News Story Archive

Archaeology in the Land of the Dead

Technical Writer/Editor
Published July 1, 2012
SPA Archaeologist Jeremy Decker records a piece of fire-cracked rock, one of a series of artifacts showing where prehistoric people built a hearth.

SPA Archaeologist Jeremy Decker records a piece of fire-cracked rock, one of a series of artifacts showing where prehistoric people built a hearth.

Jornada del Muerto – Journey of the Dead - for more than two centuries, Spanish colonists traveling between Mexico City and the Spanish colonial outpost at Santa Fe had to cross this desolate, waterless valley in south-central New Mexico. The Jornada’s flat surface hides hidden sand dunes whose roots lie along the surface of an ancient dune field. Cement-like surfaces could give way to 4 feet of sand in the space of a single step, bogging down oxen and cartwheel alike, requiring time and energy to free both. Carrying all the water for both humans and livestock, travelers were keenly aware that any delay during the 90-mile crossing could cost both lives and profits.

From the northern end, the Jornada is deceptive: driving south from New Mexico State Highway 380, the treeless land slopes gently southward towards a low spot that ought to hold water, but doesn’t. There is only an alkali flat, a ghost of waters past to remind the visitor of how it used to be.

And it used to be good here. Fifteen to twenty thousand years ago, when humans first entered North America, a broad, shallow lake filled the lowest part of the valley— a crescent of blue encircled by verdant marshes. Permanent streams delivered never-ending freshwater from the surrounding mountains; mammoth, yesterday’s camel, ground sloth, horse and other now-extinct animals wallowed in the mud and rested in the shade of trees that covered the valley floor.

But the climate warmed strongly after 13,000 years ago, and the jet stream shifted northward, taking with it much of the rainfall that had kept the land green and the lakes full. Annual temperatures rose some 6-8°F. Trees that could no longer tolerate the valley bottom relinquished it to rabbitbrush, greasewood, bunchgrass, and yucca. The blue water evaporated away, leaving behind a pan of gypsum salts. When the wind blew, gypsum dust was carried aloft; when it stopped, the gypsum fell from the sky like rain, coating the landscape, mixing with local sand until the whole land was a pale tan. Only hares, lizards, toads, insects and small birds were able to thrive in this austere setting.

I have come to the northern end of this forbidding landscape in order to assist District Archaeologists Jeremy Decker, Jonathan Van Hoose and Greg Everhart to conduct an archaeological survey of a small area just inside the White Sands Missile Range. It’s April, and the temperatures have already hit 91°F, more than 10°F above normal for this time of year. The sun beats down mercilessly and the horizon shimmers with heat. Dust devils writhe across the flats. An overwhelming silence fills the air.

For the first two days, we walk back and forth across the survey area, each person 15 meters from the next, looking for artifacts from bygone times. Much of the landscape in our survey area has been churned up by modern military activities, but small patches of undisturbed earth remain. In these patches, we find small traces of the past: tiny arrowheads the size of my thumbnail and debris from stone tool manufacture in an astounding array of different colored cherts and quartzites. Sometimes we find a scatter of cobbles, burnt and fractured in a way that only a fire can do, and we know that here – at this spot precisely – people prepared and ate a meal a few thousand years ago. We find fragments of the stones on which they ground mesquite beans and other edibles into flour; a discarded scraping tool precisely fits my hand, calling to mind the gesture by which the tool was used.

Day three is hot and still. We start the detailed process of recording one of the two large sites we discovered during our survey. While the others determine the site boundary and record and map artifacts, my job is to dig a small trench to look at the site’s geology. The land’s nearly flat surface is deceptive: underneath, there is a hidden landscape of ancient sand dunes made concrete-hard by the process of soil formation. These "fossilized" dunes predate human arrival by tens of thousands of years. More recent sand, however, fills the low spots between these ancient dunes, and here is where I find sediment equivalent in age to the artifacts we are finding at the site. This shows that, at this site at least, there are places where the artifacts may still be in the places their makers left them. Satisfied, I refill my trench.

Late in the day, Decker’s shout gathers us to the north end of the site, where a fragment of a 10,000-year-old spear point lies on the surface. It is made of a distinctive brown chert that only comes from the Texas Panhandle, attesting to the long-distance travels of the earliest hunter-gatherers in the Southwest.

Day four is hot and far from still. The wind rises over the course of the day, steady at 30 mph, gusting to 70, blowing fine sand and gypsum dust across the landscape, obscuring the horizon. We are at a different site, where hundreds of artifacts lie on the surface: flakes of stone, fragments of metates and manos, pieces of fire-cracked rock, and the occasional tool. So many, that it takes Decker, Van Hoose and Everhart a whole day to describe and photograph a sample of what is visible.

Despite the swirl of sand in my face, I dig another trench. The trench cuts into the side of a sand dune, near where erosion of the dune has exposed artifacts at the surface. Luck is with me: at about the depth I expect to find artifacts, I encounter a piece of a ground stone metate and debris from tool manufacture, establishing that at this site as well at least some of the artifacts are in their original context.

Day five is cooler and without a breath of wind. We spend the morning looking for a site originally recorded more than 20 years ago, but time and landscape change have obliterated all evidence of its existence. As we pack up our gear for the trip home, we are struck by how many ground stone artifacts we have seen during the survey.

To our eyes, this landscape is devoid of edible food; left to our own devices, we would quickly starve. But past peoples understood that edible roots and seeds could be found in particular seasons even this far out on the valley floor. Year after year they returned, prepared for a bountiful harvest, carrying 10 pound metates dozens of miles from stone quarries in distant mountains. At this spot where they gathered and feasted, the echo of their passing remains in the artifacts they left behind and the arrangement of these items on the landscape. In the silent stillness under the midday sun, it is the only sound I hear.