About This Exhibit

Seeing Pre-Colonial Indigenous History

The highway marker at the western entrance of the Rio Embudo Watershed in northern New Mexico announces a place called Dixon, promising a town in the green sliver of land surrounding the Rio Embudo. As the road winds eastward into the valley, Dixon is constituted mostly by what rises out of the ground: homes, adobe structures and wooden ones, two churches, a restaurant, a cooperative market, a library, a community center, an elementary school, a post office, granite gravestones for the Dixon dead from the Dixon living. Farther east, past Apodaca, the community of Peñasco marks the end of the Rio Embudo Watershed as it reaches the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Peñasco, too, is made up of its recent structures: houses, a clinic, a bistro, a barber shop, a gas station, and schools for the area’s youth. At Picurís Pueblo just to the north, homes, an adobe church, a solar-powered firehouse, and a community gym serve as spaces of contemporary life – and nearby, even pre-colonial architecture remains standing.

For contemporary visitors, it is easy to miss the traces of life that no longer rise up from the ground, and especially easy to misunderstand the watershed beyond Picurís Pueblo as being shaped exclusively by its Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers. Certainly, one might miss the Pueblo town that thrived in the hills just outside Dixon in the 13th century. But what lies beyond the road, on the ground, underground, carved into rocks, and embedded in the watershed’s memory is an indigenous landscape that spans some 10,000 years of dynamic history. This exhibit is not an attempt to bring the indigenous landscape to life – for it never stopped living, especially in the present-day community of Picurís. Rather, it is an attempt to write local history using the material traces of the past that quietly reside alongside us in the present.

Objects, Stories, and Histories

This exhibit of the pre-colonial Rio Embudo Watershed focuses primarily on objects: it uses artifacts, rock art, and constructed features to tell a story about the lives of past human communities. Moving from things human make to inferences about the social, cultural, and political lives of those people is a difficult and powerful leap, and often there are more questions than answers. Archaeology necessarily misses the parts of human history that aren’t encoded in physical artifacts and landscapes. But remains of a hearth can identify a ridge as an Ancestral Pueblo lookout, a pottery sherd can divulge a history of 13th century immigration and contact, an assemblage of obsidian tools can reveal the flow of ancient trade networks. Each artifact or feature has its own story, and together they help paint the big picture: multiple indigenous communities made their lives within the Rio Embudo Watershed for thousands of years.

The story begins with Paleo-Indian people, who were the first to occupy northern New Mexico more than ten thousand years ago. The traces of their lives are so far invisible in Embudo, but remnants of their presence nearby hint that the region’s earliest humans surely moved through this watershed. The local material record begins definitively in the Archaic period (6000 BCE – 500 CE) with new traditions of petroglyphs, projectile points, and small sites. The people of the Archaic left minimal traces on the land, but it is likely that the densest occupation occurred on the east side of the watershed, close to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The watershed’s patchy ecology in the Archaic Period would have facilitated seasonal movement to different niches as people strategically sought resources, so all parts of the area would likely have been used in the cycles of Archaic life.


Photograph of Picurís Pueblo Round House

Multi-story adobe Round House at Picurís constructed between the 15th and 18th centuries. Photograph taken in 1903 by A.C. Vroman.

The beginning of Pueblo occupation of the Rio Embudo Watershed is marked in the archaeological record by an abundance of new material, including permanent architecture and ceramics. The Pueblo occupation of the watershed is a tale of two very different cities: the first is a Pueblo that has lived and endured – through nine centuries and two colonial powers – until the present day. Picuris Pueblo began as a relatively small community in the late 11th century that left little more than a few pit structures in the material record.[1] By the 13th century, Picuris grew into a large Tiwa-speaking village with multistoried architecture, which would eventually become immortalized in Spanish colonist Castaño de Sosa’s journal in 1591 as the tallest Pueblo in New Mexico. It has remained a continuous home to Picuris people until the present day.

The second large pre-colonial village in the watershed is a relative blip in history, occupied for just a few decades before its residents moved elsewhere – potentially to Picuris. As Picuris was growing denser in the 13th century, a group of Pueblo people swept into the Rio Embudo Watershed and built a town on a ridge overlooking present-day Dixon. The community’s ruins are now called El Bosque Pueblo by the local residents. Although no absolute dates yet exist, the site’s ceramics suggest that El Bosque was only occupied briefly during the 13th century. This time is known as the Coalition Period (1200-1325/1350) because, across the northern Rio Grande region, small dispersed settlements were aggregating into larger Pueblos.[2] El Bosque’s settlement and speedy abandonment were part of the drastic population changes that swept the region for a century and a half.

