The Excavation and Repair of Betatakin
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Betatakin occupies a large cave in the north wall of an unnamed south fork of Laguna Canyon,1 which latter empties into Tyende Creek at Marsh Pass. (P1. 2.) About 15 miles northeast of the Pass is Kayenta,2 founded by Wetherill and Colville as a trading post late in 1909 and since grown into an oasis of peculiar charm—the home of several white families, chiefly associated with the local Navajo Indian hospital and its related activities.

1So named from the ponds that formerly marked its middle course. Gregory (1916, p. 48) says: "At the time the topographic map was made (1883) Laguna canyon held a number of lakes which have since disappeared in consequence of recent deep trenching of the alluvial fill."

Throughout the Kayenta district in 1908 and 1909, that which Gregory designates "Laguna Canyon" was widely known as the Segi; that which he names "Tyende Creek," running from Marsh Pass to the Rio San Juan, was commonly called Laguna creek. Pools were then present in the open valley south of Tyende Mesa; Segi Canyon was already deeply trenched, but its arroyo banks clearly showed the stratified deposits formerly laid down in placid ponds. Segi Canyon is the To-wan-aho-che Creek of the General Land Office map of 1887; the To-wan-on-Cheo creek of the presidential proclamation dated March 20, 1909, and hereinafter mentioned. "Tyende Creek" is obviously an erroneous recording of "Kayenta Creek."

2Individuals will naturally differ in attempting to record, with English characters, the pronunciation of Indian place names. For example, Kaenti is the spelling first used by Cummings (1910); Kayenta, that subsequently employed by the same writer, by other explorers and by Federal cartographers. Segi Canyon (Gregory, 1916) has been published both as Sagi (Cummings, 1910; Kidder and Guernsey, 1919, 1921) and Sagie (Cummings, 1915; Judd, 1918). Keet Seel (Gregory, 1916; presidential proclamation of March 14, 1912) has been printed Kitsii (Cummings, 1910), Kitsiel (Fewkes, 1911), and Kietsiel (Kidder, 1924). Because of these and other possible variants it seems not improbable that the orthography employed by Gregory (1916) in his comprehensive study of the Navajo country will be adopted by most observers henceforth reporting upon the divers interests of this fascinating region.

To archeologists an indefinitely bordered area surrounding this settlement is known as the "Kayenta district." Its rugged canyons were anciently inhabited by a semisedentary people whose evolving culture has been clearly portrayed by Kidder and Guernsey.3 Following the so-called Basket Makers, first known agriculturists of the Southwest, came three other equally. distinct stages of tribal and material development to culminate in those great, communal towns of the Pueblo III4 period—Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House.

31921; 1921a. See also Kidder and Guernsey, 1919; Kidder, 1924.

4A designation now accepted by most students of Pueblo archeology. See Kidder, 1927.

Throughout the centuries required for this perfectly obvious sequence of cultures and with a vigor that increased as each generation passed, established villages in the Kayenta district were recurrently attacked by more warlike, nomadic peoples. The identity of these wandering hunters remains undetermined but the fact of their former presence as disturbers of tranquil community life is evidenced here, as in other parts of the Pueblo area.

In describing the procession of prehistoric through the Kayenta district, Kidder5 writes: "* * * it seems the finds of their typical pottery at Pueblo Bonito and Cliff Palace that the proto-Kayenta villages were inhabited at the same time as the great dwellings of the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon; and that the late Kayenta sites were erected after the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon had been abandoned. Thus Kitsiel and Betatakin may well have been the last large communities that existed in the San Juan drainage." Cummings6 had previously drawn a similar inference; more recently, his and Kidder's deductions have been fully confirmed by the as yet unpublished explorations of the National Geographic Society at Pueblo Bonito, under direction of the present writer, and by the related "tree-ring" chronology now being erected by Dr. A. E. Douglass, of the University of Arizona.

51924, p. 73.

61915, p. 278.

But herein we are concerned solely with the excavation and repair of Betatakin. No comparison is to be drawn between it and other ruins of the Kayenta district or elsewhere; no effort will be made to determine the place occupied by Betatakin on the ladder of Pueblo history. The present paper serves merely to present certain observations resulting from our 1917 expedition, as an aid to that more intimate study of the village yet to be written.

Although Betatakin is now a familiar name to most students of Pueblo archeology, few are aware that it was first seen by whites on August 5, 1909, when a Utah University exploring party led by Prof. Byron Cummings and guided by John Wetherill was directed to it by a Navajo Indian, casually met in Segi Canyon. This Indian pointed the way and then sat down beside the trail to await the party's return. Through inherent fear of all things associated with the dead, he steadfastly refused to advance within sight of the ruin. The Kayenta district was wild and untamed at that time; canyons to the westward sheltered many young Indians who had yet to see their first white man, unbelievable though this may seem.7 Archeological explorers looked like prospectors; buttes in Monument Valley bore the names of men killed while seeking minerals on the reservation in open defiance of Navajo wishes. At Oljeto, Wetherill and Colville maintained the only trading post between Bluff and Tuba.

7In August, 1909, while guiding W. B. Douglass from Rainbow Bridge to Keet Seel and Betatakin, the present writer witnessed inauguration of a 3-day war ceremony, surreptitiously held near the head of Piute Canyon; a few days later, in Oljeto, he was informed by old Hoskinnini, revered chief of the northern Navajos, that the Douglass party were the first whites ever seen by several Indians, in their mid-twenties, attending that ceremony.

As student assistant to Doctor Cummings I participated in the brief, initial inspection of Betatakin, but I was not present in the autumn of 1909 when the professor, following explorations which resulted in his discovery of important cliff dwellings south of Navajo Mountain8 and that marvel of erosion, the Rainbow Natural Bridge,9 returned to resume, and conclude, his investigation of this remark able ruin.10

8Cummings, 1910.

