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Throughout the area ancient ruins, petroglyphs, and potsherds are found which indicate that this fascinating but rather desolate Petrified Forest country was occupied by prehistoric Indians over a period of almost a thousand years. These peoples lived in Petrified Forest from before 500 A. D. until about 1400 A. D. These dates have been established by the finding of various types of pottery the time span of which is known from tree ring dates established in other parts of northern Arizona.


The earliest inhabitants lived in small scattered villages of circular pit house or slab house dwellings consisting of shallow excavations lined with stone slabs and covered with dome-shaped walls and roof of poles, brush, and earth. Later, numerous small settlements of rectangular masonry rooms were built, and in the last phase of occupation these small scattered villages were abandoned in favor of a few comparatively large towns such as the one to be seen just back of the Puerco River Ranger Station. The Puerco River Ruin consisted of some 125 small rectangular rooms arranged in a hollow square around a plaza. The pueblo was probably two-storied, and could have housed over 100 families. It is the only site in the monument occupied continuously from Basketmaker III (6th-7th century) to Pueblo IV times (14th century).

The prehistory of the Petrified Forest closely follows that of northern Arizona as a whole. Three features of Petrified Forest archeology, however, are of unusual interest. First, the relatively dense population by a farming people of an area now so desolate. The explanation is probably in the ability of these primitive people to utilize the small springs and seeps that emerged from the base of the mesas framing the area. Minor climatic changes may have caused some of these springs to dry up. The great drought of 1276-99 doubtless caused a sharp decrease in population, but the final abandonment of the area may have been the result of Apache raids.


The second interesting feature is the occurrence of an unusually extensive, well-preserved series of petroglyphs around the low, brown sandstone cliffs. These include many realistic and geometric designs cut into rock. The most striking of these, perhaps, is a very realistic picture of a heron eating a frog, popularly called the "stork." Others include phallic symbols, birds, antelope, snakes, footprints, and intricate patterns of dots and lines. The best examples and greatest variety are at Newspaper Rock, and others may be seen near Rainbow Forest. Petroglyphs can seldom be interpreted and usually have no story to tell. In many cases they may be the clan symbols of passers-by.

The third feature of interest is the evidence of the utilization of petrified wood for building material, tools, and weapons. Arrowheads, hammers, scrapers, and other objects fashioned from agate are often found, and near the Rainbow and Third Forests are several ruins of houses which were built of blocks of petrified wood. One of these, the Agate House, has been partially restored and is easily accessible via the Third Forest Trail.

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Last Updated: 14-Aug-2009