Manuelito Archaeological Complex
Ancient ruins hidden in the high desert.
Chaco Canyon isn’t the only heavy concentration of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in New Mexico. There are numerous ancient pueblos hidden in the canyons and mesas of western New Mexico, with a dense cluster on the New Mexico/Arizona border outside of Gallup. The Manuelito Canyon Historic District is a complex of archaeological sites located in and around Manuelito Canyon, about halfway in between Gallup, New Mexico and Lupton, Arizona. Occupied between 700-1350 A.D., the area was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
Though the area has been surveyed numerous times, it has never been thoroughly studied or excavated; however, the major period of occupation was the Pueblo III Period, from 1150-1300 A.D. This period saw an increase in residential construction rather than ceremonial construction. This coincides with the decline of Chaco Canyon and increased migration. Numerous major outlier communities experienced growth during this period. The “Big House” is one of the complex’s larger features, a 500-room multi-story stone compound. Archaeologists estimate occupation from 1200-1325. In contrast, the ruins of “Atsee Nitsa,” a small, 150-room site, submerged in sand and stone.
Exploring the Road “Less Traveled”
The Navajo and local ranchers were aware of the archaeological sites west and north of Gallup, but the sites were otherwise overlooked until the 1930’s when an amateur photographer from Fort Defiance, Decatur Vandevanter, discovered ruins while out admiring the landscape. He was wandering remote dirt roads, heading towards Twin Buttes from Route 66, when he encountered the first of several large pueblo ruins. He returned to the site several time, amazed by the extensive variety of ruins. Ultimately, he documented over 100 smaller Pueblo III structures and a series of wind caves, with wall covered in petroglyphs. He reported the findings to the Director of United States National Park Service.
The National Park Service recommended that the site be acquired as a National Monument in 1938. Funds were appropriated the following year to purchase adjacent private land to create a 30,000-acre National Monument. Though Vandevanter thought the area would achieve National Monument status readily, the designation stalled when several local property owners refused to sell. Vandevanter advocated for preservation until his death in 1949. Though the site was never recognized as a National Monument, the archaeological treasures were protected as a National Historic Landmark in 1964, named after Chief Manuelito, a respected Navajo leader.
Ancestral Puebloan social hierarchies at Manuelito Plateau, New Mexico
Sali A Underwood, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Archaeological Excavation McKinley County, New Mexico
Stephen S. Post, Museum of New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies
An Archaeological Reconnaissance of the Southeastern Portion of the Navajo Reservation
Thomas A. Lee, Jr., University of Arizona Dept of Anthropology
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