Prehistory of El Rito de los Frijoles, Bandelier National Monument


About three quarters of a mile up the canyon from the large kiva, and at the upper end of the cliff and talus dwellings, in the north cliff 150 feet above the canyon floor, is situated the great "Ceremonial Cave", more than 80 feet from northwest to southeast.

FIG. 24. THE CEREMONIAL CAVE. Courtesy Museum of New Mexico

The original entrance has entirely disappeared with the natural erosion of the soft cliff, as have the rooms built against the back wall. (See Ceremonial Cave Section B). Fragmentary portions of the hard plastered floor remain, showing that 20 or more rooms were present during its occupancy: 17 first-story, several second-story, and three cave rooms.44 The second story rooms had as a roof the natural ceiling of the front part of the cave, which sloped to the back so abruptly that most of the back rooms were of only one story. Patches of mud mortar can still be noticed adhering to the rough ceiling where the stone walls met the top. The mud gave a clear outline of the walls, and the size of the rooms could be fairly accurately determined by the remains of the soot clinging between the wall outlines.

44. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909a, pp. 666-667. See Mr. Chapman's plan and reconstruction drawing, loc. cit., showing 13 first story rooms, seven second story, and three cave rooms.

To the front of the cave is a small kiva45 which was reconstructed in 1910 by Mr. Jesse L. Nusbaum, now senior archaeologist, National Park Service, who was a member at the time of the staff of the School of American Archaeology.46

45. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909a, p. 660.
46. ______ Organic Acts and Administrative Reports, p. 93.


By 1937, when the National Park Service launched its stabilization program, the kiva had disintegrated badly and was somewhat dangerous for individuals walking on its roof. A plan for its reconstruction, which appeared in a previous report,47 was immediately worked out (Fig. 25).

47. Hendron, J. W., 1938, pp. 70-74.

The kiva varied in diameter, at the floor, from a little more than 12 feet one inch to a little less than 13 feet. At the top of the walls the diameter was slightly greater.48 The floor of the structure was made of hard blackened plaster,49 which extended up the walls like a dado for more than a foot around the entire circumference with the exception of a small portion in the southwest which had fallen. In the center of the floor the plaster had been kicked up, probably because of the position of the ladder through the hatchway in the roof permitted the scraping of feet. (See Ceremonial Cave Plan A).

48. Note the flaring of walls, carried out here as in the large kiva described in the preceding paper of this group.

49. Mr. Kenneth Chapman informed me that hard blackened plaster was used by the Cochitenos and Santo Domingo Indians a few years ago. Blood was saved from a slaughter and mixed with water. The liquid was mixed with a fine clay and soot from the fireplaces. The floors were previously plastered and worked down so that there were no cracks and then a thin coat of the blood mix was mopped over. When almost dry it was polished with a smooth hand stone. Evidently this type of floor was not too satisfactory, Mr. Chapman remembers that the Indians took great care to observe the shoes of visitors to see whether or not they wore hob-nail boots or the like. One gallon of the mix covered approximately 500 square feet of floor.

The ventilator shaft in the southwest portion of the wall was a little more than one and one-half feet wide, and one foot, eight and one-half inches high from the floor to the lintel (Fig. 26). From the inside of the kiva wall to the back of the vertical shaft it measured one foot, three and one-half inches. The floor had no rise from the front to the back as did the big kiva. Probably because of the limited space for building in the front of the cave, there was hardly any horizontal tunnel at all, its length being no more than the width of the stone lintel, which was nine inches. The vertical shaft, which was badly disintegrated, began at that point, and extended three feet above the ground level on the outside. I hesitate to estimate its original height but presume that it extended uupward at least as far as the roof of the kiva.50

50. The lower the mouth of the vent, the more downward draft created, as in the principle applied to a house chimney. If the chimney is high and above all obstructions, then a better upward pull is created. During a kiva reconstruction at Pecos the writer found that when the opening of the vent was high above the kiva roof the down draft was increased. When the hatchway was covered smoke emerged from the vent like a chimney and would not reverse when the cover was removed. Apparently there was no standard procedure in vent construction. Some are larger than others and take on various proportions and forms. It appears likely that no vent would be entirely satisfactory on a windy day. The principle involved is that the cold air in the bottom of the kiva rises as it is warmed and passes out through the hatchway. The warm air is replaced by cold air which is sucked in through the vent causing a constant circulation. In the event deflectors are present, it appears likely that the inside opening of the horizontal tunnel will extend a few inches above the top for correct distribution of air currents. The writer offers these principles only as suggestions, because as yet no standardized explanation has been worked out for kiva vents.


Two feet from the opening of the ventilator shaft was the fire-pit. It was almost one foot, two and one-half inches wide, and very irregular in form. The greatest depth of the pit was about nine inches. Some vestiges of a possible deflector were seen on the floor in front of the pit. It appeared to be about four inches thick. Its width is unknown.

