Prehistory of El Rito de los Frijoles, Bandelier National Monument


The Rito de Los Frijoles is approximately 13 miles long, but only part of the lower end was suitable for aboriginal dwellings. The canyon was deep enough and wide enough here for erection of pueblo sites on the floor, and vertical bare cliffs of volcanic ash on the north side were excellent shelters themselves.

For approximately a mile and a quarter along the talus slope the dwellers of the Frijoles built small houses of tuff blocks and over 300 cave rooms in the soft cliff, in some cases adjoining the houses in front of them. Hewett76 points out that some of the excavated rooms have been used as domiciles independently of any construction upon the talus slope against the cliff, but that through the entire Pajarito region the excavated rooms were not generally used as independent domiciles. They served more often as back rooms of houses built upon the sloping talus against the cliff wall. In the Rito houses comprise from two to four terraces.

76. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 438.




FIG. 43. JULIAN AT LONG HOUSE. Courtesy Museum of New Mexico

It seems likely that above the highest of the terraced talus rooms were built ramadas or small porches. The writer has noticed holes gouged out of the cliff of insufficient size to accommodate vigas strong enough to support the weight of a brush and mud roof. In some cases excavated rooms were found behind possible porch sites.

In the case of excavated rooms used independently of the constructed houses, the writer found fragments of matting covered with mud plaster inside rooms at corners of doors which suggested that openings were sometimes covered in this manner, but this principle may not have applied to all of the caves.

During the repair program carried on in 1937 and 1938 some miscellaneous work was done on the caves in the cliffs such as plastering and re-smoking to obliterate marks of vandalism. All of the caves in the Frijoles which have had fires in them still have heavy coats of soot on the ceilings and walls. Inhabitants were undoubtedly conscious of the fact that cave rooms would be filthy places in which to live unless some method was devised to control the level to which the smoke from the fireplace hovered. I have noticed that the smoke line matches approximately the height of the doorways even though chimneys have been cut in some of the cave rooms. If the smoke remained at this level then aborigines would have had little trouble breathing below it. Walls of most of the caves were plastered up to this height with a very fine mud smeared over the wall. In some cases as many as fourteen plaster coats have been counted on some of the walls. Smoke would tend to reach below the door level, blackening the plaster.


Large fires were probably never used while caves were being occupied; rooms were kept warm, apparently, by small fires of twigs or even charcoal.

There are 13 groups of talus villages in the Frijoles,77 the largest being Hewett's Group D,78 which has approximately 216 first story rooms. It appears to have been the more accessible of the cliff homes when compared to other cliff sites in the Canyon. The cliff wall still has the viga holes in it delineating a continuous group of houses from one to four stories in height extending along the cliff for 700 feet.79 (Figs. 40 and 44).

77. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 438.
78. Hewett. Edgar L., 1909, p. 440.
79. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 440.

FIG. 45. LONG HOUSE, BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT. GROUND PLAN AFTER HEWETT (1908) = "TALUS VILLAGE GROUP D" (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

FIG. 46. LONG HOUSE LOOKING FROM TYUONYI. Courtesy Museum of New Mexico

As yet no definite relationship has been worked out between people who lived in cliff homes and people living in houses on the floor of the canyon, but it is likely that both types of dwellings were occupied contemporaneously This is borne out by study of the pottery. There may have been a constant shifting from pueblos to the cliffs and vice versa. The amount of broken pottery in the dumps over the talus slope where discarded vessels were probably thrown seemingly is scarce. The deficiency may support the idea that activity here was not great, but on the other hand contact with valley sites might explain disposition of the pottery.

There is one section of the cliff dwellings which has been completely covered by a slide of ash and basalt. Just when this slide took place is difficult to say, but I have always thought the cliffs a most dangerous place in which to live. If anything of this sort had taken place during the cliff occupation then evacuation of certain of the more poorly located dwellings is understandable.

During the spring of 1939 Southwestern National Monuments, National Park Service, continued stabilization work under direction of Mr. Robert Lister. Group D,80 of the talus villages was the site selected, because of its state of disrepair. Over 2,000 potsherds were recovered from the rooms and they give approximately the same results as the rest of the sites examined.

80. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 440.

Sporadic occupation seems to have taken place sometime in Pueblo II times, as evidenced by a few pieces of Kwahe'e Black-on-White ware, and the settlement continued in a small way until Wiyo times, somewhere in the fifteenth century. Glaze paint wares had come in by this time a little stronger than black-on-whites, and maintained themselves in an unbroken sequence until abandonment of the site, There seemed to be a slowing-up in Glaze B and C times, but late black-on-grays had come into prominence with the same decided spurt as in the canyon floor sites. Glaze D and E also became more prominent but slowed up during Glaze E times; Bandelier Black-on-gray and Sankawi Black-on-Cream, which were probably manufactured more or less contemporaneously, numbered approximately one-third of all the decorated wares. Population apparently was decreasing during the latter part of the sixteenth century, to be completely extinguished about the close of that century.

Apparently the cliff homes were not too popular until late black-on gray times, and this period of popularity evidently lasted about a half century. Sudden spurt of the black-on-grays and late glazes does show a sudden stepping up in cultural activity, a sudden adherence to a style which had developed very slowly in these immediate sites. This again suggests a very definite trade or influx of population. Since previous activity here seems to have been so slow, suggestion might be offered that newcomers may have taken over the cliffs for their homes.

A great deal cannot be learned from such a disturbed site. Impressions and suggestions can be gotten from a pottery analysis in the aggregate. (See ceramic correlation chart IV).

A considerable portion of Long House was not excavated by the School of American Archaeology. Its proper scientific study sometime in the future will bring much new evidence on the cultural history of this interesting group.

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

Last Updated: 01-May-2007
Copyrighted by Southwestern Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association