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fajadaviewareaclosed

“Area Closed” Sign at Fajada Butte View

This is just a quick post to share some information likely to be of interest to my readers. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly how the National Park Service is responding to the government shutdown, which park units are accessible and not, and so forth. I’ve been pretty confused myself, and unfortunately this led me to give incorrect advice to a reader who asked if Chaco Canyon is accessible during the shutdown. I said my understanding, based on media reports, was that the parks are open but no visitor services are being provided. Since Chaco is mostly a self-guided experience, I took that to mean that the park would be accessible but the visitor center would be closed and no tours would be provided.

Well, the reader took my advice and headed out to Chaco, only to find that the gate was closed and the park was definitely neither open nor accessible. He let me know, and was nice about it, but I felt bad about leading him astray so I figured I would pass that information on here. Chaco is closed for the shutdown. Anyone planning to visit in the next few weeks should keep that in mind and monitor the news for information on when the government and the park will reopen.

If you do end up having to redirect a trip to Chaco as a result of the shutdown, Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield, New Mexico is one of the largest and most accessible Chacoan outlier sites, and since it’s managed by San Juan County rather than the federal government it is unaffected by the shutdown. Another option a little further afield is Edge of the Cedars in Blanding, Utah, which is a Utah state park and similarly unaffected. Most other Chacoan outlier sites that are open to the public are managed by federal agencies and will likely be inaccessible.

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Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

In previous shutdowns parks have been closed entirely, which is the simplest and, from a resource-protection standpoint, most reasonable approach. This time it seems the NPS is taking a different and more complicated approach for reasons that are unclear. To try to get a better understanding of what exactly the NPS is doing with parks in this shutdown, particularly as it relates to Chaco, I took a look at the official NPS contingency plan. Two sections seem to explain what’s going on there:

As a general rule, if a facility or area is locked or secured during non-business hours (buildings, gated parking lots, etc.) it should be locked or secured for the duration of the shutdown.

This seems to explain what’s going on on the ground at Chaco, as reported by my reader who went there. The park loop road is ordinarily gated at night, so it appears that they’ve closed the gate for the duration of the shutdown. There are a few things to see on the way in to the park before the gate, but the vast majority of the sites and trails are beyond it.

At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty to conduct essential activities.

It’s possible that this section is also relevant, though it’s less clear. Certainly it would be best for resource protection to close all the major sites and trails; it’s hard enough for the law enforcement rangers to monitor visitor activity when the park is operating under normal circumstances. The test for this would be whether the attractions on the way into the park, particularly the Gallo Cliff Dwelling and the trail to Wijiji, are closed, which is not clear to me from the information I have. The park website currently says it’s closed entirely but without explanation of what that entails, so it may well be the case that this section has been invoked.

Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon and things will go back to normal, but for now it’s best to steer clear of Chaco. If I hear of any changes or get more information I’ll do another post.

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Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

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newchacomuseum

New Museum at Chaco Canyon

Last week I went down to New Mexico for Thanksgiving, and while I was there I stopped by Chaco Canyon to see the new museum there. I had seen the new visitor center last year when I was there last, but the museum was still under construction so I wasn’t able to see it. It’s actually still not totally complete, but it is open to visitation and it is very impressive.

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Old Museum of Chaco Culture

The old Chaco museum was put together in the 1980s and by the time I was working at Chaco it was very outdated. It only had artifacts from the park’s own collection, which is fairly limited and doesn’t include the extraordinary finds excavated by early archaeologists, which are now in various museums elsewhere in the country. The interpretations weren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they were old and didn’t incorporate recent findings. It was also just a generally dark and dingy space, and not very pleasant as an experience.

The new museum is a vast improvement on all these counts. When it is complete it will have artifacts borrowed from those other museums, so the enormously impressive artifacts for which the canyon is famous will finally be available for viewing at the park itself after decades away. I say “when it is complete” because the artifacts are not actually there yet. Due to the lending museums’ strict standards, the park needs to develop and demonstrate very high-quality protective environmental conditions, which takes time and specialized expertise, and that process is not yet complete though park staff told me it is expected to be in the next few months. For now, there are a lot of empty cases with notes explaining the situation.

