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Who were the Ancestral Pueblo people (Anasazi)?
What became of them? Where did they go?
What language did they speak?
What was Ancestral Pueblo architecture like?
What kind of government and social structure did they have?
What were their religious activities like?
Did the Ancestral Puebloans study astronomy?
Did they communicate and trade with other cultures?
What clothing did they wear?
How did they farm?
How did people make their living besides farming?
What did they eat, and how did they prepare their food?
What was Ancestral Puebloan pottery like?
Why is pottery so important to archaeologists?
What other tools did they have?
What is the meaning of rock art? Where can I see some rock art?
Where can I find a map of Ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites?
What is unique about the Escalante and Dominguez Pueblos?
What is the Dolores Archaeological Program?
How can I join an archaeological excavation?

     Ancestral Pueblo village scene











 Who were the Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi) ?

They were the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people, today about 20 communities living in New Mexico and Arizona. There is extensive literature available about the culture of modern and historic Pueblo people. 

There never was an "Anasazi tribe", nor did anyone ever call themselves by that name. Anasazi is originally a Navajo word that archaeologists applied to people who farmed the Four Corners before 1300 AD. 

Archaeologists identify a culture through its artifacts, since members of a culture share traditions of architecture, crafts, symbolisms, etc. When the Anasazi or Pueblo culture began is a matter of definition, because there is no single event or trait which defines it. . The earliest traces of the culture date before AD 1 (perhaps as early as 1500 BC) in characteristic kinds of basketry, sandals, art, tools, architecture, settlement patterns, and incipient agriculture.

According to Pueblo oral traditions, different groups came from different directions and points of origin before meeting to form the clans and communities of today. Modern Pueblos speak several different languages and do not share a common term for their ancestors. The Hopi name is Hisatsinom.

The ancestral Puebloan homeland was centered in the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau-- southern Utah, northern Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and a lesser section of Colorado-- where their occupation lasted until 1280 or so. By 1300 AD the population centers had shifted south to the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and the Mogollon Rim in central Arizona, where related people had already been living for centuries. The Spanish who arrived in the 1500s named them the Pueblos, meaning "villagers," as distinct from nomadic people.


Modern Pueblo people dislike the name "Anasazi" which they consider an ethnic slur. This Navajo word means ancient enemy (or old-time stranger, alien, foreigner, outsider) although it has been in common use for about about 70 years. Here is an excerpt from Dr. William Lipe's comments on the subject:  

"The earliest published reference was by Kidder in the mid-1930s.... J.O. Brew (1946) rails against the use of the term 'Anasazi' on the grounds that a Navajo term is inappropriate for an obviously Puebloan culture, that 'Basketmaker-Pueblo' or 'Puebloan' had precedence in the literature, and would do just as well for continued reference to this cultural tradition... My guess is that this Navajo word... caught on in the middle 1930s [with archaeologists because] it did not imply any particular cultural relationship... It was bad practice to pre-judge the historical conclusions by identifying a prehistoric archaeological complex with some historically or ethnographically known culture."


Today, however, no doubt remains that these prehistoric people were ancestral to modern Pueblos, who insist that their ancestors did not permanently "abandon" their former territories. Modern Pueblos still make pilgrimages to ancestral village sites, have oral histories about them, and maintain shrines in the Four Corners region.


What happened to these people ?

The Ancestral Puebloan farmers were relatively successful in the Four Corners area for over a thousand years, but by AD 1300 they had left the entire region. Long-term climate changes that reduced crop yield may have been among the reasons that the Ancestral Puebloans finally moved away from their former homeland.

Tree-ring records and other indicators show that persistent drought and/or shortened frost-free seasons affected this region during several prehistoric periods, including the early 900s, the early 1100s, and the late 1200s. Each of these periods corresponds to shifts in settlement pattern. The last period (late 1200s) witnessed the final, widespread Puebloan migrations out of the Four Corners. Other factors responsible for this exodus may have been deforestation or other kinds of environmental degradation, a growing scarcity of land or other resources, and/or political conflicts related to these problems.

The Ancestral Puebloans may have reached the limit of the natural resources available to them. When crops consistently failed, the people moved to a better location. Archaeologists also see evidence of social changes over time, changes perhaps related to internal pressures or to outside competition from non-Pueblo groups.

In the Dolores Valley, research revealed that people began settling in small villages around AD 500. The settlements were heavily populated between AD 600 and 900 when conditions were most favorable for agriculture. The number of households, hamlets, and villages increased as the population grew.

Environmental conditions began to change around AD 900, as cooler temperatures made farming unreliable. Families began leaving the Dolores area to pursue agriculture and community life at lower elevations nearby. In later centuries the population rebounded and use of the area continued through the 1200s. In southwestern Colorado, some settlement areas persisted for centuries but with internal changes such as a trend toward concentration into larger, fewer villages.

