Lots of remarkable progress has been made using the field school students in and out of the South Bank Building. The bonebed has yielded a few surprises and given up more excellent paleontological specimens. More information to come, but here are a few photos to entice.
A tardy post.
Several weeks back I, along with David Kilby, was fortunate to be asked to come help with an excavation in central New Mexico. The project was the brainchild of Robert Dello-Russo from the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies. Since funding is always an issue with this type of research, this was very much a volunteer-based project, bringing in archaeological professionals and skilled avocationals from around the state.
The project area is west of Socorro, New Mexico between two mountain ranges. There is a surprising amount of energetic water that comes from the mountains to the west, moving enormous amounts of sediment, and sometimes very large cobbles and pebbles. This has created a sort of fan that covers the very old Paleoindian and paleontological deposits and is overlaid with several meters of fine silt.
Evidence of a much wetter environment abounds in the arroyo cuts where black mats are revealed in the profiles. The area has produced Paleoindian tools, projectiles, and bone in the previous two seasons of work.
With only a couple weeks to remove 3.5-4 meters of overburden, a heavy excavator and backhoe were required to uncover the site. This was done quickly and with remarkable precision as seen below.
Once the black mat was reached (or nearly so), mechanical excavation ceased and 1 x 1 meter hand units were begun.
A common problem with bison kills is proving that they are, in fact, kills. To do this, something has to point toward human intervention. Luckily this occurred, in the form of a projectile point, visible in the above photo near the left edge of the above excavation photo.
Above is a close-up field photo of the fine Eden Point it turned out to be. Fortunately, it even fits the expected dates for the strata where it was found.
I was glad to be part of this exciting investigation and hope to make it back to this remarkable site in the near future. More information can be found HERE http://www.nmarchaeology.org/water-canyon.html.
(Look for more photos to follow as my co-conspirators pass them on.)
Recent travels allowed for a quick visit to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Now in their one hundredth year of excavation, the site has yielded over 600 species to date with a NISP of over 3.5 million (not counting over 200 bacteria). It’s a remarkable place and I feel privileged to to have been given an excellent tour by Dr John Harris and Curator Gary Takeuchi. Tar still bubbles and oozes and excavations continue, thanks in part to continuing growth of this highly urbanized area.
Although most of the tar seeps are closed off for safety, a couple can be accessed with a guide. The surface is just as deceptive as it is described and is often covered with leaves and dirt. The tar can also be deceptively solid feeling until the incredible stickiness locks your feet to the tar. Dr Harris provided a great example by having us poke the tar with a wooden lath. Even though it is solid enough to resist the lath for more than a top inch or two, it is extremely difficult to pull it back out again and it’s easy to imagine a hooved animal becoming mired almost instantly to await it’s demise by large cat or wolf or even thirst.
For reasons that aren’t completely clear, there are an extremely high number of predators and scavengers in the mix, implying that many carnivores may be tempted by a struggling animal but the more cautious grazers were likely scared away by their thrashing comrades. The upshot of this is an enormous number of coyotes, wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, and American lions as well as the full gamut of vulture-like birds filling these pits and seeps. Below I am holding the humerus of a Smilodon fatalis, a prevalent creature at the Tar Pits.
Tusks grow like tree-rings and tell scientists a lot about the environment the creature lived in by proxy. A section of this particular specimen has been removed for analysis already.
For anyone interested in Ice Age fauna, the Page Museum is a definite “must see” stop on the journey through life.
The Clovis age hand-dug well located within the South Bank area of the Blackwater site got an unexpected visit from its original excavator this summer. Shirley East, pictured above standing in the well, was a regular face around the Blackwater site between 1962 and 1969. Shirley was a crew member for many of the excavations at the site and actively involved with the Paleo-Indian Institute of Eastern New Mexico University.
Shirley and her husband visited the museum and site in early August while in town for business. Shirley’s last visit to the site was in 1993 when she was summoned to help locate the long-backfilled well as part of a mapping project with ENMU and the Smithsonian Institute. Shirley located the well in no time happily stating, “well its just right there!”.
Shirley shared many stories from those early days and even offered to share her knowledge of those excavations of yesteryear. The Blackwater site was certainly honored to receive the visit, and I am personally thankful for her extended hand of help.
As an added bonus, I learned that Shirley was the artist who painted the Pleistocene animals on display at the Blackwater museum and worked diligently to prepare displays for its Grand Opening in 1969. The Blackwater Draw Museum was first opened to the public primarily to display artifacts discovered at the Blackwater Locality.
The Yuka Mammoth. A very interesting and important find from Siberia tells us some harsh facts about its demise. Investigators believe it was taken by a large predator, possibly a lion, then stolen away by humans. ”Even more interesting, there are hints that humans may have taken over the kill at an early stage.”
Tusk and tooth analysis indicate that the mammoth was about two and a half years old when it died. I haven’t seen an academic publication yet but hope to read more about it soon. The dates discussed are tentatively about 10,000 years old, placing the find near the end of our Paleoindian period. Healed wounds on the hide suggest that the young mammoth survived an earlier attack but fresh wounds were likely related to the cause of death. Later cuts on the hide and bones, with the subsequent removal of the skull, ribs, and pelvis are believed to be caused by humans. Hopefully, further investigations with clarify the human interaction.