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Note Explaining Lack of Artifacts at New Chaco Museum

Even so, however, the types of artifacts intended to be shown and the explanatory material already in place shows that the new museum will incorporate current understandings and recent research to an impressive degree. Several interesting concepts that have come up in research discussed on this blog will be highlighted, including the discovery of chocolate residue in cylinder vessels and the idea that the “hachure” designs on black-on-white pottery represent the color blue-green. There is also a much more extensive discussion of modern Native communities and their connections to Chaco.

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Discussion of Modern Native Connections at New Chaco Museum

Aesthetically, too, the new space is much lighter and feels more open. It actually has the same footprint as the old one and isn’t any bigger, but it feels more spacious and comfortable. It’s a very pleasant visiting experience.

I’m looking forward to returning once the artifacts are in place, of course, but even without them it was a very worthwhile visit. This well-planned museum bodes well for the future of the park.

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“Chaco in Color” Display at New Chaco Museum

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Changes at Chaco

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New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center Exterior

Today is my birthday. I’m 33. As I’ve often done in the past few years, I’m in New Mexico this week visiting my mom. This time I decided to come visit Chaco Canyon, which I hadn’t done in quite a few years. Weather meant I couldn’t spend as much time there as I wanted this time, but I did get to see some of the changes since my last visit.

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Interior of New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

The most obvious change is the new Visitor Center. This was under construction the last time I was there, and visitor services were operating out of a temporary yurt. The yurt worked fine, but the new VC is quite nice. Importantly, it now has the wall map of the canyon on the north wall rather than the south one, so that the directions you point to on the map are the same ones as in real life. This was a constant source of confusion and frustration when I was working at Chaco, so it’s nice to have it fixed now.

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Windows on East Side of New Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

The east side of the VC now has some exhibits on the geology of Chaco, as well as a series of picture windows with a nice view of Fajada Butte. The main museum is still being renovated so I wasn’t able to see it, but I’m sure it’s nice. The old one was getting quite outdated and really needed an update.

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New Sign at Pueblo Bonito

There were a few other differences I noticed, like new signs in various places and further deterioration of some of the exposed wood, and I’m sure I would have noticed more changes if I’d been able to spend more time. Still, the main features of the canyon are of course the same and just as impressive this time as the many times I’ve seen them before.

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Old Bonito: A Little More Wear, but Mostly the Same as Ever

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The County of Lincoln

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Fort Stanton State Historic Site

I’m in New Mexico this week visiting my mom, as I often do this time of year. As we also often do, we took a couple of days to go camping and hiking somewhere in the state. This time went to Lincoln County, where we also took in some of the sights in the area. I figured I would do a post just to discuss what we did, since I found in planning this trip that detailed information was hard to find about a lot of things.

Lincoln County is in the south-central part of the state. These days it’s relatively obscure, but it was important in the territorial period and there’s still a lot to see there that’s of historical interest. We focused primarily on Fort Stanton, which is a New Mexico State Historical Site that was an old frontier fort established in 1855. It’s still in remarkably good shape, partly because it was still in use for various purposes until quite recently, and is a bit of a hidden gem for those interested in historic architecture and frontier history. Very much worth visiting. We didn’t get to see the museum since we arrived right at 4:00 pm when it closes, but the grounds are open until 5:00 so we saw most of the other buildings.

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Rio Bonito near Fort Stanton, New Mexico

Surrounding the State Historic Site is the Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We were intending to camp here, but it was quite hard to find detailed information about the two campgrounds. The main one, the Rob Jaggers Campground, turns out to be mainly oriented toward RVers and equestrians rather than tent campers like us, but the other one, the Cave Campground, was more our style. It’s a small but quite well-maintained campground that apparently gets very little visitation, probably because it’s right at Fort Stanton cave, which is now closed to public visitation because of White Nose Syndrome in bats. Highly recommended as a camping option in an area that has few. There are ramadas and picnic tables at three or four campsites, and a vault toilet that was very clean. There’s no water at the campground, so we had to fill up our jug in the nearby towns of Lincoln and Capitan.

There are a lot of trails on the NCA, and we did a small loop that went right by the Rio Bonito, which runs through this area and lives up to its name. There is also a petroglyph site at the southwestern end of the NCA which I wanted to see, but the road to it turns out to be extremely steep and rocky, and we decided it was not worth the risk to my mom’s small car to try to get there. Hiking to the site along the trails might be a better way to get there.

