Archeological Research

Archeologists at Tonto National Monument are working to better understand the age of the cliff dwellings and the order in which the rooms were constructed. Using dated ceramics and dendrochronology (obtaining dates from tree rings), a clearer picture of when the dwellings were first constructed in possible. As archeologists are beginning to discover, the length for which the dwellings were occupied may have been much shorter than originally thought. Additionally, the original inhabitants most likely built the dwellings much later than originally thought (~ 1350 C.E.). As additional research is conducted, we learn more about the prehistoric inhabitants of the Monument.

Learn about different archeological research projects below.

Reanalysis of tree ring dates from the Upper and Lower Cliff Dwellings

Small numbered plugs can be spotted around the Upper and Lower Cliff Dwellings. These plugs mark the sport where a core sample has been taken by researchers to try to determine the age of the wood through the studying of tree rings, also called dendrochronology. Scientists do this by comparing the tree ring pattern of the unknown sample to known samples from the same geographical area. If they can find a match, then the unknown sample can be dated, providing archaeological data. Nine different dendrochronology studies have been done at Tonto National Monument, yielding several hundred samples. Unfortunately, only six samples have yielded confirmed dates. This is caused by the use of mostly un-dateable wood by the Salado people when the dwellings were built. Local wood in the Basin, such as juniper, does not yield useable data.

Dendrochronology can show us more that just the age of trees, it can also give us a glimpse into past climatic conditions. In temperate zones, one year of growth will equal one tree rings. A wet growing season would make a wider ring, while a dry growing season would make a narrower ring. In addition to keeping track of the amount of moisture, tree rings are also recording other climatic factors, such as temperature and cloud cover, since those factors also affect tree growth. This data can be used to give us a glimpse into the past to see what kind of climatic conditions the Salado people had been living in when the dwellings were occupied. Learn more about dendrochronology (PDF).

- Written by J. Brown

Last updated: April 12, 2020

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