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New Mexico State University excavation helps place

At an archaeological site on the Gray Ranch in southwest New Mexico, an excavation by New Mexico State University anthropology professor William Walker and his students is helping to clarify this region's place in Southwestern prehistory, a Museum of New Mexico official said.

New Mexico State University anthropology professor William Walker talks with a group of students in an excavated room of an American Indian pueblo Walker estimates was occupied, then abandoned, in the 14th century. The excavation may help place the site

Since 1999, Walker and his graduate students, along with students in New Mexico State's annual summer archaeology field school and several volunteers, have been excavating the site, a complex of adobe rooms grouped around a set of plazas that Walker estimates was occupied between 1300 and 1370.

In 1999, the excavators found a Mesoamerican ball field, similar to one found at a larger site near Casas Grandes, Mexico. In 2000, they uncovered a room with a single column in the middle of its floor that Walker said mirrors those found in Casas Grandes. In all three years of digging they have found pottery pieces characteristic of the Casas Grandes culture, Walker said.

About 50 percent of the excavated rooms were burned some time in prehistory, raising questions about how and why the complex was abandoned. This year Walker invited Eric Blinman, assistant director of the Office of Archaeological Studies of the Museum of New Mexico, to visit the site and use a scientific process called "archaeomagnetics" to help date the burning.

When dirt, or adobe, is burned the magnetic field of its particles realigns toward the Earth's magnetic north, Blinman explained. Because magnetic north changes over time, archaeologists can measure where a sample's fields are pointing and reconstruct when it last cooled. The process requires taking samples at a site, then measuring the magnetic field in a laboratory. It should take about a month after the digging season ends in June to yield results, he said.

Blinman said the archaeomagnetic data may give researchers fresh insights about the Gray Ranch site, labeled the "Joyce Well" site after a ranching family that once owned the land.

"What Bill and his students are doing is comparing data collected in the '60s to new ideas, which will allow placing these sites in the context of a very complex time in Southwestern history," he said.

"It's very exciting, because it's only been in the past few years that archaeology has really tried to cope with cultural history again. In its early days, archaeology dealt with very simple time lines, but it turned from that to studying cultural processes, rather than history. Now, we're saying again, 'Wait a minute. What happened to these people?'" he said.

Walker said researchers have known for some time that parts of Southwestern sites were burned, but new scrutiny of the sites has been stimulated by evidence of the mutilation of some human remains and a debate over whether cannibalism occurred.

"People have become interested in this because it tells you about the organization of a society if there is a lot of violence within or between groups of people," he said.

"People have been looking at all the sites again, trying to figure out if the burning is due to violence and, if so, what kind of violence. So far, the data at this site suggests that the burning wasn't due to an attack and it wasn't accidental and, therefore, we're left with the idea of a ritual abandonment," Walker said.

"Ritual abandonment," Walker explained, is the practice of burning a village when people leave it, because the people believe the site is somehow animated and has to be buried or cremated in the same way as a person. There are precedents for this interpretation in studies of more modern Southwestern people who burn a person's house after they have died, he said.

"If you look at a more regional context you see that most of this burning seems to take place about the same time, in similar ways, throughout the Casas Grandes culture. This may reflect the end of this society's organization, perhaps because the religious practices and beliefs that held it together had somehow come out of favor. One interesting thing is that the archaeomagnetic dating could tell us is whether the rooms were burned all at once or at different times," he said.

Walker said part of the Joyce Well site was excavated in 1963 by Eugene B. McCluney, at that time director of the School of American Research in Santa Fe. McCluney also found little evidence that the site had been attacked, Walker said.

"McCluney didn't find a lot of artifacts in the rooms, not a household assemblage of artifacts. Also, there was not evidence of violence such as human remains, except for burials. He theorized there had been a grass fire or that later people burned the buildings," he said.

But if McCluney didn't find evidence of violence, neither did he concentrate on interpreting where the village fit in a larger cultural and historical context. Walker's efforts to do this are in line with the new archaeological trend and represent a step forward in the study of the Southwest, Blinman said.

"Sometime in the next 10 years, it's going to be enormously interesting to bring Bill together with archaeologists and anthropologists now studying cultures in southern Arizona and northern Mexico and see if they can fit everything together," he said.

Walker said it's still unclear who built the Joyce Well site. The most likely candidates may have disappeared in early colonial times.

"When the Spanish came this site was already abandoned. It then becomes a piece of archaeological detective work. In this area, the people with the most similar culture were called the Sumas by the Spanish. But shortly after the Spanish arrived they disappeared as a tribe. They either became hunter-gatherers and joined bands of Apaches or Jacome, died of diseases brought by the Spanish or became Hispanicized," he said.