Time Machine Tuesday: Archaeology of Southwestern Colorado

In the summer of 1921, one of Colorado’s leading archaeologists, Jean Allard Jeançon, set out with a team of colleagues and students to explore and excavate the area near the San Juan mountains. For thousands of years, a variety of peoples and cultures made their home in the southwestern part of the state, leaving behind artifacts and dwellings that made the region one of the most archaeologically significant in Colorado. Following his return, Jeançon, the Curator of Archaeology and Ethnology at the State Historical Society, published his findings in a research report, Archaeological Research in the Northeastern San Juan Basin of Colorado During The Summer of 1921.

One of the sites that Jeançon explored was Chimney Rock, where he and his team excavated the Chimney Rock Pueblo. In his report, Jeançon describes the pithouses, kivas, and other remarkably-preserved ruins at Chimney Rock:

There are 109 buildings on the mesa top. …[The largest] building is a compact mass consisting of two kivas and the remainder living rooms. It is probable when the excavation is completed there will not be less than 35 rooms and perhaps more…

Jeançon and his colleagues brought back many artifacts from the site, which were added to the collection of the State Historical Society. Photos of many of these artifacts can be viewed as part of the the History Colorado Online Collection.

An Ancestral Puebloan jar found during Jeançon’s expedition. Photo courtesy History Colorado.

In the years since Jeançon’s work, southwest Colorado continued to be a hotspot of archaeological research in Colorado. A team from the University of Colorado, led by Frank W. Eddy, again excavated at Chimney Rock in 1970-72; their report can be found in our library collection. A book, In the Shadow of the Rocks: Archaeology of the Chimney Rock District in Southern Colorado by Florence C. Lister (University Press of Colorado, 1993), is also available for checkout. The Chimney Rock site is open to visitors during the summer.

Photo of Chimney Rock, from Jeancon’s report.

Beyond Chimney Rock — and, of course, the region’s most famous archaeological site, Mesa Verde — numerous other sites in southwestern Colorado have yielded clues about our state’s earliest inhabitants. In 1977, for example, Betty LeFree, also an archaeologist with the State Historical Society, studied the area around the Los Pinos River in Hinsdale County. Her report, like Jeançon’s, is available to view online from our library. In Cultural Values of the Los Pinos River, she notes that the archaeological evidence found in that area mainly consisted of spear points, leading her to the conclusion that early peoples did not live in the area, but traveled there to hunt.

The following resources, also available from our library, provide a general overview of the history and archaeology of the region:

  • Adventures with the Anasazi of Falls Creek, by Helen Sloan Daniels. Fort Lewis College, 1976.
  • The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners, by William M. Ferguson. University Press of Colorado, 1996.
  • An Archaeological Inventory in the Pike’s Stockade Area, Conejos County, Colorado, by Kevin D. Black. Colorado Historical Society, 2007.
  • Archaeological Test Excavations at 5MT4465 and 5MT4455, Montezuma County, Colorado (Dolores Pithouse). Colorado Department of Transportation, 1991.
  • The Eastern San Juan Mountains: Their Geology, Ecology, and Human History. University Press of Colorado, 2011.
  • Fort Lewis College Archaeological Investigations in Ridges Basin, Southwest Colorado, 1965-1982. Fort Lewis College, 1985.
  • Points, Pithouses, and Pioneers: Tracing Durango’s Archaeological Past, by P. G. Duke. University Press of Colorado, 1999.
  • Prehistory in Peril: The Worst and the Best of Durango Archaeology, by Florence C. Lister. University Press of Colorado, 1997.
  • Southwest Colorado Prehistoric Context: Archaeological Background and Research Directions. Colorado Historical Society, 1984.
  • The Western San Juan Mountains: Their Geology, Ecology, and Human History. University Press of Colorado, 1996.