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NMSU students get first-hand experience at archaeological dig

An associate professor of anthropology and University Museum director at New Mexico State University recently led a six-week field school for anthropology students and enthusiasts in the Gila National Forest.


Group of people standing around a sign in a forest
The 2017 NMSU Archaeological Field School saw 15 NMSU undergraduates and graduate students excavate three sites in the Gila National Forest. (Courtesy photo)

Fumiyasu Arakawa in the College of Arts and Sciences is the principal investigator for the department’s field-school program, which is a collaborative effort between NMSU and the Gila National Forest Service.

“Students do a very traditional archaeological research that is excavation,” Arakawa said. “They dig about six to eight hours, then they have to process their discoveries.”

This processing includes washing the artifacts, then setting it out to dry. No preservative chemicals are applied to the discoveries because such chemicals might contaminate any evidence that could help archaeologists and anthropologists determine how old the discoveries are and how these objects were used.

“For undergraduate students, if they want to be archaeologists, they need at least one field-school experience,” Arakawa said.

In the 2017 field-school, there were 19 participants: 11 NMSU graduate students and four undergrads, and four experienced volunteers.

They conducted excavations at South Diamond Creek Pueblo and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest and visited Chaco Canyon. They camped out for five nights at Beaverhead Work Center, then returned to Las Cruces for two nights.

“The sites are known by archaeologists as part of the Mimbres culture,” Arakawa said. “These people inhabited these areas from probably 1,000 A.D. to about 1,130. A.D. The direct descendants of the group in this culture are still difficult to determine.”

The Mimbres people are unique in their architecture, which consists of river cobbles and adobe, as well as in their black-and-white pottery, Arakawa said.

Arakawa came to NMSU in 2011 and two years later, was contacted by the Gila Forest Service. He conducts the field school every other year.

William Walker, also a professor of anthropology at NMSU, hosts the field school in the years in between.

Arakawa said the collaboration has resulted in an excellent working relationship with the Gila National Forest and the USDA Forest Service in the larger picture. Arakawa said he hopes this collaboration will soon result in NMSU anthropology students getting jobs with either the Gila, the Forest Service, or other federal agencies.

“Attending the field school is a very good opportunity for our students,” Arakawa said. “These days it’s a rare opportunity. NMSU is one of the few schools running a field school. Some students, especially graduate students, can use this project as his or her thesis or internship report and get their degrees.”

Arakawa said the field school regularly discovers three major categories of artifacts: lithics (stone tools and their debris), animal remains, and pottery.

“In 2017 we found a lot of artifacts but probably the best one is a very small pottery vessel, a jar,” Arakawa said.

The jar was found by Vanessa Carrillo, a master’s student in anthropology at NMSU and a participant in the field school.

“It was the only complete vessel we found,” Carrillo said.

Finding an intact piece of pottery is unusual and wonderful when it happens, Carrillo said. Even more impressive is the fact the jar has a large crack in its lower half. Carrillo and Arakawa surmise the jar is still held together only thanks to the dirt that is packed inside.

Carrillo and Arakawa plan to remove the dirt inside of the jar, hopefully without it crumbling, and look for evidence—such as corn kernels—as to what purpose the jar served.

“This type of pottery is called Alma Plain ware,” Carrillo said. “It dates back to 250 A.D. to about 1,300 A.D..”

Carrillo found the jar in the South Diamond Creek Pueblo site, which Arakawa said has never been professionally excavated or researched by archaeologists before NMSU’s field school.

“There are so many sites there, but we don’t know anything about it,” he said. “So we take it step by step, excavating and surveying, and eventually understand much better how those Mimbres people lived.”

Carrillo said participating in a field school in the American Southwest is a great opportunity and is in fact important for future archaeologists and anthropologists because of the degree of preservation and distribution of artifacts.

“You don’t really appreciate that until you go out to sites that are not in the Southwest,” she said. “It’s not common to find an artifacts scatter on the surface.”

Carrillo said she’d like to work for the Forest Service’s Cultural Resource Management, to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources for the benefit of future generations.

Arakawa, who is also the director of the University Museum at Kent Hall, said the next step is to provide more thorough information about the field school’s finds.

“Now we catalogue and classify the artifacts,” he said.

The museum is seeking volunteers for this process.

“We don’t ask volunteers to have any archaeological background,” Arakawa said. “We pretty much teach them how to do it.”

To learn more about volunteering, contact the program’s Facebook page at: New Mexico State University Archaeology Field School.