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NMSU and Illinois State summer field school begins its second year

Researchers and students from New Mexico State University and Illinois State University this summer are carefully uncovering 700-year-old pueblo ruins in a remote area of southwestern New Mexico. It is the second year of a four-year project in which they hope to discover how prehistoric cultures were organized, what rituals were practiced and how southwestern New Mexico fit in with the larger region in the 1300s.

Artifacts found at Joyce Well include, from back to front, pottery sherds, animal bones, obsidian points, shell beads and rock fragments. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

William Walker, an assistant professor of anthropology at NMSU, and James Skibo, an associate professor of anthropology at ISU, are conducting an archaeology field school at a site called Joyce Well on the northwest frontier of the Casas Grandes culture.

About five staff and 25 students from NMSU, ISU and a few other universities excavated a Mesoamerican-style ball court last year and mapped and exposed the rooms of a large, 14th-century adobe pueblo. The team began this year's effort in May. They will excavate the pueblo rooms, which Walker believes housed about 250 people, and begin an archaeological survey to find other sites in the region.

The effort is called La Frontera Archaeological Program. It is supported by the Animas Foundation and by a new $116,500 National Science Foundation grant. Joyce Well is located in the Bootheel section of New Mexico, less than five miles from the Mexican border, at the foot of the Animas Mountains on the legendary Gray Ranch. It is in an important area of the Southwest, Walker said. "A lot of ideas and practices filter up from the south through this region."

The entire Casas Grandes region, most of which is in Mexico, was tied together through common religious practices, said Walker, who researches prehistoric ritual behavior. Digs have turned up similar religious imagery, decoration and architecture throughout the region, suggesting the people shared beliefs and religious practices.

Walker hopes the Joyce Well project and other sites in the region will shed more light on the debate among archaeologists over evidence of violence in prehistoric Southwestern cultures. Researchers at other sites have found scarred, mutilated and burned human remains, and have developed several theories to explain them. One theory proposes widespread warfare, while others believe the early cultures practiced cannibalism, Walker said.

Walker and Skibo believe religion and ritual may have played a large role in the violence that apparently occurred. "There might actually be more common explanations, like ritual burning of unoccupied houses or killing people suspected of witchcraft," Walker said. They hope to find clues at Joyce Well, where about half the rooms were burned, to help explain the mystery.

It is important to explore the area "to see how it affects others in the region," Walker said. There have been some famous excavations there, but not as much intensive interest as there could have been, he said. One reason is the site "is so remote that logistically, it's hard to get to."

Joyce Well's ball court is the first site of its kind to be excavated in the region, Skibo said. The researchers believe several similar sites extend along nearby Deer Creek. While exploring the area last year, Walker and Skibo discovered another ball court that had gone unnoticed. That's why this summer's work will include a more official survey of the area, Walker said. In future years the team will expand the project to include excavation of other sites they hope to find.

The students who work on the project gain important practical experience in careful archaeological excavation, Walker said. "Once you excavate a site it is gone. You must be very careful during the process." So far they have unearthed animal bones, corn kernels, shell beads, obsidian points, bone needles and pottery sherds.

Walker and Skibo are happy to be back out in the field this summer. They hope to find out more about these simple, agricultural people who lived almost 700 years ago. Why did they leave? Where did they go? Who are their modern-day descendants? These are a few of the questions the researchers hope to answer.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto.
PHOTO: walker_skibo.jpg
CUTLINE: William Walker, New Mexico State University anthropologist, left, and James Skibo, Illinois State University anthropologist, right, examine a pottery sherd students found.(NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

PHOTO: artifacts.jpg
CUTLINE: Artifacts found at Joyce Well include, from back to front, pottery sherds, animal bones, obsidian points, shell beads and rock fragments. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto.
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Rachel Kendall
June 13, 2000