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The Case for Ritual Abandonment of a Jornada Mogollan Pueblo

Aerial view of Madera Quemada pueblo following excavation.
A 3-D computer rendering of Madera Quemada Pueblo, based on excavated remains, is shown with Old Coe Lake Playa and the Organ Mountains in the background. Occupied for only a short period of time and then mysteriously abandoned, the 13-room pueblo is exceptionally well preserved and holds a wealth of information for researchers studying architecture, ritual, and economy of puebloan people. Image by Farrah Welch, provided courtesy of Fort Bliss Environmental Division, Geo-Marine, Inc., and the artist.
Photo of small surface area of ponded water.
Small surface area of ponded water in Old Coe Lake playa after a 4-inch rainfall in summer 2004. Playa waters evaporated after a period of slightly over two weeks. In the distance are the Organ Mountains.
Drawing of Madera Quemada pueblo from overhead.
Madera Quemada pueblo John A. Hedrick Site (LA 91220).
Photo of remnants of plaster on wall interiors.
Remnants of plaster on wall interior of Room 3.
Photo of collared and plastered floor hearths.
Collared and plastered floor hearths.
photo of pinyon pine
Pinyon pine was one of the species of wood used for the roof supports and beams.

Just across the border of Texas, in the shadow of the Organ Mountains of southern New Mexico, archeologists have uncovered the ruins of a large, extraordinarily well-preserved pueblo where families of the Jornada-Mogollon culture lived, grew crops in the desert, entered into far-flung trade networks, and then mysteriously abandoned their communal home after only a brief period of residence. The circumstance of that long-ago departure, perhaps marked by ritual burning of the finely constructed pueblo, is just one of the issues that researchers hope to address in their ongoing analysis of the site.

Madera Quemada—Spanish for burned wood— is a 13-room pueblo located on Fort Bliss Military Reservation in south-central New Mexico, just a few short miles north of El Paso, Texas. Also known as the John A. Hedrick site (LA 91220), the large pueblo is situated on a low terrace overlooking a playa, a small desert lakebed intermittently flooded by rainfall runoff from the nearby Organ Mountains that can be seen in the background of several of the accompanying photographs. The occupation of the pueblo occurred sometime between A.D. 1300 and 1350, a period of time falling within what archeologists call the El Paso phase of the regional prehistoric sequence. 

The pueblo room block was found during archeological investigations at Fort Bliss during the summer of 2004. New training and maneuver areas have been opened across the Tularosa and Hueco basins in response to the expanded military mission at Fort Bliss. The Fort Bliss Environmental Division funded the excavations to meet their responsibilities under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This law requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their projects on significant archeological and historical sites that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Geo-Marine, Inc. was awarded the contract to conduct the archeological data recovery excavations in order to mitigate the effects of the expanded training and maneuver areas on the archeological site. However, after several months of fieldwork it was determined that the pueblo room block was just a small part of a very large prehistoric occupation extending for a distance of over a kilometer (.6 mile). The remaining portions of the site are currently being protected and preserved by the Environmental Division of Fort Bliss.

What the Archeologists Found

Madera Quemada pueblo was covered by a hard, dense deposit of melted adobe “wall fall” and natural soil that contained high amounts of clay and calcium carbonate. This helped protect the pueblo from the damaging effects of wind and water erosion and animal burrowing that are so common among other prehistoric sites in the desert setting of west Texas and southern New Mexico. The pueblo was exceptionally well-preserved and burned roof beams, roofing material, and artifacts remained on the floors of several rooms. The only damage to the pueblo consisted of some looter holes in Room 4. The excellent preservation and research potential of the pueblo, combined with the fact that no El Paso phase pueblo has been professionally excavated for over 20 years, is providing archeologists with an exceptional opportunity to study how prehistoric agricultural groups adapted to the desert environment of the region.

The pueblo is typical of Jornada Mogollon pueblos in El Paso and southern New Mexico, with two tiers of rooms constructed of puddled adobe walls with caliche-plastered floors and wall interiors. A universal feature of Jornada pueblos is that they were oriented approximately 13 degrees offset from the magnetic east-west axis. Most of the rooms have collared floor hearths, two large holes for the primary roof support beams, and various subfloor storage pits and smaller holes for secondary roof support beams. Some rooms have evidence of having been remodeled, with superimposed floors and floor hearths. One room (Room 4) is much larger than the other twelve. These larger rooms are thought to have served as communal rooms for ritual and social activities that served to maintain political and social cohesion in the community.

