Spaceport Archeologist

Spaceport America, August 2011

Over the last three months, Jim has been senior project director for an archeological project at the location of the new Spaceport America in the Jornada del Muerto, about an hour outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

It’s made for an interesting summer for both of us.  Jim would leave early on Monday morning and get home in the evening on Friday.  In between, he and his crew would be out in temperatures that regularly topped a hundred degrees, with no shade or water except what the crew brought in themselves.

The area they were looking at has seen human occupation for something like 11,000 years, starting with the prehistoric Folsom and ending with the ground side of human ventures into outer space.  Until recently, most of that occupation was relatively transient.  The area isn’t very inviting.  Jornada del Muerto is usually translated as “journey of the dead man.”  The name is said to be a reference to the fatal journey of Bernardo Gruber.

When Jim and his crew got down there in May, the winter and spring had been so dry that not even weeds were growing.  Tenacious mesquite was about the only plant in sight.  Although this offered a little shade, Jim’s crew couldn’t be all that grateful, since mesquite also has thorns that will puncture a truck tire or go right through the bottom of a hard-soled boot.

So what sort of human activity went on in this hot, dry area?  Mostly hunting and gathering.  Mesquite beans (actually seeds) are a good source of calories, so they were probably being gathered.  The crew found ample evidence of stone tools, including a fair number of broken Folsom points.  They found locations where shelters had been erected.  They also found some fire pits, probably used for roasting tubers.

They actually won’t know what they found until they finish the lab work.  Contrary to popular views of archeology, field work is only part of the job.  Much of the actual discovery is done in the lab.

Jim’s crew was in many ways representative of those working in Southwestern archeology.  Gender was slightly biased toward female – with five females and three males.  Jim’s co-director was a woman.  Ethnically, they had five Anglos, two Navajo, and one Spaniard.  (All Americans, of course.)  Education ranged from several post-graduate degrees (including one law degree) to high school level.

The one way the crew was not representative was in age.  All but one of the crew members was over fifty.  Several were over sixty.  Only one was under forty!  This was because the office was also fielding a crew down at Cooke’s Peak, where a lot of climbing was part of the daily routine, so the younger staff got shifted there, while the older staff got sent to bake in the desert.

Looking for artifacts was only part of the job.  They noted plants and wild animals in the area.  Early mornings during their drive out to the site, they often saw various small rodents, antelope, mule deer, rabbits, and coyotes.  Rarer sightings included badger, ring-tail, and fox.  Oh, and rattlesnakes…  The area is really inviting for rattlesnakes.  Both Jim and his co-director, Nancy, wore snake gaiters when checking out new sites.

As the summer progressed, tarantulas wandered in to find out what was going on.  One of my favorite stories came from an encounter with these furry spiders.  Jim had stopped to check in with the folks at construction headquarters.  The fellow he was talking to asked, “Is the tarantula out there still?  Do you have a shovel you could use to shift it for us?  We don’t mind it, but some of the female visitors get scared.”  Jim laughed and replied, “I’ll see what we can do.  My female crew members are out taking pictures of the spider.”

For such a barren area, there was a considerable amount of avian life.  Jim reported several types of hawks.  One of my favorites was the nighthawk which, upon research, turned out to be defined as an “aberrant goatsucker.”  That is, most birds in the goatsucker family are nocturnal, but nighthawks will fly by day, making them aberrant.  Don’t ask me why…  I thought this was very funny.

Working at the spaceport offered challenges archeologists don’t usually face – like the week they had to change plans because the site they were working on was right in a launch path.  However, overall, Jim’s crew was delighted to be so near the spaceport.  They watched as the main building grew and changed color, went out to investigate the massive runway, and basically enjoyed being part of the transition between the oldest of human endeavors, just finding enough to eat, and the newest – reaching for the stars.

But we’re both glad to have Jim home again.  It will be fun to hear how the lab analysis progresses, to learn what might have been cooked in those huge fire pits, and all the rest.  And in a few months, Jim may have another field project starting up, but that one, rather than being in the outlying areas of the state, will be much closer to home – right off the Santa Fe Plaza.

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8 Responses to “Spaceport Archeologist”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Hope Jim gets to publish his work, too. I’ll admit I’m not that fond of desert surveys, but that’s where the jobs are right now.

  2. Dominique Says:

    I love that name “Journey of a dead man”, it conjures up so many images in my mind.
    It is weird to think that the two most interesting people I know are married to each other. My favorite author is married to the only archeologist I have ever met (despite a long admiration for the profession)! Very cool.

  3. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Very interesting. Also, giving me a presque vu image of the classic scene from the opening of ‘2001’.

  4. Morton W. Kahl Says:

    Here in Bolivia we have a still active dig on the eastern shore of Lake Titicaca called Tihuanaco. The estimate I have seen dates it to before the Christian era. Long before the Inca empire. By the way, the word “Inca” refers only to the rulers of the Quechua people who were the dominant members of the empire. You and Jim are cordially invited to visit. Room and board provided!

  5. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Very interesting post! I learned a lot! Thanks for broadening my horizons. I hope you and Jim enjoy your time back together!

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