While the Four Corners settlements declined, more southerly areas began to develop and grow. The Rio Grande pueblos and the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni grew in numbers after AD 1300, perhaps including people from this region. Evidence also exists for sudden population growth around the Homolovi area near Winslow, Arizona. The Acoma of New Mexico and the Hopi people of Arizona say that some of their clans came from the Four Corners region.



What language did they speak ?


No one knows what language the Ancestral Puebloans spoke. The culture was widespread in space and time, so it is likely that different languages were spoken.


Modern Pueblos speak several languages within the broad Uto-Aztecan language group, which also includes the Nahuatl or Aztec, Ute, and Tarahumara languages. Pueblo languages include


•  Tanoan languages (including Tewa and Tiwa) spoken at pueblos of the Rio Grande area.

•  Keresan, spoken at Acoma, Laguna, and Santo Domingo Pueblos

•  Zuni, a unique language isolate

•  Hopi, which is related to Shoshonean and Ute


What was Ancestral Pueblo architecture like ?

Pueblo people have created and lived in a variety of shelters over the last 2000 years. The earliest constructions were family unit pithouses, which were shallow excavations roofed over by earth and wood. The first hamlets and villages were usually a row or arc of small, square rooms, built of sticks and mud plaster, set behind a cluster of pithouses.

The Ancestral Puebloans generally did not make adobes or mud bricks. The earliest pueblos often had walls made of clay covering a lattice of sticks-- called jacal construction-- usually anchored to a row of foundation stones. Later villages had stone stem walls below upper jacal walls. Later still, walls were mostly stone masonry-- sometimes carefully shaped, sometimes not-- held together with mud/clay mortar. Roofing was layers of brush and clay over a frame of sticks and logs.

Later, multi-family "pueblos" were built with shaped stones. One major advantage to pueblo construction is that adding rooms to a pueblo is much easier than digging a new pithouse. The first pueblos were single story buildings, but evolved into larger multi-level complexes beginning about 900-1000 AD. Pueblo-type villages resemble modern apartment blocks, but with many rooms devoted to food storage. A classic, modern example is Taos Pueblo in New Mexico.

Pithouse-type villages and pueblo-type villages overlapped in time. The earliest pueblos were really an arc of storage rooms behind a cluster of pithouses. Gradually the above-ground storage rooms became living/sleeping/working rooms, while the pithouses became deeper and less numerous. After this transition, archaeologists often refer to them as kivas. Some kivas in the western Anasazi area were square rooms, as are Hopi kivas today.


There are several differences between the kivas in modern Pueblo villages and the "kivas" found at Ancestral Puebloan sites. The kivas in archaeological sites are much more numerous than kivas in modern villages, and may have had different functions. They may have belonged to individual families or clans. Since their form evolved from earlier habitations (pithouses), ancient kivas probably were used more often as working or sleeping quarters than are modern kivas.


"Great Kivas" are a different kind of building. They are usually not  found connected to any single family unit or set of living rooms. They are larger than simple kivas, and apparently they were used to host community events. The oldest known great kivas are as old as the earliest pithouse villages, dating from around AD 1. In terms of use and meaning, great kivas may be the true ancestors of modern, communal kivas.


It is worth pointing out that the actual "living room" space in Ancestral Pueblo villages was usually outside on a rooftop or plaza during good weather. Indoor areas were mainly for sleeping or working in wet, windy, or cold weather. Most of the rooms in a pueblo were storage rooms, like a house full of closets.


Between AD 1200 and 1300 in the Four Corners region, many large and small pueblos were built into shallow caves. Known today as "cliff dwellings," these village sites offer several environmental advantages: They shelter the buildings from rain and snow, they usually have a good solar orientation (shade in the summer, sun in the winter), a spring is often found at the back of these caves, and cave villages do not occupy scarce agricultural land. However, the absence of cliff dwellings before AD 1200-- and their sudden, widespread adoption throughout the Four Corners region after that date-- indicate other motivations for this change. Many cliff dwellings have very defensible locations and defensive architecture; the difficulty of access must have been a disadvantage to some inhabitants. Recent evidence indicates that malnutrition and famine were not uncommon during this period, and that violent events sometimes took place, so cliff dwelling architecture may represent a response to social stress.




What kind of government and social structures did they have ?


Modern Pueblo groups share certain social patterns. Traditionally they are all matrilineal, meaning that clan affiliation is reckoned through the female line, and children "belong" to the mother's clan. They are matrilocal, meaning that husbands traditionally move into the bride's family household. Their society is matriarchal, meaning that homes and farm land are owned by and inherited from the mother, and a wife has the right to divorce and evict her husband. However, some kinds of civil and religious authority are usually reserved for men. Among the Hopi, for instance, the village chief or kikmongwi sometimes has been a woman, but usually the kikmongwi is a man.