 

Photo of crew on site
Archeologists from Geo-Marine, Inc. at work at the pueblo site. After several months of fieldwork it was determined that the pueblo room block was just a small part of a very large prehistoric occupation extending for a distance of over a kilometer (.6 mile).
Photo of remodeled floor in Room 12
Remodeled floor in Room 12.
Photo of remnant of promary support post in posthole.
Remnant of primary support post in posthole of Room 7 (one of only two intact support posts in the room block).
Photo of roof beams embedded in roof fall and wall melt.
Roof beams embedded in roof fall and wall melt of Room 1.
Explore the Madera Quemada site in this 3-D tour by Mark Willis. Pause or play again by pressing button at bottom left.
Photo of structural wood.
Structural wood on the floor of Room 4.
Photo of natural obsidian nodules and projectile point on floor.
Natural obsidian nodules and projectile point (enlarged in inset) on floor in the corner of Room 5. The projectile point was sourced to Cow Canyon in southeastern Arizona.
Photo of palettes on room floors.
Palettes on room floors.

The name, Madera Quemada, refers to the large quantities of burned roof beams and roof support posts found on the floors of several rooms. Species of wood used for the roof supports and beams include Ponderosa pine, Pinyon pine, juniper, and cottonwood. The pine wood was collected from elevations of 7,000 feet or higher in the nearby Organ Mountains and had to be transported several thousand feet in elevation and a distance of several miles across the mountain foothills and around the margins of the playa. 

 The wood species identified among the rooms presents an interesting pattern. Cottonwood, juniper, and mesquite wood was used to construct the roofs of the domestic rooms. These tree species were present around the margins of the playa and the lower elevation foothills of the Organ Mountains, and could be easily harvested and transported to the pueblo. In contrast, most of the wood used to construct Room 4, the large communal room, consisted of Ponderosa and Pinyon pine that had to be harvested at higher elevations and more distant areas in the Organ Mountains. The construction of the communal room at Madera Quemada truly involved a multi-person effort of the inhabitants to harvest and transport these construction timbers.

Collections of food preparation tools and workshop artifacts were present on the floors of many rooms. These items provide insights into the technological adaptations of pueblo agriculturalists. Grinding tools were stacked together on the floor of Room 12. Obsidian nodules, waste flakes, and small projectile points were found in the corner of one room. The bases of pottery vessels used as “plates” and paint palettes were common on the floors. Perhaps the most notable finding was the pottery manufacturing workshop in Rooms 6 and 8. Mounds of processed clay, smoothing and scraping tools used to finish clay vessels, and paint grinding palettes and mineral pigments used to decorate the vessels, were recovered from these rooms. In addition, a subfloor pit in Room 8 was filled with prepared pottery temper consisting of crushed volcanic rock from the local mountains.  

Far-Flung Contacts

Although much of the daily lives of the inhabitants centered on food production and food hunting and gathering, the inhabitants of Madera Quemada pueblo participated in a wider social and economic world. Fossilized palm wood from the Gulf Coast region of Mexico and Texas and items of marine shell from the Pacific coast of Mexico and the Gulf of Cortez were found in many of the rooms. Room 4 again proves significant as the majority of shell items were recovered from subfloor pits in this room, indicating that much of the wealth of the community was cached in the communal gathering place.

Photo of groundstone artifacts.
Groundstone artifacts: Stacked manos on floor of Room 12.
Photo fo shaft smoother.
Shaft smoother with stepped fret terrace designs from subfloor pit in Room 7.
Photo of shaped sheet of mica.
Shaped sheet of selenite recovered from fill of Room 1. Selenite is a gypsum mineral that was obtained from the gypsum deposits around Lake Lucero and sand dunes of White Sands. It forms in sheets, layered mineral deposits, and gypsum “flowers.”
Photo of bead cache in floor of communal room.
Photo of turquoise pendant.
Photo of large selenite uniface.
Items found on room floors, from left to right, bead cache in floor of communal Room 4; turquoise pendant; large selenite uniface.
Photo of processed quarts monzonite ceramic temper.
Processed quartz monzonite ceramic temper in subfloor storage pit of Room 8.
Photo of storage pits.
Storage pits in Room 2.
Photo showing the patterning of burned and unburned rooms.
Patterning of burned and unburned rooms at Madera Quemada pueblo.
Photo of olla on floor.
Olla on floor of Room 5 that contained burned organic matter.
Photo Myles Miller, Principle Investigator at Madera Quemada.
Author Myles Miller, Principal Investigator at Madera Quemada, examines a pottery sherd from the site. Although field work at the site is largely completed, analysis of the recovered data is still underway and will be reported in more detail in this exhibit in the future.

