The past lives of Ridges Basin
Archaeologists work ahead of Animas-La Plata

Archaeologists in Ridges Basin work to pump water from a pit house after a good rain. Archaeological sites in the basin are being excavated and documented in advance of the Animas-La Plata project, which will dam and flood the basin with Animas River water./Photo by Ole Bye

“An artifact is a culturally fashioned item,” says archaeologist Dr. Jim Potter. And one thing that all artifacts possess is the potential to offer evidence of human life. A spent rifle cartridge found in the woods, a sherd of Anasazi pottery buried under 10 feet of silt or an airplane booming across the sky: All these can offer up human stories, if you can read the language.

In Ridges Basin, just 2 miles south of Durango’s busy downtown, past lives have left traces written in the hard soil, and archaeologists are now working to interpret those traces before the waters of the Animas-La Plata Project cover them for good.

The sites in the basin of the greatest significance date from the Pueblo I period of the history of the Anasazis, roughly 750 to 900 AD. As excavations continue, a more complete picture of what the Anasazis might have been doing in the northern reaches of the San Juan Basin is beginning to emerge.

Sites in Ridges Basin

Many of the 170 identified Pueblo I sites in the basin lie buried deep in the soil, and it takes a sharp eye to note the artifacts and the subtle circular depressions that

A stone tool unearthed in a pit house./Photo by Ole Bye

indicate their location. If the site isn’t buried too deep, sometimes the orange stain of “burnt adobe” provides a clue. This brick-like substance resulted from the intentional burning of a structure after occupation. Ironically, burning also effectively preserves the structure’s basic features, making burned sites easier to excavate.

When the outline of a pit house is found, a backhoe trench is dug through the supposed location. If the aim is true, archaeologists get a cross-section of the dwelling. Then they usually excavate half of the pit-house, getting a look at the important features without having to unearth the entire structure.

Habitations in Ridges Basin tend to consist of single, one-room pit-houses, often with adjacent above-ground storage rooms. The design of these dwellings is relatively consistent, and they are usually arranged with a ventilation shaft on the south side of the room and a low “wing” wall running in front of the shaft. Firepits are another key feature of these dwellings, and the carbon found in them allows archaeologists to accurately date usage. In Ridges Basin, these habitations are found grouped into small clusters of several dwellings, suggesting prototype villages.

In addition to the Pueblo I structures are those of the more primitive and earlier Basketmaker period. Although the simpler architecture makes the 28 Basketmaker sites less striking, they are no less valuable. Like the later Puebloans, the Basketmakers built pit and storage structures, however they didn’t use ceramics or live in communities. Thus, remains from that period are much more difficult to find. Sites from the even earlier Archaic period, of which there are 61 in Ridges Basin, generally consist of scattered artifacts, since this period pre-dates permanent structures.

The best preserved archaeological site in Ridges Basin is the Bodo Ranch, which was last active in the 1970s. After the Bodo family donated the ranch and most

of Ridges Basin to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the farm structures have stood vacant and boarded up. The site consists of a 100-year-old homestead and a variety of outbuildings and barns. Like many Ridges Basin archaeological sites, the ranch sits below the projected water level of the reservoir.

Mike Lynagh and Mark Lowe wrap string around the remains of a roof-support post from an Anasazi pit house. The string will keep the post intact until it can be dated./Photo by Ole Bye

Origins and organization

The earliest human signs in Ridges Basin are from the Archaic period and are estimated to be between 2,000 and 10,000 years old. Archaic peoples practiced hunting and gathering, and as a consequence, were typically mobile. Archaeologists recognize the emergence of the Anasazi as an identifiable group around 500 BC, marking the beginning of the Basketmaker period.

The chief characteristic to denote this change is horticulture. To domesticate and farm plants, Archaic peoples had to give up their mobility and build structures for living and storage. Why hunter-gatherers gave up their mobility and more varied diet for a stationary life with a limited diet is one of the great questions of history. “There are certain advantages to being able to produce a predictable surplus of food to get you through the winter,” explains Potter. “The risk is lower, (and) if you’ve got a large enough population, oftentimes the natural resources can’t support that population.”

It might have been a thousand years after the appearance of horticulture before the Anasazi moved into Ridges Basin. As archaeologists uncover more sites in the basin, they’re convinced that the Anasazi brought horticulture here in the Pueblo I period. we initially started here, we didn’t know how big a role agriculture played in their diet,” Potter says. “Since then, we’ve found so much groundstone and so much actual corn, burned corn, that it’s really apparent that corn was a big part of their diet, even at this early stage.”

