Excavations at Burnt Corn Pueblo
Excavations at Burnt Corn Pueblo
James Snead

The archaeological mystery in the ruins of a Southwestern pueblo

You are here

Imagine you lived early in the 14th century, in what we now call New Mexico. Long before Europeans ever set foot here, you might have made your home among sparse pinyon pine and fragrant juniper, in a landscape cut by a maze of dusty arroyos. Imagine gathering corn, drying it on your rooftop and stockpiling it in a storeroom built from earth and timber. You would have relied on this harvest to survive lean times. What would make you burn the whole thing down?

That’s the mystery facing archaeologists at the aptly named Burnt Corn Pueblo, south of Santa Fe. To the untrained eye, it doesn’t look like much: a few low mounds, some shards of stone and pottery, and chunks of charcoal scattered on the ground. But for James Snead, a professor at California State University, Northridge, the site holds clues about what life was like here more than 700 years ago.

A dry mountain landscape700 years ago, a pueblo village stood on this site in the Galisteo Basin southwest of Santa Fe. Photo credit: The Trust for Public Land

Snead was captivated by the ruins of the pueblo from the first time he saw it, back in 1999. “There are thousands and thousands of archaeological sites in Northern New Mexico, but this one grabbed me,” he recalls. “Right away the burnt corn scattered on the ground indicated something out of the ordinary.”

Snead collected pieces of burned wood—the remnants of roof supports on adobe dwellings—and sent samples to the University of Arizona. Using tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, experts were able to determine that the trees cut down to build the pueblo were felled between 1290 and 1302. The fact that the samples were all the same age indicates that the timbers were never replaced, which in turn suggests that the village was occupied for less than 20 years. Based on this evidence, Snead concluded that it was sometime between 1302 and 1310 when the village was destroyed by fire.

“We think it burned in autumn,” Snead adds, “because the corn we found was still green enough to bubble a bit, but dry enough to burn. In archaeology, that’s incredibly precise. You do not get any better than that.”

A tree ring cross-section under the microscopeBy cross-dating samples of charred roof timbers found at Burnt Corn Pueblo with the established dendrochronological record of the greater Southwest, Snead's team determined when the trees were cut to build the village.Photo credit: Flickr user lynx81

Dendrochronology can tell archaeologists when the pueblo burned, but it can’t tell them why.

Wildfire is a possibility, but Snead thinks it’s unlikely. The area near the village would have been stripped of fuel by people gathering firewood. Plus, archaeologists have built and burned replica pueblos—and they’re actually pretty hard to destroy. “For the roofs to burn like they did here, you’d probably have to light them from the inside,” Snead says. “So it seems likelier that this village was burned intentionally,”

Was it an act of war? Petroglyphs in the area depict violence, weaponry, and shields. But other indications of a battle are absent. “The site has a neatness to it,” Snead says. “The fireplaces had been sealed up. Storerooms were empty. It’s possible—and again, every bit of this is arguable, but it’s possible—that the people of Burnt Corn did this deliberately.”

“Whether it was open warfare or not, this seems to have been a stressful time,” says Snead. “In some interpretations of a traditional Pueblo worldview, if bad things were happening—strife, drought, you name it—a change was needed. The people who lived here might have decided to decommission their village and start over elsewhere.”

Rock art in the Galisteo Basin Rock art found elsewhere in the Galisteo Basin—like this shield-wielding figure on a private ranch nearby—depicts scenes of aggression, but Snead says Burnt Corn Pueblo may not have been a casualty of war.Photo credit: Flickr user glyphwalker

Snead says he favors this explanation, but, “if you ask ten archaeologists about this, you’ll find five who disagree with you.” More interesting than the answer, to Snead, is the opportunity—rare, in the field of archaeology—to question a single moment in time.

Another turning point in the long history of the Burnt Corn Pueblo history came this year, when The Trust for Public Land helped transfer an unprotected portion of the site to the Bureau of Land Management. Widely supported by pueblo tribal governments in the region, the move clears the way for future access to adjacent public land for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders from the growing Santa Fe metro. A watch group made up of volunteers and retired archaeologists will work to keep the site secure.

