An Atypical Mimbres Sites
BY JAKOB WILLIAM SEDIG
Since 1971 the Museum of New Mexico (MNM) has owned one of the largest and best-preserved archaeological sites in the Mimbres region of southwest New Mexico, Woodrow Ruin. The New Mexico State Planning Office originally purchased Woodrow Ruin from the Woodrow family of Cliff, New Mexico, with plans to turn the site into a state monument, complete with a visitor’s center, interpretive signs, trails, and full-time archaeologists. These plans never came to fruition, and ownership of the site was transferred to the MNM. The MNM protected the site by constructing a fence around it and assigning site stewards to watch over it. However, almost no archaeological research was conducted at Woodrow Ruin until I began my dissertation research there in the summer of 2011.
I could not ask for a better site to conduct my research than Woodrow Ruin, which is located on the beautiful upper Gila River. Only a few dozen miles south of the site, summertime temperatures can average above 100 degrees, but the temperature at Woodrow rarely exceeds the century mark.
Of course, archaeology, not climate, is what makes Woodrow Ruin special. Looters, who seek to dig up and sell the world-famous Mimbres picture bowls made during the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD, have ravaged almost every archaeological site in the Mimbres region. Woodrow Ruin is no exception; prior to the MNM’s purchase, a well-known looter dug for bowls at the site. However, unlike so many Mimbres sites that were bulldozed by looters, Woodrow Ruin was spared from complete devastation. Because of the MNM’s protection since the 1970s, it is one of the most intact sites in the Mimbres region.
The fence that surrounds Woodrow Ruin has kept out many unwanted visitors. Cattle and other livestock, which knock down architecture and crush surface artifacts with their large, hard hooves, have damaged countless archaeological sites in the Southwest. No livestock hooves have touched Woodrow Ruin for at least forty years. Thus, Woodrow has one of the best surface ceramic assemblages of the Mimbres region, if not the entire US Southwest. The number and size of ceramics on the surface of Woodrow Ruin astonishes everyone who visits the site.
Along with fellow researchers from the University of Colorado, I directed a survey of the surface artifacts at Woodrow Ruin in 2011. The data from this survey allowed me to determine which areas of the site had the highest densities of ceramics from particular time periods. The survey revealed that Woodrow was occupied from at least AD 550 to 1130, and that the distribution of ceramics at the site shifted through time. Somewhat surprisingly, I also discovered that Woodrow Ruin has a higher number of ceramics on the surface from the Late Pithouse period (AD 550–1000) than from the Classic period (AD 1000–1130). Usually, Classic-period ceramics are much more common than those dating to the Late Pithouse period at Mimbres sites, since Classic-period occupation occurred more recently, and population grew during the Classic period. While Woodrow Ruin undoubtedly had a substantial Classic-period occupation, the data I have collected indicates that a significant number of people also lived at the site during the Late Pithouse period.Along with the surface survey, high-precision GPS mapping of Woodrow Ruin was conducted in 2011. The maps we created are the most precise of Woodrow to date. In the spring of 2012, a magnetometry survey of Woodrow Ruin was conducted. Magnetometry detects subsurface anomalies that have a different magnetic signature than the natural surrounding strata. Magnetometry can identify features such as burned roofs, hearths, tin cans, and even alignments of rocks that have a slight magnetic charge. Often, magnetometry data alone cannot define precisely what a feature is; archaeologists need to excavate these features to determine their exact function. The magnetometry survey of Woodrow Ruin successfully identified numerous interesting features, some of which were excavated in 2012.
By April 2012 I had collected a plethora of data from Woodrow Ruin. While the data provided many new insights about Woodrow Ruin on its own, it was most helpful in determining where I would excavate in the summer of 2012. Excavation, no matter how precisely it is practiced, is a destructive process. Once archaeologists excavate something it is gone forever, and the only record of it that remains is the notes we write, pictures we take, and data we collect. Because Woodrow Ruin is in relatively good condition, it was crucial that my excavations had limited impact on the site.
With the assistance of archaeologists from the University of Colorado, I directed the first professional excavations at Woodrow Ruin in the summer of 2012. Eight test units were established in June 2012, and less than 1 percent of the site was impacted by excavation. As with all archaeological projects, excavation was exciting, informative, and puzzling. The best discoveries occurred on the final day of the project. Although the artifacts recovered in 2012 are still being analyzed, data from excavation has already revealed much about the site.
Work at Woodrow Ruin in 2012 helped confirm what we suspected about the site from the ceramic survey. Excavation uncovered artifacts and architecture spanning AD 550–1130. We excavated in one pithouse and an associated storage pit that date to about AD 550–650, an AD 700–800 occupation underneath a Classic-period roomblock, a pithouse with an AD 800–900 occupation, an adobe-and-cobble room that dates to AD 900–1000, and two above-ground cobble rooms that date to AD 1000–1130. These dates are approximate and were obtained from radiocarbon samples and ceramics found in each of the structures. I collected more chronological information when I returned to the site in summer 2013, and results are forthcoming.