Soft tissue preservation is rare and will add greatly to our general knowledge of this extinct species. Read the story here.
Below is a great link to learn more about Eurasian mammoths, brought to you by the BBC.
The climate studies class at Eastern New Mexico University has resumed, instructed by Dr. David Kilby, and funded through a grant from New Mexico NSF EPSCoR. The class spent the Fall 2011 semester collecting sediment samples from various locations in Eastern New Mexico, including various locations at Blackwater Locality #1. The Students are now analyzing the samples in ENMU’s new geoarchaeology lab.
The students are describing the samples using the Munsell hue test, a standardized way of describing the color of the sediments when they are dry, moist, and completely saturated. They are also testing the plasticity, carbon content, and calcium content of the sediments using various tests including the amount of effervescence after the application of acid (pictured above).
For more information click below:
Lots of activity at the site. Preparing to open for the season, giving guided tours to visitors, working on the analysis and re-writing our story. We also had some professional photography done recently and will add those images in the following days.
Too much data, not enough time. The story of archaeological research.
I began a mapping project of the bonebed excavations in our Interpretive Center about two-and-a-half years ago. It has been on hold more than it has been an active project. Because it is protected from the weather, it is relatively safe from the elements. However, bad things can happen to fragile deposits including attacks from insects, rodents, temperature swings, and vandals. After some relatively minor animal damage and one case of vandalism, finishing the photo-documentation and illustrated maps became a priority for me. Fortunately, we had virtually all the information necessary to repair the work that was so quickly undone during those incidents but I am still hoping for more. We have illustrations of every bone exposed in the excavation and have begun the photo-mosaic preliminary to making the information available electronically.
It is only a few thousand bones exposed so far but even that much data can become unmanageable in a hurry. As these bonebeds are kept relatively in situ for display, much of the analysis will proceed from the imaging, not the actual bones. Counts, such as NISP, and MNI have been made in the past but more elements are uncovered with every cleaning of the deposit. Also, these studies need to move forward to publication to add the available data of bison kills.
I don’t want to overlook or downplay the importance of excavation but often that part of archaeology is just the beginning. Archaeological sites are not just a collection of individual artifacts to be shaken out of the sediment, then housed in a museum or collection. They are complex conglomerations of clues about human behavior that need to be teased out of the ground like a long-forgotten crime scene.
This work takes time and money. Without these resources data will be lost just as it has been and always will be. In the current political and economic climate we can only trudge along and do what we can while trying to avoid the inevitable distractions of politics, unethical behavior, and lack of public support. Despite not having the resources to keep the Clovis site open daily throughout the year, we have almost daily visitors hoping to have a look at this mecca of American Prehistory and the site that tracks the history of American Archaeology.
Sometimes in archaeology things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes the past hides gems under our noses (or boots).
Last November, students working with ENMU faculty as a part of an NSF New Mexico EPSCoR grant gained experience in climate change research. The purpose of the study is to better understand the Pleistocene to Holocene transition, and to apply the results to modern climate changes. Students collected pollen, phytolith, diatom, ostracod, and stable carbon isotope samples from a variety of sites along the eastern border of New Mexico. One of the areas that was of interest lies a few hundred meters south of the main portion of Blackwater Locality #1 known as Locality X. This locality has been surveyed and excavated sporadically over the last few years, and is mainly composed of lithic debitage.The climate study group was attempting to relocate a unit that was dug during the ENMU 2010 Field Session, which can prove to be a daunting task, even with good notes and today’s technology. The students did locate the unit, but in the process disturbed an adjacent unexcavated unit. During the screening of the disturbed dirt, a small arrowhead surfaced and revealed more information about this locality.
Much of the early work in Locality X was limited to surface collection and limited coring. This southern portion of the site has yielded Paleoindian, Archaic, and Late prehistoric components including an anomalous metate fragment on the surface, arrow and dart points, and a graver. Although we tend to focus on and highlight the Paleoindian components of the Blackwater Draw site, we always keep in mind that the occupation ranges from Clovis-age deposits through Proto-Historic and even Historic Native American settlement. The arrow points found scattered on the southern landscape of the site probably indicate hunting that occurred around the outflow channel and dunes between the ancient lake bed and the draw.
“Climate Change in New Mexico” is a new class offered by Dr. Kilby at ENMU for undergraduate students to directly participate in the scientific study of the effects of long-term climate change by focusing on the Pleistocene-Holocene transition (about 12,000 years ago).
The class is attended by students from Anthropology, Geology, and Biology departments, who actively participate in collecting field samples, analyzing results, and reconstructing past environmental changes from the Ice Age to the present.
The Clovis site provides a stratigraphically ideal opportunity for students to learn the basics of collecting samples for radiocarbon and OSL dating, as well as sediment, pollen, phytolith, diatom, and stable isotope analysis.
The slideshow documents the class taking samples from the east profile of Isequilla’s Pit on the South Bank of the Clovis site.
This class is supported by an NSF New Mexico EPSCoR grant.