Indian Camp Ranch – America’s First Archeological Subdivision

Archeology students excavated a kiva in Jane Dilard's front yard.

Archeology students excavated a kiva in Jane Dilard’s front yard.

By Alec Jacobson | 8/8/16

My husband was a golfer and he’d much rather have a hole at Pebble Beach named after him but, instead, he’s got a divot in my front yard,” said Jane Dillard, rocking in the breeze on her broad porch. Ute Mountain, the San Juan Mountains and Shiprock dominate the horizon, but there’s more action in the foreground.

Dillard lives in Indian Camp Ranch, a 1,200-acre subdivision on a ridge near Cortez, Colo. with a unique attraction. Each of its 31 plots has been platted to include Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) ruins. A sign at the neighborhood’s entrance, sitting amidst fake Puebloan dwellings, boasts that it’s “America’s first archeological subdivision.”

Metal posts topped with petroglyphs mark over 200 surveyed archeological sites, scattered in fields and alongside winding roads. The entire subdivision is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dillard’s property alone includes at least 7 ruins. Since 2011, she has hosted scores of researchers to conduct digs there. First they excavated a great kiva just down the ridge line. More recently they began studying a large dwelling that they unearthed next to her driveway.

Jane Dillard sits on her front porch, overlooking a archeologic dig.

Jane Dillard sits on her front porch, overlooking a archeologic dig.

You know,” she said, “when the wind blows and the chairs are rocking, the spirits are with us. It’s very comforting.”

Dillard never planned to have the ruins on her land excavated. But the scientists across the street at Crow Canyon Archeological Center convinced her that the sites were important.

The front gate at Indian Camp Ranch.

The front gate at Indian Camp Ranch.

Crow Canyon follows a unique model as an independent nonprofit center with staff researchers and a breadth of educational programs. Although the research center has no strict affiliation with Indian Camp Ranch, Crow Canyon archaeologists have consulted with the subdivision’s governance to improve their archeological preservation standards, and have acted as the go-to researchers for some digs.

Dillard started taking trips with Crow Canyon’s Cultural Explorations program in 1988 and spent years volunteering in the Center’s lab. That experience introduced her to the beauty of southwestern Colorado and drew her to move here from Texas in 2002. She walked many of the plots in Indian Camp Ranch before settling on a homesite at the crown of a ridgline where there’s always a little breeze. Her property sits next to acres of protected Bureau of Land Management property where she’s comforted knowing there’ll never be a Walmart.

Instead, Dillard spends her days checking on the researchers and sometimes sifting soil alongside them to seine out pot shards and charcoal pieces from the red earth.

Crow Canyon archaeologist Caitlan Sommer is grateful that Dillard has been such a willing partner in the project. And Dillard, for her part – reassured that the dig on her property is “gonna be ethical and done properly,” – is happy to have the young scientists around to take out her trash

As work has progressed on Dillard’s property over the past few years, Sommer and her colleagues have unearthed what appears to be one of the largest Ancestral Puebloan family sites in Colorado, dating to the Basketmaker III era (AD 500 to 750).

The dig has provided an unprecedented opportunity to study an important period marking the Neolithic farming revolution, as Ancestral Puebloans transitioned away from a migratory lifestyle and began cultivating food, making pottery and living in more sophisticated clusters of pit-house dwellings, leading up to the time when they built the celebrated Cliff Palace and other ruins down the road at Mesa Verde.

Sommer believes that the prominence of the Indian Camp Ranch location, and the size of its structures – larger than anything else in the area from the same era – indicate the emergence of a more powerful social class in this area.

Mesa Verde there, Ute Mountain there and Wilson there; you feel in the center,” she said, taking in the scape from Dillard’s porch.

Archeologists discuss the separation of distinct strata of dirt that has filled in a Dillard Site kiva over centuries.

Archeologists discuss the separation of distinct strata of dirt that has filled in a Dillard Site kiva over centuries.

‘MAKING MONEY OFF THE DEAD’

Back in 1989, when California-based developer Archie Hanson and his wife Mary first decided to buy the land that would eventually become Indian Camp Ranch, their only criteria had to do with the view. It had to be at least as good – if not better – than from their home in California.

The site plan and archeological site map of Indian Camp Ranch.

The site plan and archeological site map of Indian Camp Ranch.