Archaeological evidence is indirect, and does not usually reveal much about a people's beliefs, religion, political system, or social customs. Sometimes the geographic patterning of settlements in the landscape-- or the placement of buildings within a village-- are indicators of social relationships. Otherwise, we can only assume that many cultural patterns are the same now as they were a thousand years ago, and the Pueblos tell us they were. For example: In recent times, men were the weavers, and they socialized in the kivas. In archaeological sites, we often find evidence of weaving in kivas. But our understanding of Anasazi rules of property and authority are still too vague to be certain about them. At least there is nothing that would indicate that roles have been reversed.


Many modern Pueblo people believe their 13th century ancestors were organized into clans and were governed by clan elders. Some archaeologists doubt that the clan system existed at that time because they see little evidence for it. They theorize that clan formation was a response to social and geographical dislocations ca. AD 1300 - 1400, and to a need for a new way to define relationships between new neighbors. In this view, clans represent people who previously migrated as a group and then settled with other groups to form a larger community.


It is common to find popular references to "Anasazi cities." According to the narrowest definition, a city is a large settlement of non-farmers who make their living through trade and/or the manufacture of specialized products. The clustered settlements within Chaco Canyon, New Mexico during the period AD 1000-1100 might have approached the definition of a true city. However, the Anasazi culture region was much wider than Chaco's sphere of influence. The vast majority of Anasazi settlements are better defined as farming villages.


Recent research indicates that, as the landscape grew more crowded over time, dispersed settlements aggregated into larger communities with smaller hamlets surrounding the core villages. There is also evidence of status differences among the later Ancestral Puebloans, as seen by differences in architecture and burial possessions. However, compared to many ancient societies, the Ancestral Puebloans appear to have been relatively egalitarian without well-defined class distinctions.



 What were their religious activities like ?

Archaeology does not reveal much about beliefs, religion, political system, or social customs of a people, so evidence about ancient religion is necessarily indirect. But many early religious ideas and traditions are no doubt preserved in the modern Pueblo culture.

Pueblo religion is still based on maintaining harmony with the natural world, which was the key to survival for ancient people. Like today, the Ancestral Puebloans probably held public and private ceremonies intended to benefit the group as a whole. Different segments of society may have been responsible for different events, each one important to the spiritual and material well-being of the community. Some modern villages ritually divide themselves into "summer people and winter people," or "squash people and turquoise people" with each half assuming different religious responsibilities. .

Careful observation of the sun, moon and stars was essential for planning activities such as when to start planting and when to prepare for winter. Important religious concepts and events were associated with seasonal tasks like farming (in spring and summer) and hunting (in fall and winter). As in many other agricultural societies, rituals were keyed to annual events like the winter solstice or the beginning of the harvest season. Animal figures pecked or painted images on rock walls may have been connected to prayers or magical rituals for successful hunting.

Shamans and shamanic practices are rarely found in Pueblo society. True shamans usually belong to nomadic cultures. Shamans seek visions for healing, warfare, finding game, predicting the future, etc. Shamans may be marked from an early age by physical deformities, epileptic seizures, and/or hallucinations.They use intoxicants, hypnotic chanting, prolonged dancing, or pain to reach the spirit world and communicate with spirits on behalf of their people. There is evidence that ancestral Pueblos occasionally sought visions-- seeds of the hallucinogenic Datura plant were recovered from a kiva at Mesa Verde, and some pottery vessels imitate Datura seed pods-- but vision quests are not now considered part of traditional Pueblo culture.

By contrast, Pueblo religious specialists draw wisdom from inherited traditions rather than from ecstatic visions. They are often chosen by family lineage. Their power comes from their responsibility for ceremonies, their initiation into religious societies, and their possession of secret knowledge.They are expected to be exemplary members of the community. Pueblo priests bring rain through ceremony and prayer. Like shamans, they are thought to have a special level of communication with the spirits and deities through their profession and personal character.

Spirit beings called Kachinas (or Katsinas) are important within all modern Pueblo villages. Kachinas are ancestor spirits who bring rain, and who appear as masked dancers in Pueblo villages during the summer. The earliest trace of kachina imagery in rock art appears in west Texas, southern New Mexico, and central Arizona. However, the archaeological record indicates that the concept of kachinas came relatively late into the Pueblo world. There is no evidence of them at communities in Colorado and Utah during the 1200s and before.


Did they study astronomy ?

