Archaeological and Historical Context of the Puzzle House Pueblo

From Investigating the Puzzle House Pueblo, Background Information


Paleoindian 13,000 – 6,000 BC
Archaic Age 6,000 – 500 BC
Basketmaker II 500 BC – 500 AD
Basketmaker III AD 500 – 750
Pueblo I AD 750 – 900
Pueblo II AD 900 – 1150
Pueblo III AD 1150 – 1300

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Archaeological excavations conducted at Puzzle House indicate that the site was occupied for various time intervals between AD 650 and AD 1250. Puzzle House is classified as a unit pueblo consisting of a roomblock of four rooms and an enclosed kiva (the upper kiva). These visible structures date to approximately AD 1150-1250.

Puzzle House following the 1993 excavation. Photo courtesy of Fort Lewis College.

Archaeologists from Fort Lewis College excavated the site between 1992-1996. There was no evidence of looting and the site had been left as an uncultivated rocky “island” in the middle of a dry-farmed agricultural field. The owners, who had an active interest in archaeology, contacted archaeologist Dr. James Judge to determine the site’s significance and whether or not it could be modified to allow for a new irrigation system. Initially Puzzle House seemed to be a relatively simple site that could be tested in a relatively short period. It turned out, however, to be a very complex multi-component site and relevant to current archaeological research problems in southwest Colorado. Its complexity is the primary reason for the name Puzzle House. Though many sites in southwest Colorado are considered to be complex and puzzling, the Puzzle House site simply admits this fact up front.

It is important to consider the history of Puzzle House in context, taking into account environmental and cultural events affecting other pueblos in the region.

The earliest residents of the Mesa Verde region were Paleoindians (13,000 or earlier-6,000 BC) and Archaic (6,000-500 BC) populations. Paleoindian artifacts are few in the Mesa Verde region and are typically limited to projectile points for hunting the big game common in their colder, Ice Age environment. Paleoindians were nomadic and the population was limited. The Colorado Plateau had an indigenous Archaic community that would eventually be joined by a migrating Archaic group probably originating from southern Arizona. In addition to distinctive architectural style and artifacts, this new group introduced corn and squash for the first time into the Mesa Verde region.

The Basketmaker II period (BM-II; 500 BC-500 AD) marks the first occupation of the Canyon of the Ancients area, around 900 B.C. During this time, agriculture (especially corn) becomes much more important during this time period and people start settling down into more permanent farmsteads located near good agricultural land. Population increased even more during the Basketmaker III (BM-III; AD 500-750) period, largely due to immigration. Agriculture intensified, ceramic cookware and bows/arrows began to appear in the archaeological record during this time period, and beans were introduced. People in the Mesa Verde region largely lived in farmsteads consisting of 1-3 families each with their own domestic system of a pithouse and outdoor storage structures. These were scattered across the landscape. As the population increased even further, these farmsteads began to cluster in closer proximity to one another, forming communities. For the first time, great kivas—public spaces where people from the community could gather for important events—began to appear. This period marks the first building phase at Puzzle House.

In the Pueblo I period (P-I; AD 750-900), settlements became denser forming villages consisting of hundreds of people with a few scattered farmsteads on the periphery. Although pithouses were still built, above-ground structures for both living and storage became increasingly common. Towards the end of this period, there was a sudden population decline that may have resulted from the environment becoming warmer, drier and generally unfavorable for corn production. People moved to the northern edge of the Mesa Verde region, where there was more moisture, and to New Mexico in the direction of Chaco Canyon.

In the Pueblo II period (P-II; AD 900-1150) many of the people who left the Mesa Verde region for Chaco Canyon returned to upland areas with good farmland. The general settlement pattern during this time consisted of scattered farmsteads centered around a larger site which functioned as a community center. These community centers would be pieces of public architecture, such as the great kivas which were already a feature of the Mesa Verde landscape or the new great houses. Great houses consist of large, multi-story, multi-room stone structures with very large rooms and kivas inside of the structure, instead of outside in the plaza. These community centers are associated with communal distribution of food and goods. Great houses, especially, are associated with exotic trade goods (copper bells, seashells, macaw feathers) coming from as far away as Mexico.

The Pueblo III time period (P-III; AD 1150-1300) was a period of intensification, stress, and social re-organization. A sharp population increase from 1200-1250 resulted in the Mesa Verde region reaching its height in population (around 20,000). This coincided with people leaving their farmsteads en masse and traveling to higher ground such as canyon tops and alcoves. Environmental conditions, food shortages, and mounting tensions between groups probably contributed to the total evacuation of the Mesa Verde region to join existing settlements in Arizona and New Mexico. People largely left the Canyons of the Ancients by AD 1200.

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