Prehistory of El Rito de los Frijoles, Bandelier National Monument


The Pajarito Plateau is interesting for it remains one of the most fertile areas for archaeological study in the southwestern United States. In this area are hundreds of deserted Indian village sites constructed of small blocks of soft volcanic ash: some large communal villages and others small family houses.

The Pajarito Plateau was built up by successive periods of volcanic activity. Tremendous deposits of basaltic lava and of volcanic ash (tuff) were formed during the Pliocene and Pleistocene periods.2 Deep canyons have been cut through these formations by streams and running arroyos, the sides of whose canyons are sheer cliffs several hundred feet high. As erosion continued, as portions of cliffs fell, and as the soil washed from the mesa tops, talus slopes were built up forming steep declivities at cliff bases. It was here the talus dwellers of New Mexico hollowed out their homes in the soft rock, and built terraced houses in front of the caves for great distances along the bases of the cliffs, years before the first Spanish expedition to the New World.

2. Bryan, Kirk, 1988, p. 204.

The region was such that game was abundant, and mesa tops and valleys were covered with pines and thick growths of juniper, pinyon and oak. Wild plants afforded sources of food, basket materials, and primitive medicines. Soil was suitable for raising of corn, pumpkins, and beans. Various clay deposits facilitated pottery making. And cotton, not common to the region, was traded in from pueblos farther south.

FIG. 2. GROUND PLAN OF FRIJOLES CANYON. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Within this region is Bandelier National Monument, which comprises 26,026.20 acres, set aside in 1916 by the National Park Service and named in memory of Adolphe Francis Alphonse Bandelier, the famous Swiss ethnologist who so highly prized the beautiful canyon of El Rito de Los Frijoles, today an integral part of the monument. Bandelier lived here in the Canyon, sporadically, in some of the cave dwellings for several years in the 1880's. Here and in adjacent areas he carried on research work which resulted in several volumes, the most popular one being "The Delight Makers", an ethnological and archaeological study written in the guise of fiction in order to hold the interest of the reading public.

No organized archaeological work was done until 1908, when under the direction of Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett the School of American Archaeology began excavation in some of the cliff and valley ruins of El Rito de Los Frijoles.

FIG. 3. NORTHERN WALL OF RITO DE LOS FRIJOLES. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Some repair, cleanup and survey work was done by the National Park Service in 1934 under the C.W.A. program and various workers in the field have added bits of information concerning the Canyon and adjacent districts.

The writer has been more or less familiar with the area since 1935, and since that time has made a continued study of the ruined sites in the Rito and surrounding country. In 1937 a ruins stabilization program under the auspices of the National Park Service using CCC labor and funds was begun to preserve some of the previously excavated and restored sites which had for years been subjected to the destruction of the elements. During the course of this work it was found necessary to carry on some incidental excavation and research in connection with the stabilization. Considerable archaeological information previously unknown was thereby brought out.

FIG. 4. TO EAST FROM GREAT SPUR. Courtesy Museum of New Mexico.

A repair job was done on a reconstructed group of talus houses belonging to the "Sun House" group.3 No specific archaeological information was gained so no further report is deemed necessary.

3. Hendron, J. W., 1937a, pp. 478-485.

Our accomplishments were somewhat limited because of lack of time, but finds which were made create the necessity for this group of reports. Methods of construction of the ancient dwellings will be discussed, along with an analysis of the pottery which helps to clear up the long-disputed question of the time of occupation of this area.

In the spring of 1939 the National Park Service again with CCC cooperation resumed repair work on the ruins with special attention given to the house sites along the talus slope commonly known as the Long House. This was done under the direction of Mr. Robert Lister. An analysis of the considerable amount of pottery found at Long House will be given in this series of reports, with kind consent of Mr. Lister, and an attempt made to correlate types with the balance of material previously found in the canyon.

FIG. 5. CLIFF HOUSE ON FLAT, FRIJOLES CANYON. Courtesy Museum of New Mexico.

For assistance in the preparation of these reports I am greatly indebted to Dr. H. P. Mera, Mr. Kenneth M. Chapman, Mr. W. S. Stallings, jr., and Mr. Stanley Stubbs of the Laboratory of Anthropology; to Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, director of the School of American Research; to Mrs. Margaret Tichy, curator of Southwestern Archaeology at the Museum of New Mexico; and to Mr. Erik K. Reed, region archaeologist, National Park Service, Region III, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

During the ruins repair program at Bandelier National Monument a great deal of practical assistance, for which I am very grateful, was given by Mr. H. B. Chase, superintendent of the Bandelier CCC camp. Appreciation is also due to Custodian C. A. Thomas of Bandelier National Monument for allowing me to use the collection of pottery types from Long House; to Mr. Robert Lister for his assistance in that part of the analysis; to Mr. Volney Jones of the University of Michigan who identified plant material; to the Historic American Buildings Survey, Public Works Administration Program directed by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, for permission to use the originals of their excellent sheets; and to the late Superintendent Frank Pinkley and his staff, under whose general direction the work was done.

4. ED. NOTE: Southwestern Monuments Association policy provides for reading of all manuscripts by members of the Advisory Council concerned. Due to desirability of publication of this report for distribution during summer months of the Bandelier Centennial and Coronado Cuarto Centennial year this usual step was necessarily omitted.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2007
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