Turquoise beads and pendants were recovered from the floors of rooms and in subfloor pits, some of which may represent “termination offerings” – items intentionally left in place upon abandonment of the pueblo. The source of some of these items may have been the turquoise mines in the Jarilla Mountains, located about 20 miles to the northeast of the pueblo. On the other hand, some of the turquoise may have been mined at more distant locations, such as the Cerrillos source near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The obsidian projectile point found in Room 5 came from the Cow Canyon source in southeastern Arizona and an obsidian core found in the same room came from the Red Hill source in far western New Mexico. The people of Madera Quemada clearly had widespread trade and social networks that stretched across west Texas, southern New Mexico, and southern Arizona, from the Gulf coast to the Pacific.

Other unusual items were obtained in local mountains and indicate that the inhabitants of Madera Quemada continued to move across the landscape despite their sedentary pueblo lifestyle. Numerous fossils obtained from limestone deposits in local mountains were found at the pueblo. Mineral pigments such as limonite and hematite were also gathered from outcrops in the mountains. Vesicular basalt obtained from volcanic flows along the Rio Grande valley was used for grinding tools. Items of mica, selenite, and gypsum were brought to the pueblo from areas around White Sands National Monument and Lake Lucero, 30 to 40 miles to the north. There are ethnohistoric accounts from pueblos in the “Rio Abajo” area of the Rio Grande valley and further north of native peoples using sheets of translucent selenite as windows. Whether the sheet of this material found at Madera Quemada was used in a similar fashion is unknown.

Puzzling Questions

One of the more curious aspects of the excavations at Madera Quemada is that very few plant remains were recovered. This is quite a contrast to most other El Paso phase pueblos, such as Firecracker Pueblo, where hundreds of burned remains of corn, beans, squash, mesquite, cheno-am seeds, and numerous cacti species have been recovered. Evidence of an agricultural economy was present at Madera Quemada in the form of the large subfloor storage pits in Room 2 and the numerous mano and metate grinding tools found in most of the rooms and outside of the room block. Despite the presence of these features and tools, the near absence of charred food remains is one of the most puzzling aspects of the pueblo. 

Perhaps the inhabitants experienced an episode of severe drought or another cause of subsistence failure? The abandonment of Madera Quemada pueblo appears to have been rather abrupt. It appears that the two westernmost rooms were left unfinished. The walls of these rooms were the thickest and best-preserved at the site, yet no hearth, post holes, or pits were present in the floor and very few artifacts were present. There is some fascinating evidence for ritual abandonment and burning of the pueblo. Feature 11.2 is a pit that cut through the wall separating Rooms 11 and 13. The fact that it cut through the walls shows that it was dug by the prehistoric inhabitants during or immediately after abandonment of the pueblo. The pit was filled with over 250 objects, including fragments of shell jewelry, stone pigment palettes, several grooved quartz crystals, over 40 fossils, and 25 pigment chunks, pieces of selenite (gypsum), minerals, and numerous other items.

The analysis and interpretation of all these materials has just begun. Samples of charred organic material, animal bone, and soils, have been sent to specialists for identification of food items. Turquoise, obsidian, and ceramics are being chemically analyzed to determine geological source areas. Analyses of pottery, grinding tools, and chipped stone tools have begun to provide insights into prehistoric technologies of pueblo dwellers. The study of architecture, artifacts, and ritual at Madera Quemada will provide many new insights into the economic, social, and ritual life of pueblo dwellers in west Texas and southern New Mexico.

Credits and Sources

The Madera Quemada exhibit was written by archeologist Myles Miller. TBH editor Susan Dial assisted by Carly Whelan created the exhibit which was developed for the web by Krutie Thakkar and Heather Smith. Photographs were taken by Juan Arias of Geo-Marine, Inc., and are used courtesy of Fort Bliss. Mark Willis of Blanton and Associates took the aerial photographs and composed the 3-D movie showing the excavated site at different angles. Several of the image montages derive from a Power Point presentation by Miller at the 15th Biennial Jornada Mogollon Conference and Spring 2006 CTA Meetings in Austin.

The excavation and ongoing study of material culture from Madera Quemada pueblo is being funded and supported by the Conservation Branch of the Environmental Division, Fort Bliss, Texas. Archeologist Tim Graves served as Project Director for excavations.

Myles Miller has been professionally involved with the prehistory of the Jornada Mogollon and Trans-Pecos regions since returning to his home town of El Paso upon completion of graduate school in 1983. He first became interested in the region during grade school while accompanying members of the El Paso Archaeological Society during trips to prehistoric sites across northern Chihuahua. For the past 25 years he has conducted research and cultural resources management projects throughout the region and has participated in numerous excavations of prehistoric villages and hunter-gatherer campsites and historic Native American settlements in west Texas, southern New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. He presently serves as a Principal Investigator with Geo-Marine, Inc. and supervises archeological consulting work performed at Fort Bliss.