Probably all Ancestral Puebloans anticipated and marked the summer and winter solstices. Careful observation of the sun, moon and stars was essential for planning activities such as when to start planting and when to prepare for winter. As in many other agricultural societies, important rituals were keyed to annual celestial events like the solstices and equinoxes.

Several known rock art sites mark the solstices, and perhaps the equinoxes as well. At Hovenweep National Monument, a narrow shaft of light crosses the center of a spiral marking on the bedrock near Holly Pueblo.

Among the most famous solstice markers is the so-called "Sun Dagger" at Chaco Canyon. This delicate site is not normally open to the public.

Most remarkably, the alignment and construction dates of the structures at the Chimney Rock archaeological site near Pagosa Springs, Colorado offers strong evidence that the ancient people understood and anticipated an 18.6 year lunar cycle.

Dr. J. McKim ("Kim") Malville, a professor of astronomy at the University of Colorado, has published extensively on Anasazi astronomical alignments.



Did the Ancestral Puebloans communicate and trade with other groups ?

Ancestral Puebloan communities were not isolated from each other, or from other cultures in western North America. They participated in a far-reaching network of trade that brought exotic items from as far away as the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Plains. Such items probably traveled by passing from person to person, or group to group. There is no evidence they intentionally organized a widespread regional trade network, except maybe within the Chaco canyon system during the11th century.

Trade items arrived from other cultures to the south, but most trade took place among different Anasazi areas stretching from Colorado to Nevada. The Puebloans obtained California sea shells, parrots, and copper bells made in western Mexico. Mogollon people were probably a conduit for the Mexican bells and parrots. The Hohokam area around Phoenix produced cotton, which the Anasazi ultimately received, but apparently most other goods did not arrive via the Hohokam.

On the more local level, a potter might find her wares in demand, as would a successful farmer with surplus corn. Marriage partners probably came from neighboring villages. Such activities kept open lines of communication between groups.

Information exchange was an important by-product of trade. What were other communities doing? How was the climate in other areas? How did others irrigate? How did other people make kivas? Such communication was involved in learning to make pottery, learning new farming techniques, acquiring the bow and arrow, and other important advances.

Traders traveled on footpaths, and there must have been a vast network of these. The "roads" extending from Chaco Canyon have excited much interest and speculation, but some archaeologists feel they should not be considered as genuine roads at all. The Chacoan network was apparently quite limited in time and space. The "roads" found so far only connect a few Chaco sites to one another, not to more distant culture areas. They are more clearly marked and constructed at either end than in their remote middle parts. They run very straight, sometimes intersecting cliffs and canyons, so they are not practical for foot travel. (Compare the Inca roads of South America, which really were functional for commerce.)



What did they wear ?

Little clothing has been found because it is so perishable. Some knowledge of early clothing comes from comparing archeological evidence to the traditional clothing of the historic Pueblo Indians.

The people wove textiles from cotton obtained in trade from southern areas. Weaving on large upright-frame looms was probably done mostly by men working in the kivas. They also wove blankets, shirts, robes, aprons, kilts, breechcloths, socks, and belts using various vegetal fibers, animal hair, and human hair. They also made thick robes using split feathers or fur strips wrapped around a yucca fiber core. Matted fiber from juniper bark was used for diapers and menstrual pads, and for insulating sandal-clad feet during cold weather.

Footwear included sandals, moccasins, and possibly snowshoes. Sandals were usually made of plaited or woven yucca fibers and came in a variety of styles. Animal hides may have provided material for some clothing, but very few leather moccasins or other leather garments have been found.

Jewelry was common. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, arm bands, hair combs, and pins were made from wood, bone, shell (including abalone), coral, jet (coal), and stone beads made of turquoise, slate, and other minerals. Some ornaments may have had ritual significance as badges of office. Jewelry probably helped define social status, especially in larger communities.


How did the Ancestral Puebloans farm ?

This region's earliest inhabitants were originally hunters and gatherers. In time, agricultural knowledge came north from Mexico. Evidence exists for some corn agriculture by 1500 BC. By AD 1, people we call the Basketmakers began to rely on dry farming (using soil moisture from melted snow, summer rainstorms, and occasional springs). The first farmers probably did not plant crops and leave them to survive on their own. Most archaeologists believe that agriculture requires people to settle down in order to be successful. Corn usually needs periodic care and protection throughout the growing season. Major crops eventually included corn, beans, and squash.

Farming became the mainstay of the Ancestral Puebloan economy and supported a large population. Although it is difficult to estimate accurately, the Montezuma County area may have been occupied by as many as 20,000 people during the peak years between AD 1000 and 1300— roughly the same number as live there today. Each person is estimated to have needed about one acre's worth of corn per year as an adequate food supply.

