FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA — A fuller picture of Arizona’s past is starting to emerge from the desert north of Petrified Forest National Park, a year after officials revealed that the park’s newly expanded boundaries contained many unexplored and unexcavated ruins dating back to the days of Chaco Canyon and beyond.
An act of Congress added about 125,000 acres to Petrified Forest in 2004, more than doubling the park’s size, but the complicated land swap isn’t complete yet, and researchers have only begun to get a glimpse at what the vast tracts hold in store.
Although archaeologists have so far explored only 40 percent of the new land, this summer alone they’ve identified more than 70 structures and other features of ancient habitation, some of them salted with artifacts like turquoise pendants, seashell beads, rock art displays, and a surprising variety of ceramics.
The ruins cover the spectrum of time and size, from pithouses dating to the pre-ceramic Basketmaker period to a multi-story great house that bears the hallmarks of Ancestral Pueblo architecture.
“Virtually none of this land has had any archaeological work, any survey work, any documentation work done on it,” park archaeologist Dr. William Reitze said last weekend at the 2013 Pecos Conference, a meeting of southwestern archaeologists in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“So this is all a new area that’s now being protected, as well as opened up to future research, and we’re going to do our best to do research on it.”
On 80 acres of high desert scrub known as Hatch Ranch, for instance — just part of the park’s new acquisition — one team of researchers found 17 different sites, including ancient field houses used for tending crops and gathering food, and ruins of pueblos with as many as 10 rooms.
Not far away, a second team discovered more than twice as many sites in an even smaller area — with remains of subterranean pithouses and food-storage bins stretching out in so many directions that the surveyors dubbed the area “The Kraken.”
But perhaps the most elaborate find is the ruin of what was likely once a multi-story great house, probably built and used between 1050 and 1100 CE, perched at the top of a small, cone-shaped hill.
“It’s isolated on its own on a little hill, and it’s got that classic Chacoan masonry construction, a real fine constructed site,” Reitze said in an interview.
While the structure likely had about 20 rooms — a fraction of the size of truly great great houses of Chaco Canyon — it nonetheless shows the meticulous marks of Ancestral Pueblo handiwork.
“What really makes it so unique is the Chaco masonry,” Reitze said. “Most of what we have out there are just kind of stacked, small sandstone blocks that collapse into small rubble piles. But this has maybe chest-high walls still, with that fine, fine Chacoan masonry, with all the chink stones. It’s definitely a really impressive thing to see.”
This fall Reitze and his team will begin mapping and photographing these and other sites, and continue finalizing the details of the land transfer so that the sites can be preserved, he said.