One of the wonderful things about living in the Southwest is that there is never a shortage of unique places to discover, and in Mesa Verde country there are plenty of things to explore. This week Mr.D had the opportunity to visit a site called the Yellow Jacket Pueblo in southwest Colorado.
He’d tried several times to go in the past, but the tour is limited to a very small group and fills up fast. Also, this site can only be accessed with a guide through the Archaeological Conservancy during certain times of the year. The Conservancy, based in Albuquerque, is a great organization that “preserves the past… for the future.”
Because Yellow Jacket is mostly an un-excavated site, some might not consider it to be spectacular — like the Mese Verde cliff dwellings. Here, the Yellow Jacket’s dwellings and kivas are still buried under the red dirt, with areas of tumbled rocks scattered about from the few buildings still visible, as well as deep pits where kivas once existed. All of this in a large field of overgrown sagebrush, cacti and a few lone piñon trees. Barbara, the volunteer Conservancy guide, explained that it was once researched by Western State College, Colorado in the early 1930’s when the building placements were mapped out (see detailed renderings at the end of this article).
Later, archaeologists from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center conducted small test excavations at the Pueblo from 1995-1997 to add to the research obtained earlier. (Note: once a site or portion of a site has been excavated and documented, traditionally the practice is to cover them back with earth as they were found to protect them.)
The site was determined to be very unique from the data collected, because this was possibly the largest known aggregated village in the Mesa Verde region, occupied roughly from A.D. 500 to about A.D. 1300. The people went from hunter gatherers to farmers planting squash, beans and corn in the rich loess soil. (Loess soil is silt-sized sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown dust.)
The scent of sagebrush filled the air as the small group set out at 9 a.m. for a 2-3 hour hike. With no marked trails or paths to follow, everyone relied on Barbara to lead them. She pointed to a mound in the distance and said “that’s the main site area because of the large accumulation of rocks exposed, but most are all still buried under centuries of dirt.” (As seen above.)
It was soon evident that she had a deep respect and passion for the site, and was eager to share her wealth of knowledge and stories to help paint a picture of what life must have been like for the Ancestral Puebloans living in this large community.
The first stop was near the head of Yellow Jacket Canyon, a shallow canyon where the name was believed to come from the yellow jacket wasps that once frequented this spring (shown above). Here the small stream of water flowed, and Barbara said, “that trickle of water was enough to sustain the people.” There is also evidence of rubble where check dams (a technique used to capture run-off water from rain) were in place for irrigation purposes.
The group began to notice potsherds and toolmaking implements scattered about the ground. Barbara set the guidelines, “these artifacts are found all throughout the site. You can pick them up, feel them, imagine the ancient people using them, take pictures, but then you must return them where you picked them up.” (Note, it is not permissible to take any ancient artifacts from any site, as they are protected by the Antiquities Act.)
The next stop was a trek up a small hill to a large indentation in the ground where a kiva once existed. It was significant because it was enclosed within a building, had a double wall around it and was above the ground level. Generally kivas are part of a Pueblo complex and are below the ground, have one stone wall enclosing it with a flat mud roof at ground level. Mr.D stood at the top peering down into the shallow pit wondering why this kiva was built like this. Barbara explained, “this is one of the spots where the Crow Canyon archeologists did research (photos from the excavation). They discovered the double walls and determined it was enclosed within another structure above the ground. Because the Ancestral Puebloans had no written language to tell us today what things like this meant, archeologists and researchers are left only to speculate why certain things were designed or placed in a certain spot. Here it is speculated that this double walled kiva was possibly built as a defensive measure.”
Barbara offered map renderings to study and to indicate where they were standing. And as she explained about the site, Mr.D happened to look down to find a very small arrowhead, no bigger than a half inch in length. Everyone was excited to see it and took turns holding it. It’s not uncommon to find an arrowhead here, but it is rare and to find one whole and in good shape. The arrowhead was then carefully placed where it was found for future tour guests to find.
As the hike continued along the rim of the canyon, beautiful claret cup cactus were blooming. A hawk leisurely circled overhead.
The group was led to an outcropping of rock overlooking the canyon to view a lone petroglyph figure. Barbara shared that there were 2 more just like this one (below) placed on other outcroppings of rocks surrounding the site. What do they mean and why are they there? Nobody knows.
Through sagebrush and a climb up the mound they’d seen earlier in the distance, they came upon a large area where the main village’s rock walls and towers once stood, and now had crumbled to the ground. Also at this location was a 5 foot monolith (see below) of chiseled rock that was still standing and it is thought to mark solstices. These alignments at Yellow Jacket were similar to alignments found at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for the Ancestral Puebloans living here, but they had built possibly the largest pueblo in this area using nothing but rock tools, clay, mud and other elements from the land to construct their village. These same building methods later were used and refined by the people who created Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde and other sites all over the Southwest. They built a community and lived here for over 300 years; farming, cooking, raising children, making beautiful pottery and baskets, and creating a life for themselves in the Mesa Verde region.
As the group made their way back to the starting point with Sleeping Ute Mountain (above) quietly watching over the landscape, it was clear to everyone that this was indeed a spectacular site that still holds many secrets yet to be discovered. This is a tour where you learn to read the flow of the land. What first may seem like an insignificant spot amongst the sagebrush, is a mound where a great house once stood, or a sunken site of a kiva. As you walk where the Ancients had walked, it is amazing and humbling to be a part of, just for a moment, of time at Yellow Jacket Pueblo.
The map renderings used throughout the tour to visualize what archeologists thought the site looked like when inhabited were a great help. The following were rendered by architect Dennis R. Holloway, who was kind enough to allow these images to be shared for this article.
“Courtesy of Dennis R. Holloway, Architect, Adriel Heisey, and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center” (looking east)
“Courtesy of Dennis R. Holloway, Architect, Adriel Heisey, and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center” (looking west)
“Courtesy of Dennis R. Holloway, Architect” (monotone topographic site model)
Amy & Mr.D
For more information:
Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Such stunning photographs!
Ms M, thanks for taking the hike with us! 🙂
Thank you for introducing us to a hidden gem. Amazing! Are plans in the works to further explore and build the hidden pueblo?
Nan, Mr.D didn’t hear of any plans for re-constructing Yellow Jacket but if you click on the conservancy link at the bottom of the article there may be news and updates there.
Inspired. Looking forward to touring this one. Thanks!
Trail Boss, you’ll have a fascinating time!
Another fascinating adventure hike with Mr D. Thank you for taking us along with you. And thank you for mentioning the practice of leaving artifacts where you find them.
ChileSage, there is sometimes that feeling where you want to keep a pottery chip or piece of a tool for yourself, but we always put them back so archeologists will know their original placement. Thanks for the nice comment.