Open House 2015

2 May 2015 – Prehistory Day and Open House at the Blackwater Draw National Historic Landmark

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Join us for our part of New Mexico’s Cultural Heritage Month, May 2nd from 9:00 to 5:00.  This event is free and open to the public.  We are already expecting a large turnout and several exciting demonstrators are committed to this year’s event.  We plan to have displays of Ice-Age animal bones, artifacts of New Mexico, atlatl throwing, primitive fiber arts, flint knapping demonstrations, tours of the bone bed excavations, and more.  Look for more information on the blog in the months to come.

An Assessment of the Llano Estacado, and a Little About the Dangers of Prairie Travel

A hilly portion of the northern Llano Estacado.  37,500 square miles (97,000 km2) of short grass cold, semi-arid prairie scrub.

In his report to the Secretary of War, after making a survey of the Southern Plains in 1849, Captain Randolph B. Marcy described the lands of the Llano Estacado in less than enthusiastic light.  “Not a tree, shrub, or any other object, either animate or inanimate, relieved the monotony…” It is “the great Zahara (sic) of North America.”  Furthermore, it is “a land where no man, either savage or civilized, permanently abides,” and it “always has been, and must continue, uninhabited forever.”

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It’s a tough ride from Fort Smith to Santa Fe on the southern route.

Marcy was no greenhorn or soft skinned parade soldier.  In his 49 year career, he did much to aide American settlers heading west through his immensely popular book: The Prairie Traveler. A Hand-Book For Overland Expeditions, available online HERE.  It reminds us that most people heading west were blundering well outside their element and skillsets, and were likely to suffer and die by running off half-cocked across 3,000 miles of wilderness.  This book is a must-read for any scholar of the historic west. PTMarcy’s Prairie Traveler quickly became an indispensable guide to thousands of American overlanders in their arduous treks to California, Oregon, Utah, and other western destinations. It was a best-selling book for the remainder of the century. Andrew J. Birtle, author of U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, has described The Prairie Traveler as “perhaps the single most important work on the conduct of frontier expeditions published under the aegis of the War Department.”

Marcy provided the overland pioneer with advice on packing, choosing the best routes to California, wagon maintenance, and the selection and care of horses, which had life-or-death consequences. His advice covered food supplies, packing, and traveling: including the fording of rivers, tracking, and bivouacking on the Great Plains, finding and treating water, building a fire, and avoiding quicksand. His first-aid procedures included treating snakebites, and common injuries and risks to travelers. He also provided material “concerning the habits of Indians,” including Native American tracking and hunting techniques, smoke signals and sign language, and battle tactics.

This book was a best seller for half a century for seekers heading west on the Oregon trail, to the California gold mines, or following Brigham Young to the Great Salt Lake.  More to come on this fascinating place.

American circa 1875

American cavalry soldier ca. 1875.

Loss of Water

ENMU excavation on the South Bank probably in the late 1960s.

ENMU excavation on the South Bank probably in the late 1960s.

Once upon a time, there was almost too much ground water in the Blackwater Draw area to deal with in deep excavations. Center-pivot irrigation came into vogue in the region from 1967.

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Stories from the gravel mining era indicate that water was early on considered a hindrance here.  Over time, the mine operators learned to utilize the water and isolate or flood pits as necessary, floating part of the operation on a barge built for that purpose.  The water was consistent enough that the mine company kept the lakes stocked with fish, providing the employees and local people the rare chance to fish in Roosevelt county.

BWD 0716The archaeological crews, mostly students from Eastern New Mexico University, took advantage of the water for screening sediments and to cool-off in during the hot summer days on the Llano.  By 1974, the near-surface water was gone, never to recharge.  The long-term effects on deeply buried fauna is unclear.  Although the area has seen continuous drying-out over the past 8,500 years, shallow, subsurface water was readily available until the mid-20th Century.

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The Blackwater Draw National Landmark includes the disturbed gravel mine area in the center of the above photo, the center pivot field to the west, and the 1/2 Section to the south with the relatively undisturbed surface. Of course, the cultural and paleontological materials extend outwards in all directions from this arbitrary designation. Work has been done in all these areas over the past 80 years.

Casting Clovis Artifacts

A short while ago Dr. Francis Smiley from Northern Arizona University suggested making some new casts of the collections from the Clovis type-site.  We were able to meet in Albuquerque and borrow some lab space from generous colleagues at the NMMNH.

I chose about 18 artifacts generally representing our materials including points, knives, scrapers, gravers, and a fine-pointed piercer for the initial trial run.  Along with this, I intended to bring the Dickenson Cache but lack of organization (and coffee) caused me to forget the cache when leaving the collections facility.  Anyway, we still had some good stuff to work with and it was a pleasure to sit back and watch someone else labor away.

After photographing each artifact, a temporary number was assigned to each specimen and mold box.  The mold boxes are custom fit to each artifact in order to save on casting materials.

The artifacts are then placed in each box, suspended away from the edges with foam and pins.

Next, the two-part compound is measured out on the balance, mixed, and the timer set.

Round one begins with the mold material poured up to about the halfway point on the artifact.  Then we wait.

Round two removes the stabilizing foam at the top and the boxes are topped off.  Again we wait.

The boxes are removed and molds are labeled.  A razor knife opens the molds to reveal the original artifact.  Each is inspected for imperfections or air bubbles.

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Voila! A mold is created to share these fine artifacts with the world without fear of damaging the originals.  Thanks to Dr. “Kim” Smiley for starting us off on this new endeavor.  We hope to see you again soon for the next round.

Thesis for Download

Bennett, Stacey D.
2014    Blackwater Locality 1: Synthesis of South Bank Archaeology 1933-2013.  Unpublished Masters Thesis, Department of Anthropology and Applied Archaeology, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales.

The S.D. Bennett Thesis is now available for download HERE.