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NMSU students excavate a centuries-old pueblo

Nine New Mexico State University anthropology students, their professor, a retired NMSU electrical engineering professor and a local amateur archaeologist are a long way from cool water this summer.



Instead, this group is digging, scraping, surveying and mapping a centuries-old ruin in Luna County thought to have belonged to the Casas Grandes culture.

Rex and Carol Kipp own the land on which the ruins were discovered. Rex's brother, John Kipp, an amateur archaeologist, found the remains of adobe pueblo walls on the land. After excavating some of the rooms, the Kipps contacted William Walker, an associate professor of anthropology at NMSU, who helped them map the ruins, estimated at 600-700 years old. Walker then set up a field school for the university's first summer session. As two graduate and seven undergraduate students toiled in triple digit heat, they earned college credits and gained valuable archeological experience that may lead to good jobs.

"The students need this field school as a prerequisite to work for such government organizations as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service," Walker said. "This kind of work helps them get intro-level positions in archaeology."

Evidence indicates the pueblo with 50-100 rooms belonged to the Casas Grandes culture that extended across southern New Mexico, southeast Arizona, and northern Chihuahua, Mexico.

The floors of the rooms were blue, black or orange because the rooms were burnt as part of a cleansing ritual when people moved or died, Walker said.

"If buildings are treated like people because they're perceived as having spirits or being alive, then they need some kind of ceremony when they're put away, just like when you put someone's body away," Walker said. "It's like the cremation of the pueblo."

Other evidence showed that corn, beans and squash were harvested in the area. Bedrock mortar holes also were discovered, indicating the Casas Grandes people processed mesquite beans, too.

The Casas Grandes people are presumably descendents of the Mimbres, Walker said. While the Mimbres were famous for their black and white pottery, the people of Casas Grandes made pottery called Ramos polychrome and Gila polychrome. Walker said Ramos polychrome is the most common decorated pottery found in Chihuahua, while Gila polychrome is easily recognizable because of its red, black and white color scheme.

The students will take sherds of pottery, metates, pieces of grinding stone, jewelry, arrow points, spear points and other artifacts from the site, classify and label them this fall, and use them as part of professional research posters.

Tara Cannon and Mark Sechrist are the graduate students working on the project. Undergraduate students involved with the summer school are Marc Paalvast, Gabriel Pacheco, Cortney Platero, Annie Roberts, Craig Saastamoinen, Amanda Stroud and Jennifer Wiskowski. Retired NMSU electrical engineering professor Lonnie Ludeman volunteers his time on the project. Participating in archaeological digs around the world is one of his hobbies.

The field school ends June 30. Walker said it is not offered during NMSU's second summer session because of the rainy season. Rain washes away many of the color schemes, turning everything into dark colors. Also, the delicate touch that is needed to remove or examine artifacts that are hundreds of years old cannot be used when water washes everything together into one big mess, Walker said. His archaeology crew will lay a fabric that's used in landscaping over the dig site to protect it from the rain and to help mark the spots that already have been excavated. They will cover the fabric with dirt to prevent it from being blown away.

Walker said a new field school will begin the first summer session of next year.