Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex: A Virgin Anasazi Residential Community
Located in the lowland Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) region of southern Nevada, the Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex is a Virgin Anasazi Basketmaker II (300 B.C.–A.D. 400) and Basketmaker III (A.D. 400–800) residential community. The complex, which contains six recorded sites—Figurine Shelter, Black Dog Pit House, Black Dog Cave, Granary Cave, Orphan Butte Shelter, and Bird Track Cave—as well as seven activity loci, has been the subject of repeated investigation, both by amateur and professional archaeologists, since excavations were first carried out in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The most extensive archaeological investigations were conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Research, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That work included intensive archaeological survey of the mesa top and surrounding areas, archival research pertaining to the archaeological history of Black Dog Mesa, and excavation of several portions of the site complex. WSA, as part of its initial archaeological surveys for the UNEV pipeline, also documented the archaeological complex. The UNEV pipeline corridor was shifted after this work was completed so the archaeological sites could be avoided by pipeline construction.
The Virgin Anasazi
The Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex lies within the prehistoric Virgin Anasazi area. Of the six major branches of the Ancestral Puebloan cultural tradition—Virgin, Kayenta, Northern San Juan, Cíbola, Chaco, and Río Grande—the Virgin Anasazi are the westernmost, and perhaps the least understood. Originally referred to as the Nevada Branch Anasazi, the Virgin Anasazi inhabited a wide range of the southern and eastern Great Basin and northern Southwest, extending north to the Zion Park uplands, east towards the Kaiparowits Plateau in Utah, south to the Colorado River in Arizona, and west–southwest along the Muddy River in southern Nevada. Occupation spanned from the Basketmaker II period through the late Pueblo II (A.D. 900–1150)/early Pueblo III period (A.D. 1150–1225), although some settlements may have been occupied as late as A.D. 1300.
For archaeological analyses, the Virgin Anasazi region is typically subdivided into three environmentally distinct areas—the Plateaus, the St. George Basin, and the Lower Virgin area (where the Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex is located). These areas are all linked by the Virgin River extending across southern Utah and Nevada. Although the distinctions between these three areas are primarily based upon differences in the regional environments, the local environment has differentially influenced Virgin Anasazi cultural developments in each of the three subregions, and variation in terms of architecture, material culture (e.g., ceramic wares and types), chronology, and subsistence strategies are present in and further culturally define these subareas.
The Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex
The Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex, despite repeated excavations and disturbances over the years, retains excellent potential to provide information regarding a variety of important research topics pertaining to the Virgin Anasazi and the prehistoric occupation of southern Nevada, including chronology, settlement patterns, diet and subsistence, technology and exchange, social organization, and paleoenvironment and site formation processes.
The complex is situated atop Black Dog Mesa, in the upper Moapa Valley of southern Nevada, through which the Muddy River, a tributary of the Virgin River, flows. The area is part of the Arid Valleys and Canyonlands ecozone between the Mojave Desert and Great Basin subsections of the Basin and Range physiographic province, where creosote bush is the dominant vegetation. The Muddy River provides a perennial water source, and many smaller washes and creeks in the area also serve as perennial or seasonal water sources.
The distribution of Black Dog Mesa sites and their associated artifact assemblages indicate that early Anasazi cultural groups utilized the entire mesa top for habitation, ritual activities, quarrying, and production of stone tools, as well as for defense. The floodplain below the mesa top was also likely used for activities such as farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild plant resources.
Artifacts from the sites, including flaked stone, ceramics, ground stone, faunal bone and other items, indicate continued use from the Basketmaker II through Basketmaker III periods. The occupation periods have been determined using several dating methods, including relative dating of projectile point styles, ceramic cross-dating with the Kayenta Anasazi ceramic sequence, comparison of architectural styles with those in other regions of the Anasazi cultural tradition, and through radiocarbon analyses of organic and macrobotanical materials, including perishable materials/textiles and carbonized corn cobs.
The artifacts recovered from excavations at Black Dog Mesa were also particularly well preserved, likely because of the cool, dry environments of the caves/shelters. Items recovered include ceramics, flaked stone, and ground stone, often found at archaeological sites, but also present were animal bones and a variety of tools, ornaments, and gaming pieces made of animal bone, shell, and stone. Perishable materials such as sandals, baskets, woven textiles, cordage/twine, and animal hides were preserved in certain shelters.
Archaeological investigations at the Black Dog Archaeological Complex also revealed numerous well preserved features, including multiple pit houses, storage cists, and features for cooking. Pit houses often contained tools on the floors, and had plaster, generally white or red, remaining on the walls, benches, and/or floors. Storage cists, particularly those located in caves/rock shelters on the mesa top, still held the remains of maize, squash, and a variety of other wild plant remains.
Investigations Conducted by the UNEV Pipeline Project
As part of the archaeological survey for the UNEV pipeline, WSA archaeologists documented a portion of the Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex that was located in the UNEV survey corridor, as well as several potentially related sites and isolated occurrences. The vast majority of these additional sites consisted of low- to medium-density artifact scatters, primarily containing flaked stone representative of stone tool production.
Fortunately, the core of the archaeological complex lies outside the area to be impacted by construction of the UNEV pipeline, and as a result, direct effects to the Black Dog Mesa Archaeological Complex were avoided. The sites recorded in the complex by WSA had been previously disturbed by other development projects and required no further investigation. Thus, the highly significant core cluster of sites remains undisturbed. This complex is also important to the Moapa band of the Paiute who consider the mesa to be a traditional cultural property.
Complete references can be viewed in our Additional Information section.