On the northeast side in the floor are still to be seen a series of six holes, with loops of reed or willow still intact in three of them. The holes were approximately seven inches apart. The entire group extended for a little over three feet. On the southeast side was another series of these holes, seven in all, a little more than ten inches apart.51 There were holes in the wall suggesting loom supports.52

51. Mr. Chapman shows only six, I suspect that this seventh hole was gouged out by vandals as it appeared somewhat different than the others, (Hewett, Edgar L., 1909a, p. 666-677).

52. Mr. Nusham informed me that these holes were in the wall while he was working there.

In front of the southeast series of holes and three feet, two and one-half inches from the wall, was a depression almost four inches in diameter which appeared to have been enlarged by constant scraping. This was all that could be found that would even be suggestive of the sipapu, and even this was doubtful.53

53. Mr. Chapman recorded this in his ground plan. (Hewett, Edgar L., 1909a, p. 666-667).

There were two recesses or niches in the wall; one on the south side and one on the northwest side. The one on the south was a little more than a foot above the floor, almost eight and one-half inches deep. The one on the northwest was almost three feet from the floor; the opening almost ten inches high, a little better than one foot, three and one-half inches wide, and slightly over one foot, three and one-half inches deep. Their use is unknown.

Directly under the lintel of the ventilator shaft were two small pits on the floor, with narrow slabs of tuff forming a dividing wall. The one toward the inside of the tunnel was one foot long and a little more than three and one-half inches wide. The one inside the kiva was almost one foot, two and one-half inches long and almost five inches wide. Their depth was only a few inches below the floor of the kiva.54

54. The writer offers the suggestion that pits of this sort and in these positions were used to catch any water that might have run in through the ventilator. I have experimented with pits of this type and have found that during a rainy season they catch most of the rain water which would ordinarily flood the chamber.

Wall construction here paralleled somewhat construction of the large kiva on the floor of the canyon, but here there was only a single wall. Stones or building blocks were selected and smoother parts laid to the inside, and as the wall was laid up a retaining wall was laid on the outside. The mortar here excelled any other that I have seen in the ruined sites in Frijoles Canyon, being smoother and much harder.

It cannot be said definitely that the retaining wall was built to protect the kiva from flood-water, but there probably was the problem of water dripping from the overhanging ceiling of the cave.55 At the time this structure was built the floor of the cave may have extended several feet further to the front; it has been cut back by erosion.56 The retaining wall was laid only to the front of the cave, since the northwest wall had the protection of the cave floor and volcanic fill underneath. The cave floor evidently came up to a point almost even with the roof of the kiva but the southwest side was subject to weakness of the talus slope more than was the northeast, protected by the ceiling of the cave.

55. The annual run-off from the ledge above the overhanging ceiling has not been checked. but portions of the tuff cliffs have hardened on the outside, forming a crust which would probably retard the rate of erosion of the cliff surface itself.

56. I estimate 15 feet in the last 30 years for the cutting back of the floor.

When this second reconstruction of the kiva was completed the floor of the entire cave was cleaned out and brushed. All remaining fragmentary floor portions were in extremely bad shape. After the floor extending around the north wall was completed we worked on the east side of the cave. The rooms extended up to one side of the kiva, and from there on we found nothing but refuse. It appears likely that this side was used as a catch-all for refuse thrown from the rooms. Here we found potsherds, and heavy deposits of what appeared to be turkey droppings compacted to a thickness of about three inches in places, suggesting a long-time occupation of the Ceremonial Cave. Possible bits of human feces was also found. Corncobs and shucks were found in quantity, along with some of the original red and yellow kernels.

Beans were recovered also. One small string of fur and feather cloth was unearthed. Fur and feathers were wrapped on a long strand of fiber (perhaps yucca). Fragments of pumpkin rinds were other finds.

I am of the opinion that turkeys were penned here, as indicated by heavy deposits of feathers and manure.

This material has been identified by Mr. Volney Jones at the University of Michigan as follows:

The cobs were somewhat below average size but not particularly different from the present day Pueblo corns. The kernels found are of a type of corn still grown in the Rio Grande pueblos, and is intermediate between, and probably a mixture of flint and flour corn.
The rinds are from a pumpkin (Cucurbita sp.) and are so similar to the rinds of Cucurbita pepo that it might be assumed that this is the species and type represented.

Heavy deposits of what appeared to have been turkey droppings apparently formed layers of manure-like material composed of finely broken (partly digested?) plant substances mostly too fragmentary for identification. Seed coats of corn kernels made up a fairly large proportion of this and small down-feathers were common in it. The deposits suggested those which might accumulate on the floor of a turkey corral and apparently consisted of turkey droppings, rodent droppings, and possibly of human feces. It was so broken up that little was identifiable, and so packed that the form of most of the droppings could not be determined.

One of the beans was identified as a single large kidney bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) of the type commonly known as "pinto beans" throughout the Southwest. This same type has been found in a number of sites in the Southwest and its cultivation has continued to the present by the Pueblos.