Research in 2012 also confirmed that Woodrow Ruin had a substantial occupation during the Late Pithouse period. Almost every unit we excavated contained architecture and ceramics that were made during this time period. After that summer’s work, I now believe that Woodrow Ruin may have been one of the largest Late Pithouse sites in the Mimbres region.
Excavation at Woodrow Ruin in 2012 provided plenty of surprises. Perhaps the most notable was the adobe-and-cobble room. During its occupation, people switched from living in below-ground pithouses to above-ground cobble pueblos. The adobe-and-cobble structure we identified was likely one of the earliest above-ground structures constructed at the site. Such structures are rare in the Mimbres region, since they were usually destroyed or incorporated into stone roomblocks built during the Classic period. I continued excavation in the adobe-and-cobble structure in 2013.
Another surprise from the 2012 excavation was the AD 800–900 pithouse. In fact, we were not able to conclude that the structure was indeed a pithouse until the last day of excavation, when we encountered its burned roof. The pithouse was close to 6 feet below the modern ground surface. In between the roof of the pithouse and the modern ground surface we encountered several interesting features. First, we noticed that there was a high density of ceramic sherds in the fill of the pithouse that were larger than those recovered from other units. We also recovered numerous “worked” sherds from the fill—sherds that had been modified into spindle whorls, pendants, scrapers, or other objects.
Ceramics were not the only interesting artifacts we recovered from the fill of this pithouse. Numerous large-mammal bones were also encountered. Some of these were placed in a pit thinly lined with adobe. Another feature consisted of a deer jaw that had three large sherds lined up next to it. Finally, we found an Archaic-period (7000 BC–AD 200) projectile point immediately above the pithouse’s burned roof. Overall, our excavation of the pithouse revealed that once people stopped using the structure, it was burned, then filled with trash. A number of ritual deposits were later made in the trash fill. We resumed excavation in this pithouse in 2013.
We also excavated in one of the most noticeable features of Woodrow Ruin, a large, prominent, neatly constructed Classic-period roomblock in the center of the site. The only surface roomblock in the center of the site (all others are on the north and south ends), it is situated between two great kivas. Our excavations in this roomblock helped us understand its construction and occupation history. As expected, the uppermost artifacts in the room we excavated date to the Classic period. Once we identified and mapped the room’s floor, we excavated beneath it. We discovered that like many Classic-period roomblocks in the Mimbres region, the central roomblock at Woodrow Ruin was constructed on top of an earlier, Late Pithouse occupation. Surprisingly, however, there appears to be a substantial gap in the archaeological record between the Late Pithouse occupation and the Classic-period roomblock. The ceramics recovered below the Classic-period floor were types made 300 years before the Classic period.
The research conducted at Woodrow Ruin up to this point has provided excellent data for my dissertation, which examines the social, demographic, and environmental transitions that occurred at Woodrow Ruin and the upper Gila between AD 900 and 1000. Overall, the work conducted since 2011 has demonstrated that Woodrow is truly a unique Mimbres site with several distinctive features. One of those features is the previously mentioned central roomblock, one of the most prominent features of the site. Data from the geophysical and magnetometry survey indicates that a prehistoric road north of the site may have led directly to the roomblock. This roomblock was constructed on top of a Late Pithouse occupation. Research has also demonstrated that the site had a substantial Late Pithouse occupation, perhaps one of the largest in the Mimbres region. Finally, adobe-and-cobble architecture from AD 900–1000 is present at the site. While this type of architecture is present at other Mimbres sites, it is rare.
The collection of this data from Woodrow Ruin was possible only because of the excellent preservation and management of the site by the MNM. However, several local site stewards keep a close eye on it throughout the year, ensuring that no unwanted visitors trespass. The site stewards—Greg Conlin, Kyle Meredith, and Marilyn Markle—have all been an integral part of my research at Woodrow Ruin. They, along with local residents of the Silver City area, have generously provided their labor. While the volunteers have to endure the intense summer sun, they get to be the first people to handle artifacts that have been buried for close to 1,000 years.At present, artifacts recovered from Woodrow Ruin are being stored at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I am sorting, cataloging, and analyzing them. The public has also been involved in these processes. Members of the Colorado Archaeological Society have helped me sort and type ceramics. A Boulder Boy Scout troop has also helped with ceramic sorting and analysis. When I returned to Woodrow Ruin in 2013, volunteers from Santa Fe and the Silver City area once again assisted in research.
Woodrow Ruin never was turned into a state monument, as was originally planned when it was purchased from the Woodrow family in the early 1970s. However, the public still has had the opportunity to be an integral part of research at the site. Once my research is concluded, artifacts from the site will be curated by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. I hope the public will be able to enjoy them in displays at the museum.
Although my research at Woodrow Ruin is not yet complete, it is already clear that it is an important archaeological site. It now seems that in order to truly understand Mimbres prehistory, archaeologists must consider Woodrow Ruin. My work there has only scratched the surface (literally, in some instances) of what we can learn from the site. With the museum’s continued ownership and conservation, Woodrow Ruin will continue to provide archaeologists with valuable data from a rare, well-preserved Mimbres site for many years.
Jakob W. Sedig is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Sedig has worked in the Southwest since 2006. His current research focuses on the environmental, social, and demographic changes that occurred around 900 AD in the Mimbres region.