Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 2

April, 1940


By Erik K. Reed,
Regional Archaeologist.

The rather desolate, but very fascinating, area now constituting Petrified Forest National Monument, located on both sides of U.S. Highway 66, just east of Holbrook, Arizona, was occupied by prehistoric peoples over a period of almost 1,000 years, though already long deserted when first seen by white men. Prehistoric Pueblo Indians, probably ancestors of the modern Zuni, lived in and around the Petrified Forest from an early period, probably before A.D. 500, to about A.D. 1400. These dates, and continuancy of occupation between them, are not established by direct tree-ring dates from archaeological sites in the Petrified Forest, but by an equally dependable method: the occurrence of varieties of prehistoric pottery whose time-span is known, from tree-ring dates, in other areas of northeastern Arizona.

The earliest known occupants of the Petrified Forest lived in small, scattered villages of circular pit-houses or slab houses - dwellings consisting of shallow excavations in the ground, lined with stone slabs and covered over with more or less dome-shaped walls and roofs of poles, brush, and mud. Later they lived in numerous small settlements of rectangular rooms on the surface built of rough masonry. In the last phases of occupation, these little scattered villages were replaced by a few relatively large towns, such as the one to be seen beside the ranger station south of the bridge over the Puerco River. This site, known as the Puerco Ruin, consisted of small oblong rooms arranged in a hollow square about 230 by 180 feet, around a plaza, approximately 185 by 130 feet. This village was probably two-storied, and could have comfortably housed ever 100 families. The Puerco ruin was occupied from the sixth or seventh century into the fourteenth century, judging by the types of pottery found in it. There are three ether sites occupied in the fourteenth century within Petrified Forest National Monument, but the Puerco ruin is the only one which was occupied continuously from "Basketmaker III" times (the sixth and seventh centuries) into early "Pueblo IV" (the fourteenth century). Two of the other, smaller, late sites within the monument were not established until the twelfth or early thirteenth century, as was also the very large late site at Wallace Tank just outside the monument's eastern boundary. The fourth late site seems not to have been founded until the middle or late thirteenth century.

The seventy-odd other sites within Petrified Forest National Monument were established and abandoned at various times between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1250. They fall into three main groups on the basis of time-periods as distinguished by pottery-types: sites occupied during "Basketmaker III" times and abandoned about or before A.D. 700; sites occupied in "Pueblo II" and abandoned about or before A.D. 1100; and sites occupied during early and middle "Pueblo III" and abandoned by A.D. 1250. Many of the "Pueblo II" and "Pueblo III" stone villages were built over the remains of "Basketmaker III" slab-houses;, and many sites yield both "Pueblo II" and "Pueblo III" potsherds, evidently having been more or less continuously occupied from the tenth century to the late twelfth or early thirteenth. There were thirty-four "Basketmaker III" pit-house villages, almost certainly not all occupied at the same time, in the Petrified Forest. Exactly half of these sites were permanently abandoned before or in the eighth century and never reoccupied, so that there are seventeen pure sites of this period. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, there were twenty-eight "Pueblo II" settlements, of which twelve were built over "Basketmaker III" sites, and sixteen were at locations not occupied by earlier groups. Eighteen "Pueblo II" sites did not continue into the twelfth century, but thirty-one new villages were founded during "Pueblo III", five of these being located on top of "Basketmaker III" sites. Ten of the "Pueblo II" sites had continued into the twelfth century, giving a total of forty-one "Pueblo III" sites. As had been mentioned above, only four of these settlements lasted into the fourteenth century. Probably only a small number of villages were occupied at any one time. Almost half of the "Pueblo III" sites and more than half of the "Pueblo II" sites were very small, seemingly temporary settlements -- a few houses or shelters, probably occupied only during the farming season. There may have been only about ten permanent pueblos occupied at any one time during these periods.

