CU-Boulder Students To Excavate Ancient Pueblo Site In Four Corners

May 30, 1996


University of Colorado at Boulder students will begin a major excavation this June at an ancient Pueblo site in the Four Corners region which appears to be linked to the mysterious Chaco culture that once dominated much of the Southwest.

Known as Bluff Great House, the Anasazi site harbors the remains of a massive, two-story structure known as a "great house" and a great kiva and series of prehistoric roads that probably date from about 1150 to 1250, said assistant anthropology Professor Catherine Cameron. The 7.5-acre site is located in the town of Bluff, Utah, on the San Juan River about 30 miles from the Colorado border.

The three-year project is being undertaken by CU-Boulder in cooperation with the Southwest Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit corporation founded specifically to support the project. Cameron and Stephen Lekson, former president of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colo., are directing the project.

The Bluff Great House appears to be architecturally similar to great houses at Chaco Canyon, a series of Pueblo ruins in northern New Mexico that dominated the culture of the region from 900 to 1150. The Bluff site may have been one of the most distant "outposts" under the influence of the Chaco culture, Cameron said.

Preliminary investigations by the Southwest Heritage Foundation in fall 1995 indicate the Bluff great house was a two-story, pueblo-style building about 115 feet long and up to 50 feet wide containing at least one kiva, or underground chamber. Archaeologists have found that rooms in great houses usually show little evidence of use, indicating they may have served as storage or ceremonial places rather than dwellings, Cameron said.

"This site appears to be on the northwestern edge of the Chaco frontier," said Cameron. "We think we can help to answer some major questions about how the Chacoan system operated and how these sites were established."

The archaeological field school will run from June 3 to July 5 and involve about a dozen undergraduates and several graduate students from CU-Boulder and several other universities, said Cameron. The summer field school will continue at the site in 1997 and 1998. Abajo Archaeology, a contract firm in Bluff, also is participating in the project.

One major question is whether "priests" from Chaco traveled to places like Bluff to help establish outlying sites, or if Bluff inhabitants were so impressed by the powerful Chaco culture they decided to replicate it locally, she said.

Although the Chaco influence stretched through some 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 by about 1150. Archaeologists have theorized the collapse may have been caused by drought, warfare or internal political strife.

The Bluff great house appears to be surrounded by an oval mound made up primarily of midden, or trash piles, she said. Large gaps in the mound appear to represent entry points for prehistoric roads that may have led to other Chacoan sites in the region and perhaps even to Chaco Canyon itself, some 125 miles distant.

The Bluff site's great kiva, marked by a broad, dish-shaped depression in the ground about 70 feet wide and three feet deep, is located about 100 yards from the great house. Limited excavations will be undertaken there if an agreement can be reached with the Pueblo Indian groups connected with the project, said Lekson.

The 1995 investigations at the Bluff great house turned up hundreds of Pueblo-style pottery sherds dating from about 600 to about 1300, as well as numerous stone flakes, said Cameron.

As part of the field school, CU-Boulder will bring in other archaeologists already working in the region to give guest lectures to the students, said Cameron. The students also will make weekend field trips to other Pueblo archaeological sites in the Southwest, including Chaco Canyon.

"One of the goals of the field school is to give students experience with archaeological field and lab methods and an understanding of the landscape, resources and culture of the region," said Cameron. "We hope to use this project to contribute to the broad reassessment of the whole Chacoan era."

One unanswered question is whether great houses like the one in Bluff were "dropped into" existing communities or built as a way to bring native Americans together into a cohesive community, she said. Some speculate that Chaco political leaders may have exacted tribute from Puebloans at such outlying sites.

University of Colorado at Boulder

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