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Historian ties Yucca House to Chacoan culture, Mayans

Blackburn points to war between valley and cliff dwellers

Barely understood and rarely visited, Yucca House National Monument keeps its secrets.

But historian Fred Blackburn and a group of young students may provide insight into the mystery of these remarkable ruins north of Towaoc.

Blackburn presented his research project, Yucca House/Snyder Well to a packed house at the Cortez Cultural Center on Wednesday.

“This has been on my mind for over 20 years,” Blackburn says. “It was fun to work with kids on the project. They responded well and figured things out; people underestimate them.”

Yucca House, formerly known as Aztec Springs, was a great village of the Ancestral Puebloans and is one of the largest archaeological sites in Southwest Colorado.

Somewhere nearby is Snyder Well, named for William Snyder, who began excavation in 1893, but soon realized that the site was an ancient burial ground.

But because of poor record-keeping by early archaeologists, the precise location of Snyder’s Well is not clear. Blackburn and a group of fourth- and fifth-graders from the Watershed School in Boulder set out on a quest to learn more based on photographs and records.

“With the help of the kids, I’ve concluded that Yucca House and Snyder Well are part of the same complex,” Blackburn said.

In the process, intriguing questions were raised about a complicated, multicultural past and a violent episode in the 1200s.

Chacoan connection

The vast pueblo complex at Yucca House thrived from 1150-1300 from farming the surrounding land fed by a local spring near Sleeping Ute Mountain. It consisted of 600 rooms and 100 kivas, plazas, multistory structures and one Great Kiva that served the entire community.

Moreover, it also became an outlier of the great Chacoan capital to the south, Blackburn believes, evident from a report from the Hayden Survey of 1874.

“John Moss told the Hayden Survey that this is the ‘Colorado Road’ and it goes right through Yucca House,” he said. “My feeling is that it describes a Chacoan Road here that has been missed. It came straight north out of New Mexico and was traveled by many cultures stopping for water at Yucca House.”

Site passed over

Blackburn theorizes that tourism boosters had their eye on Yucca House early on, but the plan never materialized.

Henry Van Kleeck, a local investor, owned the site from 1892 to 1919, when he deeded it to the National Park Service. Blackburn says Van Kleeck probably hoped a planned railroad line from Gallup to Salt Lake City would pass by the ruins and he would cash in.

“It would have been one heck of a tourist attraction, and I believe that is why he held onto the land for so long,” Blackburn said. “The way Snyder’s well was publicized, I believe that was one of his motivations.”

But no tracks were ever laid because of a nationwide depression, triggered by the Silver Crash of 1893.

“That railroad would have made an incredible difference for this valley,” Blackburn said.

Cranial deformation

Blackburn says the significance of the way ancient skulls found at Yucca House are shaped has been overlooked.

A technique called cradleboard flattening was used by ancient Southwest tribes to alter the shape of the back of their heads at an early age.

Similarly, Mesoamerican tribes such as the Mayan used cranial deformation to create a distinct sloped back forehead. Is there a connection?

Shaped skulls were presumably found at Yucca House, and were recorded by Richard Wetherill in a signed affidavit of the discovery.

“He is saying something is going on here and it needs to be looked at further,” Blackburn said. “It shows just how little we know about Yucca House.”

Blackburn, along with a photographer and the students, compared old photographs of Yucca House with current photos at the same locations and recorded changes in vegetation and structures.

Hundred-year-old photos show parts of Yucca House were excavated then covered up.

Cultural war

An enlarged photo shows a partial dig with human remains including skulls at a kiva.

“Is it unusual to find human remains in the bottom of a kiva?” asks an audience member.

Blackburn says the area’s ancient population suffered an obvious social upheaval in the 1200s.

“It was a massacre,” he said. “Wetherill stated that the valley dwellers (at Yucca House) killed the cliff dwellers and threw them into this kiva.”

Based on historic records, the kiva with the human remains was 16 feet deep and 23 feet wide and included a tunnel that may have reached 100 feet, ending at a spring.

Visiting Yucca House leaves a lot to the imagination. Early excavations were reburied, and there has been limited reconstruction by contemporary archaeologists.

No major collections of artifacts are known to exist of the site. However, in the Tulane University archives, skulls collected from an unnamed Yucca House kiva have deformed cranials like Wetherill described.

“It raises lots of questions. The lambdoidal flattening of the skulls is a Mesoamerican trait, so where did the people come from?” Blackburn concludes, adding that “I guarantee you did not want to be here in the late 1200s.”


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