In July 1914 Earl Morris, the pioneering Southwestern archaeologist who would later become famous for his excavations at Aztec and other sites in the region, happened to visit one Eudoro Córdoba, who owned a farm on the Animas River a short distance upstream of the major ruins at Aztec. On his mantelpiece were various artifacts which immediately attracted Morris’s attention, and when Morris asked about them Córdoba told him that he had collected them in the course of plowing over a series of small ruins that were obstructing the cultivation of his fields. He was at the time working on the last of these sites, and gave Morris permission to excavate the remaining portion of it in a more rigorous manner. There wasn’t a whole lot left, but Morris did manage to excavate six rooms and a small area to the east of the roomblock which contained several burials. He published a short article describing the excavation and artifacts the next year. This was one of the earliest examples of what would later become known as “salvage archaeology.”
There are several interesting statements in Morris’s article on the site. For one thing, while this was the last of the “seven or eight small ruins which had obstructed [Córdoba’s] fields,” Morris noted that there had been many more sites in the area:
Roughly three quarters of a mile east of the great pueblos the river swings obliquely across its narrow valley from northeast to southwest. The broad bench thus left north and west of the river was till recently dotted upon all sides of the large ruins with the remains of many cobblestone and adobe structures. Within the last few years a number of these lesser sites have been destroyed in order that the owners of the land might increase the tillable area of their fields.
Córdoba was one of these landowners, of course. It appears from Morris’s statement that a large number of what we would now call “small houses” existed in close proximity to the great houses at Aztec, much like at Chaco. This is particularly relevant to the question of the extent to which the Totah was densely inhabited before the Chacoan immigration that many have posited as being behind the founding of Aztec and Salmon. People have generally agreed that Salmon, which is on the San Juan rather than the Animas, was founded in a previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited area, and some people claim the same for Aztec. Since we don’t know when the sites Morris mentions near Aztec were inhabited, his statement doesn’t provide direct evidence either way, but it does point out the dangers of making judgments about prehistoric habitation based on currently visible site distributions. The San Juan valley has been just as heavily developed in modern times as the Animas valley, and the larger size of the San Juan also implies that more sites are likely to be buried under sediment there. I remain skeptical about claims that the Salmon area was uninhabited before 1090.
The site Morris excavated, however, seems to have clearly been contemporaneous with the Aztec complex rather than predating it. There was no way for Morris to know this in 1915, of course, which was before he even started excavating at Aztec West, but it’s clear from the artifacts he shows in his article that the site was inhabited in the 1200s, and perhaps a bit earlier. Most of the illustrated ceramics seem to be Mesa Verde Black-on-white, which is typical of this period. The site itself was made of adobe with occasional cobbles, which is standard local architecture, and it was apparently two stories high in places. This is unusual among small houses (though standard for great houses), and it suggests that this site may be a residence of local inhabitants of some distinction or, perhaps, a somewhat larger aggregated site comparable to those known from the Mesa Verde region to the north during this period. The site was mostly gone before Morris got to it, so he couldn’t tell how large it had been originally. We know so little about sites in this region other than Salmon and Aztec that it’s hard to say what this site may have originally been like, but the sites excavated on the Bolack Ranch on the south side of the San Juan by the Totah Archaeological Project may provide a useful point of comparison.
As was apparently the case for some of the Bolack Ranch sites, the Córdoba site contained many burials. In addition to five adults and two infants buried a short distance to the east of the roomblock, nineteen people were buried in three of the six rooms Morris excavated. Morris suggested that “calamitous circumstances such as siege, pestilence, or famine overtook the inhabitants and caused great mortality among them,” leading to the unusually high number of burials in so few rooms and the oddities of the way some of them were buried. The site appeared to Morris to have been burned, which might indicate warfare in the region during the late 1200s. This would not be surprising, as there is abundant evidence for warfare in many other nearby regions at this time.
Another interesting thing about this site was the burial of a badger just north of the human burials east of the roomblock. According to Morris “the animal had been put away with all the care ordinarily bestowed upon a human being.” Animal burials like this are pretty common at Pueblo sites. They are most often of dogs or turkeys, but occasionally of other animals. As far as I know no one has looked at the spatial and temporal patterns in which animals are buried where, but that might be one way of getting some evidence for possible migrations of specific groups that might have had particular attachments to different animals.
Overall, this is an interesting paper, with quite a bit of interesting information despite its short length and emphasis (typical for the time) on artifact description rather than discussion of larger issues. It doesn’t seem to get cited very much, which is unfortunate because it provides a useful point of comparison for more recent excavations in the region.
Morris, E. (1915). The Excavation of a Ruin near Aztec, San Juan County, new Mexico American Anthropologist, 17 (4), 666-684 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1915.17.4.02a00040