Located in Battlement Mesa, the Kewclaw Archaeological Site contains the best-preserved Archaic period (5500 BCE–150 CE) structure in Colorado. Dating to at least 1095 BCE, the Kewclaw pithouse was built in a resource-rich area that would have allowed a nuclear family to use it as a base for hunting and gathering. The site was discovered during surveys performed prior to construction of the Battlement Mesa community, and it is now preserved in open space near the community’s golf course.
With a mild climate, year-round water from the Colorado River, and abundant local plants and animals, the area around Parachute and Battlement Mesa has been a favored spot for human settlement for thousands of years. Prehistoric people passed through the area from at least 5500 BCE through about 1700 CE, and European farmers and ranchers moved into the region in the 1880s.
As the Colony Oil Shale Project developed in the 1970s, the oil companies involved with the project began to plan a residential community across the Colorado River from Parachute to provide housing for employees. Located on a northwest-sloping terrace above the river, the community was named Battlement Mesa after the large, lava-capped mesas to the southeast.
As part of the planning process for Battlement Mesa, various surveys were carried out at the site of the proposed development. A 1974 reconnaissance survey identified several prehistoric and historic sites that could be affected by the construction of the community. In 1981 a follow-up survey designed to determine which sites were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places quickly discovered additional sites, bringing the total to eighteen prehistoric and nineteen historic sites in the development area. Four of these prehistoric sites, including the Kewclaw Site, were excavated in 1981–82, as the construction of Battlement Mesa began.
Description and Significance
Located on the second terrace above the Colorado River at an elevation of about 5,400 feet, the Kewclaw Site is an open campsite and pithouse that contains two dense concentrations of prehistoric artifacts. Initial findings at the site indicated that it could date back to the Late Archaic period, leading to a full excavation by archaeologists Carl Conner and Danni Langdon starting in November 1981.
The most important discovery at the site was a circular depression about fifteen feet in diameter and up to two feet deep, which was the floor of an Archaic pithouse. Eight small holes around the perimeter could have held the wooden poles that supported the pithouse’s roof and walls. Near the middle of the floor lay another depression that could have been either a storage pit or a hole for a central support pole. The floor also contained a hearth that was radiocarbon dated to 1260–923 BCE. Other hearths and artifacts at the site indicated that there were subsequent occupations around 903–431 BCE and during the Protohistoric or Historic periods (since 1540 CE).
The large amount of time and effort that went into building the pithouse implies that it would have been occupied year-round or at least reused seasonally. It probably housed a nuclear family who used it as a base for gathering nearby resources at a variety of elevations from the Colorado River up to the Battlements.