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Paul Reed says Middle San Juan sites deserve more attention

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FARMINGTON — Compared to their two larger and better-known Ancestral Pueblo companion settlements, Salmon Ruins and Aztec Ruins National Monument often get overlooked by scholars and amateur archaeology enthusiasts alike.

Paul Reed wants to change that. The preservation archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest, a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that takes a holistic, conservation-based approach to exploring the places of the past, has helped edit a new book, "Aztec, Salmon, and the Middle San Juan as a Pueblo Heartland" that attempts to give the two sites their due.

Reed, who is based in Taos but lived in Farmington from 1988 to 2014, will deliver a presentation on that subject this weekend at Aztec Ruins National Monument. He said he will highlight some of the more interesting research from the book.

According to his bio, the New Mexico State University graduate has conducted field work and research in the Southwest for 30 years, and regularly leads tours to local significant archaeological sites. He said this area often gets interpreted archaeologically by its "giants" — Chaco Culture National Historic Site and Mesa Verde National Park — but he argues that his research has led him to conclude the smaller sites closer to Farmington deserve plenty of attention, as well.

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"When I started doing research here, it became apparent to me there was a really unique signature here," he said, referring to the innovation and creativity he saw in the architecture and ceramics of the Salmon and Aztec sites. Much of what went on at those locations was unique to the Middle San Juan region, he said.

By way of example, Reed cited the striking Mesa Verde Black-on-White pottery style that has spawned popular modern replicas coveted by many collectors. As is the case with most significant discoveries in the archaeological world, Reed said, the style is named for the site where it was discovered by scholars. But his research points to the fact that the style's home is the Salmon-Aztec area.

"These sites probably originated those pottery types," he said, explaining there is a growing consensus among archaeologists that the attachment of the Mesa Verde name to the Black-on-White style is a bit of a misnomer.

Another example is McElmo-style masonry, which derives its name from McElmo Canyon in southwest Colorado near Canyon of the Ancients. The style contrasts with the earlier Bonito Phase, which was characterized by the use of smaller stones in the construction of great houses. The McElmo masonry style relied on larger rocks and likely originated at the Aztec site, Reed said.

"People can considering this kind of nitpicking," he said. "But in archaeology, it's all about origins."

The McElmo style had at least definite advantage over its predecessor, he noted.

"It's probably a faster style of wall to put up," he said.

It was used to great effect in the construction of great houses, Reed said, noting the structures that rose three or four stories in some cases. While buildings like that may pale in comparison to the splendor of modern skyscrapers made of glass, steel and concrete, Reed marvels at the ability of Ancestral Pueblo people to construct buildings of such stature with such limited resources.

He also makes the point that the indigenous people of that era likely were motivated by the same things contemporary builders are.

"They were stamping their social impact on the landscape," he said. "They were saying, 'We're important people.'"

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The fact that many of their structures remain standing 1,000 years later validates that status, Reed said, and that feeling serves as a bridge to the modern era.

"Skyscrapers are the great houses of today," he said. "That connects us to the Chacoan people."

Reed's lecture will take place at 7 p.m. July 26 at the Visitor Center at Aztec Ruins National Monument, 725 Ruins Road in Aztec. Admission is free. Call 505-334-6174.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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