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Site Discovery

The Hueco Bolson; view west/northwest from Ceremonial Cave. Creosote, mesquite, and cacti cover the desolate sandy country. There are few nearby sources of water, although run-off from the hills provides seasonal moisture. It was sufficient apparently for Late Prehistoric peoples such as those at nearby Firecracker Pueblo to engage in small-scale farming of corn and other crops. Photo by Darrell Creel.
Hueco Bolson, view west/northwest from Ceremonial Cave. Creosote, mesquite, and cacti cover this desolate sandy country typical of much of the Texas Trans-Pecos region. There are few nearby sources of water, although run-off from the hills provides seasonal moisture. It was sufficient apparently for Late Prehistoric peoples such as those at nearby Firecracker Pueblo to engage in small-scale farming of corn and other crops. Photo by Darrell Creel.

Ceremonial Cave stands out as one of the most unusual and interesting sites ever found in Texas, but its story is surely one of the most tragic examples of archeological site destruction in the state. On seeing the cave in the late 1920s, area resident Eileen Alves lamented: "Treasure hunters of the most malignant and energetic type have reduced the interior to a state of chaos." Fortunately, Alves and her husband Burrow Alves purchased some of the looters' collection, saving it from dispersal and ultimate destruction, for it is only as a group that the objects begin to convey their full significance. And fortunately, their alert to the archeological community prompted an investigation of the site before it was destroyed.

In 1928, the Alves invited archeologists C.B. and H.S. Cosgrove to explore the site. At that time many museums across the country were conducting fieldwork with the intent of adding to their collection exhibits. Representing Harvard's Peabody Museum, the Cosgroves were working nearby in the Mimbres area of southwestern New Mexico, exploring Pueblo ruins and what they believed to be the cultural remains of the earlier Basketmaker culture. The dry caves of the Hueco Mountains presented the possibility of finding perishable materials of similar cultural affiliation-basketry, clothing, and other items not commonly preserved in unsheltered sites.

The report of explorations by C.B. Cosgrove published in 1947 provides us the bulk of the limited documentation that exists of the deposits at Ceremonial Cave. Because the deposits were already severely disturbed at the time of their investigations, it is likely we will never have a better understanding of the cave than what they observed. From their exploration, we learn of the remarkable objects found in the cave, but we also puzzle along with Cosgrove at the combination of certain artifacts and what their significance might be. There is an astonishing and diverse group of objects that are probably offerings, along with hundreds of fiber sandals, some embedded with cactus thorns. There was a puzzling layer of grass on the floor of the cave. There were the skeletons of a woman and a child, carefully placed in a cave niche. And throughout the cave deposits, in the same chamber containing ceremonial offerings, were quantities of desiccated human excrement.

Cosgroves' 1928 map of the cave shows the main chamber as well as drifts, or extensions, as they appeared at the time, and denotes the area near the mouth of the cave where a great many ceremonial objects were found. Unfortunately, there is little documentation of the ceremonial deposit, although Cosgrove specifically mentions prayer sticks or ceremonial staffs (yucca stalks with attached fiber bolls), darts, and so-called hair ornaments. Given the nature of the early looting, it is likely that the ornaments and tablitas and certain other items purchased by the Alves were from the ceremonial deposits as well. Although a number of dart shafts were found in the rear portion of the main chamber, it is possible those were carried to the back by rodents; indeed, several shafts show signs of gnawing

In addition to the remarkable array of artifacts, the Cosgroves found the skeletal remains of two individuals, a young child about 2 ½-years old, and a young woman. Although their bones had been scattered by animals, it was evident that the woman had been placed in a bay on the side of the cave, her legs drawn up, and head facing south. She had been adorned with jewelry-—a shell pendant and a necklace of seeds-—but there were chipped stone projectile points within her body as well, one in her pelvic cavity and another on the right side of her body. Whether these attest to her violent death—or were placed there for some other, more-peaceful reason—is not known. We do know, however, that at her death she was carefully wrapped in a blanket of rabbit skin strips. Cosgrove believed the blanket was an early type, associated with the so-called Basketmaker culture.

Cosgrove's interpretation of the cave deposits and the placement of artifacts is important. He notes the absence of fire pits or ash strata that would indicate it might have been used as a dwelling or that might indicate it was occupied for an extended period of time. One enigmatic feature—a layer of packed grass lying directly on the cave floor and burned to ash in some places—indicates a stay of some sort. Cosgrove believed it was bedding for transient visitors, and its burned state an indication that it was carelessly fired.

