Despite their impressive preservation, the Gila Cliff Dwellings have gotten surprisingly little attention in the archaeological literature. This is apparently because they were so thoroughly ransacked by pothunters early on that there wasn’t much left intact for archaeologists to study, and possibly also because the early establishment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 has led most subsequent research to be done by the National Park Service, which has often had a tendency to keep findings in internal reports for management purposes rather than publishing them in peer-reviewed journals or books. The surviving structural timbers have clearly been sampled for tree-ring dating, and the interpretive material put out by the monument discusses the results of this analysis. The museum at the visitor center also displays some artifact that were apparently found in the cliff dwellings, although it’s not always clear if they were excavated by the NPS or recovered from private collections after having been looted and sold. The NPS does have an online administrative history of the monument; I haven’t read it yet, but from a casual look through the section on archaeological research it seems to confirm that there has been some excavation by the Park Service, mostly in the 1960s, but that the data have not been thoroughly analyzed or reported.
The only substantial discussion of the cliff dwellings that I have found in the published literature is a short article published by Editha Watson in 1929. She discusses several cave sites in the Upper Gila River area, but gives the most detailed description (which is still not very detailed) of the caves in the monument. She discusses the highly looted state of the sites and some of the things found in them, although she does not make it very clear who found them or how:
Corncobs are plentiful in this ruin. They are very small, and the dry atmosphere has preserved them so beautifully that they may be indented with the fingernail. Black-and-white pottery and corrugated ware blackened on the inside are the only sorts noticed among the sherds. Turquoise beads have been found here. As this is a national monument, excavation is forbidden, but vandals have torn up the floor in search of treasure.
She also mentions a “desiccated body of an infant” found in one of the caves. According to the administrative history four such mummies were allegedly found in the cliff dwellings at various points in the late nineteenth century and sent to the Smithsonian, which apparently never received any of them. It’s not clear which of these Watson refers to, or where she got her information.
Watson also mentions the red pictographs found in the caves, which she says are “supposed to be the work of later tribes.” As the administrative history notes, it’s not clear who is supposing this or why. More recently, Polly Schaafsma has classified these pictographs as belonging to the Mogollon Red style, which is also found to the northwest in the area around Reserve, New Mexico. She also thinks the pictographs in the caves were made by residents of the cliff dwellings standing on rooftops, which makes sense given their positions and firmly dates them to the late thirteenth century AD. There are other pictograph locations in and around the monument, including one in Lower Scorpion Campground that is quite impressive in its number and variety of designs.
The Mogollon Red style is very different from most other Southwestern rock art styles, at least the ones I’ve seen examples of. It includes a lot of abstract geometrical designs and stick-figure humans, and is always in the form of pictographs rather than petroglyphs. It is particularly different from the Jornada style found to the east in the Mimbres and Jornada Mogollon regions, which consists mainly of petroglyphs and has a lot of naturalistic animals and human faces or masks. Schaafsma has proposed that the Jornada style represents an ideological system that later developed into the kachina cult of the modern Pueblos. The Mogollon Red style forms another link between the Gila Cliff Dwellings and areas to the north and west, reinforcing the impression from pottery styles that link them to the Tularosa area. This is interesting given their geographical proximity to the Mimbres area, with its very different iconographic traditions, and strongly supports the idea that the builders of the cliff dwellings were immigrants from somewhere to the north.
That’s about all I’ve found in the published literature about the cliff dwellings. Clearly they have a lot of potential to shed light on a number of issues important in the study of Southwestern prehistory, especially interregional relationships and migration, but so far they have not been widely incorporated into discussion of those issues.
Watson, E. (1929). Caves of the Upper Gila River, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 31 (2), 299-306 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1929.31.2.02a00070