ABIQUIU LAKE, N.M. – From May 22 to June 25, 2016, eight undergraduate students from the University of Oklahoma got their hands dirty re-excavating the Palisade Ruin located on Corps-managed land here. They were participating in a five-week archaeological field school designed to teach them how to do actual archaeological field work.
The director of the field school and an assistant professor at the university, Dr. Samuel Duwe, and two graduate student teaching assistants led the field school which revisited a site originally excavated in the late 1950s during the construction of Abiquiu Dam.
Field schools like this one on Corps-managed land are unusual across the Corps.
“There are examples of field schools that were supported and partnered with USACE. But most of them took place a number of years ago,” said Paul Rubenstein, the Corps’ Federal Preservation Officer and lead for the Corps’ Cultural Resources sub-Community of Practice. He added that the only recent example he knew of took place in the St. Louis District last year.
“This is a very uncommon occurrence. It's the first time we've done it at the District certainly,” said District archaeologist Jonathan Van Hoose, who along with archaeologist Jeremy Decker, worked with Duwe to set up the field school. “The majority of the planning work took about six to seven months,” said Van Hoose.
Because federal law requires that agencies take into account the effects of their actions on historic properties, area tribes with ties to the site and the State Historic Preservation Officer were consulted on how best to conduct the project with minimal impact. Duwe agreed not to excavate new dirt, meaning that they would only look at the area originally excavated in the 1950s, and only recover artifacts from dirt already disturbed by the earlier excavation.
District staff at Abiquiu worked to facilitate many of the logistical issues. The students stayed at the campground and used a project residence house for its kitchen and as a lab for processing finds from the site.
The university, the Corps, and the public all benefit from the field school. The students gain practical, hands-on experience in their chosen profession. Besides excavation skills, they also learn site mapping, landscape survey, and artifact analysis skills. The university and the public benefit from the research and knowledge gained from the excavation.
The Corps benefits from the field school’s results. The work to preserve the site’s integrity is invaluable to the District in preserving the site for future generations. The landscape survey will identify and document other historical sites on land managed by the District.
The Rio Chama area wasn’t occupied by Pueblo people until the 1200s. In the 13th and 14th centuries small population sites appeared. Duwe said that within two generations the people moved on to larger Tewa sites downstream, many of which are still occupied today.
This is just one aspect in the history of movement in the area and one part of the site’s archaeological appeal. Why did these people move to this site in the first place? Why did they move again?
The land that Abiquiu Lake now occupies was a historic boundary for the Tewa people, with other cultures living to the west and north. Seven hundred years ago the site would have been considered a frontier area, rich in game and resources like stone quarried from the nearby Cerro Pedernal. It was in this context that a group of people settled here, on a high point overlooking the Rio Chama on the northwest periphery of the Tewa world.
According to Duwe, the site would have been U-shaped; 50 rooms enclosed three sides with a row of 250 piñon and juniper posts along the open side. These posts formed a palisade wall, which prompted archaeologists to name the site after this unusual feature. Based on tree-ring and pottery dating, the site was dated to a short occupation beginning in A.D. 1312.
What did the structures look like when new? How were they built? What were they used for? What kinds of stuff did the people have? Studying what they left behind helps answer these questions and helps us gain a better understanding of the identity of the people who lived here so long ago.
In addition to the site’s ancient historical context, a more recent development – the construction of Abiquiu Dam – played a leading role in the excavation work.
The site was originally excavated by Stewart Peckham, an archaeologist with the Museum of New Mexico. The dam’s construction began in 1956 and the Palisade Ruin was situated in an area meant to become a pit to provide fill for the dam. This would destroy the site in the process.
Peckham led a crew of four archaeologists for six weeks in April and May 1958. They managed to salvage their way through two-thirds of the site, excavating 27 rooms and a single kiva. They were mainly concerned with a rough overview of the site. What was the layout? What larger artifacts could they find? They weren’t as concerned with a more detailed excavation and thus didn’t screen for smaller artifacts.
Because the site was going to be destroyed soon in the dam construction, they didn’t return the dirt they moved in uncovering the rooms, which is a common strategy to stabilize and help preserve a site.
When Duwe visited the site in June 2015, he noted the presence of “erosion and slumping of the soil in the exposed excavated rooms which will continue without mitigation.”
Fortunately, the site wasn’t needed after all to provide fill for the dam. The site has remained virtually untouched since Peckham’s excavation. One factor that’s helped it remain untouched is that it’s on land that has not been open to the general public.
Eventually District staff and the Abiquiu project would like to be able to use the information gathered this summer to interpret the site for the public. Balancing preservation with showcasing the site to the public so they can better understand and gain an appreciation of the area’s history is the challenge. However, at this point, it’s not one facing District staff this summer as artifact analysis and interpretation is ongoing through the summer of 2017, when they will be returned to the Corps.