there, as evidenced by several burials of infants that died; but only one adult burial, a young woman, has been found. An interesting clue to this question is that they possessed status objects of imported wealth for that time period, as indicated by the recovered artifacts of abundant and diverse types of shell jewelry, macaw feathers, and the skull of at least one live macaw.
Where did they come from?
Based on the abundance and dominance of ceramic artifacts of Tularosa Phase pottery, it is highly likely that they came most recently from an area 50 miles to the north, perhaps somewhere in the area of today’s communities of Aragon and Reserve, which is the type locality for Tularosa Pottery. One clue that their heritage might have connections somewhere in the past from areas further to the north lies in the architectural feature of at least one, and possibly more, T-shaped entrance doors in the exterior walls of the Dwellings. Archaeological research suggests that the T-shaped door is an architectural indicator of an Ancestral Pueblo Chaco Culture connection or affiliation. (This possibility will be discussed further in Part 2 of this blog, in September.)
Why did they come, and why did they choose to stay in dark, cold caves as opposed to the large TJ Ruin?
It is quite possible that definitive answers to this question may emerge with the eventual excavation of the TJ Ruin, which lies only 1.5 miles to the northeast from the Cliff Dwellings. Until that time a possible clue lies in the fact that only minor amounts of Late Tularosa Phase pottery have thus far been recovered from the TJ Ruin, suggesting that the site was not heavily occupied during the late 13th Century. Present data suggests that the TJ Ruin reached its peak in Late Mangas to Classic Mimbres time (900-1150 AD). If excavations prove this initial data correct, then the question becomes even more interesting, in that why had the large and previously long-term prosperous TJ site apparently been abandoned during the Tularosa Phase (1100-1300 AD)? One speculative answer to the question is that it may be related to the regional issues of collapse and abandonment that both the Mogollon and Ancestral Pueblo were facing at the time.
One of the reasons that has been given for the Great Abandonment is a changing climate in the form of persistent drought. One clue that drought might not have been a major factor at the TJ Ruin is the fact that during their stay at the Cliff Dwellings the Dwellers ate well on an apparent abundance of domestic crops as stated above. Those crops were certainly not grown in narrow Cliff Dweller Canyon but rather along the Gila River, possibly in the vicinity of the agricultural fields of the TJ Ruin, near the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila.
Also, if the TJ Ruin was largely abandoned when the Cliff Dwellers arrived, why didn’t the Cliff Dwellers stay there, where abandoned dwellings might have been available and where they would be close to fields for growing crops. So, if the answer was not to shelter from a deteriorating climate, and there was not a problem of living space at the TJ Ruin, why did they choose to live in the dark, cold caves?
In the past 15 years there has been a persistent highly, and often times hotly, debated line of research that indicates that the time period of 1150 to 1300 was marked with significant societal collapse and warfare in the Ancestral Pueblo/Mogollon world. The evidence is in the form of retreat of villages to more defendable sites such as cliff dwellings and craggy mesa tops, plus the discovery of large scale massacres, mutilation of bodies, and even cannibalism at various sites throughout the Southwest. This evidence will be presented in greater detail in Part 2. Review of this evidence, however, can certainly lead one to the plausible speculation that the Cliff Dwellers lived in their caves for reasons of safety. Apparently bad things were happening in the Ancestral Pueblo/Mogollon world, and as a result large groups of people were migrating away from the troubles to safer places. Were the Gila Cliff Dwellings such a place, if only a temporary one, in their migration away from these 13th Century “Troubles Up North”?
Were there people living in at the TJ Ruin site at the time, and if so what was their relationship with the Cliff Dwellers?
Definitive answers to this question, of course, only become possible with the complete excavation of the TJ Ruin. Even then, it may well be that the necessary data is not there. In the meantime, such questions do make for interesting speculation. Here are a few. Take your pick, or develop your own!
- It could well turn out that with future excavation of the TJ Ruin, evidence would show that there were lots of people still living there at the time of the occupation of the Cliff Dwellings and that the Cliff Dweller immigrants were either turned away for some reason (the “no room at the inn scenario”) or that the Cliff Dwellers didn’t choose to live with the TJ people (the “didn’t like the neighborhood scenario”).
- Much archaeological evidence is now emerging concerning the magnitude, timing, and routes of the extensive human migrations taking place between 1150 and 1300. Could it be that the Cliff Dwellings, built for 8 to 10 families, were simply constructed by the residents of TJ Ruin as essentially a prehistoric guesthouse or Inn to accommodate the waves of traveling migrants that were passing through?
- Or, looking again at the social collapse that was taking place up north, could it be that the Cliff Dwellers were actually living at the TJ Ruins on a part-time or full-time basis while at the same time building the Cliff Dwellings as a possible defensible retreat out of fear that the Troubles Up North might follow them south to the Gila.
- And the speculations go on and on …
Why did they stay such a short time (as suggested by lack of adult burials, lack of trash, lack of building modifications and additions), and why did they leave?
As stated earlier, there is no evidence of occupation of the Cliff Dwellings beyond 1287, and the possibility of further evidence being found at the Cliff Dwellings is not likely. Again, what is known is that during this time period large scale migration of Ancestral Pueble and Mogollon Culture people was taking place, whether because of chronic climatic adversity or because of social upheaval or some combination. In Part 2 these factors will be considered further. Suffice it to speculate here that whatever caused the Cliff Dwellers to migrate south from the Aragon/Reserve area in the first place might have still been in existance, forcing them onward in their journey of migration.
Where did they go?
In the early days of Southwestern archaeology, the question of where the Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) Culture of the Chaco Canyon area and later the local Mimbres Phase of the Mogollon Culture went when they abandoned their homeland was typically considered an unsolvable mystery, where the standard answer given was basically “they just disappeared”. Recent research in the past two decades, however, has yielded important and far reaching answers to this question, some of which will be discussed in Part 2. Basically, the broad answer that seems to be emerging is that all of these people didn’t leave their homeland, only some of them did, migrating in various directions, while others stayed behind and evolved into new cultures.
- The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, Keith Anderson, Gloria J. Fenner, Don P. Morris, George A. Teague, Charmion MccKusick, 1986, Western Archeological and Conservation Center Nation Park Service U.S dept of Interior Publication in Anthropology No. 36
- Archeological Survey Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, James Bradford, 1992, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 47
- The TJ Ruin Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monumnent, Peter J. McKenna and James E. Bradford, 1989, Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No. 21