Another curious finding was an enormous quantity of desiccated human excrement, or coprolites, throughout the cave. Unfortunately Cosgrove and subsequent investigators failed to collect any of the coprolites, which could have provided valuable information on the diet of the cave visitors as well as age of the deposits.

In his report, Cosgrove sums up his interpretations: "A shrine it appears to be, with a suggested curious custom of the purging of the bowels and leaving of worn-out sandals when the objects were deposited there as offerings." However, some investigators today hold a different interpretation: that is, both the coprolites and the large numbers of sandals may be attributable to earlier occupations at the site. Given that almost all of the cave was dug up, the large quantities of these items are more likely a function of large-scale sampling.

Several other investigators visited and, in some cases, conducted excavations at Ceremonial Cave, adding a number of artifacts to the collections and raising additional questions about the deposits. Among these was E.B. Sayles, who in 1931 visited the cave and conducted limited testing in the rear of the main chamber. He reported what he termed a "grass mat" as well as a concentration of charcoal and ashes, yucca-leaf sandals, cordage, bone awls, and the bone of an extinct antelope dating to the late Pleistocene. (Bones of other extinct animals were also found by the Cosgroves and probably reflect use of the cave by Pleistocene animals.)

Today, Ceremonial Cave is encompassed within the bounds of Fort Bliss. When archeologists from The University of Texas at El Paso surveyed the area and its caves for the United States Army Air Defense Artillery Center in 1997, they noted that there was almost nothing left in the cave. For a more detailed summary of investigations at Ceremonial Cave, download a pdf version of the report prepared in conjunction with the UTEP Survey report.


 

Treasure hunters of the most malignant and energetic type have reduced the interior to a state of chaos.

Eileen Alves, 1931.

Excavations in progress at what is thought to be Ceremonial Cave. Photo by Jim Alexander,</em> <em>courtesy  of Richard D. Worthington and El    Paso County  Historical Society
Excavations in progress at what is thought to be Ceremonial Cave. Photo by Jim Alexander, courtesy of Richard D. Worthington and El Paso County Historical Society.
Plan map of Ceremonial Cave and Caves 1-3, as recorded by C. B. Cosgrove in 1928. Cosgrove identified the faintly circled area (d) in Ceremonial Cave as "area of large ceremonial deposit." The small chamber marked as "c"denotes the area of an adult burial. Map from Cosgrove 1947.
Plan map of Ceremonial Cave and Caves 1-3, as recorded by C. B. Cosgrove in 1928. Cosgrove identified the faintly circled area (d) in Ceremonial Cave as "area of large ceremonial deposit." The small chamber marked as "c"denotes the area of an adult burial. Map from Cosgrove 1947.
Closeup of dart or stalk pajo, or prayer stick, reported by C.B. Cosgrove from Ceremonial Cave, circa 1928 (click for full image). The atlatl darts are shown with attached fiber bolls which were filled with tobacco. The pajos were made of sotol bloom stalks. Specimen "b" is roughly 20 inches long; the originals would have been much longer. Image from Cosgrove 1947.
Closeup of dart or stalk pajo, or prayer stick, reported by C.B. Cosgrove from Ceremonial Cave, circa 1928 (enlarge for full image). The atlatl darts are shown with attached fiber bolls which were filled with tobacco. The pajos were made of sotol bloom stalks. The specimen at left is roughly 20 inches long; the originals would have been much longer. Image from Cosgrove 1947. Enlarge to see more examples.

A mother-of-pearl ornament, its shell material derived from the Pacific Coast hundreds of miles away, was likely a prized trade object.
A mother-of-pearl ornament, its shell material derived from the Pacific Coast hundreds of miles away, was likely a prized trade object. Based on its similarity to rock art depictions at nearby Hueco Tanks and other sites, it may have been a mask, possibly a miniature version. TARL Collections. Photo by Milton Bell.
One of the hundreds of sandals found in Ceremonial Cave. Their numbers prompted Cosgrove to suggest that they were the shoes of the pilgrims themselves. Photo by Milton Bell.
One of the hundreds of "scuffer toe" sandals found in Ceremonial Cave. Their numbers prompted Cosgrove to suggest that they were the shoes of the pilgrims themselves. TARL Collections. Photo by Milton Bell.