9Cummings, 1910a; Judd, 1927.

10Few realize so fully as the present writer that only ceaseless pressure of academic responsibilities has so long, and so unfortunately, delayed publication of Doctor Cumming's archeological observations. As pioneer archeologist of the Kayenta district he has accumulated a fund of information eagerly awaited by his younger coworkers.

Government reservation of Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House came about in this wise: While at Bluff, Utah, in September, 1908, W. B. Douglass, examiner of surveys for the United States General Land Office, learned from Professor Cummings's guide, John Wetherill, and immediately reported to Washington, the existence of certain "fine prehistoric ruins about 90 miles west of Bluff." Douglass asked and received instructions to locate and examine these ruins. It is not to his discredit that he failed in this quest, even when aided by trail maps furnished by Mr. Wetherill and his partner, Clyde Colville. The information so gained enabled the surveyor to submit, March 8, 1909, the data on which was based the all-inclusive presidential proclamation dated 12 days later creating the Navajo National Monument. It was in mid August, 1909, and at Doctor Cummings's direction, that I accompanied Mr. Douglass from Rainbow Natural Bridge to Keet Seel and pointed out, as we passed it, the south fork in which Betatakin is located. As Douglass's earlier and somewhat presumptuous communications to Washington prompted the initial visit and preliminary report of Dr. J. W. Fewkes,11 so did Douglass's surveys of August-November, 1909, supply the awaited details incorporated in the second presidential proclamation of March 14, 1912, which superseded that of March 20, 1909, and reduced the monument to its present area.


Although he merely anticipated Professor Cummings in so doing, to W. B. Douglass is owing such honor as may be for having first apprised the General Land Office of the existence of important prehistoric ruins west of Bluff and for having urged their reservation and protection in the public interest. Likewise to Professor Cummings is due credit for having first recommended a Federal appropriation to insure repair and preservation of the major Segi Canyon ruins. Senator Reed Smoot, of Utah, had introduced such a bill in 1915; secured its passage during the next session of Congress. Under date of July 15, 1916, Special Agent W. J. Lewis reported to the General Land Office highly approving the investigations of Doctor Cummings and earnestly recommending that he be placed in charge of the reconstruction contemplated within the new monument. This recommendation would have been followed gladly since Professor Cummings, the first archeologist to examine the prehistoric villages in question, was logically the one to restore them. But the law required that Federal funds be disbursed only by a Federal employee. Thus it came about that the present writer, a member of the Smithsonian staff, was assigned the task of carrying out the provisions of the act of May 18, 1916.

It was westward bound that I determined to restrict my efforts to Betatakin. Based on personal knowledge of the Kayenta district, this decision seemed wise for three reasons, previously mentioned:12 (1) More than one ruin could not be excavated and restored in the time available, from the sum appropriated; (2) Betatakin was, perhaps, in greatest need of repair; (3) the site was more accessible than the others and furnished abundant water for camp purposes.

12Judd, 1918.

When our animals were unpacked at Betatakin on the afternoon of March 27, 1917, we first cleared away the snow and improvised sleeping quarters under the scrub oaks that border a little flat near the gurgling stream. Firewood was close at hand, but our thin, cotton tents afforded scant protection from the wintry blasts that played almost incessantly up or down the canyon. During the weeks which followed we frequently retired to the old dwellings in the cliff there to seek shelter from the storms.

Our work began with a cursory examination of the talus immediately below the village. Neither house remains nor burials were disclosed there; stratified deposits from which length of occupancy and local changes in the technique of pottery manufacture might be gauged were utterly lacking. The inhabitants of Betatakin amassed no single trash pile—the delight of dirt archeologists—but utilized their household débris in widening the rock terraces of the cave, thus to increase its habitable space.

During the centuries which followed abandonment of the pueblo, walls had collapsed; tons of wind-blown sand had lodged in the empty rooms and the courts between. In such accumulations watered by seepage, long banks of columbine and intertwining box elders and scrub oaks had taken root. Huge blocks of sandstone had broken from the cave roof to crush the eastern house group. Most of the ancient dwellings had been previously excavated and refilled to protect the fractured masonry. All this vast quantity of sand, rock, and overturned rubbish must necessarily be cleared away before our principal task could properly begin.

This task, let me repeat, was solely one of repair and preservation. Betatakin had been thoroughly explored by Professor Cummings in 1909; its story, in so far as this could be read from the remains, had been patiently recorded. Ours was the work of mending broken and insecure walls; of patching roofs; of providing ladders to facilitate access by those less agile than primitive folk. In the period between 1909 and 1917 the Kayenta district had become a veritable magnet attracting, in ever increasing numbers, persons who value solitude and weird desert beauty.

While fulfilling our mission at Betatakin we sought also to preserve the prehistoric atmosphere of the place; to so disguise our own handiwork that it would be unobtrusive thereafter. During our clearing operations we noticed that some of the old mud mortar had outlasted the friable sandstone it bound together. After brief experiment we were able to duplicate this mortar with a half-and-half mixture of clean sand and the compact, red clay that occurs in relatively thin layers beneath the massive Jurassic sandstone of the cliffs. Stones and timbers from shattered dwellings were salvaged and reused. In repairing or reconstructing house walls we took pains to eliminate the marks of our tools; at the same time, we deliberately broke joints in our stonework, a precaution with which the ancient masons did not concern themselves. This slight difference in method will, in most instances, serve to identify the walls we built. While nearly every room received some measure of attention, the notes which follow will guide future students to our major repairs.

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Last Updated: 26-Jun-2008