The remarkable but little known Mindeleff Cavates
Part 1: Archaeology and Heritage awareness month
This is the first in a four-part series celebrating Arizona’s Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month. Each part will feature a story one of the lesser-known but significant archaeological sites in the Verde Valley
CAMP VERDE - If you have lived in the Verde Valley for any length of time, you probably know about the caves on the far side of the Verde River from Beasley Flats.
And if you have ever snooped around in them or heard from others who have, you might know they were once the homes of an ancient culture that live along the river 600 or 700 years ago.
But what you might not know is that they have a name other than just the caves at Beasley Flats.
In 1890, a young architectural draftsman and surveyor working for the Bureau of Ethnology came to Arizona to help with the stabilization of Casa Grande ruin. But a year later funding dried up.
Rather than dawdling his time away waiting for Congress to act, the young man, his wife and possibly others set out to examine and inventory ruins he had recently read of in the Verde Valley.
His name was Cosmos Mindeleff, and the caves at Beasley Flats, which he so accurately surveyed and described on his 1891 trip up the Verde, are known to archaeologists as the Mindeleff Cavate Lodge Group.
Cavate is a term used to describe artificial cave-like rooms carved out of soft rock. There are numerous cavate sites in the American Southwest and several strewn along the Verde River and its tributaries, but few comparable in size and extent to the Mindeleff Cavates.
The largest collection of cavates in the Southwest is located in Frijoles Canyon at Bandolier National Monument, in New Mexico. Other large sites are found on the San Juan River and along the Rio Grande.
According to Mindeleff, there are numerous cavates along the Verde and its tributaries, most of which are in groups of two or three, although there are a few examples such as along Clear Creek, Oak Creek and Pine Creek, where they are clustered in larger numbers.
But the ones Mindeleff surveyed just south of “Verde” (he never called it Camp Verde, as the military was no longer there) contained nearly 100 caves and over 300 rooms.
The home of opportunists
All the cavates occur in two distinct layers of rock. Most of them are carved into an eight-foot layer Mindeleff described as “a soft, very friable, purple-gray sandstone” situated about 75 feet above the river, atop a layer of talus rock.
Mindeleff noted that the purple-green sandstone was so soft he could rub off the surface with his hand.
“Where the purple-gray sandstone ended, the cavates ended,” stated Mindeleff, in noting that their builders were opportunists.
Those cavates not built into the loosely cemented purple-gray sandstone were chipped into a similar soft layer about 30 to 40 feet higher on the cliff face.
Most places where cavates occur, they are either alone or play a subordinate role to a larger stone pueblo. Clear Creek ruin and Montezuma Castle are classic examples of large pueblo ruins with associated cavates nearby.
But with the Mindeleff cavates, where two pueblos are located on the ridge above, they are the dominant architectural feature at the site.
A second look
In 1992, exactly 100 years after Mindeleff first described the cavates, Susan Hall, an archaeology student at Northern Arizona University, chose the cavates as the subject of her master’s thesis.
She counted 98 cavates and 367 rooms. Rooms, it should be noted, included smaller niches Hall saw as storage areas, as opposed to living areas designed for human occupancy.
Each cave contains between one and 14 rooms. Almost all have a prominent “living room,” some as big as 300 square feet and nearly seven feet high at their center point. The deepest of the cavates is carved 47 feet into the cliff face.
Most of the cavates also have nooks and pockets carved into the walls. Both Mindeleff and Hall surmised that the nooks were for storage of some kind. None of the walls show signs of ever being plastered.
And unlike most cavate sites in the Southwest, few have walls built up around the entrance.
Both Mindeleff and Hall also noted the lack of artifacts on the site. Mindeleff noted only one cavate that contained artifacts.
In Cavate “D,” Mindeleff stated that he cleared some fallen debris off the floor and found fabric, sandals, grinding stones, shreds of a large bowl and olla, and the remains of an oven made from broken metates.
“I found them thoroughly, thoroughly emptied out,” says Hall. “Things were definitely in better shape when he arrived 100 years ago but its pretty clear that even then it had been picked clean.”
Unlike stone villages, cavates offered easy pickings for the early soldiers and settlers who scoured the valley. The main reason being that unlike pueblos that tended to fall in on themselves, the roofs of cavates remained in tact, as did the abandoned artifacts.
Nevertheless, using the detailed descriptions left by Mindeleff, Hall has concluded that over the last 100 years the site has deteriorated and many of the architectural features noted by Mindeleff have since been destroyed.
Who and when
Hall notes that Mindeleff’s work, done over an unspecified period of time is quite accurate and demonstrates his attention to detail.
“He was really good, as both a surveyor and as an observer. His drawings aren’t exactly to scale but they are close. In all I found very few mistakes,” says Hall. “When I first saw his work I said, ‘Wow, people should know about this.’”
Because of the lack of artifacts at the site, dating its occupancy has been a challenge. In the late 1970s Coconino National Forest archaeologist Peter Pilles dated the two pueblos on the ridge above from between 1300 and 1400.
Hall says that makes sense.
“This was a major village when it was occupied. Even if only half the cavates were occupied at one time there were probably around 150 people living here.
“And the only time we had that many people living together at a common site here in the Verde was in the latter years, the 1300s to early 1400s,” says Hall.
An old tale
Mindeleff never speculated on when the site that now carries his name was occupied. In his day the science of carbon-14 or tree ring dating didn’t exist. Any attempt to do so would have been pure speculation.
But he did leave us with a story he said was a commonly held belief among some of the residents he met living in the Verde Valley in the late 19th century.
“It may be of interest to state that there is a vague tradition extant among the modern settlers of the Verde region that the cavate lodges of that region were occupied within the last three generations.
“This tradition was derived from an old Walapai Indian whose grandfather was alive when the cavate lodges were occupied. It is impossible to follow the tradition to its source and its introduction is only a suggestion.”“Cosmos Mindeleff: A man before his time,” by Steve Ayers, VI and Bugle March 12, 2008
“Aboriginal Remains in the Verde Valley, Arizona” by Cosmos Mindeleff, published in the 13th Annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1891-1892
“An architectural analysis of Cavate Dwellings in the Verde Valley, Arizona” by Susan hall, 1992
Peter Pilles personal interview
Susan Hall personal interview
Peter Pilles, and J. Madson, archaeological survey cards on file with the Coconino National Forest