One reason for the relative lack of information available on the prehistory of the Totah is that the presence of all those big rivers leads many sites to be buried under alluvium and/or destroyed by flooding and changes in the courses of the rivers. As a result, many sites are not visible at all on the surface, and this is particularly the case for small sites, especially since the local architecture for much of the Pueblo period relied heavily on adobe and cobble masonry, which is much less durable than the sandstone masonry typical of Chaco and Mesa Verde. Thus, aside from really big sites like Salmon and Aztec, many Totah sites are only discovered with very deep excavation or erosion.
Linda Wheelbarger’s chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, reporting on the findings of the Totah Archaeological Project on the Bolack Ranch just south of Farmington, emphasizes this in pointing out how many of the sites on the ranch were not visible in any way from the surface and were only discovered inadvertently, such as when breaches in irrigation ditches lead to swift erosion, revealing sites well below the ground surface. The most obvious sites are on the terraces above the river, and these are also some of the largest sites (including some probable Chacoan great houses), but it’s not clear if they are actually the largest or if there are larger ones buried somewhere in the floodplain. Most of the known floodplain sites are small houses, but they are quite numerous, and Wheelbarger is able to define five “communities” along the southern bank of the San Juan between the confluence of the Animas River to the west and the Gallegos Wash to the east. These tend to be at the confluences of various side drainages (including the Animas and the Gallegos) with the San Juan, which is a pattern noted elsewhere in the San Juan Basin as well, including to some degree at Chaco itself.
This is something to keep in mind when evaluating the conventional wisdom that the area around Salmon Ruin was largely uninhabited when construction of the building began around 1090. The basis for this very common assertion is an extensive site survey done in the area around Salmon by the San Juan Valley Archaeological Project in the 1970s in conjunction with excavations at Salmon. This survey revealed only four small sites within 1 kilometer of the great house that might have been contemporary with it, and only 12 such sites within 6 km. In his chapter on the function of Salmon in the synthesis volume, Paul Reed explains the survey and its limitations:
The survey did not entail 100 percent coverage because of the complexity of land ownership and lack of permission to survey some parcels. Nevertheless, much of the territory in the 1 km area around Salmon was surveyed. As a caveat, it is likely that flood deposits from the San Juan River, along with alternating cycles of erosion, may have concealed or removed other sites located on the floodplain below Salmon. We have no way of knowing how many such sites may have been present. With the data that are available, however, it is clear that Salmon was not the center of a large community of surrounding small pueblos; rather, Salmon largely comprised the entire community.
Reed is clearly aware that it is likely that any sites that may have existed on the floodplain are no longer visible, but he nevertheless concludes that “it is clear that Salmon was not the center of a large community of surrounding small pueblos.” Well, no, it isn’t clear, even “with the data that are available,” unless you make the totally unwarranted assumption that the available data do in fact reflect the reality despite their obvious shortcomings. It’s worthwhile to note that the handful of sites that were identified were mostly on the terraces, rather than the floodplain, which means that they don’t have much relevance to the issue of how many sites there were in the region overall. It’s certainly possible that Salmon was founded in a vacant area, as Reed concludes, but it’s important to note (as he does) that this would make Salmon quite unusual among Chacoan great houses, which usually were built among contemporaneous small sites both in Chaco Canyon itself and at outlying communities.
A somewhat comparable situation exists at Aztec, although there is evidence of a fairly substantial residential district on the terrace above the West and East great houses. Very little is known about the extent of settlement on the floodplain around the main “downtown” district, and some have argued that Aztec, too, was founded in an area without substantial prior settlement (with the terrace-top houses presumed to postdate the initial construction of the great houses), whereas others have argued that there probably was some sort of existing settlement there that is no longer visible because of the river-side location. In either case it is clear that Aztec was a larger and presumably more important community within the region than Salmon.
There isn’t any way to settle this issue without extensive testing and excavation, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, but I just want to flag it to emphasize that a lot of the ideas that get entrenched in the archaeological literature are not necessarily well founded, and it’s important to understand the evidence behind them and how strong it is.