New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies

La Plata

Project name: La Plata
Site type: Basketmaker pithouses, Pueblo habitations with pit structures, Pueblo structures without pit structures, Pueblo sites without structures, and one historic homestead
Period: Pueblo (AD 550–1225), historic (1890s)
Project Director: H. Wolcott Toll

The Totah and Chaco Canyon 

If you were a farmer trying to survive in the Four Corners region in the AD 1000s, you might well choose to live in the area around modern Farmington, where the Animas and La Plata Rivers join the San Juan—an area known to the Navajos as the Totah. The area was conducive to human subsistence for a number of important reasons: Three permanent streams are fed by reliably snow-packed mountains. The climate is suitable for growing corn and other crops. And nearly a thousand years before the advent of roads and modern forms of transportation, the Totah was within traveling distance of a variety of environmental zones and human populations.

Pithouse excavationIt's no wonder that the Totah has been heavily settled for hundreds of years by Ancestral Puebloans, Navajos, and, beginning in the nineteenth century, immigrant Americans. Much evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of the area is difficult to see because of its heavy historic use and the fact that the principal pueblo-building material was rounded rock from the vast cobble terraces in all three valleys, in great contrast to buildings in Mesa Verde, to the north, and Chaco Canyon, to the south. The environmental attractions of the Totah and the subtle but major evidence for the substantial population that lived there show that it was an important place in Chaco times. Buildings like those at Salmon and Aztec prove this point.

How Totah populations fit into the social and economic fabric of the region is critical to understanding its human history as a whole. Creating models of past economic and social relationships always involves a tension between a local, material-based understanding and overarching, concept-oriented evidence. This is very much the case in the Totah, where Chaco was a known, symbolic, transformational entity, but where material evidence for interaction is rare. Although the forbidding land between Chaco Canyon and the Totah was only spottily populated during the occupation span of the two areas, neither distance nor terrain was an obstacle for the people of the time. Eventually, the two were physically and symbolically linked by the North Road.

Discerning relationships within the Totah and between it and Chaco is part of what we at OAS are studying in our long-term study of the La Plata Valley. The La Plata is the smallest of the three rivers conjoining in the Totah and probably the most useful for developing irrigation. Our archaeologists excavated parts of 34 sites for the New Mexico Department of Transportation as part of improvements to the La Plata Highway. In just the New Mexico portion of the highway corridor, there are over 80 site locations, most of them Ancestral Pueblo. Occupation of the valley spans the entire agriculturalist record of the Colorado Plateau. In this portion of the valley, the majority of features are contemporaneous with major developments in Chaco Canyon, and great-house structures are indisputably present. The major population center, Aztec, is a mere 20 km from the valley. In contrast to artifact assemblages in Chaco Canyon, however, materials from sources outside the immediate area are uncommon. People have various reasons for transporting material goods. Certain resources may not be available in a given area, or superior materials may only be available elsewhere. Another, less readily verifiable reason is that a given material may have particular symbolic content, demonstrating connections between different populations. Although sources of material in La Plata sites are nearly all local, artifactual and architectural styles closely follow those in Chaco and the region.

The degree to which great houses were residential, on the one hand, or occupied by governing individuals, on the other, is a subject of controversy. While important and especially difficult questions persist about who used these structures, I remain convinced that they were focal to community gatherings. The communities in the Totah had access to local great houses like those in the La Plata Valley; Totah-wide structures such as those at Salmon and Aztec; and the regional center in Chaco, where exchanges of goods, information, genes, and ideas took place. As with leadership positions, we cannot know who was permitted or required to participate, but we can be sure that mobility and breadth of knowledge were extensive. Issues of participation and variations on the social and practical themes of existence present us with a continuing challenge in refining our understanding of how people from different areas interacted.