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Chapter IV:

The shelf of documented archeology at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and the surrounding area is short: in brief, excavation was primarily to salvage artifacts and was usually a byproduct of efforts to stabilize architecture at the cliff site. The reasons for the brevity and informality of archeological investigation are relatively complex, however, and stem in varying proportions from remote geography, the historical and theoretical evolution of archeology in the Southwest, and common as well as official perceptions about ruins on the headwaters of the Gila River.

Amateurs, Vandals, And Mummies

The first published record of a cultural site on the upper Gila is the brief hand-lettered notation "Cliff Dwellings" on an 1884 subdivision map of Township 12 South Range 14 West of the principal base and meridian in the territory of New Mexico. [1] This map also depicts within two miles of the prehistoric site five cabins up and down the West Fork of the Gila River and a road between the mouth of the unnamed canyon that contained the dwellings and the cultivated and irrigated land of a man named Rodgers, not far from the present Heart Bar headquarters. In view of these improvements, the surveyor was obviously not the first citizen to see the cliff dwellings.

In fact, Henry B. Ailman had already visited these ruins in 1878 during a very informal prospecting trip to the headwaters of the Gila. In his memoirs, written years after the visit and published only posthumously in 1983, his description of the prehistoric site documents an unfortunate but common American activity: he looked for relics. [2] In this case, Ailman found only small corncobs, although the following year he reported that other men found the swaddled desiccated body of an infant, which was brought out of the wilds, photographed, and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. There is no record, however, of those remains in Washington D.C. [3]

The record of amateur collecting at Gila Cliff Dwellings continues in the Black Range Tales, a memoir by James B. McKenna that was published in 1936. [4] He also was a prospector, and he had homesteaded on the Gila River above the Gila Hot Springs in 1884, the same year as the subdivision survey. By his recollection, he and friends found many artifacts at the dwellings: grooved hammers and axes of stone, finely crafted turquoise beads, and another infant mummy, wrapped in "cottonwood fiber," which also was reportedly sent to but never received by the Smithsonian. [5]

In the summer of 1885, Lieutenant G. H. Sands also paused to dig at Gila Cliff Dwellings as troops of the 4th and 6th cavalrys were maneuvering in the wake of an Apache raid that left 35 settlers dead along the tributaries of the upper Gila. Excerpted in El Palacio magazine in 1957, the account has an odd idyllic tone, at least in light of those then recent and dismal events, which were not mentioned in the account. [6] Nor is any mention made of the homestead cabins that were along the river, including an adobe house at the hot springs where Sands only reported seeing wickiups. Our own assessment of the soldier's excited discovery of cliff dwellings in a narrow canyon romantically hidden by vines and through which he carved his way with a knife must include the fact that this canyon lay at the end of a wagon road that began about a mile downstream at irrigated fields. Despite the assault of a mountain lion that knocked off his hat, Lieutenant Sands—and some companions—explored the ruins, and digging with their knives turned up arrowheads and pieces of pottery that were decorated "by a peculiar and uniform system of lines and lozenges."

A sketch that bears little congruity with the ruins and the other anomalies may reveal more about selective and romantic idiosyncracies of memory than about Gila Cliff Dwellings. The account also reflects the influence of popular archeological literature such as John Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan; the widely read magazine articles of Frank Cushing about his exotic and double life among the Zuni as an ethnologist for the Smithsonian Institution and as First War Chief of the tribe; [7] and the beautiful photographs taken by William H. Jackson of the mysteriously abandoned cities that he had discovered hidden in the cliffs of the American Southwest. Lieutenant Sands remembered an adventure, but the setting was probably drawn equally from the Gila River and from the library.

The Conquest of Peru by Walter Prescott had a more immediate and demonstrable effect on prehistoric remains along the Gila River, according to William French, a nineteenth-century rancher and memoirist. [8] He wrote of digging with a friend for golden pots and utensils in a cliff dwelling on the West Fork. [9] Having recently read Prescott's history of the Incas and of their treasure, French's companion presumed all ancient Indians to have had a surfeit of gold lying around, treasure likely to be discovered in cliff dwellings, as well. All the men found, however, were a few stone tools, painted bows, and corn that they were unable to smash with a rock.

"Those romantic historians had a lot to answer for," French concluded.

drawings of Gila Cliff Dwellings
These drawings of Gila Cliff Dwellings were based on contemporaneous visits by Adolph Bandelier and Lieutenant Sands in the mid-1880s. The pictures reveal how the biases of interest, training, and memory shape perception.

In 1892, the Chicago Tribune printed an article about a third child-mummy that had been recovered three years earlier near Gila Cliff Dwellings, this time by the Hill brothers, who were operating a small resort at the Gila Hot Springs and already bringing tourists to the nearby archeological sites. [10] This story, which was also printed in St. Louis and Tucson, included a detailed description of an apparently deformed four-year-old and an interesting conjecture: the child had been abandoned and had died of starvation. Implicit in this conjecture is the idea that the mummy had not been dug from the earth; after all, a burial can hardly be construed as an abandonment. If the dead child lay exposed and in plain sight, on the other hand, a question arises as to why it hadn't been discovered by the ransackings of earlier visitors. One possibility entails the cultural site LA 10048, a vandalized Apache burial, [11] where a short yucca stalk platform still lays beneath an overhang, 150 feet or so up the canyon wall opposite the cliff dwellings. If the Hill brothers recovered their mummy from the hidden but possibly unscavenged yucca platform, and the word burial is more loosely interpreted as funereal, the issues of construed abandonment and of visibility despite late discovery would become compatible.

Unfortunately, the location of these remains is also unknown. Like the other mummies, it was sent to the Smithsonian, where there is no record of it either. In this case, however, the dispatch of the remains is corroborated by a Silver City Enterprise account, which laments the fact that the newspaper was not able to acquire such an important relic for local edification, [12] and by Benjamin Elmer Pierce, the son of the Rev. R. E. Pierce who photographed the cadaver in 1892. [13] That none of the child-mummies dispatched to the Smithsonian arrived seems curious, and a brief inquiry into documentation reveals some additional parallels. While both Ailman's mummy and that of the Hill brothers were purportedly photographed, for example, the only photograph of a mummy in Ailman's scrapbook—presumably the one "which is in my reach as I write [the memoirs]"—is the one that Pierce made. [14] No photograph is known to exist for McKenna's despite its reported and presumably tempting display behind glass at Hinman's hardware store in Silver City. Furthermore, neither Ailman's mummy nor McKenna's has independent corroboration. According to the 1892 newspaper account, in fact, the Hill brothers' mummy is "the first one discovered which may reasonably be supposed to be one of the extinct race of cliff dwellers." The accounts of Ailman and McKenna were written years after their visits to the cliff dwellings, long after the well-reported discovery of a mummy. Is it possible that a good story was too much to resist including in a memoir and that only one child-mummy was ever discovered and sent and lost on its way to the Smithsonian?

The most sensationalized amateur find at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was the report in 1912 by Gila National Forest staff of a "fourth" child-burial that generated the article in Sunset magazine about an 8,000-year-old ancient race of dwarfs on the headwaters of the Gila River. "Zeke," as the magazine writer dubbed the mummy, was the first and only mummy to reach the Smithsonian, where it was described by Walter Hough as the body of an infant. [15]

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001