The Salmon Ruins
by Lynne D. Escue
If you should find yourself in the Farmington, New Mexico area
with a couple of hours to spare, consider visiting the Salmon Ruins
and Museum. You won't need hiking shoes, bottles of water or an SUV.
All you need is a bit of curiosity about old places and things--although
Salmon offers plenty for the serious student of pre-Indian cultures,
as well as for the casual visitor.
Wander around the museum exhibits. Visit the excellent research
library (for you serious folks, its official name is The San Juan
County Archaeological Research Center and Library), drive or walk
down to the ruins. Or, if your taste runs to things Western, visit
the old Salmon house. Bring the kids and a picnic lunch. They'll
love exploring the Heritage Park which offers interactive replicas
of buildings as diverse as a Wild West trading post, a Navajo sweat
lodge, male and female hogans, a Jicarilla Apache wickiup and a
Ute tipi. But don't miss the ruins.
A general view of the site from the great kiva.
Located on the north bank of the San Juan River, the Salmon Pueblo
was constructed between 1088 and 1090 A.D. Built during the same
time period as many of the great houses in Chaco Canyon some 45
miles to the south-as the crow flies, not as modern roads go-this
large Chaco outlier originally contained over 300 rooms on three
levels. Some of the many astronomical alignments found at the site
appear to have been set in place as early as 1068. But, take note:
the initial structure was completed in just two years. This is certainly
a tribute to the organization, technical skills and social complexity
of the Chaco People, who carried trees from up to 50 miles away
and rock from as far as four miles for building this pueblo.
Then, after just 25 to 30 years, the primary Chaco inhabitants
abandoned the site. No one knows why. Did the climate change? Did
political ties dissolve leaving them isolated? Was there an outbreak
of disease? At the moment there are more questions than answers.
Around A.D. 1160 Ancestral Pueblo people began what is known as
the "Secondary Occupation" of the pueblo. According to
Salmon Curator and Education Coordinator Nancy Sweet Espinosa, new
research indicates that the Ancestral Puebloans occupied the pueblo
together with other peoples in the area in kind of cultural melting
View of some of the rooms on the west side of the ruins.
During the Secondary Occupation a great deal of structural modification
was made to the pueblo, such as building circular kivas within rooms
that were originally square. The self-guided tour will show you
some of these rooms. Salmon remained the largest pueblo on the San
Juan River until it was finally abandoned about 1265 A.D.
Visitors follow well-marked paths that wind around and through
the excavated ruins. Look into kivas, storage and work rooms, ceremonial
chambers. Climb down into a gallery room and kiva.
For those who are curious about pre-Indian history, the varied
peoples who made the Salmon Pueblo their home offer an interesting
study in architectural styles and cultural evolution.
Nancy Sweet Espinosa describes the Salmon Pueblo as containing
examples of various types of Chaco wall construction and masonry
styles. Methods of construction include single wall and compound
wall as well as the hallmark Chaco core and veneer construction.
Core and veneer or faced walls have a rubble core sandwiched between
two facings of rock.
One of the unique features of Chaco style masonry or wall facings
is the labor intensive method used. Each stone was cut to fit its
location in the wall, giving a refined and sophisticated appearance.
The various masonry styles seen at Salmon Pueblo include the McElmo
or Mesa Verde style. The latter is unlike Chaco type walls because
instead of hand shaped stones, McElmo uses large, unshaped stones
placed where they seemed to fit.
You may ask why many different styles of masonry came to be present
in one wall. Espinosa says that what determined style was availability
of water and building stones. It's believed that the sandstone used
at Salmon came from a quarry about three miles north of the pueblo.
Where supplies of stone and water were both available, you see courses
of large stones held together with a heavy layer of mortar. As one
or the other resource became depleted, variations in wall facings
occurred. When both water and stone became scarce, you see small,
fitted stones with little or no mortar at all.
Example of a Chaco style core and veneer wall.
Salmon owes its remarkable state of preservation to the Salmon
family who homesteaded the area. The house and orchard of George
P. Salmon, son of the original homesteader Peter Milton Salmon,
is located just north of the ruins. The Salmon family protected
the ruins, so that when excavation started in 1970, a wealth of
unique artifacts came to light. You'll see some of them in the display
Exhibits in the display area help to recreate the life of the Chaco
and Ancestral Pueblo peoples who once lived in this great house.
There's also a gift shop where you can shop for books about this
fascinating area and Native American pre-history, as well as for
modern Native American jewelry and crafts.
Beginning in the fall, the Salmon Ruins Occasional Lecture Series
offers free talks on the ruins and related topics. And throughout
the year (weather permitting) you can book "Journey into the
Past Tours" to Chaco Canyon and to the Dinetah rock art and
Created by a county bond issue in the late 1960s, Salmon is governed
by the San Juan County Museum Association. Conditions attached to
the lease/purchase agreement of the site included finding a qualified
scholar to investigate and excavate the ruin, building a museum
that would serve the pubic through visitation, educational programs
and creation of a library, and, that the museum was to become almost
entirely self-supporting. As of this date, all three conditions
have been met.
When the San Juan County Museum Association decided to hire an
anthropologist to excavate the ruins, they made their own contribution
to history by hiring Dr. Cynthia Irwin-Williams, one of the first
women in any field to receive a doctorate directly from Harvard
University, rather than from their associated women's college, Radcliffe.
Dr. Irwin-Williams graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe in
1957, then went on to earn her doctorate at Harvard at a time when
field work was not considered appropriate for a female archaeologist.
Drawing on her background in anthropology for her excavation of
the Salmon Pueblo, Dr. Irwin-Williams used innovative methods such
as controlling stratigraphic relationships within and between rooms,
and integrated ethnobotany, as well as experimenting with computerization
of field data, all of which were then considered avant-garde.
The Salmon Ruins, Museum and Research Library are located at 6131
U.S. Highway 64 in Bloomfield, New Mexico.
- Monday through Friday 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
- Saturday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
- Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (summer).
- Sunday noon to 5 p.m. (winter).
- Telephone: (505) 632-2013
For more information, visit the Salmon Ruins Museum and Research Library
About the author: Lynne D. Escue is a free lance writer whose credits include articles in New Mexico Magazine and History Today.
Copyright 2005 by Lynne D. Escue "Reproduction without permission prohibited."
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