The Gila Cliff Dwellings – Gambler's House
Gambler's House

The Gila Cliff Dwellings

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Cliff Dwellings from Trail, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Over Labor Day Weekend my mom and I went down to southwestern New Mexico to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  We had been wanting to go there for a long time, but it’s pretty far from Albuquerque (about a six-hour drive) and not really on the way to anywhere else, so we hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  With me going away to Alaska soon, this was a good opportunity.  We camped at Lower Scorpion Campground, which turned out to be a fortuitously good location since there are some pictographs and a cliff dwelling right in the campground.  The main attraction, of course, was the cliff dwellings themselves, and they were quite spectacular.  They’re not particularly easy to get to.  They are accessible by paved road, unlike Chaco, but it’s a very long winding road through the mountains, so it takes quite a bit of effort.  The sites are definitely worth the effort, though.

Labor Day is apparently the busiest time for visitation there, so it was quite crowded, and there were a lot of volunteers around answering questions and so forth.  Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the less-visited Park Service units, so it relies almost entirely on volunteers.  At the visitor center they told us that the monument only has two paid employees; I had heard once that they only had one (the superintendent), but I guess they’re up to two.  Part of the reason they can get by like this is that they’re surrounded by the Gila National Forest, so the Forest Service can pick up a lot of the slack and do the things that the monument doesn’t have the staffing for.  The monument itself is tiny, and basically consists only of the cliff dwellings themselves and a Mimbres village, the TJ Ruin, which is apparently not open to the public.  The visitor center and the campgrounds are on Forest Service land, and the visitor center is shared by both the Forest Service and the Park Service.

Gila Visitor Center, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

I hadn’t known very much about the Gila Cliff Dwellings before going there.  I knew that they were built by the Mogollon culture, and that they were the only Mogollon sites managed by the Park Service, but aside from that I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect.  Luckily, the visitor center has a nice museum and a very informative and up-to-date video explaining a lot of the background.  The cliff dwellings are really quite unusual for Mogollon sites, which were usually either pithouse villages or above-ground pueblos in open areas like the Mimbres villages.  Cliff dwellings are more typical of the Anasazi to the north at places like Mesa Verde, of course, and these were very reminiscent of sites like that architecturally.  They’re quite close to the Mimbres Valley, so I had thought there might be some connection between them and the Mimbres, probably the best-known division of the Mogollon, but apparently the current archaeological thinking is that the cliff dwellings were not built by the Mimbres but by the Tularosa Mogollon, who mostly lived a bit further north but apparently migrated to the south and built the cliff dwellings in the late thirteenth century AD.  This seems to be established by the pottery found at the cliff dwellings, as Tularosa pottery is very distinctive and different from other Mogollon pottery traditions.  I believe it’s more similar to some Anasazi styles, which would fit well with the Anasazi-like architecture.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907, the same year as Chaco, but apparently the sites had already been very significantly pothunted by then, and there was very little left for archaeologists to find once the sites were protected.  Interestingly, one of the volunteers answering questions at the sites when I was there mentioned that the pothunters mostly left behind things like corncobs, so we have a pretty good idea of the subsistence system of the people who occupied the sites even though we don’t know a whole lot about their tools or other aspects of material culture.  I guess there must have been a bit of Tularosa-style pottery left behind and/or in private collections originating from the early pothunting.  Anyway, the upshot of all this is that there has been essentially no professional excavation of the cliff dwellings, and they are rarely mentioned in the archaeological literature as a result, which is really unfortunate because they’re fascinating sites.

Corncobs at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Like most cliff dwellings, these ones preserved a lot of perishable materials that rarely survive in open sites.  I mentioned the corncobs before, and there are also a lot of wooden beams in situ.  These have been sampled for tree-ring dating, which found that all construction of the sites took place between AD 1270 and 1300, mostly in the 1280s.  The sites were probably only occupied for one generation at most.   This seems like a short period, but it’s actually pretty typical for cliff dwellings.  Many of the much larger sites at Mesa Verde were occupied for almost exactly the same interval.  The late thirteenth century seems to have been the main period for cliff-dwelling construction throughout most of the Southwest.

This is of course the period of the “Great Drought,” and the obviously highly defensible nature of cliff dwellings has led to much speculation that their florescence at this time was due to defensive considerations.  This has been a somewhat controversial proposal further north, and Park Service sites tend to downplay it, but at the Gila sites the interpretive material states outright that defense was probably a major factor in the occupation of the cliff dwellings.  I find this interesting.  It may have to do with the relative distance of the modern Pueblos from this area, and resultingly lower political controversy over discuss of prehistoric warfare, but it may also have to do with the nature of Mogollon archaeology, which developed somewhat differently from Anasazi archaeology.  Steven LeBlanc, who is probably the most prominent archaeologist to argue for a major role for warfare in the prehistoric Southwest, has his particular expertise in the Mimbres area.  This is all just speculation on my part, of course.

T-Shaped Doorway, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

One of the cliff dwellings has a t-shaped door.  This is a type of architectural feature that is common at Chaco (and Mesa Verde) as well as at Casas Grandes to the south.  Many people have argued that this represents some sort of Mesoamerican influence on those sites, and Steve Lekson has argued that it is one of the signs of continuity between Chaco and Casas Grandes.  Its presence here, between the two, and in association with a very Anasazi-like type of architecture deep in Mogollon territory, is certainly intriguing.  Macaw feathers were also found at the cliff dwellings.  The importance of the macaw at Chaco and Casas Grandes (where they were bred on a huge scale), as well as in the Mimbres area, is well known, and of course they would have to have come from further south initially.

Anyway, these are some really fascinating sites that raise the possibility of a lot of intriguing connections to other parts of the Southwest and beyond.  I highly recommend a visit to them for anyone.  Unlike a lot of the sites in the Southwest, these are very impressive even to people without much particular interest in archaeology, on account of their fantastic preservation and stunning location.

Labor Day Weekend Crowds at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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