Discovering early life on the frontier
A reconstructed jar, one of the latest exciting finds by archaeologists investigating the evolution of Native American communities in New Mexico, is shedding light on life in the Cañada Alamosa canyon during the 13th century.
The utility jar, which has been reassembled from a pile of shards found with the help of volunteers from Earthwatch in June 2009, is the latest addition to a number of artifacts discovered in the canyon in south western New Mexico. The jar was found broken on the floor of a room on the 60-acre Victorio site - one of four archaeological sites in the canyon being investigated by archaeologists from the Cañada Alamosa Institute and Human Systems Research, Inc.
The 13th century was a period of great environmental and social change in the American Southwest. Populations already living in southern New Mexico were disturbed by emigrants from the cold north who built a fortified and terraced pueblo on a rocky outcrop upstream from the Victorio site.
Archaeologist Karl Laumbach, Associate Director of Research and Education at Human Systems Research Inc., explains the significance of the latest discovery: "The arrival of the northern migrants, perhaps much like the arrival of the Saxons in England, would have stressed the local population's ability to survive. A key point of our research has been to establish that both sites were at least partially contemporary. Radiocarbon dates from the two sites overlap around A.D. 1260. But until the 2009 Earthwatch season, we had not found ceramic types used by the migrants in context at the Victorio site, and only a few rooms contained evidence that might be interpreted as reflecting a hurried abandonment."
He continues: "But in the summer of 2009 we excavated two widely separated rooms that contained both painted and corrugated ceramics that were of the types used by the migrant population. One of those rooms also contained the reconstructed corrugated jar which was found broken on the floor. A conical fracture in the side of the vessel suggests that it was purposely broken."
Dr Laumbach and co-principal investigators Dr Steve Lekson and Dr Dennis O'Toole currently believe that once the newcomers arrived there was a brief attempt to co-exist, but things didn't work out and the locals left. As well as the reconstructed jar, it was discovered that the room contained several other broken vessels.
Dr Laumbach adds: "When people leave a site for a short time or to only move a short distance away, they come back and retrieve the usable artifacts. When leaving permanently and to a distant location, artifacts that cannot be carried are left and are sometimes intentionally and/or ritually broken. The purposely broken (and now reconstructed) jar found lying on the floor of Room Feature 18 is a mute reflection of the environmental and social turmoil that came to the Cañada Alamosa during the 13th century."
A strong element of the research has been to collect environmental information from both sites (the Victorio site and the Pinnacle Ruin - the defensively terraced migrant site) to contrast and compare the variety and availability of plant and animal resources through time.
Dr Laumbach says: "It is clear that the increased populations of the early 1200s quickly denuded the area of pinyon pine, leaving only juniper as a building material. Increased farming activity in the valley coupled with the use of riparian species for firewood reduced the protective layers of vegetation and made the valley bottom susceptible to erosion during the summer floods. The erosion, in turn, reduced the amount of arable land. Our studies have revealed that terraces used for fields and containing corn and squash pollen were truncated by the erosional effects of floods. Large animal species (e.g., deer and elk) were hunted down while the agricultural fields increased the numbers of rabbits, making them a primary, albeit inadequate, protein source."
Executive Vice-President of Earthwatch Nigel Winser says: "We've funded this archaeology project since 2001 as part of our commitment to supporting research into cultural heritage. During that time almost 200 Earthwatch volunteers have contributed to the study. By shedding light on the biological and cultural relationships of the past - in this case two ancient Pueblo cultures - there are important lessons to be learned for the present and future communities."
According to Dr Laumbach, the years of research indicate that Cañada Alamosa was occupied on and off by different puebloan groups from A.D. 600 to 1400.
Editor’s note: while this project is no longer accepting volunteers, you can join a wide range of our other archaeological and cultural projects in 2010.