The Falls Creek rock shelters are the most important archaeological discovery in the Durango area. Along with nearby Talus Village, they are type-sites for the Eastern Basketmaker II period (400 BCE–400 CE) of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) tradition, a subdivision of the Formative period that saw an increased reliance on maize and maize farming. Basketmaker II houses were first identified at the rock shelters, and the human remains recovered from the North Shelter are among the best-preserved prehistoric remains ever found in the United States.
Surviving graffiti shows that many people have visited the Falls Creek rock shelters in historical times, but the shelters were first excavated in August 1937 by the amateur archaeologists Helen Sloan Daniels and I. F. “Zeke” Flora. As head of the National Youth Administration’s Durango Public Library Museum Project from 1936 to 1940, Daniels directed many archaeological excavations in and around Durango. She reported her discovery of the rock shelters to Flora, who dug around the shelters, found a burial crevice, and removed many human remains and other artifacts. Soon Flora wrote the Southwestern archaeologist Earl H. Morris to describe the shelters. Morris suspected that the shelters contained Basketmaker II materials and came to Durango in 1938 to conduct excavations.
The site includes two shelters, the North Shelter and the South Shelter, at the base of a large sandstone cliff. The shelters were occupied at least from 700 BCE to 600 CE (possibly from 1100 BCE to 800 CE), with the heaviest use around 50 CE. The North Shelter is about seventy-six meters long and eleven meters deep, with a ceiling ten meters above the floor. It is in good condition and has not experienced much vandalism. The rock walls feature rock art in a variety of colors and forms, depicting animals, humans, and geometric designs. Different areas were used for dwelling, storage, trash, and burial. A burial crevice contained evidence of at least twenty-one burials, including two nearly complete naturally mummified bodies of a young woman and a teenage boy.
The South Shelter lies about seventy-five meters south of the North Shelter. It is roughly sixty meters long and twenty-eight meters deep, with a ceiling eleven to thirteen meters above the floor. Its walls have some pictographs, but not nearly as many as the North Shelter.
The shelters were the first Basketmaker II site found in the upper San Juan River watershed. The discoveries helped archaeologists develop a more precise periodization for Basketmaker II peoples. The shelters also provided important clues about Basketmaker II culture. At the time Morris conducted his excavations, many people believed the Basketmakers had never established permanent houses, but the discovery of the rock shelters proved otherwise. The shelters helped define house types and other domestic features for the Basketmaker II period. In addition, Morris found more bone and stone tools at the shelters than had been recovered in all previous excavations of early Basketmaker sites.
In addition to the Basketmaker II remains, the shelters contain some evidence of Basketmaker III occupation from the 500s CE (North) and 600s–700s CE (South).
In 1954 Morris and Robert F. Burgh published a detailed study of the Falls Creek rock shelters and Talus Village. After their work, little additional research was performed at the Falls Creek site until interest in the area experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985 the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1988 the San Juan National Forest designated it as the Falls Creek Archaeological Special Interest Area to help preserve its resources. The site has now been closed to the public to protect it from vandalism.
From 1996 to 1998, the San Juan National Forest and the State Historical Fund sponsored the Basketmaker Images Project, which surveyed the site and documented its rock art. In 2008 the San Juan National Forest and the State Historic Fund provided grants for another project involving the Falls Creek site. Carried out from 2009 to 2011 by the Mountain Studies Institute and the Hopi Tribe, the Falls Creek Basketmaker II Reanalysis Project involved a comprehensive reassessment of the Basketmaker II culture using artifacts and evidence from the Falls Creek site. As part of the project, in 2009 all Falls Creek remains and artifacts that had been curated at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the Henderson Museum at the University of Colorado–Boulder, and Mesa Verde National Park were repatriated to the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.