Prehistory of El Rito de los Frijoles, Bandelier National Monument


One of the most interesting features, and by far the largest ruined site, in the Rito de Los Frijoles, is Tyuonyi,58 the biggest community house. (Approximate pronunciation: CHON-yee). This structure was excavated in part by the School of American Archaeology during the summer seasons of 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1912.59

58. Tyuonyi is generally applied to the big community house but probably refers to all the dwellings in the Canyon.

59. ______ Organic Acts and Administrative Reports, 1907-1917, p. 34, 84, 99, 119-120.

By 1937 the walls of the 242 excavated rooms were in a deplorable condition (Fig. 29). This was the biggest job of stabilization work to be done. Although a detailed report60 of the work has already been published along with the general discussion of the architectural features, the material will be reviewed here along with a discussion of the 3,800 pot sherds found.

60. Hendron, J. W., 1938a, pp. 178-181.

Tyuonyi is a word having, according to Bandelier a significance akin to that of treaty or contract. It was so applied because of a treaty said to have been made here at some remote period, by which certain of the pueblo tribes, probably the Queres (Keres), the Tehuas (Tewas), and just possibly the Jemez also, agreed that certain loosely defined ranges should belong in the future to each of them exclusively.61

61. Bandelier, A. F., 1892, p. 145.

The entire structure was almost 250 feet in diameter from northeast to southwest, and from the top of the north cliff, which is at least 300 feet above the canyon floor, it appears as an oval flattened on the southwest side. Curvature in the walls was flattened out to some extent, appearing as if the rooms in this particular section had been pushed toward the plaza or inner court.

On all sides there are at least six tiers of rooms excavated and I think it is safe to say that on the north there are three or four additional tiers of rooms which have not been excavated, judging from the appearance of the mound on that side. But in the southwest portion, where a fourth angle or bend would have been, the rooms were no more than four tiers, and in some places only three. Portions of walls were found, however, extending almost to the edge of an embankment on the southwest. (Fig. 28).



As has been previously pointed out the former courses of the Rito de Los Frijoles have never been determined. River wash was located about 18 inches below the surface at the foot of the steep embankment which varies from six to nine feet high. At its foot are huge chunks of volcanic tuff weighing several hundred pounds. The presence of these suggested that there were deliberately placed there for a definite purpose, to keep waters of the little river from cutting under the embankment and eventually threatening the narrow section of southwestern rooms. Hewett62 has mentioned the flattening in the roughly circular plan of the structure, due to the nearness of the creek.

62. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909. pp. 442-444.

It is true that several walls of the rooms were slightly curved,63 but there were more positive curves in the walls of some of the rooms where they definitely form the corners of the structure. So distinct is this that walls of rooms to the inside facing the court were small and, instead of forming almost perfect rectangles as the other rooms did, the walls nearest the inner court were concentric with the general curve of the building.

63. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 441.

The rooms were mainly rectangular, however. To get around the corners and still retain the shape of the rooms, some were built with their axes at right angles to the long narrow rooms, apparently so that a curve would not be necessary. This consistent use of straight walls facilitated the roofing problem, and in some ways they were stronger than curved walls.

Throughout the entire pueblo the rooms to the outside were larger than the rooms to the inside, and some of the outside walls did show a decided curvature, greatly exaggerated at the two excavated corners and probably true of the unexcavated north corner.

The house was built on a slope to the southwest, and I cannot say which part of the structure was built first. The fact may be pointed out, however, that sherds of Santa Fe Black-on-White, Abiquiu Black-on-Gray, Bandelier Black-on-Gray, and Glazes A, B, and C were found imbedded in the mortar in the walls of the north and northeast rooms (Fig. 30). In the walls of the southeast rooms later pottery was found, including the Glaze E type, late Bandelier Black-on-Gray and a few pieces of Sankawi Black-on-Cream. A great deal of importance cannot be attached to such meager findings because here, again, earlier wares may have been scooped up and thrown in the mud mix. However, the northeast and east rooms were of a superior type of construction. The building blocks had been more evenly worked and laid more precisely (Fig. 35).


After the excavation by the School of American Archaeology, mortar washed from most joints and walls fell, more completely in the south and southwest portions of the pueblo, simply because they were not balanced like those on the north and northeast (Fig. 36). These remained standing for some years because of a thick encasement of plaster which held the little rocks which had been chinked in. In other words, the walls, when completed, were almost monoliths but when the mortar was gone they lost their stability and toppled over. This was not as applicable to east and northeast rooms. In some instances there was as much as an inch of plaster on walls and in one place we found some of the original whitewash finish.64

64. Similar methods of whitewashing are employed today by the Spanish-Americans. It is called yeso, cal, or gaspe, depending on the idiom of the locality.

This also suggests an inferior type of mortar was used in the south and southwest parts, if all mortar has washed from the joints in one part of the village but remained intact in other parts.

