Salmon Ruins: Past, Present, and Future

By Paul F. Reed, Center for Desert Archaeology

A Chacoan outlier was built on the northern bank of the San Juan River around A.D. 1090. Chaco Canyon, the heartland of the Chaco world, lies 45 miles to the south of this 250-room pueblo, now known as Salmon Ruins.

This three-story pueblo had a tower kiva in its central portion and a great kiva in its plaza (see map, page 2). Subsequent occupation by the local San Juan, or Totah (a Navajo word for "between rivers" first used by Wolky Toll and Pete McKenna to describe the archaeological region around Farmington, New Mexico), populations resulted in extensive modification of the original building. These San Juan folks used approximately 200 room spaces; created multiple subdivisions of original large, Chacoan rooms; and placed more than 10 kivas into formerly square rooms and plaza areas. The occupation of Salmon Ruins between A.D. 1090 and 1280 is well established by dendrochronology, archaeomagnetic dating, and ceramic cross-dating. The site was placed on the New Mexico State Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

Excavations were conducted at Salmon between 1970 and 1978, under the direction of Cynthia Irwin-Williams, of Eastern New Mexico University, Portales. Approximately 30 percent of the site was excavated by field school crews, paid professionals, and local volunteers. In all, more than 700 individuals participated in the fieldwork. Concurrent with the field operations, laboratories were operated on the premises to wash, catalogue, and rough sort artifacts and samples. More than 1.5 million artifacts and samples were recovered from the site. In 1980, Irwin-Williams and co-principal investigator Philip Shelley compiled and edited a five-volume final report for the funding agencies (the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Four Corners Regional Commission, among others). Although comprehensive and voluminous, the 1980 report had a very limited distribution; only 100 copies were produced, mostly for universities and research libraries.

In late summer 2001, the Center for Desert Archaeology and the Salmon Ruins Museum, which opened in 1973, began a three-and-a-half-year partnership to make a major reinvestment in this remarkable archaeological resource. A key element of the program initiated at Salmon Ruins, as part of the Center's Heritage Southwest Program, is to bring to fruition the great research effort put forth by Irwin-Williams and her staff during the 1970s. A major thrust of the research effort is a new look at Salmon Pueblo, not only as a Chacoan outlier, but in its regional San Juan context as well. Publication of a synthetic volume and supporting technical volumes is the primary goal of the Salmon Ruins project. As a preservation archaeologist at the Center, I will be coordinating this effort at the site over the next few years.

A second aspect of the partnership between the Center and Salmon Ruins is addressing the curation and preservation needs at the museum. When the San Juan County Museum Association and the people of San Juan County established the museum facility 30 years ago, they demonstrated a strong commitment to caring for the collections and materials recovered during the scientific investigations at Salmon Ruins. Now though, the effects of time - coupled with changes in curatorial standards - require the massive collection of artifacts, samples, and analytical data stored at the Research Center and Library be properly conserved. Toward that end, the Center is supporting a conservation and curation initiative for the Salmon Ruins collections. The Center has committed to raising the funding necessary to purchase the curation materials needed to re-house the entire collection. The Center's donation of $5,000 in November 2001 marks the start of this initiative. The project is being undertaken as a volunteer effort directed by association board member and local archaeologist Lori Reed (see page 6).

The research and curation initiatives will integrate with, and further stimulate, other programs at Salmon Ruins. In particular, long-term stabilization of Salmon Ruins and the Salmon family homestead is essential for continued high-quality visitor experiences and maintaining research values. The education program will benefit from new research results, which can be shared through museum exhibits, tours, and expanded public outreach activities.

In this issue of Archaeology Southwest, the past, present, and future of Salmon Ruins are explored: its past as the earliest and largest Chacoan outlier; its present as a prime example of community-based archaeology; and its future as a participant in the Heritage Southwest program, which will bring us closer to meeting our research and preservation goals.

Articles Include:

  • Larry L. Baker: Salmon Ruins, A Vision with a Mission
  • Alton James: A Brief History of the San Juan County Museum Association and Salmon Ruins
  • Lynn Teague: Cynthia Irwin-Williams: A Profile
  • TristanKwiecin: Public Education and Outreach
  • Lori S. Reed: Salmon Collections Preservation
  • Paul F. Reed: Salmon Ruins: From Cynthia Irwin-Williams's Vison to a Central Place in the Totah
  • Larry L. Baker: Ruins Stabilization and Preservation
  • Linda Wheelbarger, Totah Archaeological Project
  • Lori S. Reed: Ceramic Studies in the Totah Area

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