Most settlements in our area were found at elevations around 6800 ft (2100 m) above sea level, where both precipitation and growing season are favorable for farming, and the hunting and gathering is also good. At higher elevations the growing season is usually too short for most crops to mature, and lower elevations are often too dry for successful dry-farming.

Like their historic and modern Pueblo descendants, the Ancestral Puebloans probably cared for the plants periodically throughout the spring and summer. They rarely practiced river irrigation, except near the Rio Grande in New Mexico, but they often captured rain runoff for agricultural use. Community planning and labor went into water control projects such as reservoirs and small dams. 

The Puebloans farmed mesa tops, plains, or canyon bottoms, depending on local variables. They farmed intensively, planting large and small patches of land— wherever there was sufficient water, warmth and light to support a few plants. Archaeologists' experiments suggest that the Dolores people might have been able to produce up to 40 bushels of corn per acre through careful management and under ideal conditions. Modern dry-farming methods produce about 14 bushels per acre.

The Ancestral Puebloans gradually farmed more and hunted less over time, but they continued to hunt and gather wild plants long after they had settled in year-round villages. The weather in this region has always been erratic, and crop failures were probably fairly common even in the best of times.

Drought and other climatic changes were constant threats. Surplus corn was stored to provide food during bad years. Large storerooms became prominent features of communities. Changing precipitation patterns, shortened growing seasons, and/or cool summers could, and probably did, spell disaster for many local settlements. Extended drought was one factor which caused them to finally leave the Four Corners region.


How did the Ancestral Puebloans make their living besides farming ?

Hunting and gathering, the primary food resources of the earliest people, were never totally abandoned. When crops were reduced by drought or cold weather-- or as the population grew larger-- communities were forced to rely more on game and wild plants to make up the difference. Meat remained the major source of protein. Piñon nuts, yucca fruit, berries and other wild plants were still part of the diet. The people also gathered plant materials to make baskets, clothing and tools.

Garden plots actually made hunting easier by attracting rabbits, birds and mice. The people also hunted deer and elk in the mountains, and antelope and bighorn sheep at lower elevations.

The Ancestral Puebloans did not move seasonally to the lowlands to hunt or gather wild plants. Lower elevations in this region are mostly desert, with few game animals or food plants. If they did make extended hunting and gathering trips, it is more likely they went uphill toward the mountains, but we have not found evidence of seasonal camps at higher elevations.


What did they eat, and how did they prepare their food ?

Although the Anasazi were farmers of corn, beans, and squash, they also hunted and gathered wild plants for food. Studies indicate that sometimes people depended more on wild foods than on farmed crops.

Corn was dried and stored on the cob. Strips of dried squash hung in the storage rooms. Wild plant foods were also stored and prepared for cooking. Piñon nuts, sunflower and other seeds had to be winnowed and hulled before they could be cooked and eaten.Corn kernels were parched in jars that lay on their sides near the fire.

Women spent hours each day grinding corn into flour with manos and metates. Beans were soaked then cooked in large jars. Vessels full of stew or mush may have been placed directly over fires, or hot rocks were dropped into the contents. They probably made paper-thin piki (a Hopi word) by spreading corn meal batter on a hot greased rock.

Mice and rabbits were probably more important sources of meat than larger game such as deer or bighorn sheep. Among the larger game animals, wild sheep apparently were more abundant than deer. Large animals were butchered at the kill site. Back at home the meat was roasted, stewed, or dried for jerky. Long bones were cracked to extract marrow, and hides were cured for other uses.

Turkeys were domesticated and used mainly for feathers, or as pets. They also were good for keeping bugs out of gardens. There is little evidence that turkeys or turkey eggs or dogs were eaten.



What was Ancestral Puebloan pottery like ?

Pottery and agriculture usually appear in ancient cultures at about the same time. Pottery is more practical for settled people who do not move frequently. Nomads commonly use baskets for storage and transport, but pottery better protects stored food from insects and rodents.


Much of the earliest Puebloan pottery is not decorated, but simple decorations (lines, dots, zigzags) appear at almost the same time as the undecorated pieces, around AD 575 in the Four Corners. In general, designs become denser and more precise over time up until about 1250-1300 AD, which is the end of the Anasazi (or Pueblo) period in Colorado. Pottery designs from Colorado usually are bold geometric patterns in black-on-white, although sometimes they include obvious representations of birds or lizards, or humans. These geometric motifs seem to have originated from basketry decorations, in which straight and right-angle lines and stepped patterns were easier to create than curving forms.

We do not know what the geometric designs mean. According to the Pueblos, some of them signify clan affiliation.They may also represent family or village affiliation, or simply the potter's imagination. Many have been identified by Hopis and other Pueblo groups as symbolic of clouds, birds, bear claws, spider webs, water, friendship, migration, etc.