Mortar having washed away from the joints, many rooms and sections of rooms were noticed which had been joined on to the main section. Where a single wall is joined to another wall this was done by laying the ends of the building blocks flush with the side of another wall. After mortar had washed away we could see this very plainly. It seems clear that complete sections of rooms were built up alongside of already existing sections, and it may be that these breaks might run entirely through from the outside rooms to the inside.

This was the type of house recognized and described by the Coronado Expedition in 1540.65 One charred piece of a possible viga was found in one of the rooms which dated 1460 plus or minus 15 years,66 but this date is less usable because exact location is not known. It is obvious that this one date would not reflect the building of the entire structure which was probably occupied over a period of several hundred years.

65. Winship. G. P.. 1896. pp. 519-22, 558-560. 569-570, 575.

66. Stallings, W. S. jr., 1933, p. 805.

Spanish archives tell us of multi-storied community houses and of thick mud walls67 built up with "balls of mud", but the walls of Tyuonyi were constructed with blocks of volcanic ash or tuff not more than eight inches wide which were bedded in a heavy course of mud mortar upon another course of building blocks. After re-setting a great many and stabilizing the walls of 242 rooms of this structure I hesitate to say that there were more than two stories all together, and then it seems likely that they were built upon middle tiers of first story rooms so that weight might be distributed. Their second story rooms would have probably been on the better constructed sections of first story rooms to the north and northeast.

67. Winship. G. P., 1896, p. 520.

The ceiling of each room might have been little better than six feet above the floor if we use as a criterion the height of holes gouged out of the soft cliff for the construction of the talus houses. The floors of rooms in Tyuonyi are found at various levels and in some cases they are elevated almost four feet above an adjoining room, especially on the side of the rise of the slope. Now it is logical to assume that roof lines terraced since there are so many floor levels; it seems likely that second story rooms would be built directly over the first story rooms with the lower floor levels. The lower parts of walls of second story rooms would have butted against walls of first story rooms with elevated floor levels. A plan of this sort may have been carried out in connection with better constructed rooms to the north and northeast and occasionally there may have been a third story room. I fail to see, however, how second story rooms could be built over first story rooms to the southwest. On this side there may not have been need for height since there was the embankment with the height of at least one story. This offered protection itself. The rooms on the southwest may have been added to complete the general irregular circular form of building for the protective purposes.

The idea of protection is borne out by narrowness of the exterior opening to the passageway on the eastern side68 varying from six to seven feet in width, and 60 feet long extending entirely through the ruin to the inner court (Fig. 31).

68. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 444.


On the eastern side at the beginning of this narrow entrance are remains of a circular barricade69 almost five feet thick (Fig. 32). The base was laid up with huge chunks of tuff and as it gained height size of the chunks probably decreased. I am uncertain as to the height of this feature when it was being used, but it appears likely that it was higher than a man's head or it would have afforded little protection. In conversation with Tewa Indians who had worked at the site during the early excavations I was informed that a narrow doorway had been left in the circular wall and that on the inside was a huge chunk of tuff which could be rolled into position, closing the passage. I was also told of a fireplace just to the side of the door with the logical explanation that it was for the use of the sentry. In the middle of the hallway, almost even with the point where the two ends of the barricade join the structure, was a slab of compact tuff approximately two inches thick and two feet long buried edgewise in the ground. It is probable that at one time the unbroken top part extended above the ground to such a height that traffic would be obliged to go around the slab on one of two sides after going through the barricade and before passing into the hallway.

69. Hewett. Edgar L., 1909, p. 443.


Posts were planted across the passage at short intervals.70 At a point approximately midway between the barricade and the inner court I noticed walls extending out from the side rooms which again suggested closing of the passage or creating another doorway through which only one person could pass at a time. By careful examination we found that these little walls were tied into the main building. A bonding of building blocks after walls were in position would have been almost an impossibility. It is interesting to note that the long hallway is just wide enough and long enough to have once composed seven rooms of comparable size with rooms on either side of them. That is, room walls on both sides extending at right angles to the passage match up perfectly and side walls of the passage are so irregularly constructed that it appears possible that one row of rooms was taken out to form the hallway after this entire section was built and after the village took its complete circular form. On the other hand, this section may have fallen into disuse as dwellings and been converted into a passage. Removed building stones may have been used for the barricade.

70. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909, p. 443.

Assuming that the interior court was completely walled in by buildings, it would appear that anyone entering would first be obliged to pass through the hallway to the inner court and then ascend to roofs of homes by means of ladders and then down inside through hatchways.

Throughout the entire structure are vestiges of doorways connecting two or three rooms, suggesting that individuals who occupied one of these rooms would have had access to several others.

It would be difficult to estimate the population of the village because some of the rooms may have been abandoned while others were still in use. Three or four hundred persons may have been all that ever lived here at any one time.

The inner court or plaza, which was enclosed by the circular formation of rooms, was approximately 140 feet in diameter. It sloped from northeast to southwest, dropping about five feet in elevation from one side to the other.

