Ancient Pueblo Great House Yielding Unexpected Findings

May 19, 1998

Excavations of a Pueblo site in the Four Corners region linked to the Chaco culture that once dominated the Southwest indicate the site was still occupied well after the collapse of the ancient empire about 1125.

Known as the Great Bluff House, the site harbors the remains of a two-story structure known as a "great house" as well as a great kiva and sections of prehistoric roads and berms near the town of Bluff, Utah. 1997 excavations of the berms -- long mounds of earth and trash about a meter high -- turned up corn cobs that were radiocarbon dated to about 1212, said University of Colorado at Boulder assistant anthropology Professor Catherine Cameron.

The Bluff site is being excavated by a CU-Boulder student field team in collaboration with the Southwest Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group, and Abajo Archaeology, a local contract firm in Bluff. The archaeological project has been funded primarily by the National Geographic Society for the past two summers.

Architecturally similar to great houses in Chaco Canyon, N.M., the heart of the Chaco culture that was located about 125 miles to the southeast, the Bluff site is thought to have been one of the most distant Chacoan "outposts."

"It was an eye-opener, because it indicates the berms were built long after Chaco collapsed," she said. The Bluff people may have "experienced a religious revival," perhaps tied to the growing influence of the Aztec culture centered near present-day Aztec, N.M., roughly 100 miles to the southeast.

Cameron directs the student field school, now in its third year, with her husband, Steve Lekson, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Museum. Fourteen students will be participating in the 1998 excavation, including nine from CU-Boulder and one 1998 graduate of Boulder High School. The field school will run from June 1 to July 2.

The berms may have served as bases for wooden defensive structures around the Bluff site, said Lekson. "There was a lot of violence in the region in the 1300s, and Chaco was not around anymore to keep a lid on it." The team will probe the berms further in June for signs of ancient postholes.

Although the Chaco influence stretched through 40,000 square miles of the Southwest during its zenith in the early 1100s -- an area about the size of Ohio -- the culture abruptly disappeared about 1125, most likely because of drought, warfare or internal political strife, archaeologists believe.

The CU team also found a series of antechambers around the exterior of Bluff's great kiva -- a large ceremonial structure about 30 yards from the great house -- in 1997. The antechambers may have served as storage areas or dressing rooms for priests that performed ceremonies there, said Cameron.

Artifacts from Bluff include locally made pottery shards that appear to copy typical Chaco pottery. Geochemical tests on several pieces of obsidian from Bluff show they came from a quarry near Jemez, N.M. Obsidian from the Jemez source was commonly found at sites in Chaco Canyon.

In addition, an ancient sash made from the feathers of macaws native to Mexico -- and which were regularly traded through Chaco Canyon -- was found in a cave north of Bluff several years ago. "I imagine this object passed through the Bluff site at some point," said Lekson.

Additional findings in 1997 included more evidence the great house was built in several episodes, Cameron said. While the western portion of the 115-foot-long house is one story with rooms built from sandstone slabs, a later addition constructed on the east side features two stories of thick "core-and-veneer" walls similar to the stout walls in Chaco Canyon great houses.

A typical Chacoan kiva also had been added onto the Bluff great house with a flat roof that may have served as a small plaza, she said. The great house may have been purely ceremonial or inhabited by a few elite families.

Animal bones in the middens, or trash pits, excavated by the students, indicated Bluff people were eating deer and small game, said Lekson. He estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people lived between the Bluff site and the Aztec site by the 1300s, depleting natural resources and likely accelerating conflict.

Lekson believes the Chaco Canyon people may have moved north to the Aztec site after the Chaco culture collapsed, establishing a new center of power in the Southwest and perhaps incorporating new religious beliefs.


Catherine Cameron, (303) 492-0408
Steve Lekson, (303) 499-6138
Jim Scott, (303) 492-3114

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Ancient Empire Articles from Brightsurf:

Water on ancient Mars
A meteorite that originated on Mars billions of years ago reveals details of ancient impact events on the red planet.

Modern theory from ancient impacts
It is generally accepted that the inner region of the early solar system was subject to an intense period of meteoric bombardment referred to as the late heavy bombardment.

Climate change and the rise of the Roman Empire and the fall of the Ptolemies
The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. triggered a 17-year power struggle that ultimately ended the Roman Republic leading to the rise of the Roman Empire.

Who were the Canaanites? New insight from 73 ancient genomes
The people who lived in the area known as the Southern Levant -- which is now recognized as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, and parts of Syria -- during the Bronze Age (circa 3500-1150 BCE) are referred to in ancient biblical texts as the Canaanites.

Ancient Andes, analyzed
An international research team has conducted the first in-depth, wide-scale study of the genomic history of ancient civilizations in the central Andes mountains and coast before European contact.

The discovery of ancient Salmonella
Oldest reconstructed bacterial genomes link agriculture and herding with emergence of new disease.

What felled the great Assyrian Empire? A Yale professor weighs in
The Neo-Assyrian Empire, centered in northern Iraq and extending from Iran to Egypt -- the largest empire of its time -- collapsed after more than two centuries of dominance at the fall of its capital, Nineveh, in 612 B.C.E.

Climate change influenced rise and fall of Northern Iraq's Neo-Assyrian Empire
Changes in climate may have contributed to both the rise and collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in northern Iraq, which was considered the most powerful empire of its time, according to a new study.

Ancient rhinos roamed the Yukon
Paleontologists have used modern tools to identify the origins of a few fragments of teeth found more than four decades ago by a schoolteacher in the Yukon.

Strong winter dust storms may have caused the collapse of the Akkadian Empire
Fossil coral records provide new evidence that frequent winter shamals, or dust storms, and a prolonged cold winter season contributed to the collapse of the ancient Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia.

Read More: Ancient Empire News and Ancient Empire Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to