“Sites like this are vulnerable,” Snead says. “All it takes is someone with 15 minutes and a shovel to do tremendous damage to sites like this that help us understand the past. Public ownership, management, and protections tend to be a pretty good solution for caring for our archaeological resources.”

Comments

Robert Elder
These sites can reveal how our species interact, socialize and grow into communities and must be preserved.
Otto
Science. Asks as many questions as it answers. Thank you.
Nancy Roca
Thank you, and keep up the good work. It is fascinating and mysterious and worthwhile.
Roseann
This is really,really interesting. I can not even imagine this experience. This would be like a dream.
Nancy Roca
Thank you, and keep up the good work. It is fascinating and mysterious and worthwhile.
Roseann Duchon
This fraudulent administration will do whatever it can get away with to destroy the sanctity of places like this. We must stop them. No drilling, no mining, no destruction!
Steve Ronk
Right-On!
Ellen Marty
Thank you, Roseann, for your comment. This is very worrisome to me as well. I cannot imagine why the administration would want to destroy our country's heritage, but we must work to preserve these treasures.
Courtenay Smith
We cannot allow the shallow people to throw it all way.
Nichols Robert
This is a precious site of American history. It must be saved for future generations to study.
John Cooper
Sites like this are part of our fragile heritage. Only the barbarians in the citadel in Washington DC would think of doing anything other than to protect and preserve for our progeny and posterity.
Marge Lindskog
Closer to home, we have many who like to ravage archeological sites for pots and other artifacts they can sell on the black market. They just ruin sites with their willy-nilly digging and scavenging. Those are the people to really worry about.
Janlee Myers
this was a very interesting article. My father always wanted me to be an archaeologist. I probably would have loved it.
Thea Geotas
Preserve this public land - we can only learn from same -
Sherrie R.
Is it possible that they burned their village intentionally due to some sort of plague or other disease?
Lumina Greenway
This is fascinating. I lived north of Taos for 13 years and visited a number of ancient sites.
Cheryl Storm
Please don't destroy our American heritage for short-term profit.
Juliann pinto
Please try to protect this since it contains rare history of our country.
Carole Bergstraesser
History teaches us lessons we need to know in the present day.
Karen Genest
Fascinating! Makes me wish I were an archaeologist! I hope to see more about this project as information is forthcoming. Thank you!!
Marysue Robbins
To me, this is fascinating information. I feel this is definitely a worthwhile endeaver. Thank you for your clear and important explanation.
Bruce Cox
My friend, a cultural anthropologist, will surely like to see this. And many in the future may solve the puzzle. Wonderful.
Dianne Doochin
Thank you for sharing this fascinating information about the history of our country and our ancestors.
Denise Liebmann
Very interesting and compelling. Best wishes in your future Revelations!
Barbara George
INTERESTING HOPE THE RESEARCH IS ALLOWED TO CONTINUE!
Catherine Hall
Keep our history alive ... we are entitled to know about our heritage. It is who we are. How many historical sites and artifacts have been regretfully lost or destroyed. Too sad!!
Karin G. Tompkins
Please keep me posted about this. Thank you!!
Lynnb
Very interesting. That area of NM is so filled w/ancient sites. The Valley Grande and all the red cliffs southwest of Santa Fe. So beautiful. It is one of my favorite memories of the 4 years it was part of my sales territory. I love NM, even those I am a long way away not in Central VA.
Kelly Warner
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist but don't know that I was cut out for the tedious work, however I still find this fascinating! Thanks for the work you do!
Krysta
HOW PEOPLE lived back then proves that war is not the answer...we should head our warning
Susan Pacey-Field
This site needs protection. For some reason the current administration doesn't realize this. We need to fight to have our history protected.
Harold Chabner
This area has to be protected and preserved, as more often than not archeological treasures are destroyed either willingly or by other means. If one does not make an attempt to examine and preserve these sites a window into history,which often leads to discoveries that may aid us and\or future generations can be lost. The constant quest to cut down,burn, mine or otherwise use non replaceable treasures instead of using the gifts of wind, solar, geothermal for fuel can and will lead to very negative consequences. It is time to be smart about what we leave those who will follow us.
Marget Sands
I would treasure, one day, to be able to visit.
Connie Dunning
Exciting find and having people able to see and help protect it sounds ideal.
Cliff Lambert
