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National Monument
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Big Kiva
Park ranger and visitors at the Big Kiva in Frijoles Canyon.

The Ruins: Their Types and Extent

The evidences of ancient human occupation in the Bandelier neighborhood are apparent even to the most casual observer. When driving over the approach road to the monument headquarters one cannot fail to observe cave rooms in the cliffs on every hand; the continuing spectacle of smoke-blackened chambers dug into the rock provides the stimulus of discovery en route. But the roadside introduction is an infinitesimal preview of the total scope of prehistoric man's activity in the region. In actuality, all of the ruins contained within the national monument represent but a small fraction of the ruins of the surrounding plateau.

The entire eastern slope of the Jemez Mountains to the west, throughout the zone of moderate elevations from 7,000 feet down to the Rio Grande at 5,500 feet, appears to have been thickly settled in prehistoric times; this eastern slope has been given the name of Pajarito Plateau. The extent of the plateau is, very roughly, 30 miles north to south, and 10 miles east to west (from the Rio Grande west to the crest of the Jemez). From Santa Clara Creek on the north of the monument to the Canada de Cochiti on the south of the monument, this tract of forested mesas and canyons contains Indian ruins which, if not innumerable, at least at this writing have not yet been totaled. It perhaps may be said, to emphasize the concentration of these ruins, that an observant person can hardly walk a quarter of a mile in any direction through the once-inhabited zone without noticing some sort of ancient structure or handiwork of prehistoric man.

The habitations of the early people were of two types, basically: the cliff or cave dwelling, and the masonry or open pueblo structure. But these two types were frequently blended into composite dwellings, part cave and part masonry, wherein a cliff formed the back wall of the building. It is this third type, called a talus house, which is conspicuous along the canyon sides within and near the national monument.

Base of a cliff of volcanic tuff, showing several cave rooms.

The rock which forms the walls of all the Pajarito canyons is a cemented volcanic ash called tuff, with many erosion cavities which can be readily enlarged with tools of hard stone. It might be logical to assume that early migrants to the Pajarito country, 700 years ago, first took shelter in the natural cavities, then presently improved these crude holes into more livable chambers: There is, however, no evidence to support the idea that the cave rooms were lived in first: In fact, some authorities reason that since the firstcomers had been living in masonry dwellings in their earlier homes, they would first have built the familiar communal buildings on arrival here, leaving the caves to be taken up later by overflow population.

Whatever the sequence of construction, many thousands of cave rooms were prepared, involving the removal of thousands of cubic yards of tuff—an industrious people, these. Although some rooms are found with a long dimension of over 10 feet, the great majority of them are smaller. A typical room measures about 6 by 9 feet, with ceiling height perhaps 5 feet, 8 inches. Such a chamber has a doorway not over 3 feet high and only half as wide; there is an opening or two in the front wall near the ceiling to permit escape of smoke; and there may be a corresponding hole at floor level near the door to admit a draft of air to the fireplace. The appointments of the typical home are completed with a cupboard niche dug into the rear wall, a coat of mud plaster on floor and walls, and a covering of soot all over the ceiling—this last an inescapable penalty of cave living.

A room of such size might have provided sleeping quarters for a family of 5 or 6, considering the fact that no furniture took up space within. Frequently two cave rooms are found connected by a door way cut through the interior wall, suggesting the expansion of a family beyond the limits of a single room.

The unexcavated ruin of Yapashi.

The most impressive ruins of the Pajarito country are the remains of communal masonry dwellings of pueblo architecture. (Pueblo is Spanish for village or town. The first Spanish explorers applied the word to the permanent dwellings or settlements of farming Indians; by association, the word pueblo has come to designate also the builders of these dwellings and their modern Indian successors.) At least one of these great buildings contained over 600 rooms; there are several which had over 500 rooms, to a height of 3 stories. These multistory towns were built of the local tuff, shattered and pecked into convenient size for masonry use, and laid with mud mortar. The great houses were situated both on mesa-tops and in canyon bottoms; some were designed as hollow squares or circles, others had only a haphazard ground plan. None of these dwellings today is more than one story high, so that their original height is unknown in detail, but great massivity and considerable defensive strength are apparent even from the remaining mounds of rubble.

The rooms of the community houses were scarcely larger than the cave rooms already described; almost none of the surviving ground-floor rooms are more than 10 by 12 feet, and the typical room measures perhaps 7 by 10 feet. These chambers were quite dark and unventilated, since there were almost no windows or even connecting door ways between rooms; almost every room of the ground floor was entered by a ladder through an opening in its ceiling. It is conjectured that these first-floor cells were designed in this fashion to serve as storage places for foodstuffs, more secure from rodents by reason of having only one opening in the roof. Moreover, the lower-floor walls were a stronger foundation for the upper floors when built without door or window openings. Finally, this design provided maximum security for defense against human marauders.

It has been mentioned that a composite type of building, combining cave rooms and masonry walls, is common in the area. This sort of construction was responsible for the many rows of small holes still to be seen in the cliffs, evenly spaced some 2 feet apart above the cave doorways. These holes were cut and used as sockets to support the ends of roof beams extending forward from the cliff and providing ceilings for the masonry rooms which once stood there. These evenly spaced holes, which you first see along many of the canyon walls, give mute evidence of the early aboriginal occupation of this area. Many of these talus dwellings reached a height of 3 stories and pushed out from the cliff 3 and 4 rooms deep, so that the cave rooms which were occupied first became relegated to storage space in the dark rear interiors.

cave rooms
Entrances to cave rooms.

To conclude this general summation of ruin types, some description should be made of kivas. Kivas were, and are, the ceremonial chambers of the Pueblo people; as such, they are universally present in the Pajarito communities and their design makes them identifiable even in the ruined state. The local kivas were always round and were dug almost full-depth into the ground, except for certain examples which were excavated into the relatively soft bedrock of cliff or mesa-top. The circular depressions still to be found in the plazas of the great communal houses are the remains of kivas with their roofs collapsed and with the wind-borne debris of centuries accumulated in the hollows. A more complete discussion of kivas and their functions will be found on page 12.

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Last Modified: Sat, Jan 6 2001 10:00:00 am PDT