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Geology research team investigates ways to preserve Bandelier cliff dwellings

A New Mexico State University research team is taking part in a two-year project analyzing and investigating ways to preserve the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

New Mexico State University junior geology majors Annie Riggins, left, and April Smith work together to remove glowing graphite crucibles from a 2,012 degrees Fahrenheit furnace for cooling. Rock samples are melted in the crucibles to determine the chemical and physical changes happening to the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. (NMSU Photo by Robert Yee)

The team consists of Nancy McMillan, academic department head for geology; Frank Ramos, the Johnson endowed chair in geochemistry; and Annie Riggins and April Smith, both junior geology majors. They are partnering with a team of architectural anthropologists part of an organization called Vanishing Treasures: Museum Collection, Preservation and Protection to take a closer look at the cave rock walls and ceilings to evaluate why they are deteriorating so quickly.

Over a series of trips to Bandelier National Monument, the team is exploring the terrain and collecting samples to bring back to the NMSU geochemistry lab for a multitude of experiments and tests.

"It's a great way for undergraduates to get experience learning analytical techniques," McMillan, the principle investigator on the project said. "It's a great way to learn about the process of weathering and see about what we can do to preserve the cavates." The National Park Service presented the project idea to McMillan, and she eagerly accepted to create an undergraduate research opportunity, something that has always been a priority for her.

"Getting this starting point to understand our degree has benefitted us as undergraduates greatly," Smith said. "We are establishing our own research."

"A lot of other universities don't give us these opportunities," Riggins said. "It's a stepping stone in our careers as geologists."

Once they determine the chemistry of the rock and examine the different reasons why the ceilings are eroding, the group can come up with a plan to preserve the dwellings. They are planning on presenting their findings at a 2009 national meeting of the Geological Society of America and writing a paper for future presentations.