Fire deer lodg­ing, this exit

Wel­come to Santa Fe, 2920 B.C.

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Paul Wei­de­man

It looks like a bunch of rocks out in the mid­dle of nowhere. But the vaguely cir­cu­lar clut­ter of stones near Caja del Río Road is ac­tu­ally a nearly 5,000-year-old camp­site. Mi­gra­tory hun­ters came to this place, just a half-hour’s walk from the Santa Fe River, be­cause it of­fered long views of the land­scape stretch­ing to the canyon of the Río Grande and the Je­mez Moun­tains be­yond, and prob­a­bly sight­ings of deer and an­te­lope. There is still ev­i­dence at this an­cient camp­ground that the hun­ters cooked and made stone tools, such as pro­jec­tile points, and that they came here again and again— pos­si­bly over mil­len­nia.

This area has re­ceived the fo­cused at­ten­tion of Mu­seum of New Mex­ico ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­cause it’s at the edge of the Cen­ter for New Mex­ico Ar­chae­ol­ogy (CNMA) build­ing project. Here, in 2006, Santa Fe-based ar­chae­ol­o­gists came upon two ma­jor lithic scat­ters, each one 10 or 20 feet across, with hun­dreds of pieces of ob­sid­ian, basalt, and chert. At th­ese places, mi­gra­tory peo­ple once made tools from rock.

“Some­times peo­ple make pro­jec­tile points, which is a for­mal tool, which was planned,” said ar­chae­ol­o­gist Jes­sica Bad­ner, who led ex­ca­va­tion work at the CNMA site. “There are also in­for­mal tools that can be used for a va­ri­ety of things— like scrap­ing hides— that can just be a good, us­able flake. It might just be some­body tak­ing a whack at a core, maybe some­thing from the Santa Fe River that was found by hit­ting with an­other rock.”

This process is called “core re­duc­tion” in ar­chae­ol­ogy lingo. Pic­ture a hunter walk­ing down the Santa Fe River, looking at rocks that have washed down out of the moun­tains. He has long ex­pe­ri­ence at spot­ting a good can­di­date and hit­ting it with an­other rock to see the type of stone in­side the dull out­side layer. When he finds a good chunk, he might crack it again and again, putting the best parts in a pouch.

In the 1980s and 1990s, ev­i­dence of core re­duc­tion was dis­cov­ered at Mid­dle Ar­chaic Pe­riod (about 5500 B.C. to 1800 B.C.) sites in ex­ca­va­tions led by Stephen Post, deputy di­rec­tor of the state’s Of­fice of Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Stud­ies (OAS). Those digs were man­dated in ad­vance of construction of the Las Cam­panas sub­di­vi­sion and the Santa Fe Re­lief Route (N.M. 599). Post’s crew found ev­i­dence of stor­age pits— which means that peo­ple also lived at those sites, at least for short pe­ri­ods— and of pri­mary core re­duc­tion.

“That was peo­ple culling lo­cal ma­te­rial like madera chert,” Bad­ner said. “But at the CNMA site, we have secondary core re­duc­tion, which is late-stage tool man­u­fac­ture, mak­ing or sharp­en­ing tools from ob­sid­ian and basalt that they have brought to the site from else­where.”

Knowl­edge gleaned from other digs, such as those as­so­ci­ated with the construction of Las Cam­panas and the Re­lief Route, led the ar­chae­ol­o­gists at the CNMA site to be­lieve there might be valu­able ar­ti­facts be­low the sur­face in the area of the two lithic scat­ters. Bad­ner and her crew then painstak­ingly ex­ca­vated eight test pits, each one about 40 inches square and 10 inches deep.

“There were two things that de­ter­mined that we needed to ex­ca­vate,” Bad­ner said. “First, we had a large scat­ter, with con­cen­tra­tions of more than a hun­dred lithic ar­ti­facts on the sur­face. And with a large num­ber of ar­ti­facts, there’s a bet­ter chance you’ll have a pro­jec­tile point that you can date.”

