Four Corners Research-Archaeology in the Mesa Verde Region

Great House Formation In The Northern San Juan  Region
Southwest Colorado & Southeast Utah
As part of the Mitchell Springs Community research, beginning in the Spring of 2011, the uplands inside and adjacent to the Mitchell Springs community watershed that lie below the North Escarpment of the Mesa Verde, were informally surveyed to gain a better understanding of how these lands were used during the Puebloan occupation. The Mitchell Springs Great House Formation Model (see left side of this page) infers an association between these lands and powerful incipient social groups living at the bottom of the watershed near the springs. These lands empty into McElmo Creek a short distance from the springs. The watershed appears to have been part of one catchment-wide community that was held together by the need for the fresh water from Mitchell Springs. 

The survey produced a trove of information that shaped future research related to the rise of social power and communal enterprises at the core of the community. Many different types of ancient water control devices were employed in these lands including collection ditches, reservoirs, terrace and check dam complexes, and masonry diversion walls. During the course of gathering data on settlement history and prehistoric land-use inside the Mitchell Springs watershed, it became clear that other great house communities in Southwest Colorado shared similar physical attributes. This information led to a multi-year effort to study the 'watersheds' of other great house communities inside and outside of the Montezuma Valley for the purpose of acquiring necessary information that would make it possible to create data sets that would allow a direct comparison with the voluminous information that has been generated from Mitchell Springs.






















In 2015, in a separate but related research endeavor, the San Juan Red Ware Sourcing and Exchange Project, was launched for the purpose of identifying production-villages for this pottery type. San Juan Red ware can be found at nearly every habitation site in Southwestern Colorado and Southeast Utah that was occupied during the production period that lasted from about A.D. 750 to 1050. It turned out to be an immense endeavor that required thousands of hours of work by four professional archaeologists with different areas of expertise. In the process of gathering samples and settlement data for this project, we updated the State of Utah site database files for 48 village-sized population centers in Southeast Utah. Most required a full-blown reassessment, comprehensive pottery tallies, and new maps. The information generated from this work has allowed us to systematically compare these villages with contemporaneous large sites in Southwestern Colorado. Some had long occupations and large populations  and several of these communities went on to become recipients of a great house beginning at about A.D. 1050. Information that was generated from this work has proved to be very useful to the Great House Formation Project.

Interesting patterns have emerged that strongly suggest outlier great house communities often formed where opportunities for enhanced agricultural production existed. A few appear to have formed where other types of resources could be exploited and a few others were sited for ritual reasons that may be associated with important linear alignments.
Agricultural Intensification, Differentiation, and Monumental Constructions at Mitchell Springs

The Model

    Mitchell Springs are the only known natural drinking water source in the central Montezuma Valley. The water at the springs began to attract a permanent resident population by A.D. 650 and the community continued to expand until the end of the Chacoan era. 
    Without the springs it would not have been possible to live at these low elevations for an extended period of time. During historic times, dry land farming has not been successful in the central Montezuma Valley. Only during rarely occurring periods of sustained high-precipitation levels would this have been possible.
    Lands inside the watershed that drain down to Mitchell Springs were particularly well oriented for slope runoff diversion farming (see Figure to right). Reservoirs, collection ditches, check dam complexes, and diversion walls, can still be found in some parts of the watershed, confirming that these opportunities were not overlooked by prehistoric Puebloans. Slope runoff water flows down the principal arroyos of the watershed and empty into McElmo Creek a short distance from the center of the community. These features appear to confirm that a well organized system of cooperation was practiced in the watershed that allowed people to thrive there for almost six centuries. I believe these advances were inextricably tied to the pit house to pueblo transition when small groups of households and extended households combined their farm plots at the end of the Basketmaker III period and worked the land as a communal enterprise. Cooperating groups lived together in connected suites of rooms inside one house. House members probably shared many other tasks and combined their valuable claims on the runoff water that traveled down the primary arroyos of the watershed.
    The transition resulted in unprecedented production increases that generated surpluses on a level that probably had not previously been experienced. Surplus food production brought major changes to the social and economic system and resulted in wealth and social differentiation.