Other kinds pf pottery included plain-surfaced and textured or corrugated cooking vessels. Black-on-red pottery from northern Arizona was traded throughout the Four Corners, as were Red-on-buff styles from Utah. Shapes included jars, bowls, pitchers, ladles, canteens, figurines, and a variety of miniatures.

Firing was done with wood fuel at relatively low temperatures, and apparently took place in earth trenches. To achieve a black-and-white result, the firing environment must be oxygen-deprived (reduction atmosphere) but without excess carbon which would produce an all-black surface.


For more info, try these reference books:

  • Breternitz, David A., Arthur H. Rohn, Jr., and Elizabeth A. Morris (1974)

Prehistoric Ceramics of the Mesa Verde Region.

Museum of Northern Arizona Ceramic Series No. 5., Flagstaff , Arizona .


  • Dittert, Alfred E., Jr., and Fred Plog (1980)

Generations in Clay: Pueblo Pottery of the American Southwest.

Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Press.


  • Hayes, Allan and John Blom (1996)

Southwestern Pottery - Anasazi to Zuni

Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Publishing


  • Lister, Robert H. and Florence C. (1978)

Anasazi Pottery

Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press


  • Oppelt, Ted (1991)

Earth, Water, and Fire

Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Publishing Company


  • Peckham, Stewart (1990)

From This Earth

Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico



Why is pottery important to archaeologists ?

Ancient pottery contains hidden clues about the people who made it.

Styles and designs changed through time, and varied across regions. Pottery can be sorted or "typed" into categories based on grouped traits such as color, texture, decoration and vessel shape. Archaeologists often name a ceramic type after the place where the pottery of that style was first identified--for example, Mancos Black-on-gray (from Mancos, Colorado) or Tin Cup Polychrome (from Tin Cup Mesa, Utah).

Archaeologists follow the principle that most pottery made in one place and time tends to be fairly uniform in decoration. Consequently, ceramic fragments ("sherds") can indirectly show when a household or village was occupied. Since certain designs are unique to specific geographic areas and periods, studying and classifying designs helps to reconstruct social affiliation, communication networks, and trade relationships between regions. The distribution of certain styles indicates degrees of cultural continuity or discontinuity across times and places. It would be valuable to know if certain designs "belonged" to a family, clan, or village; or how free a potter was to invent or borrow designs.

Temper (gritty binding material) in the clay may be traceable to a geologic source area where the pottery was made. Its surface may retain pollen from food plants or scrapings from a meal.


What other tools did they have ?


The Ancestral Puebloans' many tools can be categorized by their use-- such as hunting tools, building tools, gardening tools, weaving and sewing tools, tools to make other tools, etc.-- or by the materials the tools were made from, such as stone, wood, plant fiber, etc. Many tools were probably made of materials which did not survive for centuries in archaeological sites, so we know little about these.

BASKETRY is an extremely old technology going back many thousands of years. Willow, sumac, yucca and apocynum were commonly-used materials in this part of the world. Baskets were used as backpacks to carry food, firewood, tools, etc. Pitch-lined baskets were used for carrying water, and probably for cooking (by dropping in hot rocks into the water). Baskets are far more useful to nomads than pottery would be, because they are not as heavy or fragile. Although the craft of basketry is certainly much older than pottery, its survival in archaeological sites is rarer. The earliest period of the Ancestral Puebloan culture is called the Basketmaker era because of their mastery of this important skill.

STONE TOOLS have survived very well. Archaeologists separate stone tools into two categories according to how they were made: FLAKED STONE TOOLS are made by carefully breaking apart and chipping rocks like obsidian or chert. These are sharp-edged tools for cutting or piercing, such as spear and arrow points, knives, and drill points. GROUND STONE TOOLS are shaped by grinding one stone against another stone. Ground stone tools are not made of brittle rock and can be pounded on. They do not have sharp edges. These include axe heads (which have a thin but not a sharp edge), hammer stones, manos and metates (for grinding foods), and mortars or paint palettes (small cup shaped indentations for grinding pigments). Ground stone tools can be made of granite, basalt, sandstone, or other kinds of rock. Small STONE DRILLS were made of flaked stone, and might have been used in making beads and other kinds of jewelry. Sandstone blocks used in house construction must have been shaped with stone HAMMERS made of harder material.


HUNTING TOOLS serve to catch or kill animals (weapons for warfare are very similar): ATLATLS or spear-throwers have been found throughout the world, so the concept is probably very ancient. An atlatl is a piece of wood about a meter long, with a hand grip of leather or sinew on one end and a "tooth" or notch on the other, to hold the end of a spear. An atlatl works to make the hunter's arm much longer, allowing him to throw a spear with great force and distance. They may have come into North American with the first immigrants over 20,000 years ago.


