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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Students learn essence of archaeology, anthropology

"There was a burial in this room," says New Mexico State University anthropology graduate student Gaea McGahee, pointing with her trowel around the walls of a four-yard-square, box-shaped hole on a hill near Deer Creek on the Gray Ranch in southwest New Mexico.

Christina Chavez, a student in New Mexico State's archaeology field school (left) and New Mexico State anthropology graduate student Gaea McGahee examine part of an excavated room at a 700-year-old pueblo site in southwest New Mexico called "Joyce Well."

"And here is an ash lens," she adds, pointing the trowel again at a pale arc of gray color at the bottom of one wall that a layman's eye would have skipped as just more, barely contrasting, dirt. "It was an old hearth. We've been clearing debris in these rooms to find the floors. We'd like to dig beneath the floors to an area that has never been excavated."

"We" means, among others, four New Mexico State undergraduate anthropology students - Ben Foerstner, Lindsay Poitevint, Lillian Ponce and Christina Chavez -- who are scattered around the hilltop on their hands and knees carefully scraping the dirt with trowels, then sweeping it with paint brushes to find the slightly darker, harder, dirt that indicates more buried walls and more rooms.

It is about 95 degrees and the five, participants in New Mexico State's third annual archaeology field school at these 700-year-old pueblo ruins, are hot, tired and covered in the red dirt they've been moving for hours.

The excavation, and the field school, are part of the La Frontera Archaeological Program, a four-year project supported by the Animas Foundation, which owns the Gray Ranch, and a $116,500 grant from the National Science Foundation. Begun in 1999 by New Mexico State University assistant professor of anthropology William Walker and Illinois State University associate professor of anthropology James Skibo, La Frontera's goal is to excavate, map and analyze this site, placing it in the context of larger cultural patterns in the desert Southwest.

From the beginning students have been the labor pool -- skilled and unskilled -- for the project, just as they are for similar projects around the world. Students working under Walker's and Skibo's direction in 1999 excavated a Mesoamerican-style ball court similar to one found at a larger site near Casas Grandes, Mexico. In 2000, they found a large room with a central pillar characteristic of the Casas Grandes culture. In all three years they've found pieces of pottery characteristic of that culture, linking this site, once a small farming community of about 250 people, to the larger culture that once covered part of northern Mexico, southern New Mexico and a sliver of West Texas, Walker said.

Twelve students attended the field school this year, Walker said. The school's session lasts six weeks. Students rise at dawn five days a week, work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a break for lunch, live in tents, eat in a camp kitchen and bathe in makeshift showers where the plumbing is a rubber tube attached to a plastic bag left lying in the sun all day to warm the water.

"You have to laugh at the idea that you're paying them for the privilege of doing this," said Foerstner while he and his teammates took a break under a mesquite tree.

To the casual observer it seems obvious that many of the students' activities have to do with dirt: digging dirt, moving dirt in wheelbarrows, troweling dirt, then sweeping dirt into little piles.

There is a lot of dirt moving, Ponce admitted, but the drudgery of the job can be overemphasized.

"It looks like it's hard, but it really isn't. There is digging and shoveling, but the actual scraping and sweeping is not very hard at all," she said.

"Once you find something you look back and say, 'Oh, it's really not that bad," said Poitevint, who found a hearth in one of the rooms she excavated earlier that morning.

In the evenings, the students hear lectures on aspects of archaeology or anthropology, said Walker, who directs the school as well as the excavation. They learn to use surveying tools, keep journals on their work and complete readings in archaeology, anthropology and ethnology. In addition to those digging, another team of students goes out each morning with anthropology graduate student Jeff Hokanson to scout the Deer Creek water shed, learning to look at the land for signs of other prehistoric sites, Walker said.

Each student is also completing a personal project. Some are making cord from yucca or agave fiber, while others are learning to find and cook edible plants in the area, he said. All the activities are intended to contribute to a broad understanding of archaeology, he added.

"What we want to do is teach them all the steps of archaeology, from the basics of how to excavate and find archaeological evidence, then to interpret what that means in terms of what happened at this place, and, finally, to be able to take all the activity from the past that they've identified and recognize how it reflects the organization of a past society and the significance of that kind of organization to the larger history of human societies in general," he said.

McGahee, who attended the field school as a student and now works as a team leader, said daily life in the field also teaches the students how to think about a site.

"You're in the Southwest, so you're learning this area," she said. "Then, you kind of wonder how people survived here. They built these rooms, what did they do in them? So, in the experimental activities, you go about the landscape collecting things that you wouldn't have realized you could eat. For example, we know agave was roasted in pits and so we prepared agave last night and tried some. It makes more of a complete picture for a student. You're not just digging and getting really hot. You realize why you're digging and what you're digging. You associate this structure and this room with people living here and going about daily activities."