‘Darkmold’ dig reshapes our understanding of Basketmakers

But question lingers: Where did the Native Americans migrate?

David Hencmann, an anthropology graduate of Fort Lewis College, examines a small pot unearthed at the Darkmold site in the north Animas Valley, as Mona Charles examines a corncob from the same site under a microscope in her lab at Center for Southwest Studies on the college’s campus. Charles taught the FLC Archaeological Field School for 14 years through 2011. The Darkmold site was the platform for the FLC field school from 1999 to 2008. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

David Hencmann, an anthropology graduate of Fort Lewis College, examines a small pot unearthed at the Darkmold site in the north Animas Valley, as Mona Charles examines a corncob from the same site under a microscope in her lab at Center for Southwest Studies on the college’s campus. Charles taught the FLC Archaeological Field School for 14 years through 2011. The Darkmold site was the platform for the FLC field school from 1999 to 2008.

Archaeology in the Four Corners often is associated with the Pueblos for their cliff dwellings and adobe architecture.

Before the Pueblo period began around 750 A.D., Native Americans who inhabited the region also were known for their creativity. Because of their craftsmanship, they literally are called the Basketmakers.

A time line at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores lays out the progression from Basketmakers to Pueblos with a few Basketmaker exhibits on display such as basket fragments and projectile points used in hunting, said Victoria Atkins, an interpretive specialist.

There are not a lot of Basketmaker artifacts simply because their baskets and other materials were so perishable, Atkins said.

But now, more is becoming known about the Basketmakers, specifically with regard to the area known today as La Plata County.

New evidence gathered from an archaeological dig at an upper Animas Valley site called Darkmold indicated they lived here much earlier and longer than previously estimated.

“This really changes how we look at the Basketmakers,” said Mona Charles, staff archaeologist at Fort Lewis College.

Radiocarbon dates from corn indicate they inhabited the Animas Valley as early as 700 B.C. – 500 years earlier than previously thought.

And they lived here 100 years longer than previously believed, through about 500 A.D., which is about the same time as the end of the Roman Empire.

After 500 A.D., there seemed to have been a migration out of La Plata County, although two radiocarbon dates from Darkmold suggest that at least a few people were still around in 670 A.D.

Because Darkmold is located on private property and Charles wanted to protect the owner’s privacy, she declined to give a precise location. Neither did she want to explain the etymology of the Darkmold name.

From 1998 to 2008, archaeologists and students from FLC excavated the Darkmold site, recovering artifacts such as a hundred projectile points and more than 1,000 shards, or pottery fragments, which probably are from the later 670 A.D. dates.

Because they say one day in the field is equal to three weeks of follow-up study, researchers just now are reaching some conclusions about their findings.

Shell artifacts they found likely would have originated from the Pacific Coast and Baja California. Charles wonders if the shells are evidence of a trading network.

“Is it possible they were specializing in baskets and trading them out?” she said.

Other unusual artifacts included a “notched deer rib,” which probably was used for processing yucca fibers for making baskets.

No baskets actually were found at Darkmold, but they have been found in natural rock shelters around Durango, Charles said.

There was plenty of evidence of the Basketmakers changing to a more settled lifestyle of growing corn and other vegetables. Signs of domesticity include the outline of a ground floor of a house, a pit room and roasting pits.

They found burial sites for 11 people, including two human burials in the same pit.

Because of the absence of skeletal lesions as the result of a vitamin B-12 deficiency, it’s believed the Basketmakers ate a varied diet of vegetables and game, said Dawn Mulhern, assistant professor of anthropology.

The adults appeared to have lived into their 50s, which was an old age for the time period.

“The wealth of knowledge (from Darkmold) is just tremendous,” Charles said.

She spends much of her time cataloguing the artifacts. When funding becomes available, materials are shipped off for testing and carbon dating.

To be sensitive to Native American culture, they have not dated or photographed the human remains.

One mystery Charles would like to unravel is where the Native Americans migrated between 500 and 750 A.D., when the Pueblo 1 period boomed in Durango. There has been much evidence of Puebloans in areas around town such as FLC and Bodo Park.

Charles thinks the Basketmakers might have lived north of town for access to the hot springs. Like Trimble, the early inhabitants also dug out pools to fill up with hot spring water. There is another Basketmaker site close to Trimble.

“In the winter, it would be amazing to think they could get hot water, have a hot bath,” she said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald 
Michelle Phair, a student in the anthropology department at Fort Lewis College, examines a tiny turquoise trade piece unearthed at the Darkmold site in the north Animas Valley. The item represents the earliest use of a turquoise trade item used in the Durango area. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald Michelle Phair, a student in the anthropology department at Fort Lewis College, examines a tiny turquoise trade piece unearthed at the Darkmold site in the north Animas Valley. The item represents the earliest use of a turquoise trade item used in the Durango area.