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The Pithouses

Seventeen pithouses, here shown in orange, were discovered at Firecracker Pueblo. These appear to have been occupied early in the site's history, probably by the same people who built the pueblo.
Seventeen pithouses, here shown in orange, were discovered at Firecracker Pueblo. These appear to have been occupied early in the site's history, probably by the same people who built the pueblo.

Prior to the fieldwork at Firecracker Pueblo, pithouses had not been recorded for the El Paso phase.

Room 20, excavated by Norma Hoffnichter's TAS crew, is a shallow pithouse that had burned. An obsidian cruciform, shell beads, a projectile point and a corn cob with kernels still on it were all that was found on the floor of this room.
Room 20, excavated by Norma Hoffnichter's TAS crew, is a shallow pithouse that had burned. An obsidian cruciform, shell beads, a projectile point and a corn cob with kernels still on it were all that was found on the floor of this room.
Room 26, a pithouse of moderate depth with a simple step entry, two post holes and a hearth. Pottery making tools and an unfinished clay bowl were found on the floor of this room, suggesting that the potter had intended to return.
Room 26, a pithouse of moderate depth with a simple step entry, two post holes and a hearth. Pottery making tools and an unfinished clay bowl were found on the floor of this room, suggesting that the potter had intended to return.
Room 25, with Bob Smith for scale, is another deep pithouse with stepped entry, a hearth and four roof supports.
Room 25, with Bob Smith for scale, is another deep pithouse with stepped entry, a hearth and four roof supports. It took over two years to excavate this structure and unravel the sequence of events. The upper part of the room had been filled with trash from the pueblo occupants, and the pueblo eventually extended over this room. The trash deposit ended with a layer of caliche. Across most of the site, caliche occurs as a sterile, natural layer below most features or served as the bottom for pits and some room floors. At first we thought that the caliche layer in Room 25 was natural and quit digging. However, the large and rectangular shape to the trash deposit was puzzling because it did not resemble other situations of trash disposal at the site. So, another one-meter square was dug and luckily encountered one of the neatly plastered pithouse room corners. It turns out that this deep pithouse had been intentionally filled with caliche.
Helen Davis uncovers pottery in the fill of Room 25. The upper half of the fill of this room was a trash deposit with many artifacts.
Helen Davis uncovers pottery in the fill of Room 25. The upper half of the fill of this room was a trash deposit with many artifacts.
Two metates found lying face down on the floor of Room 11, a pithouse. In the upper right is a small cache of potters clay that was placed in a shallow basin.
Two metates found lying face down on the floor of Room 11, a pithouse. In the upper right is a small cache of potters clay that was placed in a shallow basin.

One of the big surprises at Firecracker was the discovery of 17 pithouses—semi-subterranean structures built within pits. Although pithouses are common at earlier Jornada sites, they were not expected at this very late site. Expected or not, it is now apparent that a small pithouse village or hamlet consisting of two groups of pithouses (that may not be contemporaneous) existed immediately prior to the construction of the pueblo. Many of the pithouses had been cut into by later features, and many had trash dumped in them. Some were also found beneath the pueblo room block. Various lines of evidence suggest that the pithouses and pueblo were built by late El Paso phase peoples in rapid succession, probably by the same social group. The pithouses are suspected to represent the initial period of intermittent and probably seasonal use of the site.

Most pithouses at Firecracker were in pits only 15-25 cm below ground surface, but some floor depths ranged to over a meter below the surface. With the exception of two structures that may have shared a common wall, the pithouses were single rooms. The pithouse rooms tended to be rectangular, fairly narrow, and had relatively small floor areas ranging from about 6 to 11 square meters. Floors were plastered with caliche, and caliche or mud plaster was still present on some pit walls. Above ground, the walls were probably at least partially made of adobe, although definite evidence of this—narrow wall stubs—was found for only one of these structures. Substantial roof supports were apparently not needed for the narrow, rectangular pithouses, as only two of them had two main roof supports.

In contrast, three out of the four pithouses that were more or less square had roof supports. Two had 2 postholes and a third had 4. The fourth square pithouse was poorly preserved. Materials used for beams and roofs were the same as for the pueblo, except for the absence of juniper and cottonwood, possibly because the major roof supports and roof beams had been removed from the abandoned pithouses and reused to build the pueblo.

Three of the shallow pithouses had doorways in their south walls. Stepped entryways were discovered through the south walls of two pithouses and the north wall of a third structure. Five of the six observed entryways had a plastered hearth near the opening; the sixth had no hearth. In pithouses with hearths, 11 hearths were near the center of the south wall, three near the east wall, and one each near the north and west walls. Because the hearths occurred in different places within the pithouses, it is inferred that the direction of the entryways also varied. Two pithouses lacked plastered hearths, and a third structure was poorly preserved.

Most of the pithouse rooms are of similar size and have hearths and other similar floor features. Although the pithouses are generally smaller than the surface pueblo rooms, these seem to be household dwellings that sometimes also served as storage rooms. The most convincing example of a storage room was a burned pithouse that contained considerable quantities of corn and beans. Another pithouse was tiny and had a floor area of only 1.3 square meters. It had a stepped entry on the north side, lacked floor features, and did not have a plastered floor but was excavated into a caliche layer. As with the small rooms associated with the pueblo, this structure probably served as a storage "closet." Another pithouse of average size, without a hearth or other notable floor features, and excavated nearly a meter into the soil likely served as a storage structure.

The largest of the pithouses, Room 31, is unusual in having numerous floor pits and a large hearth area on the floor that was not contained within a plastered pit or ring (the usual practice). It also had an alignment of posts in the western third of the structure, a large antechamber or step entry, and what appeared to be a wall or screen between the main part of the structure and the antechamber. It is twice the size of any of the other pithouses and located away from the other pithouses in the eastern part of the site. Although not as large as the pueblo rooms considered to be ceremonial or communal rooms, it obviously had a special function as well.

