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Beyond Walls

Plan of Firecracker Pueblo showing the outlines of features found within and beyond the rooms. A total of 243 features were found outside the pueblo proper including trash pits, small hearts, postholes, cylindrical storage pits, large roasting pits, and barrow pits.
Plan of Firecracker Pueblo showing the outlines of features found within and beyond the rooms. Over 200 features were found outside the pueblo proper including trash pits, small hearths, postholes, cylindrical storage pits, large roasting pits, and borrow pits.
Feature 1, a good example of a common outside feature, is cylindrical in shape with a flat bottom. These were frequently trash-filled, and sometimes contained cached grinding stones. These pits were likely used for concealed storage during periods of short-term or seasonal abandonment of the site. By matching broken artifacts, it was determined that most of these features probably used during the occupation of the pueblo and not that of the pithouses.
Feature 1, a good example of one of the most common and enigmatic outside features, is a cylindrical pit with a flat bottom. These were frequently trash-filled, and sometimes contained cached grinding stones. These pits were likely used for concealed storage during periods of short-term or seasonal abandonment of the site. By matching broken artifacts, it was learned that most of these features were used during the occupation of the pueblo and not that of the pithouses.

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Feature 132, a cross section of an average-sized roasting pit or oven where large pieces of adobe were used to retain heat. Rocks were frequently used in features of this sort elsewhere in the Hueco Bolson, but surface rocks do not occur in the vicinity of the site.
Feature 132, a cross section of an average-sized roasting pit or oven where large pieces of adobe were used to retain heat. Rocks were frequently used in features of this sort elsewhere in the Hueco Bolson, but surface rocks do not occur in the vicinity of the site.
Extramural or outside features were quite common and varied. This is an example of one of the more common features, a probable storage pit later filled with trash. Jeanine Collins is the excavator.
Extramural or outside features were quite common and varied. This is an example of one of the more common features, a probable storage pit later filled with trash. Jeanine Collins is the excavator.
Burned bone ring and shell beads being exposed. These were found within an irregular, trash-filled pit between pithouse rooms 13 and 17. This deposit in the outside area is not associated with any structure and perhaps represents some sort of ritual offering.
Burned bone ring and shell beads being exposed. These were found within an irregular, trash-filled pit between pithouse rooms 13 and 17. This deposit in the outside area is not associated with any structure and perhaps represents some sort of ritual offering.

The systematic investigation of the extramural areas—those that lay outside the walls of the pueblo—was an essential part of the research effort at Firecracker Pueblo. This had not been attempted before at a pueblo site in the Jornada region. The approach was simple, and eventually just over 20% of the site area outside of structures was excavated. First, a checkerboard of one-meter squares was dug, each separated by three-meter gaps. Then, another one-meter square was excavated in the middle of the gap defined by every four excavated squares. The checkerboard excavations were expanded and sometimes connected to learn more about particular features and deposits. Finally, a series of backhoe trenches was run north-south across much of the site. These techniques enabled the definition of stratigraphy throughout the site, the recognition of patterned distributions of features and artifacts, and the recording of 243 outside features and one burial.

The outside features varied greatly in size, appearance, and function. Most were pits of one sort or another—trash pits large and small; shallow pits containing small cooking hearths; small postholes sometimes found in patterns, sometimes isolated; curious cylindrical pits believed to be temporary food storage bins; large roasting pits containing adobe blocks that apparently functioned as substitute cooking stones; and even larger borrow pits where adobe-making and caliche-plaster materials were obtained. There were also trash deposits or middens, some of which accumulated on the ground surface, while other trash was dumped into pithouses and other depressions.

Most outside features, trash middens, and the trash within pithouses can be attributed to the pueblo occupation. This was determined by a careful study of the distribution of certain items including matching sherds of the same vessels, fragments of ground-stone tools, and fragments of unusual types of stone. Over half of the pueblo room floors, nearly half of the outside features, and nearly all of the trash-filled pithouses had pieces of artifacts which could be matched within one another, strongly suggesting that they were used at the same time. In contrast, no matches were found between objects found on pithouse floors and those within exterior features.

The outside features were not randomly distributed but were instead formed more or less concentric zones or arcs extending outward from the pueblo. The basic pattern is a clean area immediately around the pueblo, ringed by small cooking hearths and trash dumps and patterns of postholes suggesting temporary structures like shade remadas. Outside these were large roasting pits and borrow pits. These patterns are harder to discern at the western end of the pueblo where the addition of rooms apparently pushed back the area used for these features during the life of the pueblo.