So thrilled about the news re land transfer Really enjoyed the article Thank you
William Harris
Fascinating to a Connecticut Yankee. Long time ago I lived in San Antonio for several years, and was fascinated by the ruins of the Alamo. On and near my childhood home in upstate New York there were interesting things like the traces of early roads, just wagon trails that fell into disuse and were never paved. One was thought by some old timers to be a stagecoach route. My younger brother and I were fascinated by a series of humps in a remote bit of pasture. We wondered whether they were Indian graves, which seems unlikely to me now, but we never wondered hard enough to try any digging. Inside a small, fenced off plot in our pasture, there was a small cemetery with 5 or 6 headstones, where the original settlers on the property were buried in the early 1800s. I have lived since 1970 in a small house in Connecticut that dates to 1732, and a few headstones in the cemetery adjacent to my home date to the same period. I have been amused to joke with visitors that when my home was fifty years old, people sat around the kitchen fireplace to discuss whether to vote for George Washington !
Thea
Thanks for sharing. My town in Connecticut was switched from Judea to Washington,Ct, because Washington supposedly slept here. I have spent any number of trips to the southwest because I adore the culture, pueblos, petroglyphs, etc. I love injecting petroglyphs into my oil paintings as well as a tribute to these ancient cultures. Cheers. Thea
Thea
Thanks for sharing. My town in Connecticut was switched from Judea to Washington,Ct, because Washington supposedly slept here. I have spent any number of trips to the southwest because I adore the culture, pueblos, petroglyphs, etc. I love injecting petroglyphs into my oil paintings as well as a tribute to these ancient cultures. Cheers. Thea
Sharon Humphrie...
I assume someone is saying this loudly to the Trump Administration!
Glen K. Holt Jr.
Thank you for your guidance on this Sight. I like to understand history and other factors based information! Keep up the fine work.
Chris
How incredible! What a wonderful opportunity. Keep up the good work!
Chris Joslyn
Making sites like this one vulnerable may be a mistake that can't be corrected. I do hope the public watch and management is enough protection.
Patricia Virzi
How absolutely wonderful! Guard the site carefully.
Ronda Melendez
Is this before the time when they discovered how handy it was or how much more secure it was to make their homes in the cliffs and walls of the mountains that I have read about that have been deserted in places like those found here? https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Puye%20Cliff%20Dwellings
Jill McManus
Glad there will be a watch group for this fascinating place because the BLM under this administration is pressured to cut back and if there's gas or oil, to allow drilling in public lands.
Naomi Carey
The thousands of archaeological sites in Northern New Mexico need to be protected lands and the public needs to oversee that nobody tries to harm the protected lands. There is still much to learn about Burnt Corn Pueblo, south of Santa Fe and the entire Mesa Verde Region, a portion of the Colorado Plateau in the United States that extends through parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. It is bounded by the San Juan River to the south, the Piedra River to the east, the San Juan Mountains to the north and the Colorado River to the west. Perhaps it was the Spanish that drove the Pueblo Indians out or drought, in any case we need to continue to study all history of the first human inhabitants of America.
Jim Corriere
I lived in New Mexico for 22 years and often scoured mesas for shards of pottery and spearheads. It is a fascinating place with so much history to be revealed. Unfortunately, many of the mesas are being overtaken by mega housing projects and silly malls. The states' arid climate allows for millennial keeping of artifacts and unwritten history. Long live the State of New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment...
Len Messina
...Easier to save your family and others in the village if your defensive prospects are lacking. "Scorched earth" is a more modern term for leaving nothing of value for an advancing enemy. ...I'd look to area high ground and see if the shards match, along with any other artifacts. Isn't S.W. archaeology interesting?! Good hunting and thanks to all those local protectors. --Prof. Len M.
James Snead
Thanks for the comments. Interestingly, Burnt Corn occupies a relatively defensible location - a narrow ridgeline, with good views of the surrounding countryside. We argue that they built in this place precisely because of a perception of threat - from neighbors or others in the surrounding landscape. The fact that they seem to have left when the threat became more real suggested (to me, anyway) that they thought the odds of long-term survival here were poor. As for their destination, some of the villages nearby seem to have undergone population expansion at roughly this time period - refugees, perhaps?
