Welcome to New Mexico

Today, I’m going to switch gears a little and talk about the Culture Resource Management life. I believe that some of my fellow writers have already talked about some of their experiences in the CRM field. While CRM fieldwork is done all across the United States, my experience in the CRM field won’t necessarily be the same as someone in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Southeast, or in New England. Broadly speaking, CRM archaeology is done as part of a process that is required by state and federal law when engaging in land improvement projects. These projects may occur on state or federal lands, and/or involve state or federal funding. In order for funding or license’s to be issued for these projects, an inventory of sites within the area of potential effect must be undertaken in order to assess their eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). While most of the sites that we discover have a historic or prehistoric Native American component, it might surprise you to learn that we’ve also documented sites that consist of little more than early twentieth century food and beverage cans.

Juniper-piñon woodland in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Photo by author.

The reason lays in the definition of what an artifact is. For our work, we define an artifact as something human made that is at least fifty years old (use that bit of information against your parents at your own peril). While my educational background has mostly involved prehistoric Native American sites and artifacts, I’ve learned more than I ever expected on how to identify whether a particular piece of glass or a type of tin can is old enough to be recorded. So now that we’ve identified an artifact, we have to determine whether there are enough artifacts within a concentrated location to call it a site. If there are, we can record the concentration of artifacts as a site and make a recommendation on its eligibility for inclusion in the NRHP. If there are not enough artifacts to record the location as a site, it is instead located as an isolated occurrence and no eligibility recommendation is needed. In addition to artifacts, we may also come across features that are associated with the site. The simplest distinction between artifacts and features is that artifacts are transportable, while features are not. For instance, a tin can, the engine cowling to a Model T, a piece of prehistoric pottery, and a stone tool are all items that can be transportable and therefore are artifacts. A feature is an artificial construction that cannot be removed from the site. Examples of these would be a prehistoric pithouse, the foundation for a historic homestead, or even a fire pit. The presence of a feature is usually enough to warrant documenting the location as a site, even if there are not the requisite number of associated artifacts.

Doing survey in fields overgrown with cholla cacti is kinda like playing tag. You’d think winning would be easy, given that the cacti are immobile, but you’d be wrong. Photo by author.

One of the major differences between my experience of CRM archaeology and what others may have experienced is that none of the projects I’ve been involved in have required any excavation or even any shovel testing. Instead these projects have consisted of conducting a walking survey within an assigned area of land. Sometimes these involve blocks of land anywhere from a few acres to several thousand acres in size. Other times, the assigned block of land is a 100-foot corridor that may be several miles in length. Either way, be prepared to walk and walk and walk some more. Most of our field days consist of 8-10 miles of walking. More often then not, these areas are in remote locations and are not usually very close to our work trucks. That just means that you have to be able to carry all the gear, food, and water that you’ll need with you for the day. I carry a 50-liter pack, which is large enough to carry all of those items and still give me space enough to pack away extra layers of clothing that are necessary for cold spring and fall mornings.

Pronghorn antelope on the eastern plains. Photo by author.

This brings me to my next point about doing field work in New Mexico. There are a variety of environments across the state, and a great deal of variation in elevation. To give a sense of the size of this state, New Mexico is comparable in size to Poland or Vietnam. Rio Arriba County, which is the fifth largest county in the state, is slightly larger than the state of Connecticut. It’s not uncommon for us to have to drive 3-4 hours from where the office out to the town which is nearest to our work area. And from there, it’s usually another half-hour to an hour of driving deeper into the landscape to get to the project area itself. The elevation varies greatly across the state. The lowest point in the state is at an elevation of 2,844 feet (867m) above sea level, located on the Pecos River near the state line with Texas. The highest point is Wheeler Peak, which has an elevation of 13,159 feet (4010m) above sea level.  Average elevation across the state sits at 5,700 ft (1737m). Environments vary greatly across the state as well. While there are sandy deserts within the state (i.e. White Sands National Monument), New Mexico also has areas of grassy plains, volcanic badlands, juniper woodlands in the north and mesquite woodlands in the south. There are also cottonwood forests (bosques) along the major river, the Rio Grande, and along other rivers in the state. The high-altitude mountainous regions are covered in pine and aspen forests right up to the alpine zone in the highest mountains. Summer rains are usually brief but intense and can cause flash flooding in normally dry washes (arroyos). It does snow here, and a good winter snowpack is necessary in order to provide enough runoff to feed the centuries old acequia systems that provide water for irrigating crops, as well as to keep the forests from burning in the summer. There are typically two weather events that will put a stop to field work; thunderstorms during the monsoon season that can produce brief but heavy downpours with associated lightning, and winter snows that obscure surface visibility. Otherwise, it’s possible to do fieldwork in all seasons, so long as one dresses appropriately for the temperature.  

Welcome to New Mexico, where it’s blowing dust one day…
and snowing the next! Photos by author.

Working in the CRM field can be very demanding, but can also be very rewarding. It can involve lots of time away from home, working in harsh conditions. But you also get to spend a lot of time outdoors and see places you might otherwise not have a chance to see. Sometimes there may not be much to find, other times it seems like all you are doing is recording site after site. It’s very rare to find nothing at all on a project. Even in the most remote areas, if the project area is large enough, you’re bound to find something. That something may not be much more than a scatter of stone flakes left over from the process of manufacturing a stone tool, but it’s still evidence that someone the past was out here before you. For me that makes the landscape seem just a little less remote, a little less empty than it may appear. I realize that’s a somewhat romantic opinion of a simple lithic scatter, but I guess I wouldn’t be an archaeologist if a simple lithic scatter didn’t fill me with some curiosity about the people who left it there.  

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