In more detail, the inner zone is the space next to the south side of the pueblo that is fairly clear of features and trash. At a distance of 4-8 meters (about 13-26 feet) out from the pueblo and arcing towards the east and west ends of the pueblo, some trash and small hearths were found. These hearths appear as lenses of ash and charcoal or basin-shaped pits with ash and charcoal. Between 6 and 15 meters (about 20-50 feet) from the pueblo, there is an arc where most of the features and trash deposits are concentrated. The features are varied and include small pits and postholes, small and medium-sized, irregularly shaped pits, and cylindrical pits. Trash and features are most dense immediately to the south of the core rooms of the pueblo. Finally, there is a perimeter defined by large borrow pits, roasting pits or ovens, and diminishing trash. The roasting pits or ovens are interesting for they are filled with ash, charcoal, and large fragments of burned adobe. There are no surface rocks in the site vicinity, and adobe was obviously being substituted for rock in these ovens.

The addition of rooms to the pueblo had the effect of moving these arcs of features and trash outward and blurring the described pattern. This is particularly apparent for the western part of the site, while the highway has truncated the eastern area of features. There are few features and little trash on the northern side of the pueblo. The evident spatial arrangement of features and trash pits would suggest an intensive and perhaps lengthy occupation that demanded maintenance of space and separation of activities with conflicting requirements. Two pieces of information, however, could suggest an alternative scenario.

First, nearly all of the ground stone associated with the pueblo occupation was found buried in outside pits. These are not worn and broken pieces of groundstone, but massive and little used metates and manos. These are assumed to represent items that were cached (hidden) as might be expected if Firecracker Pueblo was occupied intermittently or seasonally. Second, there are 47 pits with circular outlines, vertical sides, and flat bottoms cut into the natural caliche layer that underlies the site. These pits are not plastered, but some contained shaped fragments of adobe that may be the remnants of some sort of cover or seal. They range from .5 to 2 meters (1.5 to 6.5 feet) in diameter and .4 to .6 meters (16-24 inches) in depth (the original depths were probably greater -- the site area had been deflated by wind erosion and partially graded by machinery). Most are layered with trash and sand deposits, and some are filled only with clean blow sand.

These enigmatic cylindrical features have been called storage pits when found in Pithouse or Archaic period sites of the region and the Southwest. But exterior storage pits are not typical of situations where people depend on corn and live in pueblos year-round. Exterior storage pits are often associated with populations that are seasonally mobile. In this case, storage pits may have been used to conceal stored foodstuffs when the area was not occupied. If so, this is another indication that the site was not a permanent village, but was instead occupied intermittently, perhaps seasonally.

In 1980 when the work was begun at Firecracker Pueblo, an average of one burial had been recorded for every 11 or 12 rooms excavated at El Paso phase pueblos elsewhere. These burials were also almost all adults. With the extensive and systematic testing of outside areas and the excavation of structures, only a single burial of an 18- to 22-year-old woman was found in an outside area at Firecracker Pueblo. There was no evidence for a cemetery, cremations, secondary burials, or children. Given the extensive excavations at Firecracker and what is known about other El Paso phase pueblo sites, the scarcity of burials is yet another clue that the people who lived at Firecracker were not living there year-round.


A borrow pit. This photo shows a stepped entry into a large pit that has only partially been exposed. This pit was excavated with digging sticks (stick marks were found in side walls) into and through the caliche layer. Caliche was used to plaster floors and walls of pueblo rooms and pithouses and as an additive to the adobe of walls.
A borrow pit. This photo shows a stepped entry into a large pit that has only partially been exposed. This pit was excavated with digging sticks (stick marks were found in side walls) into and through the caliche layer. Caliche was used to plaster floors and walls of pueblo rooms and pithouses and as an adobe additive.
Large metate and three matching manos discovered by Gene Collins in an outside pit. These appear to be cached items, apparently hidden by someone who expected to return to the site. The metate weighs 80 pounds and is made of vesicular basalt hauled to the site from sources some 40 miles away.
Large metate and three matching manos discovered by Gene Collins in an outside pit. These appear to be cached items, apparently hidden by someone who expected to return to the site. The metate weighs 80 pounds and is made of vesicular basalt hauled to the site from sources some 40 miles away.
Burned shell bead and fossil coral bead necklace found in an irregular, trash-filled pit between pithouse rooms 13 and 17. The unburned shell ornaments came from various places at the site. In general, all the nicer artifacts came from refuse accumulations.
Burned shell bead and fossil coral bead necklace found in an irregular, trash-filled pit between pithouse rooms 13 and 17. The unburned shell ornaments came from various places at the site. In general, all the nicer artifacts came from refuse accumulations.
Bone awl and burned bone rings found in an irregular trash-filled pit between rooms 13 and 17.
Bone awl and burned bone rings found in an irregular trash-filled pit between rooms 13 and 17.
 

If the cylindrical pits at Firecracker are storage pits used to conceal food, as suspected, then they provide strong evidence that the site was not a permanent village, but was instead occupied intermittently, perhaps seasonally.