Sean Dugan
Preserve Burnt Corn Mesa and others like it for future generations.
Annie Hall
Thank you for posting this. Please keep me updated on this. Just awesome reading about this history of these amazing Indian tribes.
Harold J Tipping
A very interesting article leaving us with no answer to the mystery!
James E. Snead
It has been a great privilege to study Burnt Corn Pueblo and the stories of the lives of those who lived there. Thanks also to TPL for the Blog! Shameless promotion, but those who want to read more about our results can find them in a couple of publications: James E. Snead, "Ancestral Landscapes of the Pueblo World," University of Arizona Press, Tucson (2008); and James E. Snead and Mark W. Allen, eds., "Burnt Corn Pueblo: Conflagration and Conflict in the Galisteo Basin, AD 1250-1350," Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona 74 (2011). Both are academic in nature but the first one, at least, was written to be accessible to a broader audience... Those interested can also contact me directly via jsnead@csun.edu
Marc Severson
Is this in the Gallina region, a area between Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde? Many unsolved mysteries of archaeology are to be found there. great article.
Mary Tuteur
Santa Fe and the environs grabbed my heart when I was 6, traveling on train from Ohio to our new home in California. I have visited whenever I could since our train stopped there in 1952, have walked where ever I could, what I could find and looked at so many photographs. But the pictures you sent with this article have struck so deep in me. That spot, those rock drawings. Life pouring out from there right into me my soul. Ancient stirrings. Thank you for revealing this to all of us lucky enough to read your article, and for all the work you do. May you receive the aid you need to preserve this somehow-sacred site.
jim johnson
Has the possibility of a disease outbreak that their religion proscribed burning and moving as the only solution? A loss to a strong foe might mean it was sacrificed as part of area banishment.
Erin
Being born north of there and seeing what is done with public lands I disagree it's be best solution.Turn it over to the the tribes. It's their land. You are studying their heiretage too.
Margaret Ann Samuels
Public land such as this must be preserved for public benefit and learning.
Onishea Aguilera
Thank you for protecting our valuable history. We should always protect them and appreciate what we can learn from the past.
Ann
I'd recommend removing your last line there about the 15 minutes. It only serves to give stupid people ideas. Fuel for the fire, so to speak.
Cheryl Lorditch
Guard and protect the sites , they are immensely important as part of our history.....
Patricia Brown
Thank you so much for having this area protected. So interested to read of your continued findings. Would love to come see the site at some time in the future. We live in northern AZ and live to visit Historical Indian sites. Thank you for sharing your findings thus far. Warm regards, P. Brown
Lora Elstad Bello
I can't imagine why tribal leaders in the area from the Pueblo community would have a majority in favor of giving remaining unprotected land to the BLM. They are notorious for mismanaging natural historic lands that are supposed to be under their care. It will likely get overdeveloped and it's original form forever marred or destroyed. I hope, at least, that the tribes profit from any tourism that may occur. They are more than due that in this much changed world. But, I am not so sure the changes were for the better.
Kathryn Wild, PhD
Has anyone asked the local Indians? Have you researched the oral history of the area?
Sondra York
I feel sure it was due to disease.
Jesse Bagwell
Preserve Burnt Corn Mesa and others like it.
judy silver
These sites of archeological importance exist in many countries. Let's make sure the USA continues to preserve its cultural heritage with respect and knowledge. We must preserve these important sites that are an important part of our history... and the history of mankind.
gary hein
This place is one of those where you can almost feel the past. It seems far removed from the present unlike many of the other sites where I worked or visited. I know one site like near water, where the cannabis farmer thought he could farm. It is my belief that small isolated places need a bit more protection than the larger places closer to the present. They get visited less which is good.
Mrs. Vi
Knowing our past gives us the opportunity to move on to the future for several generations to come. We will not know our future without knowing our past.
Elin
Thanks for the interesting article! A question, did you have any trouble analysing the burnt timber using dendrochronology? A bit curious when we are trying it right now for dating a fortified hilltop in Sweden. Thx

Leave a Comment