Movement in the northern Rio Grande was coupled with massive growth: the arrival of the first Picurís people and the El Bosque villagers coincides with a population explosion in the region that may have reached nine hundred percent.[3] The explosion changed the region irrevocably, although its causes are still the topic of hot debate among archaeologists. Most researchers agree that migration from other areas makes up at least part of the answer, and many see the simultaneous depopulation of Mesa Verde to the northwest as a connected phenomenon. Within the spectrum of migration hypotheses, some believe that a gradual flow of immigrants integrated themselves into preexisting Rio Grande communities, while others propose a more dramatic movement of entire groups into the area. Still others are concerned that the lack of noticeably foreign material in the archaeological record makes a difficult case for immigration, and hypothesize that the massive growth was in situ – a blooming of preexisting populations by themselves. Either way, the Rio Grande drainage emerged as one of the new population centers of the multilingual people who came to be known as the Pueblos. In the Northern Rio Grande as in other areas of the Southwest, ancestral Pueblo people built towns of multistoried architecture and produced distinctive ceramics.

Situating the pre-colonial communities of the Rio Embudo Watershed in the wider patterns of migration and identity formation of Ancestral Pueblo people is complex. Much of the watershed does not fit comfortably into the spatial divisions that Northern Rio Grande scholars have created to describe the area’s pre-colonial history. As a Northern Tiwa-speaking pueblo, Picurís is linguistically linked to its northern neighbors at Taos Pueblo, but the rest of the watershed raises questions. Northeast of the Tewa Basin and southwest of the border of the Taos district, the portion of the watershed west of Picurís is in between the  traditional Tewa and Northern Tiwa homelands. This makes it all the more difficult to know who exactly the El Bosque villagers were, what language they spoke, where they came from, and why they left their home. Did they speak the northern dialect of the Tiwa language, like Picurís, or perhaps the Tewa language, like Ohkay Owingeh to the southwest? Was there even a meaningful linguistic difference between Tiwa and Tewa during the 13th century? When they left, did they move east into Picurís? Did they go elsewhere? Can the artifacts and features that remain today even begin to answer the questions of origins and movement?

Though they rarely provide definitive answers to the big questions, the traces of pre-colonial sites have volumes to say about local life before European colonization. The artifacts, rock art panels, and features discussed in this exhibit come from three primary archaeological archives. The Gorge Project, which is based in Dixon and directed by Dixon resident and Barnard College professor Dr. Severin Fowles, conducts survey work in the Rio Embudo Watershed and the Rio Grande Gorge and is responsible for documenting all petroglyphs used in this exhibit. All Picuris material comes from the Picuris Collection of Fort Burgwin Research Center and was excavated from areas of pre-colonial settlement within Picuris in the 1960s by Dr. Herbert Dick, who was then working in close collaboration with the Pueblo. The portable (non-rock art) artifacts from El Bosque Pueblo had the longest journey to this exhibit. Excavated between 1975-1977 by a local geologist named Dr. Arthur Montgomery and the members of the Dixon Boys’ Science Club, the material was boxed up, put away in the New Mexico Office of Archaeology archives, and nearly forgotten. In the summer of 2015, it was re-accessed for the first time since the 1980s and inventoried for the purposes of this exhibit.

Pre-Colonial History and the Present

The traces of pre-colonial life are remarkably well preserved in the American Southwest – and the Northern Rio Grande Valley in particular. Development has destroyed some sites and pot hunters, regrettably, have damaged others, but a combination of aridity, public land holdings, and limited construction in the Southwest have ensured that much of the material past remains. An even more important factor is the continued presence, sovereignty, and advocacy of the indigenous descendants of those pre-colonial communities.

Works Cited
[1] Adler, Michael A., and Herbert W. Dick, eds. 1999. Picuris Pueblo Through Time: Eight Centuries of Change at a Rio Grande Pueblo. William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University.
[2] Patricia Crown, Janet D. Orcutt, and Timothy A. Kohler. 1996. “Pueblo Cultures in Transition in the Northern Rio Grande.” In The Prehistoric Pueblo World, A.D. 1150-1350, edited by Michael A. Adler. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
[3] Orcutt, Janet. 1999. “Demography, Settlement, Agriculture.” In The Bandelier Archeological Survey, edited by Genevieve N. Head, Janet Dale Orcutt, and Robert P. Powers. Contribution No. 9 of the Bandelier Archeological Survey. Santa Fe: Anthropology Projects, Cultural Resources Management, Intermountain Region, National Park Service, Dept. of the Interior.
About This Exhibit