Thursday, August 31, 2023

Fossil Collections of the Ancestral Puebloans

Although the ancient biological origin of fossils has only been widely appreciated in the past couple hundred years, people have collected fossils for various reasons for millennia. One of my favorite instances is recorded by Roman biographer Suetonius, who noted that Augustus had a collection of bones of "sea and land monsters" at Capri. (By the way, if you're also a sucker for ancient history as written by ancient historians, "The Twelve Caesars" is a great book.)

One of the things I've come across working with National Park Service paleontology is that the Ancestral Puebloans, represented by numerous locations in the NPS, had a notable interest in fossils. This is something that took a while for me to realize because most of the evidence is in the archeological literature and as a paleontologist, I didn't know to look in it. On the flip side, the archeologists generally didn't make a big deal of finding run-of-the-mill fossils among the artifacts at their sites; for them, fossils were just one class of objects among many. I haven't made an exhaustive survey, but a couple of sites stand out.

Pecos Pueblo is the namesake feature of the complex Pecos National Historical Park. The pueblo was excavated between 1915 and 1925 by Alfred Vincent Kidder of the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology (Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts). Kidder (1932) reported finding "many hundreds" of fossils at Pecos Pueblo. They were predominantly marine fossils from "the limestone formations underlying the red sandstones of the valley", which appears to correspond to the Pennsylvanian-age Alamitos Formation of the Madera Group. Among these were corals, brachiopods ("bivalves" of the photo caption), snails, and crinoids. Not all were marine; among them was a partial rhino tooth, and there were also many pieces of petrified wood, including colorful Chinle wood and brown or gray wood typical of the area southwest of Santa Fe, possibly selected for its unusual cleavage and the "clear, resonant tone which it gives when tapped". Kidder observed that the majority of the fossils were found in rubbish and suggested they were collected as curios, but I have to wonder. It takes some effort to collect hundreds of fossils (although admittedly Pecos Pueblo was inhabited for a long time).

Pecos Pueblo is hardly a patch on Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, though. Pepper (1920) documented fossils in 18 rooms, not counting artifacts made of petrified wood. Most had just a few, but Room 12 is something else. Room 12 has a floor area less than 10 square meters (108 square feet; a bit less than 3.7 by 2.7 m or 12 ft by 9 ft), and when excavated contained a 1.5 m (5 ft) thick layer including the following:

  • 1,000+ small fossil shells
  • 300 fragments of crinoid stems
  • 140+ water-worn pebbles
  • 125+ chalcedony concretions
  • 125+ fragments of contemporary Pacific shells
  • 50 to 75 specimens of crystals or other rocks and minerals of beauty or interesting form

This is the largest intentional accumulation of fossils predating the rise of museums that I've come across. Furthermore, unlike Pecos Pueblo, a significant chunk of the paleontological collection could not have been collected more or less "in the backyard". Judd (1954) provided taxonomic identifications of some of the fossils from a re-excavation. Chaco Canyon is over Campanian (Late Cretaceous) bedrock. The taxa identified from Room 12 include several Pennsylvanian-age brachiopod species known from central New Mexico, a Cenomanian ammonite (Metoicoceras whitei) with its nearest occurrences in the Black Mesa area of Arizona, and a snail (Gyrodes compressa/Euspira compressa) known from Upper Cretaceous rocks of the Pacific coast of California. This is a gathering of fossils that took some effort.

What exactly were the inhabitants of Pueblo Bonito doing with 1,300+ fossils? Agostini and Notterpek (2020) suggest that the fossil shells, together with the water-worn pebbles and concretions, were symbolic of water and a "past watery world". The canyon itself would also be symbolic of the action of water. It's an interesting idea, although again I do marvel at the sheer number of fossils. The scientific romantic in me wonders if there was someone there who just found fossils and minerals interesting, maybe even had them arranged in some pleasing setup (even sorted by morphology), and perhaps cultivated the collection of rare and unfamiliar objects. Or, maybe concentrating all of those fossils in one small place amplified their power. Or, maybe it was something like a museum, or at least a place to display and contemplate these objects. But what do I know?


Agostini, M. R., and I. Notterpek. 2020. Cosmological expressions and medicine stones in the Ancestral Pueblo world. KIVA 86:(4):4030–427. doi:

Judd, N. M. 1954. The material culture of Pueblo Bonito. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 124.

Kidder, A. V. 1932. The artifacts of Pecos. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Pepper, G. H. 1920. Pueblo Bonito [large file]. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 27.

G. Suetonius Tranquillus. 121. The twelve Caesars. Penguin Books, London, England. 1989 reprint of 1957 translation by Robert Graves.

No comments:

Post a Comment