The BOW and ARROW were introduced more recently, about 1500 years ago on this continent. Many kinds of strong, flexible wood could be used for the bow. SINEW from animal hide or gut was twisted together to make the bow string. ARROW SHAFTS were made straight by grinding semi-straight branches against a SHAFT STRAIGHTENER, a tool which is a small flat-faced piece of sandstone with a deep groove cut into it. THROWING STICKS (sometimes called RABBIT STICKS) were thrown at small game during a chase.


SNARES and NETS were also hunting tools woven from plant fibers such as yucca. A snare is a trap which closes when an animal steps on it. People would also walk or run in long lines to chase animals into a long net held by other people. Some Ancestral Puebloan nets were hundreds of yards long. Snares and nets are rarely preserved in archaeological sites since they were made from perishable material, and archaeologists may underestimate how common or important they were to ancient people.


FLESHERS or SCRAPERS were spatula-shaped tools, usually made from the leg bone of a large mammal, used to remove fat and flesh from the inside surface of a hide. Various kinds of KNIVES, and other cutting tools made of flaked stone, also helped in butchering an animal.


DIGGING STICKS were hardened wood shafts used to make holes in the earth for planting seeds of corn, beans, and squash in gardens.


COOKING and EATING TOOLS would include WOODEN DRILLS used to kindle fire when spun against another piece of wood. BOWLS, CUPS, POTS, and LADLES were made of pottery and used for boiling and serving food. METATES are large, flat stones for grinding corn and other seeds into meal. MANOS are hand-held stones used to grind against a metate.


WEAVING and SEWING TOOLS were very important to the Ancestral Puebloans. They spun cotton fibers into yarn on a DROP SPINDLE (a wooden shaft on a pottery disc). They wove cotton yarn and other fibers into cloth on a LOOM which was a vertical wooden frame. A BATTEN is a flat, wide stick used to separate lines of yarn during weaving. Animal bones were made into SEWING NEEDLES and AWLS for piercing and stitching hide to make clothing such as moccasins, leggings, shirts, etc.


The Ancestral Puebloans made ROPE, TWINE, and THREAD for many purposes. Coarse rope was often made from yucca fiber, and fine thread was sometimes made from twisted human hair.


POTTERY-MAKING TOOLS included SCRAPERS and SHAPERS which could be made of many things-- other fragments of pottery, wood, or pieces of a gourd shell. Small yucca BRUSHES were used to paint decorations on pottery.


CALENDAR MARKERS were also a kind of tool-- these were sometimes holes in a wall, or rocks set upright in a high place, used to mark the arrival of a season (solstice) by a shadow or a shaft of light which fell on one exact location only one day per year. Knowing the date was very important for farmers who had to decide when to plant their crops.




What is the meaning of rock art?  Where can I see some?

Like many prehistoric peoples, the Ancestral Puebloans pecked or painted a variety of images on the sandstone cliffs. Some of them might have been idle doodling. But the sustained effort needed to create them and the interpretations offered by Native Americans indicate that most images probably have deeper meanings.

For instance, some spirals may signify the sun's movement, or the passage of time. In certain places, shafts of sunlight strike a spiral differently at the spring and autumn equinoxes, and the winter and summer solstices. These spirals probably served as part of a ritual calendar. Elsewhere, according to modern Pueblos, spirals are symbols of a group's migration from one locale to another.

Other symbols may have been maps showing out the locations of springs, villages, and other features. Animal figures may have played roles in rituals or prayers for successful hunting. Corn plants might represent a successful harvest. Some symbols evidently represent family, clan, or ceremonial society affiliation. Some of these same designs appear in the decorations of early Puebloan pottery.

In the Four Corners area, petroglyphs' dates extend from ca. 3000 BC though the 19th century, and on to the present. They represent (among others) the Desert Archaic tradition, the Ancestral Pueblo or Anasazi culture, historic Ute, and historic Navajo cultures.


Most petroglyph locations are not marked on maps or roadways. Mesa Verde National Park has one impressive panel known as "Petroglyph Point" that is accessible by a 2-mile trail. Hovenweep National Monument has a well-known solstice marker petroglyph site. Newspaper Rock State Park, near Monticello in southeast Utah, is a drive-up site with many images and time periods represented. In general, there seem to be more petroglyphs in southeast Utah than in the adjacent part of Colorado.


Good source books for petroglyphs of our area are Indian Rock Art of the Southwest by Polly Schaafsma (U of New Mexico Press 1980) and Legacy on Stone by Sally Cole (Johnson Books, Boulder, 1990).



What is unique about the Escalante and Dominguez Pueblos ?