Three kivas were located by Hewett71 within the court near the northeast section of rooms, and one of these was excavated by him. (Fig. 33). It was a circular structure varying from about 20 feet, nine inches, to a little more than 23 feet, four inches, in diameter at the top of the wall. Here there was a decided flaring of the wall, greater than in the big kiva or in the Ceremonial Cave kiva. The situation here was somewhat different, however, in that fill around the outside was soft, exerting more pressure on walls.

71. Hewett, Edgar L., 1909. p. 444.


In stabilizing this kiva, several feet of fill were removed from the outside, and potsherds of various types were found as far down as we dug. We found that outside fill had been made up of many stones and dump material mixed with great quantities of earths. The wall of the kiva here also was laid very crudely and some of the building blocks were keyed into the fill.

The roofing scheme here probably was not elaborate, due to the small size. The same scheme might apply here which was described for the kiva in the Ceremonial Cave.

On the southeast side was a ventilator shaft which we were obliged to restore because of its bad condition (Fig. 34). It was of the same style as those in the other two kivas. The lintel which was still intact over the opening was almost two feet, ten inches above the floor. Roof of the horizontal tunnel was made up of only two slabs of tuff before the vertical shaft was reached. From the place where the vent leaves the main wall of the kiva the distance to the back of the vertical shaft was a little better than four feet, eight inches. From the surface to the floor of the vertical shaft the distance was a little more than seven feet, eight inches. The three kivas may have been used by three different social groups of, probably, esoteric character.


Just how long the community house was occupied is uncertain, nor do we know whether there are earlier structures underneath the present plaza and rooms. Latest surface of the plaza was certainly built up of much refuse. Many potsherds were saved which may give us a few general hints as to the time involved. Some sherds were found in the 242 rooms, but they are of very little importance in that they probably were accidentally scattered about in a number of ways. They can be taken into consideration as having belonged to the site. A total of 79 sherds were recovered from the rooms, while 3,804 sherds were cleaned from the plaza and from the fill around the kiva.



Ceramic complex of the community house gives about the same general picture as that of the large kiva and the Ceremonial Cave. There were, however, slight variances in the individual styles. (See pottery correlation chart III).

The black-on-white ware, it seems, arrived with the earliest inhabitants somewhere around the thirteenth century and continued steadily on up through Abiquiu Black-on-Gray times. The use of glaze-paint styles by that time had found its way into the Rito de Los Frijoles, and continued throughout the life of the pueblo. A sudden increase in the amount of black-on-gray while Glaze D was in vogue may be explained in one of two ways. Either the new pottery was adopted by original inhabitants, or else a considerable number of people possessing this pottery type were incorporated into the village. The glazes were not as prominent as at the large kiva, but late black-on-grays were sufficient in number to parallel the same sudden spurt.



A few pieces of Sankawi Black-on-Cream, which perhaps was in vogue as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, were found. Two pieces of Galisteo Black-on-White72 were noticed, which probably drifted in through trade about the time of the late black-on-grays or during the sixteenth century. Potsui'i Incised,73 which originated in the villages to the north, came in sometime during the late period of occupancy.

72. Mera, H. P., 1935, p. 22.
73. Mera, H. P., 1934, p. 17.

The only artifacts other than potsherds found in course of work on the community house were a few very crude chipped stone axes, with two notches for hafting instead of a groove, somewhat suggestive of the Gallina type of axe.74

74. Mera, H. P., 1938, p. 243 and Fig. 5.

The community house was occupied, it seems, for a period of almost 400 years. Only a few rooms were constructed originally, probably, temporary shelters thrown up near the creek; as necessity presented itself additional rooms were built on. Perhaps a series of rooms may have been in process of construction at one time. There are some vertical breaks in the corners of rooms which suggest where one series ends and another series of rooms joins on.

Just when the last buildings were added to entirely enclose the plaza cannot be work out on the evidence now available; there is some evidence that the long narrow hallway was cut through about the time of the completion of the building in its final form.

When construction began here also is difficult to tell. One piece of charred wood75 from one of the rooms was dated at 1460 plus or minus 15 years, but this signifies very little, other than part of the structure was in process of construction at that time; no one knows how many additional rooms were added after that time. The presence of very late pottery types indicates an occupation until approximately the end of the sixteenth century, perhaps only by some few stragglers who may have hung on for a number of years.

75. Stallings, W. S. jr., 1913, p. 805.

The rooms here were not all occupied at the same time, probably. Groups may have evacuated to move elsewhere to more desirable locations. Another group may have moved in when the group before had gone. Parts of rooms may have fallen in and been abandoned. It may have been easier to build new ones rather than patch up the old. Some rooms may have been used for storage and others as turkey pens. Any number of incidents could have taken place here and it would be impossible to lay down any hard and fast rules which would be applicable. I have presented the material just as it was found and have only suggested what seemed logical and workable.

FIG. 39. ARTIST'S RESTORATION OF TYUONYI. Drawing by J. R. Terken, Federal Art Project-National Park Service. Cut courtesy Museum of New Mexico. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 01-May-2007
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