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Old Courthouse (Murphy-Dolan Store), Lincoln, New Mexico

We also visited the town of Lincoln, which is famous for the Lincoln County War in the late 1870s which made Billy the Kid (in)famous. Many of the old buildings from that period are still very well preserved, and several of them are part of Lincoln State Historic Site. Some of them are set up as museums, although the exhibits in them get a bit repetitive at times since they all focus so much on the same short period of time. Still, it’s a very interesting place. The short video at the visitor center was quite helpful in summarizing the War and the background to it, which ultimately revolved around rival groups of ranchers and merchants trying to access government contracts to supply Fort Stanton and the nearby Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. Having seen Fort Stanton first was helpful in contextualizing this, since it was a quite large and elaborate post for the time and place and supplying it would clearly have been quite lucrative.

On our way back to Albuquerque we stopped in Capitan and saw the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The “real” Smokey Bear was a cub discovered in the midst of a forest fire near Capitan in 1950 and brought to the National Zoo in DC to serve as a living embodiment of the fire-prevention mascot (who had already existed for a few years by then). The museum is mostly about forest fire safety, including a lot of discussion of how our understanding of the role of natural fire has changed over the years. There is also a garden showing various native plants of the Southwest, along with the burial place of Smokey, who died in 1976.

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Sign at Smokey Bear Historical Park, Capitan, New Mexico

Since it was sort of on the way and my mom had not been there, although I had, we decided to stop at Gran Quivira on the way back as well. There is a relatively direct route to it, but we missed the (apparently quite subtle) turnoff and ended up going the long way around through Corona and Mountainair before getting to the site. It’s a really great site, I think.

So then we ended up back in Albuquerque, just as it was starting to rain yesterday evening. Yesterday was my birthday (I’m 32), and this trip was a nice way to celebrate it. I fly back to Alaska tomorrow.

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“New” Church at Gran Quivira

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What Are Museums For?

Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska

In the same post about photography I discussed earlier, Matthew Yglesias also has some thoughts about museums:

It’s extremely difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that these super-gigantic collections represent an inefficient allocation of global resources. If 15 percent of the stuff on display at the Louvre vanished at random, the impact on the experience of visiting the museum in particular or Paris in general would be minimal. But in the majority of the cities of the world, that 15 percent would be the basis for an excellent new museum.

This touches on a longstanding debate about the purpose of museums in general.  One school of thought holds that amassing “super-gigantic collections” is precisely the point of having “universal museums” like the Louvre, the British Museum, the Smithsonian, etc.  The idea is that these institutions are the ones that have the resources to care for their collections properly, which can be quite a challenge with certain types of specimens, and that their locations in major cities and general cultural clout make the portions of their collections they display (necessarily a tiny fraction of the total) more accessible to more people than would be the case if they were scattered among numerous smaller museums.  The result of this approach is that while most people go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, whoever also wants to see the antiquities collections and so forth can do so all in one trip to Paris rather than having to go all over the world.  This view was also traditionally associated with the less savory imperialist attitudes of the elites who founded these museums in the nineteenth century, of course, which is one of the major reasons that it’s not the only view out there these days.

Entrance to Carnegie Museums, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The main opposing viewpoint is basically the one Yglesias takes: cultural treasures should be distributed more equitably, rather than amassed in a handful of huge museums.  A more specific variant holds that these treasures should really be kept and displayed as close as possible to their places of origin, which is a viewpoint particularly held by the governments of countries like Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Peru, i.e., the places of origin of all that stuff being collected by the museums during their more overtly imperialistic eras.  There have been some recent high-profile cases of these governments demanding (and in some cases getting) their stuff back from major museums.  You also see this sort of thing within the US, especially with regard to archaeological collections.  One of the main points of criticism of the Hyde Expedition at Chaco, for example, was that the artifacts were being shipped off to New York, to be kept by the American Museum of Natural History, rather than staying in New Mexico where they belonged.   Tellingly, however, many of the most strident (and effective) critics of the Hyde excavations were closely associated with the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, preeminently the founder of the museum, Edgar Lee Hewett.  Although the dispute was often portrayed as between “looters” shipping the stuff off with no regard for its scholarly value and professional archaeologists who wanted to preserve it, it was in reality primarily a dispute between two sets of professional archaeologists with different institutional sponsors.  Both groups wanted the sites to be excavated, and neither had excavation techniques that were up to modern standards.  Both also wanted the artifacts to leave Chaco, too.  It was really a matter of whether they went to New York or Santa Fe.  Nobody wanted to leave the stuff at Chaco (except the Indians, of course, but in those days nobody with any power cared what they wanted).  Hewett and the Santa Fe side ended up winning, and a few years after the AMNH gave up on Chaco for good Hewett began his own excavations there, only to be immediately pushed aside by Neil Judd and his institutional sponsor, the Smithsonian.  Hewett did get his chance once Judd was done, and the institutions with which he was affiliated, including the University of New Mexico and the School of American Research in addition to the MNM, have dominated research at Chaco ever since.

Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

This local approach generally sounds better when viewing these issues from a distance, I think, although it’s important to note that the upshot of the various institutions competing over Chaco was that the collections from excavations there are scattered all over the country with very few of them on public display.  From the perspective of the residents of a given place, whichever approach results in more of the stuff being near them sounds good, however, and the impetus for the founding of local museums in places like New Mexico has to be understood in the context of the general spirit of boosterism and economic development that pervaded small western cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as the universal museum concept resulted from the rapid growth of major industrial cities slightly earlier.  From the perspective of the visitor, concentration has the virtue of reducing the number of trips necessary but with the potential for increasing the distance traveled, while dispersion has the opposite effects (all depending, of course, on where a given visitor lives).  Basically, as with so many disputes, this one ultimately comes down to a clash of fundamental values.  Thus, there isn’t really a “solution” to it, just the necessity in each specific context of deciding which values to prioritize.

Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas

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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Matthew Yglesias, on vacation in Paris, says:

In the age of the Internet, I think it’s often hard to know what to take photos of. I got a lovely shot of the gardens at Versailles, to be sure, but Flickr and Wikipedia and all the rest are already loaded with pictures of everything obvious. Pictures taken by more skilled photographers. At the same time, I like taking pictures of things. It’s fun. So I often end up taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of things.

This is an issue I’ve encountered myself as well.  I’ve traveled a lot in the past few months, and taken a lot of pictures.  It does often seem silly, though, to take a picture of something I can find numerous pictures of with the click of a mouse.  I do still generally take those obvious pictures, mostly because I figure I might want to write blog posts about them at some point and my policy on this blog of only using my own pictures, while particularly silly in this sort of situation, does give me a pretext for taking pictures of many things.

The Hammer Museum, Haines, Alaska

There’s only so many pictures like that you can take, though, and once I’ve got one shot of each famous place I might want to write about I face the issue that I want to keep taking pictures, because it’s fun, but I no longer have any real idea what purpose those pictures might serve.  Now that huge memory cards are cheap, this doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but it’s still an issue.  One approach is to try to actually become a good photographer and take pictures that have intrinsic artistic merit.  I’ve considered this, and certainly tried to improve the quality of my pictures over the years, but really doing a good job of taking pictures would require a substantial investment of time that I’m not sure I want to make.

Passengers on Alaska State Ferry Taking Pictures of Mendenhall Glacier

Another option is to take pictures of unusual things.  Yglesias notes above that he likes to take pictures of other tourists taking pictures of famous things, and I’ve done the same thing at times.  What I’ve done more often, though, is focus more on documenting the mundane: city streets, houses, office buildings, and especially signs.  I take a lot of pictures of signs these days.  I like signs because people rarely take pictures of them, they’re often surprisingly photogenic (and make great generic illustrations for all sorts of topics I might want to discuss here), and they sometimes contain a remarkable amount of information beyond the literal message of the sign itself.  It’s also generally easier to take good pictures, with compelling composition of so forth, of simple things like signs than of more complicated scenes.

Sign for Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska

I’m not sure that there’s really a “right” answer to this question, or even that it’s an important enough problem to worry about, but I thought it was interesting to see Yglesias’s post about it because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.  The post also contains some interesting thinking about museums, but that’s a topic for another post.

"No Parking" Sign at Ferry Terminal, Juneau, Alaska

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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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