Archaeologist Works to Solve 700-Year-Old Mystery

Posted: March 20, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Excavations at Burnt Pueblo
There’s a mystery to be solved at Burnt Corn Pueblo, and archaeologist James Snead hopes to do it.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

James Snead is living in the past. This assistant professor of anthropology/archaeology spends a good portion of his time trying to solve a mystery that happened more than 700 years ago – in the late 1200s to be exact.

Snead has spent the last several years excavating a site in the Galisteo Basin of northern New Mexico called Burnt Corn Pueblo, an area he calls “one of the great archaeological puzzles of the Southwest.”

While it is clear that Ancestral Pueblo people settled in this area, for some reason they didn’t stay long, and the entire community was burned when the people left. “The one thing we do know about Burnt Corn is that it was purposely destroyed, and no one ever came back,” says Snead.

But why it was destroyed is the riddle he has been wrestling with over the years. Accident or attack? Each field season Snead chips away at the mystery.

James Snead
James Snead at the excavation site.

Partnering with Local Governments

Snead first visited Burnt Corn Pueblo in 1999 in the company of Paul Williams, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, and Buck Dant, a local landowner.

“It was clear there was a dramatic story there, probably a tragedy,” he says. He also thought the property seemed like an ideal site for excavation: it was isolated enough from roads, (which would help cut down on looting), and had a landscape that had changed very little since the 1200s.

This almost untouched landscape is what Snead, a Santa Fe native, refers to as “one of the joys in working the Southwest.” He says, “The record is really rich there. There is some erosion, but with so little change the ground shows traces of an entire range of human activity hundreds of years in the past.”

To conduct the fieldwork, Snead received a three-year, $167,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Other partners in the project include Santa Fe County, the Bureau of Land Management and the Museum of New Mexico.

Snead emphasizes the importance of these partnerships to help manage archaeological resources. Public landowners often have little funding to study and protect remote sites. “University partners can bring useful expertise to the table,” says Snead. “This is a privilege and a responsibility. It would be negligent to not contribute the best we can.”

Focusing on the Past

Burnt Corn Pueblo takes its names from the burnt corn that litters the landscape. When the village burned, corn grown by the inhabitants was drying on the roofs of the pueblos. It is this corn that has helped Snead come up with a date for the burning of the village.

He brought a senior archaeologist who specializes in pueblo populations to the area. After looking at some of the pieces of burnt corn, the expert offered up the date: October 30, 1295.

“He said he couldn’t be certain about the year, but he was certain about the day–based on where the corn crop was in the harvest cycle,” he says.

In 2002, Snead returned to the area and completed a survey. With the help of George Mason students and local volunteers he found that the pueblo represented the remains of a small village, with nine structures built of stone and mud brick sitting on a narrow ridge and visible for miles around.

In subsequent years the team has conducted archaeological surveys throughout the vicinity, recording more than 180 sites. At nearby Petroglyph Hill, for instance, there are thousands of rock carvings dating from the Ancestral Pueblo era, and Snead believes it may have been a sacred site for those living at Burnt Corn Pueblo.

“There is evidence that it may have been the focus of pilgrimages,” he says. “The surrounding landscape is filled with signs of other activity – places where people farmed, gathered wild foods and performed other tasks.”

Still More Questions

But each finding brings with it more questions than it answers. In 2005, the group excavated a room in one of the structures at Burnt Corn and found it empty. In addition, the fireplace hearth had been sealed, indicating that the dwellers had had time to prepare for their departure. While such preparations might rule out a surprise attack, they don’t explain why they would have left food – the corn – behind to burn. Solving that problem with empirical evidence presents a significant challenge, but Snead hopes that further work will provide answers.

The passage of the Galisteo Basin Archaelogical Sites Protection Act by Congress in March 2004 has helped mobilize efforts to explore, preserve and protect the sites.

“Burnt Corn provides us a unique opportunity,” Snead says. “It provides a window on a tragic moment in the lives of an ancient people. The work of George Mason and the National Science Foundation is helping to understand what happened there, but also to ensure that places such as Burnt Corn take their place as a part of American heritage.”

Brian Wenham and a volunteer
Mason alumnus Brian Wenham, BA Anthropology ’05, working with volunteer Joe Sneed at Petroglyph Hill.
Photos courtesy James Snead

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