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New Mexico’s Earliest Architecture

By Edith Cherry and James See – October 15, 2021


NM Early Arch Map

Archaeologists describe New Mexico’s prehistory in three broad periods: 

Paleoindian (10,000 BC – 5,500 BC)

Archaic (5,500 BC – 600 AD)

Formative (500 AD – 1300 AD)

Sometime between 1 AD and 500 AD, early New Mexicans shifted from exclusively hunting-gathering, to a seasonal mix of hunting-gathering and agriculture. Different cultural characteristics developed in the different New Mexico environments, as evidenced by styles of projectile points and ceramics.

Structures During the Later Archaic Period

Simple structures that are the threshold of architecture were built near fields or hunting grounds. Archaeologists categorize these early structures into three types. Interestingly, some of these types are still built today in rural New Mexico for temporary purposes and shade structures.   


Type 3 Lean To

Above drawings based on descriptions in Kurota, Alexander, et al, 2020, “Research Update on Archaic and Mesilla Phase Occupations in the Tularosa Basin of South-Central New Mexico,“ in The Archaic in New Mexico, 2018 conference proceedings edited by Cherie K. Walth.

Gradually, agriculture became the major survival strategy. As New Mexicans became farmers, they began to build more permanent homes and villages: New Mexico’s first architecture and planning.  These changes occurred at different times across New Mexico, as ideas migrated and new techniques coped with varied climates and available building materials. Early structures are similar in basics forms but differ in details of construction in different environments. Many of the building skills learned in the Archaic period were useful as building became more complex and more permanent.

Pit Houses

Pit houses were carved into the ground and roofed with wooden members, brush, and mud. Being below ground helped mitigate temperature swings on the interior. Initially, pit houses had antechambers used as entries and storage areas as shown below.

PrintThis prototypical pit house would be found in the northwest part of the state and would be 3 feet to 4 feet below grade. It had wing walls to block breezes in that area’s cooler climate. In the southeastern part of the state, pit houses were shallower, had no wing walls, and only had deflectors for the fire pit. Certain details also varied:  some had plastered collars around the fire pit; some had storage pits in the floor, sometimes lined with stone slabs; some even had human burials within the house. Some had a small hole in the floor called a sipapu that symbolizes the point of emergence into this world.


Depending upon the locale, between about 400 AD and 800 AD, the prototype pit house changed; it actually became smaller. The antechamber disappeared and a ventilator shaft, sometimes lined with stone, replaced it as the source for fresh air. Above ground, free-standing storage units serving as granaries began to appear.

#8 NE Slab wall Color Small 2 copy

Adapted from 1981, Stuart and Gautier, Prehistoric New Mexico Background for Survey, Historic Preservation Bureau, Santa Fe, NM, p. xxx.

#9 Cribbed Roof with Text copy

In the northeast plains of the state, sometimes vertically stacked stone slabs, packed with earth, formed above-grade walls, rather than being buried somewhat.  These houses may have had cribbed roofs, covered with brush and mud.

Villages formed with many pit houses grouped together. The grading lines show that most of these pit houses are located on the rather flat crest of the hill. (The closer together the grading lines are, the steeper the slope.) Note that many entrances faced east, and some houses had two entries. Also note that later rectangular pueblo structures were built on top of the older pit houses. As realtors say today, “There are three important things about site selection:  location, location, and location.”

Pit House Site Plan

Adapted from 1981, Stuart and Gautier, Prehistoric New Mexico Background for Survey, Historic Preservation Bureau, Santa Fe, NM, p. 192.

Pit houses continued to be built into the 700s AD and even into the 1200s, often sited simultaneously with other above-ground structures as well as pueblo structures and ceremonial kivas (see Glossary). Many believe that pit houses were the genesis of kivas.


Jacal House with Text

Again, depending upon the local, between 500 AD and 900 AD, above-ground dwellings began to appear. These structures, called jacales, Spanish for small, wood frame structures, could begin with one room and expand as needs dictated and resources allowed.  They were generally rectangular, one to a few rooms deep, sometimes built in an arc or with a perpendicular portion, possibly because those shapes provide more lateral stability, which is very important for “stick-frame” structures.

Jacal Site Plan 3

Village of Jacal Structures at LA 9016. Drawing adapted from Chamberlin, Matthew A., 2011, “Plazas, Performance, and Symbolic Power in Ancestral Pueblo Religion.” In Religious Transformation in the Late Pre-Hispanic Pueblo World, edited by Donna M. Glowacki and Scott Van Keuren.  University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

The base of jacal walls was often lined with stone slabs or cobbles. These water-proof and rot-proof materials would help align the upright posts during construction, as well as protect against the deterioration at the base of the wall. As is true today, splashing rain is a problem for the base of adobe walls.  Gradually, more and more stone would be used on the walls of jacales as they evolved into pueblo structures.

These early building types provided the dwellings and building technologies that would eventually produce the remarkable pueblo structures of New Mexico.  Future NMAF Guide sites will illustrate some of the amazing works of pueblo architecture. One existing post, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, is an example.

Many thanks to Alexander Kurota of the University of New Mexico Office of Contract Archaeology for his substantial assistance with this post. 

Sketches by Edie Cherry

Learn More:

Pre-Architecture: https://www.crowcanyon.org/index.php/timelines/timeline-1

First jacal room blocks: https://www.crowcanyon.org/index.php/timelines/timeline-2

Animation of building of a kivahttps://www.crowcanyon.org/index.php/timelines/timeline-2







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