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An Outdoor Laboratory Where History Meets Science: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument


Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Deep in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, 50 miles west of Durango, Colorado, is a vast landscape that contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the nation  –   Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Here, ancient cliff dwellings, great kivas, sacred springs, and rock art sites are spread across a rugged landscape.

This area has been a focal point for archaeological exploration and research for 135 years. To date, 6,355 sites have been recorded. These sites represent all time periods of occupation, including PaleoIndian, Archaic, Basketmaker, and Ancestral Puebloan, as well as historic Ute, Navajo, and Anglo cultures.

The BLM manages the cultural resources of the 170,965-acre Monument on a landscape scale, recognizing the integral and interdependent relationships between cultural resource sites and the natural environment.

Many of the Monument’s values and management challenges were highlighted during the Science Symposium, A Decade of Discovery , held in celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the BLM's National Landscape Conservation System, May 24 – 28 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The event was sponsored by the BLM in partnership with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science .

Protecting a landscape with high archaeological site densities while allowing recreational use, livestock grazing and fluid mineral development can pose a significant management challenge. A case study presented in Protecting Cultural Landscapes and Managing Multiple Use details how BLM managers are applying cultural resource research methodology and Native American perspectives to manage and protect cultural resources while balancing the pressures of conflicting land use programs. 

One way to protect archaeological resources is to enlist the support of citizens. The presentation, Native Voice Interpretation at ... Canyons of the Ancients National Monument , describes successful programs such as films and brochures that illustrate the critical role partnerships and American Indian relationships play in protecting cultural resources.

Volunteers at Canyons of the Ancients

Tribal Elders Visit Canyons of the Ancients National Monument


Saddlehorn Pueblo
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Prehistoric Tower in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

An ambitious program of intensive cultural resource inventories is providing new information about past human settlement and land use in the Monument. Recent findings are detailed in the poster session, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Cultural Landscapes.

The results of modern high-tech, non-destructive testing of mural pigments and painted pottery are presented in another poster session, Lead, Murals, and Pottery: Tracing Technologies and Peoples of Lowry Pueblo Great House, Southwest Colorado. Scientists used a hand-held x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to test kiva mural pigments at Lowry Pueblo and painted pottery from the 12th century, revealing unusually high toxic concentrations of lead, zinc, and arsenic. This information has the potential to enhance our understanding of prehistoric group interaction and migrations in the Northern San Juan Basin between A.D. 600 and A.D. 1170. 

Wildland fires not only threaten present day communities, but they also pose a serious threat to archeological resources. Wildland Urban Interface – A Strategy for Reducing Fire Risk in Canyons of Ancients National Monument illustrates how fire managers, resource specialists, and archaeologists are working together, and with private landowners, to develop fire protection strategies for archaeological sites most vulnerable to high intensity fire.    

To learn more about Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, please click here.

To read more features and learn more about A Decade of Discovery Science Symposium, please click here.


Remnant 12th Century Standing Wall - Photo by Marietta Eaton, BLM
Tower at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument - Photo by BLM's Marietta Eaton