Earthwatch Adventures: Archeology in New Mexico’s Valles Caldera

Prairie dogs scurried around the entry station; mountain bluebirds, yellow-headed blackbirds and American kestrels perched on fences in the valley; the prairie was colorful with native grasses and wildflowers such as blue penstemon, harebells, gentian, sulphur indian paintbrush, golden aster, sky-blue aster, wild onion and may other forbs; elk bugled in the ponderosa pine, douglas fir and aspen forest domes; coyotes yelped on a nearby hill and later crossed the road near us; wild turkeys fed at the edge of the woods and as we rounded a corner in Grande Valles a herd of elk appeared with two bulls fighting for dominance! All of this was on our drives to and from our archeological site in Valles Caldera National Preserve in Northern New Mexico!

The EARTHWATCH expedition was ENCOUNTERING THE PREHISTORIC PEOPLE OF NEW MEXICO, in early September, and we were excavating test units in the obsidian rich sites at Obsidian Valley on the preserve. The international team of 16 Earthwatch volunteers from Singapore, the U.K and all around the U.S. was housed at the comfortable VCNP Science & Education Center in the scenic little town of Jemez Springs. The center’s cooks prepared hearty breakfasts and dinners and laid out lunch fixings to take to the field.

We had about an hour drive each day to and from the excavation site at about 9000 feet elevation, but it wasn’t at all boring! The scenery always was great and it was interesting to see different wildlife every day. There was a short hike from where we left the vehicles, since the last mile of the road was washed out due to recent forest fires followed by heavy rains. When we arrived at the site we split into teams to excavate pre-selected test units in 10 centimeter levels down to about 40 or 50 centimeters below datum. We screened all of the dirt for tiny chips, flakes, possible tools, pebbles, cobbles, etc. All of the obsidian and artifacts of any other material, such as chert, were bagged and labeled for later analysis in the lab.

We were investigating obsidian quarries and habitation sites in one of many quarry sites found all over the volcanic dome named Cerro del Medio. This is just one of many volcanic domes within the ancient caldera, which is about 25 kilometers in diameter, and it is considered to be the source for some of the best quality obsidian for stone tool making in the Southwest U.S. Stone tools and points from the area have been found all over the central and southwest of the country! The project is under the direction of Dr. Anastasia Steffen, Cultural Resources Coordinator for the preserve, assisted by archeologist Jamie Civitello and other full and part-time staff including archeologists, geologists and other disciplines. We were treated to excellent lectures about the history, geology and culture of the area as well as demonstrations of flintknapping and tool use.

I didn’t make any spectacular finds on this expedition, but the amount of obsidian that we excavated and the amount just lying around was spectacular enough! The excavation and screening was hard work but rewarding and people could take breaks as needed. At least three of us on the team were seniors and handled the elevation and the hiking very well, so I would highly recommend that those seniors who like archeology, spectacular scenery, wildlife and work in the great outdoors contact Earthwatch.org for information on next year’s teams!

About Warren Stortroen

Warren Stortoen found a passion and a purpose early in his retirement. He has traveled the world volunteering numerous times every year supporting the Earthwatch Institute. While the number is still growing, he's been on over 75 expeditions. Wanting to inspire others, he graciously shares his stories with our readers.

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