Com­plete ar­row and spear points can be dated by the way they were made — or what ar­chae­ol­o­gists call “chip­stone tech­nol­ogy.” How­ever, the points found at the CNMA site were just frag­ments. One ap­pears to be of a type used more re­cently than the Mid­dle Ar­chaic Pe­riod. Oth­ers are prob­a­bly too frag­men­tary to date at all.

The sec­ond rea­son for do­ing the ex­ca­va­tions was that pre­lim­i­nary in­spec­tions re­vealed cobbles and fire-cracked rock in five “ther­mal fea­tures,” or an­cient hearths. “This is prob­a­bly what we call a lo­gis­ti­cal site, used for short-term stays,” Bad­ner said. “We have a C-14 [ra­dio­car­bon-test­ing] date of 2920 B.C. from a ther­mal fea­ture that had lit­er­ally one piece of car­bon the size of my pinkie fin­ger­nail.

“We don’t think this was a habi­ta­tion site, be­cause of the ar­ti­facts we found and be­cause it’s a high place with a lot of wind. In the Mid­dle Ar­chaic Pe­riod, peo­ple were typ­i­cally hunter­gath­er­ers. They’re build­ing re­ally ephemeral, shal­low pit struc­tures, not big kiva struc­tures like the Pue­blo peo­ple.”

But it is pos­si­ble that the CNMA site, be­cause of its game-sight­ing vis­tas, may also have been vis­ited by peo­ple in the Late Ar­chaic and An­ces­tral Pue­blo pe­ri­ods. “We think of th­ese as lo­gis­ti­cal camp­sites, with bands of peo­ple liv­ing closer to the river bot­toms [such as at Pindi Pue­blo, near the vil­lage of Agua Fría] com­ing out here, just a few miles away, for game. We po­ten­tially have Pue­blo move­ment over the site,” she said.

Bad­ner found about 50 pieces of bone at the site, which strength­ens the case that hun­ters used it as a look­out. It will be a chal­lenge for Nancy Akins, di­rec­tor of the OAS fau­nal lab, to type the tiny pieces of bone, but if they’re from pronghorn an­te­lope or deer, it won’t be a sur­prise. In a phone call, Akins said those an­i­mals roamed the area in Ar­chaic times.

What’s next for Bad­ner? “More in­ter­pre­ta­tion work,” she said. “We want to cor­rob­o­rate that 2920 B.C. date; you never just want one date.” To­ward that end, the ar­chae­ol­o­gists will send sam­ples of fire-cracked rock and the sur­round­ing soil to a Cal­i­for­nia lab for ther­mo­lu­mi­nes­cence test­ing. This mea­sures the amount of en­vi­ron­men­tal ra­di­a­tion the rock has ab­sorbed since be­ing heated to a high tem­per­a­ture in a fire and aids in de­ter­min­ing its age.

Also, since the CNMA site held so much ob­sid­ian, Bad­ner said OAS may want to have X-ray flu­o­res­cence tests per­formed to see if some of the glassy rock came from the Je­mez Moun­tains. That in­for­ma­tion would be use­ful in un­der­stand­ing Ar­chaic Pe­riod mi­gra­tion routes.

What­ever else is dis­cov­ered, it was a pretty big deal get­ting that 2920 B.C. date. “Be­sides that one lit­tle, tiny piece of char­coal, there was no char­coal or ash at all in any of th­ese hearths,” Bad­ner said. “This site is on a ridge, and it’s all been to­tally scoured and blown away.”

Left, hearth site near present-day Caja del Rio Road where a tiny piece of char­coal was car­bon-dated to 2920 BC.; photo by Jes­sica Bad­ner

Kells & Craig Ar­chi­tec­tural ren­der­ing of ar­ti­fact repos­i­to­ries at the Cen­ter for New Mex­ico Ar­chae­ol­ogy

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