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A Glimpse of the Dyck Excavation with Karen Armstrong

The Verde Valley Archaeology Center hosted a lecture with Karen Armstrong who participated in the first excavation of the Dyck Cliff Dwelling in 1962.

Armstrong’s talk, titled “My Tiny Part in the History of the Dyck Cliff Dwelling (and Adventures Before and After)” took place on Saturday, Feb. 17.

Armstrong attended Occidental College where she received a B.S. in Cultural Anthropology/Sociology and later received her M.A. in Anthropology from University of Illinois. Armstrong was studying biblical archaeology and volunteering at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles when the opportunity to participate in the dig arised.

In the 1950s Paul Dyck, artist, rancher, veteran and appreciator of Native American culture, became concerned that the cliff dwelling on his property was being damaged by campers and would be impacted by development in the area. Dyck met Dr. Charles Rozaire at the Southwest Museum during the preparation of one of Dyck’s exhibitions of paintings. Rozaire was working at the museum as the Assistant Curator and had a PhD in Anthropology from UCLA.

Dyck asked Rozaire if he would be interested in doing a professional excavation of the cliff dwelling on his property. Dyck agreed, intrigued at the prospect of digging a very well preserved dwelling and creating a complete record of every artifact.

The first dig was a 10 day operation that started on April 13, 1962.

“It was greatly limited in scope because of the lack of time available and the relatively small crew, which was made up primarily of Dr. Rozaire’s students in archaeology from San Fernando Valley State College,” said Armstrong in “A Verde Valley Dig,” a brief write up of the dig published in Masterkey in 1963. The dig continued to commence over a course of seven seasons up until 1972.

Armstrong detailed what the dwelling looked like from the exterior and interior. The cave itself is about 15 feet up from the creek with one carved out opening partially obscured by rock fall. There were wooden posts missing that Dyck suspects campers used as firewood.

The site has three main components: two alcoves next to each other and an enclosed cavern, the entrance of which was referred to as a kiva. Armstrong was assigned to the larger alcove which she referred to as the main room. The second alcove contains two rooms separated by a masonry wall. Seven storage cists were found throughout the dwelling.

Armstrong suspected that the cave was not a comfortable place to live in, noting the collapse of portions of the limestone ceiling, but that it provided shelter and was in close proximity to water.

She shared that the first day of the dig was a beautiful spring day with good weather. While on digs, she said she always wore a big, floppy hat and oversized men’s white dress shirts.

The first step was to remove duff and detritus from the site. The crew found lots of string, woven cloth, a yucca leaf sandal, crude black pottery, many other types of potsherds, corn, walnuts, mesquite beans, acorns and berries.

Armstrong questioned why the inhabitants of this dwelling left the fertile Verde Valley, as it had a steady supply of water and good farmland.


Armstrong said that Dr. Rozaire had the wisdom to keep the items found at the site together. Despite this, Rozaire didn’t have sufficient time to write the report as he was a curator at major museums. He estimated that the full report would take one or two years to complete but it fell to the wayside. Armstrong said that this often happens after digs.

The collection was stored at the Southwest Museum and eventually transferred back to Dyck who stored them in a shed by his studio. In 2014, Dyck’s son, John Dyck, donated the artifact collection to VVAC and a comprehensive report was started shortly after. The two volume report was published in 2020 after four years of work by Dr. Todd W. Bostwick, Ken Zoll and VVAC volunteers.

Armstrong shared that while thrifting, she came across the copy of Masterkey where her four page article on the dig was published, the only published report on the dig for many years. She emphasized the importance of having digs be reported on.

Armstrong continued to volunteer at different dig sites throughout her career. She volunteered at the National Geographic Society’s dig at the Calico Site for Louis Leakey who proposed he found evidence of early man there. At a conference in 1970 with many renowned archaeologists of the time, they concluded there was no evidence of early man. Armstrong believes that Leakey was ahead of his time and that the site remains to be rediscovered.

Armstrong went through ranger training at Grand Canyon National Park where she and her roommate trained with 48 men. They learned how to rappel, handle boats and perform first aid among many other things. She was dispatched to Mesa Verde National Park on her first assignment as a ranger.

Armstrong shared images of the “Rangerette” look, describing the transitional time in the NPS, especially for women. In her time as a ranger, women went from wearing pencil skirts to pants.

In 1970, Armstrong was the only female on Doug Schwartz’s excavating crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. They traversed to Sky Island, an isolated butte off of the canyon’s north rim.

In 1971 Armstrong left the NPS to become a mom and pursue other interests, yet she was always active in archaeological societies and taking classes.

“I have a terrible habit of volunteering,” said Armstrong. She volunteered putting artifacts in archival condition from Tijeras Pueblo onto a computer database. She found this work satisfying and decided not to pursue a PhD.

Since 2004, Armstrong has volunteered at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She and a crew of 12-15 people meet once a week and go through boxes of artifacts to catalog. She said they have finished 8,000 to 10,000 boxes of artifacts from various sites. The volunteer crew’s motto is “order from chaos,” which Armstrong said is just what they do.

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