Administrative History
NPS Logo

Chapter V:


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.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001