The "Pueblo I" period has hitherto not been mentioned in this discussion. This is because "Pueblo I", ordinarily coming in the time from 700 to 900, does not seem to be a distinct period in the Petrified Forest area. "Pueblo I" black-on-white pottery occurs sparsely, in only ten sites, so far as known -- all of them primarily "Pueblo II" sites except two which are Basketmaker-type sites evidently not abandoned until after 700. Virtual depopulation of the area for 200 years seems surprising; possibly, trade with peoples to the northwest and northeast for the black-on-white pottery by which these sites are classified according to period, decreased sharply during these two centuries. There is also the possibility in connection with the second suggestion, of relative immobility of population, or, in other words, that these sites at which Pueblo I black-on-white potsherds have been found were continuously occupied by small groups during the period in question. It is believed that all, or virtually all, of the black-on-white wares (and also, after 1100, certain other varieties of pottery) were received by the people of the Petrified Forest through trade. The local ceramic production seems to have been exclusively or primarily brownware, plain brown, red slippered, and smudged, developing into black-on-red, and brown corrugated types. This group of brown pottery is similar to brown and red pottery found primarily further south, in the forested mountain country of the Mogollon Rim. This ceramic complex, with accompanying traits, has been designated the "Mogollon Culture"; and the people of the Petrified Forest, or at least their pottery, would thus seem to be originally of Mogollon affiliation. The black-on-red and corrugated types developed because of influence from the Pueblo area proper to the north and northeast. Pueblo influence may have included actual immigration of peoples; in the "Basketmaker III" sites, the gray Pueblo pottery approximates in quantity the brown Mogollon pottery. Pottery, of the types mentioned, was made by these prehistoric Indians during the nine or ten centuries of occupation of the area, steadily improving in quality, with changes in techniques and styles. Stone and bone implements were made and used; cultivation of corn, pumpkins, and beans, was practiced, supplemented by hunting of wild game and gathering of wild plants. The prehistory of the Petrified Forest follows closely that of the northern Southwest as a whole, in general outlines and in many details, aside from the southward affiliation of the pottery.

Three features of Petrified Forest archaeology, however, are of unusual interest. First, and least unusual, is the relatively dense prehistoric occupation of a now desolate area by a farming people who had no well-drilling rigs. The explanation of this phenomenon here, as in many other areas of the Southwest, is not a great climatic change, but rather the fullest utilization by the skillful and practical Pueblos of the springs along the low escarpments framing the area, which dried up or decreased, because of very minor climatic changes. It is not unlikely that Pueblo Indians could have supported themselves in the area, in small numbers, during most of the time since final abandonment in the early fifteenth century. This abandonment may have been due to Apache inroads, as much as to drought or arroyo-cutting. This idea is supported by the fact that most of the few fourteenth-century sites are in naturally defensible locations; the one late site within the monument not so situated is a small one, probably a seasonally occupied farming village. The great decrease between 1250 and 1300, however, probably was due to the great drought of 1276-1299.


The second interesting feature is the occurrence on the low cliffs of brown sandstone around the northwest margin of the Petrified Forest proper, south of the Puerco River, of an unusually extensive series of petroglyphs, geometric and naturalistic designs out into the rock by these prehistoric Pueblo Indians. Among the most striking of these rock-engravings is a very realistic picture of a heron eating a frog (formerly described as a "stork bringing a baby"). There are a number of petroglyphs on the low cliffs beside the Puerco ruin, and presumably they were made by the inhabitants of that town. One of these is a very fine reproduction of a geometric design such as is frequently used in decoration of textiles. Petroglyphs and pictographs can seldom be "interpreted", and often they have no "story" to tell. In many cases they are probably the clan symbols of passersby.

Agate House

The third feature of interest is the utilization of the petrified (silicified, agatized) wood as material for house-building and for arrowpoints. Arrowpoints made from agate chips from petrified logs are found occasionally in various archaeological sites in northeastern Arizona, and probably they come from the Petrified Forest. In a few instances, stone houses in the southern portion of the present national monument were built of chunks of silicified wood. One of these, Agate House, was partially rebuilt in 1934.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005