Archaeology tour in New Mexico

Things have been a little quiet in TBM-land, with work dominating far too many days, so I scanned the local events calendars and found something to do off the reservation.   The Old Pueblo Archaeology Center in Tucson had organized a once-a-year tour of ancient Mogollon (native American) sites in New Mexico. I don’t usually go in for multi-day guided tours, preferring to explore on my own (or with E&E), but this was a special opportunity to visit some sites that I’d never see without a qualified guide, and to get some detailed interpretation as well.

So I booked the last two days of the four-day tour (I had prior commitments for the first two days) and drove three hours from Tucson to join the group on Monday morning in Silver City, NM.  Silver City is up in the higher elevations of central New Mexico, about 5200 feet, amidst rolling hills and beautiful scenery.  There’s a nice historic downtown and a strong western style.  The famous outlaw Billy The Kid lived here.  I didn’t see any gun-slinging — these days the hotels are crowded with fire fighters, taking a break or setting up to go to the wildfires that are all over New Mexico right now.

Our tour specialized in Mimbres sites, a subculture of the Mogollon.  There are dozens in the area, most of which are protected as best they can be by laws, fences, and secrecy.  In the past pot-hunters have devastated many of the sites, even using bulldozers and backhoes to excavate them, so many of the sites have been ruined or looted thoroughly.  But those that have survived have an abundance of artifacts at the surface, primarily potsherds, pictographs, flakes of small stones, and architectural remnants like stone alignments of huts and depressions of former kivas.

As tourists, we were not there to dig.  At most of the sites we were allowed to pick up anything we found, as long as it was returned to the same spot.  We looked, and tried to connect the little artifacts we found with the living village of people that once existed that spot.  Archaeology requires a fair amount of imagination: you have to interpret the humps and dips of the land, and visualize the layout of a village that has been mostly reclaimed by the earth for centuries.  The sites we visited were at least a thousand years old, a thrilling thought when you find a fragment of that ancient life still sitting on the ground for you to see and touch.

The Kipp Ruin, near Deming, was our chance to see a real archaeological dig in progress.  Led by Dr William H Walker of New Mexico State University, a bunch of graduate students were toiling cheerfully in the heat of the low Sonoran Desert near Deming NM, looking for tiny fragments of Mimbres culture in tidy pits dug into the earth.  The work is dusty and tedious, and the results from this particular site are mostly so small that dozens of them fit into a lunch-sized paper bag.  Unfortunately, the site was almost completely obliterated by pot hunters years ago, so even the stone structures were reduced to mere lines of stones less than a foot tall.  Still, they were finding things, and learning, and they were happy to share the knowledge with our group.

The southwest is having a little heat wave right now, so even in the supposedly cooler atmosphere of the high country we endured 100+ degree days and extremely dry conditions in full sun.  When we toured the Western New Mexico University’s Museum, which had a superb collection of Mimbres pottery, there was no air conditioning.  We ate our lunches outdoors where we could find shade, and we cooled off in the cars during the long drives from one site to another, but mostly the best survival strategy was the right clothing and lots of water.  I went through 120 ounces on Monday, and it was even hotter on Tuesday.

Still, it was worth it.  A little climate challenge helped us feel less like tourists and more like explorers.  The cars got dusty on long gravel roads, the people got sweaty, and the gear got dirty.  I have a bag full of laundry “souvenirs” and a car in the carport that looks like it was dropped in a bag of flour, but I also have 314 photos that I treasure (54 of which are now on Flickr for your browsing pleasure).  I’d do it again.  In fact, I probably will do another archaeology tour this fall.  There’s a lot of incredible pre-historic culture in this part of the country, much of it very close to home, and it’s an element of the southwest that deserves exploration.



  1. insightout says

    This blog “rocks”.

    Browsing the Flickr, it appears that your companions are searching for a set of lost car keys from Fred Flintstone’s convertible.

    Mogollon, not easy for an anglophile to pronounce, and I think it goes, “MoggeeYon”. Beautiful country along the fault line, didn’t you and the girls visit the rim last year ?

  2. Rich Luhr says

    That’s the right pronunciation.

    Eleanor and I toured the Mogollon Rim in AZ last summer (see July 2010 blog entries) but the rim doesn’t reach to New Mexico. NM has its own array of really beautiful mountains and high country in the central part of the state.