A worked piece of oak ten inches long, one and one-half inches wide and seven-eighths inches thick was found to the outside of the kiva. If it were not so wide and thick it might be taken for a bow. A mental reconstruction would produce a massive weapon, the pull being so great that it could not have been used by an ordinary human being. Prehistoric bows now in existence are not nearly so massive as the specimen under discussion.

The roof construction here has been previously published,57 but a few comments might be made concerning the method. I would like to point out that in doing a reconstruction the archeologist has very little direct evidence with which to work so he must take advice from modern Indians in the Pueblos along with scant bits of data gathered from many sites of a similar nature. Most of all he should just use common sense. He should take into consideration inaccessibility of the site in question, native timbers growing in the vicinity, and which species would be the easiest to cut with crude stone implements. Not only timber should he consider, but all other materials such as building stone, brush, and available clay deposits for the making of mortar.

57. Hendron. J. W., 1938, pp. 70-74.

In building the kiva in the cave the natives undertook a tedious task; that of transporting material from the floor of the canyon, 150 feet below. However, some brush and building stone could have been taken from the dangerous cliff ledges. At any rate, a great deal of the material had to be transported up crude hand holds cut in the cliff or up ladders. Since the kiva would be protected by the overhanging cave ceiling, I dare say that when finished the roof was not elaborate or too strong.

The poles or vigas were probably not laid too close together, and then small poles were placed over the top. Green foliage might then have been put down so that very little light could be seen from the inside and then sufficient amounts of grass and mud placed over the top as a seal coat. This would have been tremendously heavy and in all probability would not have lasted for any considerable length of time. But in a site so well protected it is logical to assume that a great deal of constant repair was not needed.

I even doubt that small poles were always peeled. When large vigas were placed over the walls the spaces between them were probably built up to the tops of the timbers and then smaller poles laid over. Brush or foliage was put over the top so that it would hang down over the sides, and then thick mud coats over the top would come down over the sides and reach the fill around the outside.


It would have been easy to remove all mud, brush, and poles when weakened or rotted. If drainage were not carefully arranged, water would have collected in depressions and seeped through in a very short time. Of course, a great deal of rain probably did not come into the cave unless it was from the south or southeast, and if this is true then so much repairing need not have been necessary here. I cannot help but feel that no great amount of time and energy was expended on this type of construction.

A total of 131 potsherds were recovered from the fill in the Ceremonial Cave and it appears likely that none of these sherds worked their way in at a later date, judging from compactness of debris and refuse. None of these pieces could have washed from the overhanging ledge because of its forward extension. Pottery probably was not manufactured in the cave, because of its difficulty of access; I am inclined to believe that pottery in use was brought up from below.

From a general point of view pottery here presents somewhat the same picture as sherds front the large kiva, although the total number of sherds is very small as compared to the kiva material. (See ceramic correlation chart II). Largest percentage belongs to the utility class, numbering about 70, and this pottery was probably manufactured contemporaneously within Glaze ware and Biscuit ware. Two pieces of early corrugated utility ware, contemporaneous with the Chaco-Kwahe'e complex, were found. Early black-on-white wares were hardly represented, and this line of ceramic development showed no rise until Bandelier Black-on-Gray (Biscuit B) came into prominence in the sixteenth century. At that time there was a sudden decline, paralleling the situation shown by the kiva pottery analysis. Glaze wares were few here, and B and D types were entirely absent. Two pieces of late Glaze E, Puaray Glaze Polychrome, were found, and just one piece of each of the other types, A, C, and F.

Miscellaneous glaze bowl sherds were found in sufficient numbers to boost the general usage of glaze wares up a bit. One piece of a pottery type of foreign origin was found, Mesa Verde Black-on-White, which probably drifted into the area sometime during the early part of the fourteenth century and found its way into the cave.

The name Ceremonial Cave, applied long ago, is misleading and immediately brings to mind the supposition that the cave had been of some ceremonial importance. Such a designation was probably never used until Anglos occupied the canyon during the early part of the twentieth century, and it is not an accurate definitive term for the cave.

It appears that this was just another protected, almost inaccessible, habitation site; the make-up of the fill suggests all the human activities of a daily cycle in the scheme of living. Turkeys were probably penned here for convenience and they probably ate the grains of corn which were thrown to them and picked the cobs. Even broken pottery was thrown here, and discarded fragments of the scant clothing worn by the natives. Pumpkin rinds were pecked down to time hard portion.

Here existed a little pueblo in itself, overlooking the canyon to the south and a small rectangular pueblo on a knoll on the other side of the Rito de Los Frijoles. Rooms built against the north wall of the cave and a few chambers hewn out of the cliffs, with a small kiva to the front of the cave, and a turkey corral and dumping ground around the other half of the back wall, afforded an ideal set-up for a small group to exist peacefully. It may well have been just a separate kinship group, as the conditions were ideal for such a group in architectural arrangement of dwellings and presence of a kiva. Whatever took place here must have paralleled other cultural and historical developments in the canyon.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2007
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