The Pueblo I period marks an important jump in sophistication for the Anasazi, and typical sites have above-ground structures, adjoining walls and shared walls. This period also marks the entry into village life for the Anasazi, so sites in Ridges Basin

An old stove sits among the outbuildings of the Bodo Ranch, which has been vacant
since the 1970s. /Photo by Ole Bye

give archaeologists a look at a very significant time period in Anasazi history. The Animas-La Plata Project Environmental Impact Statement, prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation, states, “The 170 Pueblo I sites in the Ridges Basin area provide an excellent laboratory for addressing questions related to aggregation, abandonment and mobility.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Ridges Basin inhabitation is that it is believed to have been a multi-ethnic community. Potter, who oversees the excavations for the contract archaeology firm SWCA Environmental Consultants, says: “The reason we think that is we have architecture that is very varied, very different, in its morphology and construction. In other words, people are bringing different sorts of traditions, ideas about how to build a house, with them, suggesting to us that people are coming from different areas.” If this community were multi-ethnic, then it is likely to have been multi-lingual, too. Potter explains, “You have a lot of language groups in the Southwest, a lot of diversity, and that diversity of language groups among the Puebloans probably goes back a long ways.”

The evidence for early, sophisticated village life is what makes this project an outstanding opportunity, archaeologists say. “When this is all written up, it’s going to be so cool, because there’s just not that much Pueblo I stuff out there, and there’s very little out there from this area,” says archaeologist Kathy Mowrer.

The scale of the project and the climate both appeal to archaeologists like Mark Lowe, who notes, “Most parts of the country don’t get the preservation or the permanent structures.”

Different viewpoints

The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian tribes hired SWCA to excavate sites in Ridges Basin after the Bureau of Reclamation appointed the tribes to oversee the management of cultural resources in the basin. However, the Utes don’t claim

Neal Morris helps survey features
inside of a pit house.

Anasazi ancestry, and so they consult regularly with the modern Puebloan tribes of New Mexico that do claim ancestral ties to the Anasazi. One problem with these consultations is that the Pueblo tribes are often hesitant to release their proprietary tribal histories, and so it is hard to say which of the 26 modern tribes deemed to have affiliation are most closely descended from the communities of Ridges Basin. So far, the tribes haven’t objected to the excavations or the manner in which they are being carried out. “In a sort of roundabout way, they concur with our findings,” says Terry Knight, Coordinator of Cultural Resources for the AL-P Project.

The tribal secrecy, Knight explains, is “part of keeping their identity and their history and ceremonies and social life” private. Additionally, tribes are sometimes reluctant to announce their traditional origins in fear of being proven incorrect by future archaeology. “Once you (claim ancestry), you open yourself up to criticism and counter claims from the other Pueblos,” says Knight. So it is understandable that these tribes are largely staying out of the project and entrusting the Ute tribes with the excavations. Knight adds, “The Pueblos said, ‘We don’t want these sites to be disturbed, but you’re going to have to, so just be careful how you do it.’”

A sherd of Anasazi pottery, foreground,
sits on the edge of an excavated pit house while archaeologist VerneHensler tries to bail water out.

Another cultural consideration of the Ridges Basin excavations, as in any project of this nature, is the general aversion to archaeology among American Indians. “It’s something we don’t want to do, but has to be done,” admits Knight. The primary benefit of archaeology to modern native peoples, he says, is the validation of territorial claims.

Archaeology in the face of A-LP

The reservoir will “disturb and/or destroy” between 80 and 90 archaeological sites, according to the Environmental Impact Statement, as a direct result of its construction and filling. Many more sites stand in the way of pipelines, dam construction and future infrastructure. According to the EIS estimates, the entire A-LP project, including the Navajo Nation Municipal Pipeline, will impact 639 “cultural resource sites.” Additionally, future recreational activities in Ridges Basin are cause for concern. “Damage to sites could occur in the form of off-road vehicle use on cultural resources sites, vandalism or erosion from tertiary roads or trails,” the EIS states.

Archaeologist Jean Conlan looks for clues of Anasazi occupation in the cross section of a pit
house./Photos by Ole Bye

Before the projected 2008 reservoir fill date, archaeologists will collect as much information as they can about the Puebloans who lived here 1,300 years ago. As the evidence of village life builds, other questions arise. How were the various clusters of dwellings integrated into a community? Was there a central cultural or spiritual site? Which dwellings were contemporary to each other? And how was the basin occupied chronologically?

Before these and many other questions can be answered, more sites need to be excavated, and more artifacts need to be uncovered and analyzed; more time needs to be taken. In the next four years, SWCA, the Utes, and perhaps, the modern Puebloans, hope to discover the story of life in Ridges Basin that, for certain, has passed.





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