Two groups of pithouses were present at Firecracker. Four shallow pithouses formed a rough square in the southern part of the site. These structures faced one another and the central area between them. Plastered hearths and presumably nearby doorways, were located on the walls facing the central area. The second group is a linear alignment of 11 pithouses that is oriented east-west and is located mostly west of the pueblo room block. Almost all of the pithouses in this group had hearths centered on south walls. The four identifiable doorways or step entries are also through south walls. The linear arrangement and orientation of the 11 pithouses parallels that of the pueblo room block of Firecracker Pueblo and other pueblos of the region.

In the Southwest, pithouses are often associated with short-term, seasonal, and intermittent occupation. A number of observations suggest that this was the case at Firecracker as well. First, the pithouses are not substantial in construction and are small in comparison to pueblo rooms, suggesting that they were not designed to be lived in for long. Second, trash areas and other features outside the pueblo were clearly associated with the pueblo occupation rather than the pithouses. Third, one pithouse had a second floor added after some period of absence, as might be expected in seasonally occupied rooms. Finally, a number of cached objects were found in two pithouses, including metates, manos, pestles, and a mortar. These are heavy tools that were probably left behind with the intent of return.

Prior to the fieldwork at Firecracker Pueblo, pithouses had not been recorded for the El Paso phase. Not long after the first pithouses were uncovered at Firecracker, other pithouses and isolated or ephemeral structures began to be recognized in the region. Unlike Firecracker Pueblo, no more than four pithouses or isolated structures were reported for any of these other sites.

The large number of pithouses excavated at Firecracker Pueblo raises the question of whether they represent a single occupation or multiple occupations. While it is likely that the structures within each of the two groups of pithouses were contemporaneous, it is uncertain if both groups were occupied at the same time. It is also possible that not all structures in the larger, east-west oriented group were occupied at the same time. Nevertheless, there was little or no lapse in time between the pithouse and pueblo occupations. The deeper pithouses and those closest to the pueblo had trash dumped in them and resting directly on the floors. The pithouse located farthest to the east, and beneath a pueblo room, had been occupied long enough for walls to be darkened by smoke and then the two primary posts were removed and the walls knocked down to fill in the structure. Immediately above this pithouse, one of the first rooms of the pueblo was built with a post and hearth pattern matching that of the lower pithouse. It seems likely that the roof support posts and beams from the underlying pithouse were reused to construct the pueblo room, and the occupants of both structures were one and the same. The shared alignment of the east-west pithouses and the pueblo is another indication that the shift from the pithouses to the pueblo occurred quickly.


Room 13, a shallow pithouse, was one of the isolated structures found at the site. Structures of this kind were first recognized at Firecracker Pueblo as the result of short-term or seasonal occupation by puebloan people. Room 13 has many of the same characteristics of pueblo rooms: a plastered hearth, caliche-plastered floor, and post holes. It is on the small side…rooms like this range from about 6 to 11 square meters in size. Room 13 burned and the presence of burned shelled and cob corn, beans, and gourds tells us that at the time it was being used for storage.
Room 13, a shallow pithouse, was one of the isolated structures found at the site. Structures of this kind were first recognized at Firecracker Pueblo as the result of short-term or seasonal occupation by puebloan people. Room 13 has many of the same characteristics of pueblo rooms: a plastered hearth, caliche-plastered floor, and post holes. It is on the small side—rooms like this range from about 6 to 11 square meters in size. Room 13 burned and the presence of burned shelled and cob corn, beans, and gourds tells us that at the time it was being used for storage.

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Room 22, excavated by Rob Vantil's TAS crew, is a deep pithouse thought to have been used for storage because of the absence of the usual floor features. Trash had been dumped in this room by the later occupants of the pueblo.
Room 22, excavated by Rob Vantil's TAS crew, is a deep pithouse thought to have been used for storage because of the absence of the usual floor features. Trash had been dumped in this room by the later occupants of the pueblo.
Stepped entry or stairway through the south wall into Room 25, a deep pithouse. Just inside the room is a typical plastered floor hearth, placed near the door for ventilation. The adobe "step" on the south wall has been noted previously for pueblo rooms, but the combination of step and stairway is unique for the region.
Stepped entry or stairway through the south wall into Room 25, a deep pithouse. Just inside the room is a typical plastered floor hearth, placed near the door for ventilation. The adobe "step" on the south wall has been noted previously for pueblo rooms, but the combination of step and stairway is unique for the region.

In the Southwest, pithouses are often associated with short-term, seasonal, and intermittent occupation. A number of observations suggest that this was the case at Firecracker as well.

EPAS volunteers work in Room 13. This was a shallow pithouse that had burned and was full of shelled corn and beans. Although interesting, the excavators complained about having to pick out thousands of kernels of corn and beans from the soil. But if not this, then it was too hot, too cold, too many flies….
EPAS volunteers work in Room 13. This was a shallow pithouse that had burned and was full of shelled corn and beans. Although interesting, the excavators complained about having to pick out thousands of kernels of corn and beans from the soil. But if not this, then it was too hot, too cold, too many flies….
The Room 11 metates turned over along with a mano. Cached heavy tools such as these suggest that the room's occupants intended to come back and reclaim them. Perhaps the pithouse had deteriorated too much by the time they returned and the tools were buried under roof and wall collapse.
The Room 11 metates turned over along with a mano. Cached heavy tools such as these suggest that the room's occupants intended to come back and reclaim them. Perhaps the pithouse had deteriorated too much by the time they returned and the tools were buried under roof and wall collapse.