Archie, following in the footsteps of his father who built Hidden Hills, “the richest subdivision in America,” scouted and developed thousands of acres around southern California, but was struck by the land around Cortez when the couple took a trip to Crow Canyon. 

An Indian Camp Ranch tapestry hangs inside the Hanson's house.

An Indian Camp Ranch tapestry hangs inside the Hanson’s house.

On that excursion, archeological best practices mandated that they leave any artifacts they found in place, but Archie and Mary wanted to be able to share their finds with friends – which they could legally do only with artifacts coming from private property.   “We wanted ten acres to play with, but we ended up with 1,200,” said Mary.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument just down the road has recorded Ancestral Puebloan site densities of up to 100 per square mile. Archie decided to have his property surveyed as well. He was surprised when the study revealed more than 200 sites and decided to design his new subdivision around those features.

There’s a jillion ruins in the world and a million subdivisions, but it’s hard to make them kiss and make up,” said Archie. “I can see the headlines now: ‘California Real Estate People Making Money on the Dead’.”

From the beginning, Archie worked to design a small community rather than straining to maximize profits with high housing density. Friends from California quickly signed on. All of the lots have already been sold, and property values have risen continually.


But so far, there’s been little scientifically sanctioned excavation except for the Dillard site. “Not one person bought for that reason,” said Archie.“It isn’t that you need to dig it, but you have to protect it.

The price tag for an excavation might have scared some residents away; the Hansons spent about $100,000 just to put a roof over a dig that they financed on their own property – an extensive network of excavations and reconstructions including three kivas of different depths representing different eras. 

If a resident chooses to dig, they must do so under the supervision of an accredited archeologist, which can be (but is not always) associated with Crow Canyon, and must ultimately preserve the site. The law allows property owners to sell artifacts they find on their land, but the Ranch mandates that anything they find either stay on the property or be added to a professionally conserved collection.

The HOA incorporation document states, “The purpose of this activity [excavation] is to let the owner enjoy an item they wish to display but to ensure that no valuable artifact is sold to a collector, thereby creating a commercial market. Ethical research cannot allow a pot-hunting profit and still be an acceptable archaeological endeavor.”

Archie Hanson shows the excavated sites in his backyard.

Archie Hanson shows the excavated sites in his backyard.

An archeology student holds a spade next to a jade amulet she found in an excavation.

An archeology student holds a spade next to a jade amulet she found in an excavation.

A PLAYGROUND FOR POTHUNTERS…

Back at the Dillard site, a team of professional archeologists and field camp students sift through the dirt from a pit house. Every day, starting at 8:30 a.m., they check the depth measurements around their partial excavation of half the dwelling and scrape back the soil, centimeter by centimeter.

They watch for color changes, feel the effects of time as they slowly scrape away dust with their trowels and debate where one shallow layer of dust ends and the next begins. When a student digs out a rare pendant, the group excitedly gathers around and the instructors help her carefully chart it on the site map, bagging it to take to Crow Canyon for analysis. When they’re done, they’ll fill the dig back in and cover it over to protect it from weather and looters for the next generation of scientists.

The Hansons eschew this rather excruciating scientific process

They (the Crow Canyon archaeologists) take all the stuff to the [Anasazi] Heritage Center and no one sees it,” Mary complained. She and Archie have opted not to cover up the ruins and artifacts they unearthed on their own property. Instead, they delight in inviting people to “their” ruins to touch the stones, pick up bones and perhaps imagine what life was like on that spot 1,500 years ago.

As Archie said, “I’m all for the fun of it.” He loves to bring bus loads of kids in to run around the network of tunnels and rooms underneath the protective roof that he erected. On one wall, he has reassembled pot shards into more complete vessels – some more accurate than others

Archie Hanson has a collection of pots, reconstructed roughly from shards found in his excavations.

Archie Hanson has a collection of pots, reconstructed roughly from shards found in his excavations.

Sitting by the ruins at night with a little whiskey, said Archie, “Anyone can be an archeologist. You’re part of that history book the moment you bought the land. I’m in love with the romance.”

DESTRUCTIVE SCIENCE

For Dan Simplicio, a Zuni Indian who is Crow Canyon’s Cultural Specialist, there is no Indiana-Jones-style mystique to be found in the ground where his ancestors are buried.

Simplicio originally worked as an archeologist, fascinated by the history of the Southwest, but, he said, “I think I dug the last hole I ever wanted to about 20 years ago.” Now, his job at Crow Canyon is to interface between the scientists and native people.

