Fire deer lodging, this exit
Welcome to Santa Fe, 2920 B.C.
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