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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Field School 2013

We’re up and running, and therefore have little time to attend to the blog or emails.

I’ll try to post some photos as time permits but here’s a few for now…

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With the relatively large number of students and volunteers we have undertaken two separate, but related projects.  Some are fortunate enough to work in the shade much of the time as seen above.DSC_0564

The majority of the crew are back in Isequilla’s pit that we re-opened in 2009, working on the northeast profile.DSC_0574

The Southbank bonebed excavation is being expanded by about six square meters.  Some are finding that the bonebed is a difficult, and confining space, but it has it’s rewards.DSC_0578

At lunch there almost always an opportunity to pick up a spear thrower, and get in touch with our prehistoric hunter ancestors.DSC_0579

After a year of sandstorms, some of the deepest excavations need to be shoveled out.DSC_0582

Luckily, there’s enough bone, lithics, and interesting sediment changes to keep us all interested and busy most of the time.

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.

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

Geologic Work at the Mitchell Locality

The Mitchell Locality is a large portion of the Clovis Site (LA3324) lying along the northwest margin of the prehistoric pond and extending into the slight upland rise to the west.  Over the last few years, we have been fortunate to extend our researches in this direction primarily through geologic coring.  The best available overview of the Mitchell Locality is Anthony Boldurian’s summary in Plains Anthropologist 1990.  The area is primarily known for the extensive Folsom-age materials found there but has a smattering of older and younger artifacts scattered throughout.

Primary localities within the Clovis site.

Vance Holliday and Shane Miller coring the south bank.

There was an intent to core more in this area but the soft sand created problems for both the machine and vehicle access.  Devising Plan B for the autumn.

Coring in the paleo arroyo of the Mitchell Locality.

Up on the Mitchell Locality, the sparse cover wheat allowed clear view of the surface with many small flakes visible.

C. Vance Haynes overlooking the mine pit.

We were fortunate that the great wealth of geoarchaeological knowledge of the southern high plains was present in the form of Haynes and Holliday.

Core sample laid out for recording.

The fine sand overburden varies throughout the site and can be over 4 meters deep.  In this area, it is only about 40 centimeters outside the arroyo.

Dr Holliday working at the rig.

Examining the sediments.

I’ll keep posting as we learn more.

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.

A Surprise Find

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 Study at the Clovis site

“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.

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This class is supported by an NSF New Mexico EPSCoR grant.

Dust Storm

We are in the new Dust Bowl.  There have been more than a few dust-filled days this year but the Haboob yesterday was pretty phenomenal.  Luckily, Ward Beers, an employee at the site got some photos from Portales.

The temperature plummeted and it was virtually impossible to see outside.  The wind seemed to come from several directions at once.  Between the open plowed land and fires, there is little to hold down the sediments.

Here is a good video shot from across the Texas border of the storm approaching:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O38dvxJoohI