NEAR MANCOS, Colo. — On the site of a former auto-repair shop here, broken stone walls mark the site of a 900-year-old village that may yield new insights into an ancient desert culture.
The ruins are what remains of two “great houses” — apartment buildings, essentially — that formed a northern outpost of a civilization based at Chaco Canyon, about 100 miles away in northwestern New Mexico.
Archaeologists from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in nearby Cortez, have just begun the first systematic excavation of this site in an effort to learn how its residents lived in the early 1100s, and how they related to the wider Chaco culture.
In particular, the Northern Chaco Outliers Project aims to determine when the village was occupied, how many people lived there, and whether they did so during an extended drought of 1130-1180, which may have accelerated a northward movement of people from Chaco.
The project is the first in many years to systematically excavate any of about 250 great houses that were built in the region known as Four Corners, said John Kantner, an archaeologist at the University of North Florida.
“We have so little understanding of the role of great houses and the relationship between others and Chaco Canyon itself,” said Dr. Kantner, who excavated Blue J, another Chaco-related site in New Mexico.
The project here has the potential to “fill in the gaps about the outlying great houses,” he said.
Three full-time archaeologists and volunteers began work in mid-May and will spend at least the next three years sifting through the ruins, named the Haynie Site after its former owners, Ralph and Claudia Haynie, who bought the five-acre property in the early 1980s.
The team is working from site descriptions and maps of the ruins that were made by Claudia Haynie as she did her own excavations in pursuit of artifacts.
Large parts of the ruins were excavated with heavy machinery, and portions of both great houses were demolished, disturbing to at least half the site, said Susan Ryan, the Crow Center’s director of archaeology, who is leading the project.
The artifacts obtained by the Haynies cannot be recovered because they were sold, she said. But archaeologists can use the couple’s records to infer what the site looked like before it was disturbed.
“She was recording, in a pretty scientific way, where her objects were coming out of the great houses,” Dr. Ryan said of Claudia Haynie. “She had a great respect for the people who used to live there, she has a respect for the buildings themselves.”
“Somebody really did care about the site even though the actions went against what archaeologists would say is appropriate,” she added. Today, local representatives from descendant communities visit the site twice a year and help guide the research.
Diagrams drawn by Ms. Haynie show floor plans for both of the great houses, which had two or perhaps three stories and measured roughly 75 feet by 55 feet. One of the drawings includes about 30 rectangular rooms, based on remaining masonry or inferred walls where none physically survived.
The diagrams also include five kivas, circular spaces that in bigger settlements were used for religious purposes. At the Haynie site, they apparently were used for everyday activities like sleeping, cooking or making tools.
Despite their practical nature, each of the Haynie kivas also contains a “sipapu,” a Hopi term for a ritual hole with a ladder used to symbolize a connection between the world and the spiritual realm, Dr. Ryan said.
“On a ladder, you are symbolically moving in and out of worlds that are vertical,” she said. “You are constantly being reminded of where you have come from, your identity and origin stories. It’s just a beautiful thing.”
On a tour of the site, Dr. Ryan pointed out a line of mortar in which alternating layers of clay and calcium carbonate made a stronger fill and insulated the surrounding rooms.
“Those are basket loads of fill that someone has dropped in there, probably in the early 1100s,” Dr. Ryan said of spaces between the stones. “That’s so exciting, because now you can see how big a basket was and how much dirt was in there.”
Estimates of the age of the Haynie structures comes from tree-ring dating. One of the roof timbers dates has been dated to 1111, when the center of the Chaco civilization was moving northward into what is now southwestern Colorado.
Archaeologists link the Haynie site to Chaco Canyon by noting shared architectural features, like subfloor ventilation systems, tall ceilings and flat-sawed timbers.