Ancient Basketmaker Pit Houses Excavated on White Mesa (1997)

Highway construction reveals ancestral Puebloan site

Roadwork on U.S. Highway 191 south of Blanding this summer uncovered an Anasazi site consisting of four pit houses, two east of the highway and two west, and one other structure in the middle of the road bed. The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) had previously conducted surveys in the area, marked known prehistoric sites, and engineered the road improvements to avoid any sites considered significant. However, the structures discovered in July had been buried under several feet of dirt and the asphalt of the existing highway and were not evident on the surface.

This aerial photo of the pit house shows the main room on the left and the antechamber on the right. Near the outer edges of each room are four main post holes, with smaller holes for leaner posts around the perimeter. In the center of the main room is a circular, coped fire hearth. To the right of the fire hearth is a small ash pit and a stone deflector.

Archaeologists from Abajo Archaeology in Bluff were called immediately to assess the significance of the site. The site seemed to be a collection of Basketmaker III period pit houses and other structures that would likely date to approximately A.D. 500 to 700. These pit houses were hogan-like post-and-beam mud houses built partly underground in a pit. A daunting excavation task followed, as archaeologists faced the frustrations caused by the extremes of desert weather — heavy rains that flooded the area followed by the stifling summer heat — as well as pressure from encroaching construction, bureaucratic delays, and expletives hurled at them by passing motorists angered by construction delays. (These “drive-by shoutings” were balanced by frequent beeps from friends and interested passers-by.)

Joe Pachak measures a broken pot on the pit house floor.

The goal was to recover all scientific information from the site before it was re-buried by the highway construction. Working under the direction of archaeologist Winston Hurst of Blanding and Mark Bond of Bluff, crews quickly excavated the structures in the center of the road bed and on the west shoulder of the highway so road improvements could proceed as rapidly as possible. The crew was fortunate to be able to coordinate with UDOT and the construction company, LeGrande Johnson, and the excavation was accomplished without causing any interruption of the highway construction schedule.

Excavation in the road and west shoulder exposed remnants of two pit structures, one of which had been mostly excavated by construction equipment to below the floor, leaving just the intruding floor pits. Most artifacts in this structure had been pushed out by the construction equipment. A small rock exposed by the bulldozer proved to be a partly finished cloud blower pipe lying on top of a cache of azurite (blue copper ore) nodules and other minerals, all stashed just below floor (and equipment scrape) level in the butt socket of a wall post.

Although the second pit structure was found directly under the old highway, its floor and associated artifacts and features had escaped destruction and lain undisturbed below the highway since the 1950s. Its floor was very well-preserved, and a number of artifacts were recovered from it.

The impression of a woven sandal is captured in a clay tablet.

The layout of the two western pit houses suggests that they were originally two rooms of a single large pit house, the smaller room of which had at some point been deepened and remodeled into a separate pit house.

In September they turned their attention to the site area on the east side of the highway. They discovered two more burned pit houses, one of which encroached into the highway drainage ditch and was therefore excavated. This proved to be an unusually well-preserved pit house that with what seemed to be evidence of a unique occurrence. While many pit houses in the Four Corners area appear to have been cleaned out, then abandoned, investigations at this site indicated that the structure had been purposely burnt, with all the artifacts left in place. It provided an excellent opportunity to observe which implements were used in certain areas of the structure and to gain a better understanding of what life might have been like for the inhabitants.

Crews worked intermittently for three months to uncover one main pit house joined by a remarkably well-preserved, plaster coped entry passage to an attached antechamber. Within the structure was evidence that the pit house had been filled with brush and set afire. The burned beams that remained strewn about the floor and rising from some of the postholes revealed much about prehistoric construction techniques. They also provided more than thirty tree-ring samples, which may disclose precisely when the beams were cut. The main room contained remnants of the four main support posts, with fallen wall posts still draped with well-preserved bundles of reed and juniper from the wall lining. The antechamber to the south also contained four main support posts, but unlike the main room, where the posts were set inside the pit at the edge of the floor, these wall posts were set outside the pit at the edge of a low bench. Posthole details show that the walls of both the antechamber and main room rose vertically, instead of at a slope, unlike most houses of the time.

Archaeologist Winston Hurst (in center wearing white shirt) explains features of the Basketmaker pithouse to visitors.

The completed excavation showed a classic Basketmaker home floor plan, with a central, coped fire hearth and adjacent ash pit, a stone deflector which protected the fire from winds entering through the doorway, stone wing walls and storage bins. North of the fire hearth is a small hole, called a sipapu by the Pueblo peoples of today. This is a ceremonial hole which represents the spiritual access to previous worlds, and has been a common feature in Puebloan dwellings for centuries.

Artifacts recovered included five ceramic jars and three bowls, six arrow points, two complete grinding complexes containing metates with prop stones, manos, and pecking stones, seven clay sandal impression tablets, two bone awls, a fragment of juniper bark matting, several stones which were used for polishing pottery and rubbing hides, and two carbonized wood planks. These represent many aspects of daily life of the prehistoric people: food preparation, tool manufacturing and hunting techniques, pottery production, and fabrication of clothing items.

When the excavation was complete, samples of the plaster wall lining and the coping around the fire hearth were taken for archaeomagnetic dating. This dating technique analyzes the alignment of iron particles in the clay in relation to magnetic north at a given time. This could provide an accurate date, within 20 to 30 years, of when the pit house was burned.

On November 22, UDOT and Abajo Archaeology hosted an open house at the site. Nearly 100 people attended to view the excavation and hear theories of what might have happened on this spot over a thousand years ago.

–This article first appeared in the December 1997 issue of the Canyon Echo