Foundations of the Past, Present and Future: River House Stabilization Project

Javonne Goodman

For Native American Heritage Month, we are highlighting a preservation project completed this year within Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Bears Ears National Monument has a rich cultural heritage and is sacred to many American Indian Tribes who continue to rely on these lands for traditional and ceremonial uses. River House is an ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling in the monument built along the San Juan River with multiple rooms and kivas that are used for religious purposes. Sacred sites like River House are a foundation of the diverse history in Utah. The River House stabilization project provided the opportunity to honor and preserve the past for future generations.

River House – 1908 Expedition led by Byron Cummings. Photograph by Neil Judd – University of Utah. Current photo of the River house by Reyce Knutson.
River House: Photograph by Neil Judd – University of Utah for the 1908 Expedition led by Byron Cummings. Current photo of the River House in 2021.

Visitation to River House has increased tremendously over the years, and the cultural heritage site has not had major stabilization work completed since the 1980s. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Utah has a partnership with Friends of Cedar Mesa, Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, and Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants to protect and preserve cultural resources in Bears Ears National Monument. The River House stabilization project was completed by the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps with support from the other organizations involved. The Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps team members are American Indian youth. While working at River House, they learned more about their connections to this living cultural landscape and participated in the stewardship of public lands in Utah. During record-setting summer temperatures this year, members of Ancestral Lands Corps worked with BLM staff from the Monticello Field Office and our partners to improve the structural integrity of River House, which is made of sandstone and clay. 

Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps crew members at River House and a preservation kit with people in the background.
Preserve Cultural History: "It's important that these younger folks were able to come and join us, and not only be a part of the process to help preserve their cultural history, but also to learn about that cultural history. To learn more--about who they are, where they come from, and why it's important to be a part of the preservation process. That requires the participation and the presence of these indigenous individuals out in the field, helping to care and maintain their ancestral history that is out there. The projects that we did this summer were beneficial in that regard. They served to involve indigenous communities that are the descendant communities of the people who once lived and occupied these ancestral sites; to strengthen, reconnect the cultural values and traditions and connections that indigenous people have with their ancestral landscapes that are still out there." – Lyle Balenquah, Independent Hopi Archaeologist – Village of Paaqavi, Greasewood Clan

River House has a prehistoric passive solar home design. The cave admits warm sunlight in the cold winter months and provides cool shade in the hot summer months. In the winter, sunlight reaches throughout the cave, warming the walls and air. At night, the heat absorbed by the rock walls radiates back into the rooms of River House. During the summer, sunlight does not reach the back half of the cave. The naturally cool walls of the cave and the shade from the cave roof help keep the rooms cool on hot summer days. 

Visitors and Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps workers observe the River House cliff dwelling with a staircase leading down to a rocky area.
Passive Solar Home Design: Visitors and Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps workers observe the shaded River House cliff dwelling with a staircase leading down to a rocky area.

Ancestral Puebloans occupied River House for hundreds of years, and succeeding generations remodeled the original rooms into the walls standing today. Prehistoric farmers occupied River House dwelling, and the rectangular rooms were used for both living and storage. They grew several types of cultivated crops – particularly corn, beans and squash – on the San Juan River floodplain near the base of the cliffs. Dried crop surpluses were kept in pottery jars and granaries (storage rooms). 

Twill weave basket and sandals excavated from River House along the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah. These items were recovered during stabilization work at the site, and likely date to the late Pueblo period (AD 900 to 1300). Corn cobs near rocks.
Artifacts: Twill weave basket and sandals excavated from River House along the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah. These items were recovered during stabilization work in 2016 at the site, and likely date to the late Pueblo period (AD 900 to 1300). Corn cobs at the River House.

      
Each room and artifact embrace the stories of Ancestral Puebloans and provides a glimpse into their lives as prehistoric farmers, artisans and religious practitioners. Protecting these cultural heritage sites through shared stewardship is vital to preserving irreplaceable cultural resources that are part of our Nation's heritage. Learn more about the River House stabilization project in our new video: Stabilizing the Past, Bringing Stability to the Future.

When visiting cultural heritage sites, please respect them. You can help protect these sites by staying on designated paths, not taking or moving artifacts, and not entering dwellings. Walking near or in archeological structures can damage fragile walls and resources that might not be visible. 

 

Stabilizing the Past, Bringing Stability to the Future