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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.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001