Photo of dessicated seeds from floor.
Modern prickly pear seeds from the floor of one of the pueblo rooms. Madera Quemada is unusual in that it produced almost no ancient plant remains. This is quite a contrast to most other El Paso phase pueblos, where hundreds of such remains have been recovered.
Photo of bundled grasses used for roofing.
Bundled grasses used as roofing material.
Photo of intrusive pits through partition wall.
Intrusive pits through partition wall dividing Rooms 11 and 13 and upper fill of Room 13.
Photo of upper contetnts of pit.
Feature 11.2, view of upper contents of pit: stone palette, pumice stones, glycymeris bracelet fragments, mica (3), limonite pigment (2), chalk (3), one grooved, partially shaped stone, fossils (6), ceramic sherds (2), burned organic matter and wood (3), unidentified red stone, misc. unidentified stone.
photo of the crew as they finish up work for the day.
The setting sun casts long shadows over the crew as they finish up work for the day.

Print Sources

Brook, V. R.
1966 The McGregor Site. The Artifact 4:1-22. El Paso Archaeological Society.

1967 The Sarge Site: An El Paso Phase Ruin. The Artifact (5)2. El Paso Archaeological Society.

Foster, M. S., and R. J. Bradley
1984 La Cabrana: A Preliminary Discussion of a Jornada Mogollon Pueblo. In Recent Research in Mogollon Archaeology, edited by S. Upham, F. Plog, D.G. Batcho, and B.E. Kauffman, pp. 193-214. Occasional Papers No. 10, The University Museum, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

Foster, M. S., R. J. Bradley, and C. Williams
1981 Prehistoric Diet and Subsistence Patterns of La Cabrana Pueblo. In Archaeological Essays in Honor of Mark Wimberly, edited by M.S. Foster, pp. 151-168. The Artifact 19(3 and 4), El Paso Archaeological Society.

Gerald, R. E. (editor)
1988 Pickup Pueblo: A Late Prehistoric House Ruin in Northeast El Paso. The Artifact 26(2):1-86. El Paso Archaeological Society.

Lehmer, D. J.
1948 The Jornada Branch of the Mogollon. University of Arizona Social Science Bulletin No. 17, Tucson.

Lowry, C.
2005 Archaeological Investigations of the Hot Well and Sgt. Doyle Sites, Fort Bliss, Texas: Late Formative Period Adaptations in the Hueco Bolson. Directorate of Environment, Conservation Division, United States Army Air Defense Artillery Center and Fort Bliss, Fort Bliss, Texas.

Miller, Myles R. and Tim B. Graves
2009 Madera Quemada Pueblo: Archaeological Investigations of a 14th Century Jornada Mogollon Pueblo. GMI Report 679EP, Geo-Marine, Inc., Plano, Texas, and Fort Bliss Cultural Resources Report 03-12, Fort Bliss Environmental Division, Fort Bliss Garrison Command, Fort Bliss, Texas.

Moore, G.E.
1947 Twelve Room House Ruin. Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological and Paleontological Society 18:94-114.

O’Laughlin, T.C.
1999 Beyond Borders: The Well Site. In La Frontera: Papers in Honor of Patrick H. Beckett, ed. by M.S. Duran and D.T. Kirkpatrick, pp. 143-160. Archaeological Society of New Mexico: 25, Albuquerque.

2001 Long Lessons and Big Surprises: Firecracker Pueblo. In Following Through: Papers in Honor of Phyllis S. Davis, ed. by R. N. Wiseman, T. C. O'Laughlin, and C.T. Snow, pp. 115-131. Archaeological Society of New Mexico: 27, Albuquerque.

Scarborough, V. L.
1985 Anapra Pueblo Site. In Proceedings of the Third Jornada Mogollon Conference, edited by M.S. Foster and T.C. O’Laughlin, pp. 129-136. El Paso Archaeological Society.

1988 A Water Storage Adaptation in the American Southwest. Journal of Anthropological Research 44(1):21-40.

Links

Madera Quemada Project Wins Award
The Fort Bliss Cultural Resources Management Team has been awarded the 2010 Secretary of the Army Environmental Award for archeological program at Madera Quemada.

Firecracker Pueblo
This multi-section exhibit on a pithouse and pueblo complex in El Paso includes an overview of the Jornada Mogollon culture.