I’m the only Pueblo person here for a 50 mile radius,” said Simplicio. (The Zunis are one of several Pueblo tribes thought to have evolved from the Ancestral Puebloans.) “Creating that advocacy here is a long term goal.” Simplicio was attracted to his job as a way to share his tribe’s beliefs, including the core idea that historical sites should never be disturbed.

Archeology, in itself, is the most destructive science there is,” he said,“It destroys sites.”

Researchers talk about preserving the past, but, said Simplicio, “Native people only know one thing: continuance. We are a culture that never wrote our language.”

An archeologist digs in the Dillard Site.

An archeologist digs in the Dillard Site.

On the other hand, archeology has confirmed some Zuni stories of their heritage. According to the oral record that’s been passed down through generations, the Ancestral Puebloan people originated in the Grand Canyon and then migrated “in all directions, looking for the center of the world,” Dan explained.

The story, told from generation to generation, is that they went far north, perhaps the North Pole and then went south back to Mesa Verde where they stayed for a time. Then, they were called to the south, to what is now Bandelier National Monument for training in the art of healing. From there, they went west, settling in groups along rivers until the Spanish came.

Some of this, pointed out Suzy Meyer, Crow Canyon’s Media Relations specialist, hasn’t been backed up by scientific findings. But archeologists have started filling in some pieces. John Walker, a field archeologist at Crow Canyon, has talked with Hopi elders who have seen their children’s interest in their history sparked through archeology.

Balancing cultural respect and the pursuit of science is a fine line to walk, though. Crow Canyon has approached the challenge by bringing together its Native American Advisory Group. Before opening new sites, archeologists consult with the group, sharing research goals and incorporating the group’s interests into the project.

Advisors would often rather see a site left undisturbed, but the collaboration at least allows researchers to understand how to be as respectful as possible.

Crow Canyon tries to go above and beyond the laws regulating archeology in other ways as well, including avoiding human remains. “I’ve been impressed at how anthropological our archeologists are,” said Deborah Gangloff, Crow Canyon’s president and CEO.

PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS VS. PRESERVATION

Crow Canyon researchers have worked to bring this methodology to Indian Camp Ranch by helping as consultants to strengthen The subdivision’s covenants for archeological preservation. But the scientists can only go so far. There are many protections in place for cultural artifacts on federal land, but private landowners in the U.S. are largely given leeway to be kings of their domain.  In a 2015 Slate Magazine article, Archie Hanson is quoted as saying, “Here they believe in property rights. You can dig up skulls and throw ’em over your shoulder.” This infuriated many neighbors – including much of the Crow Canyon staff.

Archie Hanson displays a human bone found in his excavations.

Archie Hanson displays a human bone found in his excavations.

Archie isn’t from around here, so he doesn’t understand the value of it to us,” said Simplicio.

We’re glorifying them in my book,” Archie counters. But he admits that that is merely his belief, saying, “I’m not going to change their religion.”

Simplicio wants to see significant protections extended to private lands, to end a long history of pot hunting and grave digging for profit, but also to halt less culturally sensitive excavations like the Hansons’. He sees Crow Canyon’s limited engagement with Indian Camp Ranch as a chance to help strengthen the standards of respect beyond the laws guiding private land across the Southwest, but still too weak from the perspective of his people.

We left that place there that’s been co-opted,” said Simplicio. “If it’s our past culture, they should consult with us, but we’re nowhere near that.”

It’s a conflict that author Craig Childs grappled with in his book Finders Keepers.

“It is difficult to know the right thing to do, or even imagine there is a steadfast right or wrong when it comes to antiquities,” Childs writes. “A benign act in one sense becomes a trespass in another. Most of us can agree you don’t French-kiss a skull. Yet, what do you do with scrabbling curiosity and a sealed hatch on the floor? To open it would break centuries of cultural stasis, damaging a sensitive site. Leaving it closed is like biting your tongue until it bleeds.”

A site marker at Indian Camp Ranch.

A site marker at Indian Camp Ranch.


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About the Author

Alec Jacobson

Alec Jacobson has worked as a photographer around the world and was recently selected as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Before moving to Telluride, he was the Editor in Chief of ArtsRiot.com, building the site from a blog into an online culture magazine. He graduated from Amherst College in 2012, where he studied Anthropology, French and Arabic.