Following Up on the South Bank

The South Bank of the Clovis site refers to an area at the southern end of the prehistoric pond around which lie a group of cultural sites spanning a time from the end of the last ice age until recent historic times.  This watering hole provided a marshy habitat for plants and animals and was the focus of human activity for the last 14,000 years.

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The South Bank area of the Clovis site. View to the southwest.

Professional research on the South Bank of the Clovis site has been going on since the mid-1930s.  In fact, this is the area of the Clovis site where it was discovered for the first time, beyond any legitimate doubt, that humans were hunting mammoths in North America.  Other than the spear points we now know as Clovis, major discoveries in the South Bank area include bone spear points embedded in mammoth, spokeshaves, gravers, Levallois blades, turtle shells, bone flakers, bone foreshafts, and a variety of knives and other cutting tools.

Although more work has been done in the South Bank area than any other portion of the site, only a tiny fraction of all the work in this area has been published to date.  A few of us are working hard to remedy this and I have dedicated my career to unraveling the mess of 80+ years of excavation, sampling, and recording of this site.

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Edgar Howard at the Clovis site, 1933.

What we’re up to now.  A building was placed over a small portion of the South Bank in the 1990s to preserve in situ some of the spectacular preserved specimens from this area.  As time permits, we are slowing removing the overburden in this area to reveal the palimpsest of bison kills, butchering, and other activities in this area.  A particularly good crew of excavators with faunal experience were willing to volunteer some of their time over the past couple weeks and huge progress is being made.

 

Here’s a gallery of random photographs from the excavations so far.

Thanks to those who are giving time to this project of mine.  Since, for me, archaeology isn’t worth doing without disseminating the information to the broader public I’ll update the blog as we continue to make progress.  Unfortunately, day-to-day operations of the Landmark and the university take precedent over the fun stuff like this so it will be back to the grindstone before too long.

Field School Update

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.

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An Excursion to Water Canyon

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.

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A feeder arroyo in water canyon looking west.

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.

The Black Mat visible in the arroyo.

The Black Mat as visible in the arroyo.

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.

How to move 500 cu m of dirt in 3 days

How to move 500 cu m of dirt in 3 days (Chris Merriman (L) and Ethan Ortega (R)).

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Overburden removed to expose the Black Mat and associated bonebed.

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.

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Excavation units begin to expose the bonebed.

Once the black mat was reached (or nearly so), mechanical excavation ceased and 1 x 1 meter hand units were begun.

Stacey Bennett and Chris Merriman starting to uncover the bison innominate in Unit 5-1.

Stacey Bennett and Chris Merriman starting to uncover the bison innominate in Unit 5-1.

DSC_0453Bone was soon reached in the later Paleoindian level and intensive mapping began.

DSC_0456DSC_0458DSC_0461DSC_0467DSC_0474DSC_0478Old bonebeds are notoriously slow and difficult to excavate but remarkable progress was made over the short two-week window.

DSC_0504A 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.

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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.

DSC_0515I 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.)

Rancho La Brea Photo Album

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Wandering scholars discover the Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits.

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.

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Chuck and George with Dr John Harris and Gary Takeuchi

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.

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You just gotta poke it with a stick…

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.

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Examining a freshly excavated smilodon humerus (upper arm of saber-toothed cat).

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Examining the mounted saber-toothed cats.

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And of course, a mammoth.

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A couple of mastodon.

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Just a glimpse of the over 3.5 million specimens housed at the Page.

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We had a wonderful tour of the “fish-bowl” lab by Shelly Cox.  Here we examine the newly cleaned mammoth tusk.

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.

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Cranium of a very familiar looking mammoth. Although not found inundated in tar, there is still enough in the sediment that it is oozing from the cleaned skull.

For anyone interested in Ice Age fauna, the Page Museum is a definite “must see” stop on the journey through life.

Pagemammoth

Click the mammoth to see more from the Page Museum at http://www.tarpits.org.

Clovis Well receives a surprise visit

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.

Mammoth Butchered By Lions Then Seized By Humans

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.

Climate Studies at ENMU – Week 2 Update

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:

Climate Studies at Eastern New Mexico University

Recent Activity at the Clovis Site

Photo courtesy of Tandy Bozeman.

Photo courtesy of Tandy Bozeman.

Photo courtesy of Tandy Bozeman.

Photo courtesy of Tandy Bozeman.

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.

Where Does the Time Go?

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.

A processing area of heads and scapulae on the west edge of the paleo-arroyo.

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.

Bison bones, while intact and in situ, have undergone serious post depositional damage from burrowing rodents, most likely prairie dogs.

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.

A portion of the lower South Bank bonebed. Unlike the later, Archaic deposits, this bonebed indicates some post depositional movement of the deposits by water passing down the outflow channel.

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.