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Archaeology & Culture

Encountering the Prehistoric People of New Mexico

Join pioneering excavations of prehistoric quarries in the Valles Caldera and discover how humans interacted with this volcanic landscape 10,000 years ago.


The remote Valles Caldera, formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, provides a one-of-a-kind glimpse into human history.

Help archaeologists investigate prehistoric obsidian quarries and travel routes in New Mexico’s stunning and remote Valles Caldera National Preserve. Your work will help reveal how, exactly, past people used the land and its natural resources.

If you join us in 2014, you’ll spend most of your days in Obsidian Valley, an intensely quiet, beautiful site that conveys a palpable sense of the ancient past. As the occasional eagle glides overhead, you and your team members will dig into the valley floor, then sift through the removed dirt to find artifacts.

In 2015, the researchers will take off in an exciting new direction. Join them as they begin surveying and excavating the preserve's Valle Entrada, part of key prehistoric trading routes. It may even have been on Coronado's path as he made one of the earliest European explorations of the region. Valle Entrada has incredible potential to reveal information about many different people throughout the long span of prehistoric and historic time.

For almost two weeks, you’ll live the life of an archaeologist. Take this unparalleled opportunity to get to know the caldera, and build our understanding and appreciation of how people have enjoyed this landscape across the millennia.

The facts

Why the research is important

Why the research is important

You won’t find the typical Southwestern archeological sites in this volcanic landscape. Help researchers decode completely different evidence from our past.

Humans have shaped the land of the Valles Caldera for over 10,000 years—but only 15% of the preserve has been checked for archaeological sites.

We still have a lot to learn about how ancient people used this land and how the environment may have shaped their communities. We do know that the archaeological record in the Valles Caldera National Preserve is dramatically different than in surrounding areas: instead of the iconic adobe cliff dwellings, pueblos, and pottery—the remnants of early Pueblo agrarian societies—that cover the rest of the Southwestern U.S., the surface of the caldera is dotted with both large and small scatterings of prehistoric obsidian artifacts.

Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico, USA

An excavation unit that may contain prehistoric obsidian artifacts.

The unique archaeological record in the preserve, then, could help us understand not only the broader geographies and economies of the area’s people—for example, when and why did they use the land in the caldera? Who might they have traded with there?—but also to explore how people lived in the Southwestern U.S. for many thousands of years before the relatively recent Pueblo farmers. Ultimately, a better understanding of both ecological and cultural history of the place will help us preserve and share the lessons learned from its invaluable cultural resources.

About the research area

Valles Caldera, New Mexico, United States, North America & Arctic

 

Northern New Mexico is famous for its archeological heritage. But even within this culturally rich region, the Valles Caldera, in the middle of the Jemez Mountains, stands out. Long a site of earthly and spiritual importance to native Pueblo people, the caldera has more recently hosted ranchers, hunters, miners, scientists, and moviemakers looking for authentic Western scenery. The preserve is also home to a great diversity of wildlife, including elks, black bears, lynx, weasels, prairie dogs, and eagles (not to mention five species of slime mold!).

Jemez Springs (population 250) boasts gorgeous canyon views and natural hot springs. The village runs a bathhouse with hot springs access and massage services, and there are many other interesting sights: two churches, a cloistered nunnery, a Buddhist retreat center, art galleries, and several dining options, including a French bakery and an Old-West-style saloon and restaurant.

Daily life in the field

Itinerary

This is a summary:

  • Day 1: Meet the team and researchers, project introduction
  • Day 2: Van tour of Valles Caldera National Preserve, talks on geology and stone tool technology
  • Days 3-9:
  • Daily activity includes:
  •     • Excavations
  •     • Walking surveys
  •     • Cataloging artifacts
  •     • One free day to explore
  • Day 10: Departure

Each morning, you’ll drive past herds of elk and chattering prairie dogs into the heart of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to begin fieldwork. You’ll usually stay outdoors from the morning through early or late afternoon, and then spend some late afternoons in the lab.

If you join the expedition in 2014, you will:

  • Excavate in an obsidian quarry. Using shovels and trowels, you'll move dirt to screens, which you'll then use to sift for artifacts. You're looking glinting fragments of obsidian, which could reveal traces human workmanship.
  • Clean and sort artifacts in the lab. Wash finds, label them, and organize them for analysis.

If you join the expedition in 2015, you will:

  • Excavate in Valle Entrada. Researchers believe that prehistoric hunters drove game into this area before killing them, so there should be a concentration of arrowheads and spearheads here. You'll be among the first to dig into the soil and sift through it to look for these weapons.
  • Walk the valley to map artifacts. Look for and flag artifacts you see on the ground. You'll then record their location with a GPS unit and collect them to take back to the lab.

In the evenings, you can relax at the lodge or attend optional evening talks from both project scientists and guest speakers. You’ll also likely see a live demonstration of flintknapping (the process of making a stone tool). You may even get to try your hand using an atlatl, a prehistoric spear launcher.

Volunteer archaeologists, New Mexico, USA

Document extraordinary findings that will help protect a National Preserve.

The Scientists

MEET THE LEAD SCIENTIST

Anastasia
Steffen
Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico & Cultural Resources Coordinator, Valles Caldera National Preserve

ABOUT Anastasia Steffen

Anastasia Steffen has led inventory of cultural resources at the Valles Caldera National Preserve since its creation in 2000. Her research interests include prehistoric stone technology, debitage analyses, and landscape-scale management of cultural resources. Ana is passionate about all things related to fire, obsidian, volcanoes, and hot springs.

READ MORE +

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations and Food

Reviews

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