These sites were excavated and stabilized in 1976, and are adjacent to the Anasazi Heritage Center.

In 1776 a small expedition headed north from Santa Fe, seeking a route to the California missions while exploring unknown territory. The group was led by Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez. His fellow Franciscan, Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante, kept the expedition journal. They failed to reach California, but they did describe and map a large portion of the interior West.

In the early weeks of their journey the expedition camped by a river they knew as El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores (the River of Our Lady of Sorrows) near the present town of Dolores. On August 13, 1776, Escalante wrote in his journal:

"Upon an elevation on the river's south side, there was in ancient times a small settlement of the same type as the Indians of New Mexico, as the ruins we purposely inspected show." 

The ruins that Escalante noted might be the sites which now bear their names. Theirs was the first written report of Pueblo settlements in present-day Colorado.

The Dominguez Pueblo was a small household settlement on the grounds of the Anasazi Heritage Center. All that remains today are the foundation stones of four rooms. The structure was originally roofed with poles, brush, and mud plaster. Just south of the room block was a kiva where residents would have carried out social and religious activities. The site, typical of our area in the early 1100s, was occupied at the same time as the Escalante Pueblo at the top of the hill. Excavation at the Dominguez site recovered 6,900 turquoise, jet and shell beads; a shell and turquoise frog pendant and mosaics, two fine ceramic vessels, six bone scrapers, a woven mat and many other items.

Some archaeologists interpret Escalante Pueblo as an outpost of the Chaco culture, which was centered in New Mexico. It was built around AD 1120 to 1130, when Puebloan groups were flourishing throughout the Four Corners region and trade among various groups was active.The pueblo shows typical Chaco-style architecture— a large rectangular room block enclosing living rooms, storage rooms, and a kiva. Dressed stone outer walls filled with a rubble core, and the kiva's sub-floor fresh-air ventilator are also characteristic of Chaco.

The Dominguez Pueblo is just one of several small local (Northern San Juan) type settlements surrounding Escalante. Among the many questions that remain to be answered: Did Chacoans establish Escalante Pueblo because of the many nearby communities, or did the local people cluster around Escalante to be close to the action?


Archaeological site locations

"Where can I find a map showing archaeological sites in the Southwest?"


No map will show all the archaeological sites. In Montezuma County, Colorado, for instance, there are about 20,000 known Ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites, and thousands more elsewhere. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument alone includes about 6,000 sites recorded so far, and many more are expected. Most of these sites are small and not immediately obvious to the untrained eye.

As a matter of policy the BLM does not publicize precise locations for most of these sites. More than a century of looting and vandalism has shown the damage such publicity can do. However, many books show the extent of territory occupied by this culture, and identify a large number of well-known individual sites. Among these, we suggest

  • Ancient Pueblo Peoples by Linda S. Cordell
  • Ancient Ruins of the Southwest by David Grant Noble
  • The Prehistoric Pueblo World by Michael A. Adler



What was the Dolores Archaeological Program ?

When the Bureau of Reclamation began the construction of McPhee Dam near Dolores, Colorado, federal law required an archaeological investigation of the area that would be affected by the new reservoir. During 1978-86 the Dolores Archaeological Program (DAP) employed more than 500 people and took over eight years to survey and retrieve information from 1600 prehistoric households and villages in the Dolores River Valley. The DAP was the largest public archaeology project ever undertaken in the United States. Archaeologists fully excavated 120 sites, providing an intensive look at Ancestral Puebloan life in the Dolores area. The resulting collections are preserved at the Anasazi Heritage Center, which a a legally-designated federal repository for archaeological materials from public lands.



Excavation Opportunities

"Where can I join an archaeological expedition or dig?"


Most archaeological digs are not staffed by volunteers. Most are of two kinds:


  • A professional archaeology company is hired to survey an area where modern construction will take place-- a building, a highway, a canal, a power line, etc- and write a report on the area before work begins. These are called "salvage" archaeology projects, which may or may not involve actual excavation. Archaeological surveys are required by law if the construction project involves publicly-owned land.


  • Students pay to join a dig or expedition, which is sponsored by a college or other institution. In our area, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center offers such an opportunity. See their web site at www.crowcanyon.org


However, some opportunities for volunteer work do exist. Here are two excellent sources:


  • Passport in Time (PIT) is a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities nationwide, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. You can contact them at:

    Passport in Time Clearinghouse
    P.O. Box 15728
    Rio Rancho, NM 87174-5728
    (800) 281-9176 voice, TTY
    (505) 896-1136 fax
    (e-mail) volunteer@passportintime.com


  • Archaeology Magazine occasionally lists opportunities throughout the world. You may find it at the library, or go to www.archaeology.org


Last updated: 08-02-2012