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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 10, 2004 - Issue 104


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Once-lost Morris site contributes to understanding early Navajo culture

by Carol Cohea - The Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — It was lost for more than 70 years, but since its rediscovery an archaeological site on the south slope of Frances Mesa overlooking Gobernador Canyon has made significant contributions to understanding early Navajo culture before the 1800s.

The mystery of Morris Site 1 and its contributions are documented in an extensive two-volume report titled "The Morris Site 1 Early Land Use Study: Gobernador Phase Community Development in Northwestern New Mexico."

Field work, including archaeological inventory, data recovery and excavation was conducted between 1994 and 1996. Last July, after 10 years of compiling data and collaboration with experts in various scientific fields, the project came together under the editorship of Douglas Dykeman, the project director with the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department.

The project was jointly conducted by the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department and Cultural Resources Management Consultants.

The 10-year study was funded by Williams Field Services as part of a larger federally-administered program to mitigate adverse effects of Fruitland coal gas development.

"This was a lot of fun for me. It's the most interesting thing I've ever done by far. This one is a showpiece. It has relevant archaeology. And the site represents social, economic, political and religious aspects of early Navajo culture," Dykeman said.

"It's our biggest attempt yet to handle a complex problem involving archaeology, history and Native American culture. It's unusual to handle those simultaneously and to have this kind of interdisciplinary work in a single project," he said.

The study combined archaeological excavations, intensive and sample inventories, ethnographic and oral history data, as well as innovative dating techniques to paint a newly-detailed picture of Dine life in the traditional Navajo homeland of the Dinetah.

The details include an examination of local and extended social structure, economics involving local production and regional trade as well as ceremonial life.

"The collaboration of a number of institutions brought all the studies together and tied them into one whole," Dykeman said.

The story of the site began before archaeologist Earl Morris did his definitive work at Aztec Ruins in 1916.

In 1915 Morris dug parts of six pueblitos for the University of Colorado Museum and American Museum of Natural History in Romine Canyon, a small tributary to Gobernador Wash east of Bloomfield.

Nearly 40 years later the university sent out Roy L. Carlson, a doctoral student. His project was to take Morris' notes, relocate those six sites and prepare a report on the material.

"Carlson could find only five of the six sites. He couldn't find Morris Site 1. He had Morris' photos and he had his notes, but he couldn't find the site," Dykeman said.

Carlson finished his report without Morris Site 1. The mystery surrounding Site 1 faded into obscurity as the Dinetah landscape began to be reworked by natural gas field development and the construction of Navajo Dam and Reservoir, Dykeman said.

However, it was that same gas field development that ironically led to the rediscovery of the missing site 76 years later as the result of archaeological mitigation for the Fruitland Coal Gas facilities.

In 1991 one of the contract archaeologists, Summer McKean, found a small pueblito perched on a large boulder detached from the Frances Mesa escarpment. She wondered if she had found the missing Morris site. Her instinct proved true.

"The reason it couldn't be found earlier was that Morris said it was located on a detached boulder on the valley floor at the foot of the canyon wall in Gobernador Canyon. The site was actually situated on the first bench, about 40 to 50 feet higher than he had said, and above the valley floor," Dykeman said.

"McKean saw it through the trees. She had the pictures of it and worked hard trying to match the photo to its then-current condition," Dykeman said.

Her find ended the mystery of Morris Site 1 and its location was solved, but its significance for Navajo culture remained to be investigated.

The pueblito consists of a four-room stone masonry structure perched on a large talus boulder. When Morris saw it, floors were coated with mud to level the irregular surface of the boulder. Morris wrote of a doorway between interior rooms. No exterior entrance was evident. It's thought the entrance to the structure was through the roof.

For purposes of the project, the 1,400-acre study area included the pueblito of Morris Site 1 and a second pueblito called Romine Canyon Ruin, on the east side of the Morris Site 1 project area. They contain between four and 10 rooms, and appear to be associated with features of domestic and social function.

Morris Site 1 complex encompasses the pueblito and a number of features, including possible hogans, a sweat lodge, a midden and possible hearths. It is surrounded by 122 archaeological sites dated to the Navajo occupation in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It's believed the pueblito of Morris Site 1 was built largely for defense and storage for the people living in Romine Canyon, from 1749 until it was abandoned in 1751 or 1752.

Using the Morris Site 1 study area, the protohistoric Navajo community of the 1700s on Frances Mesa was studied in relation to its economy and social organization.

At the height of its population, it had nearly 500 people and was a gathering of several clans. The economy was diverse and complex, combining three strategies of procurement: collecting — hunting and gathering —, producing of corn, beans and squash, and exchange of raw materials, hides, blankets and baskets with the Spanish and Pueblos.

Of interest also are possible reasons why the Navajos ended their residency in the Dinetah in the mid-A.D. 1700s.

"So many people believe that cultures move or migrate to another area because environmental conditions deteriorate. But we're convinced there are cultural factors in a people coming to the decision to migrate or move," Dykeman said.

"We see this change in the economy of the Navajo from farming to sheep herding. Another external factor was that the Spanish were trying to gain control of the Navajo people. Their goal was to make the Navajo settle in to pueblo-like towns," he said.

"The Blessing Way is what facilitates the change in their culture and economy. The Navajo basically rejected the Spanish push to become settled," he said.

"Today the Navajo economy is undergoing a change again from sheep herding to a modern economy," he said.

The work also advances ideas that suggest certain aspects of modern Navajo communities may serve well as ethnographic models for the archaeological consideration of Gobernador phase communities, Dykeman said.

He said he hopes the work offers "a better understanding and respect for Navajo culture which we found to be far more complex than earlier research indicated."

"We are exploring, through a possible National Science Foundation grant, continuing the project to include explanations through oral traditions for the shift of land use out of the Dinetah to the San Juan Basin and beyond," Dykeman said.

He said the report is somewhat technical but is of interest to anthropologists, Navajo traditionalists, cultural geographers and social scientists.

Bound copies are available at the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department office in Farmington and Window Rock. It has been distributed to libraries and museums throughout the U.S., and is at Salmon Ruins and San Juan College as well as at major university libraries throughout the Southwest and across the country.

For more information contact the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department office at 327-6115.

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