A Native American ruin northeast of Cortez is set to be placed in a conservation easement, ensuring its protection for years to come.
“This is a really important place,” said Susan Ryan, archaeologist with Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.
In the 1980s, the Haynie family discovered on their property and started excavating a massive network of kivas, great houses and pit houses, as well as other artifacts of Native American settlement.
Almost immediately, it became clear this ruin, now called the Haynie site, was a major settlement for a large number of people and held many unique qualities when compared with similar locations across the Four Corners.
Kellam Throgmorton, also an archaeologist with Crow Canyon, said the region was inhabited by Native Americans starting around 600 A.D., but the bulk of the building likely started in the 800s.
The Haynie site appears to be one of the most northern reaches of the greater Chaco society, which spanned an estimated 250-mile radius from the Ancestral Puebloan settlement located about 60 miles south of Farmington, which is now part of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“This is one of the most substantial villages,” Throgmorton said of the Haynie site.
The site is one of a number of densely populated villages around Cortez, the largest of which, of course, being Mesa Verde National Park, about 10 miles southeast and home to hundreds of cliff dwellings.
Ryan said, however, that Haynie and Mesa Verde represent different time periods, and don’t resemble each other. But, she said there is “cultural continuity” between the two settlements.
In more recent years, excavation and studies of the Haynie site have taken a more “conservation archaeology” approach, where teams use best practices to return the land to its previous condition, ensuring future research, Ryan said.
At Haynie, that means backfilling buried structures once a project is completed. Right now, a team of archaeologists is digging down into a structure on the property’s west end in hopes of better understanding the ancient culture.
“You’re really stepping into one world and into another,” Throgmorton said.
One of the main goals, Ryan said, is to understand how ancient people responded to migration and climate change.
It’s been widely believed that Chaco and its surrounding settlements, including Haynie, were abandoned in the late 1200s, but the reasons why have been a hot topic of debate over the years.
Many say drought forced people south, but Crow Canyon archaeologists have been uncovering evidence that migrations started decades before, possibly because of changes in social structure.
“There’s endless research here,” Ryan said.
In 2016, the Archaeological Society purchased the 3-acre Haynie site with the intent of permanent preservation.
Patrick Barker, executive director of La Plata Open Space Conservancy, said the Haynie site will soon be placed in a conservation easement.
A conservation easement essentially is an agreement with a property owner in which the owner agrees to limit development on the land for things such as the benefit of scenic quality and wildlife habitat.
While an agreement to limit development can devalue the property’s overall value, there’s a trade-off: A conservation easement includes tax incentives that make the agreement more attractive for long-term estate planning.
La Plata Open Space Conservancy holds 180 easements for a total of more than 20,800 acres in the region. And that doesn’t include properties the conservancy helps protect and then transfers to another agency.
At the Haynie site, things are a little different than a typical conservation easement, Barker said. The long-term goal is to remove existing modern structures on the site and eventually build an informational kiosk and walking paths.
Currently, the Haynie site is not open to the public.
Over the years, however, educational events have been hosted at Haynie, and the Native American community has been brought into the fold to help discover and understand what the site meant to the Ancestral Puebloans, Ryan said.
“If it wasn’t a pandemic year, we would have hundreds of students and adults out there working on data collection,” she said.