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Rewarding Research

CHACO CANYON – Greg Tarin traveled the world during his five years in the U.S. Navy, but a current stint excavating in Chaco Canyon with his University of New Mexico classmates might be just as thrilling.

Tarin, a Los Lunas native, is one of about 15 students living in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park for an archeology summer field class offered by UNM’s Department of Anthropology.

The students will live in a campground through the end of June, digging up an old trading post and what is believed to have been the homestead of explorer Richard Wetherill. Wetherill, a controversial figure because he explored and excavated without being formally trained in archeology, settled in Chaco in the late 1800s, where he built a home and trading post. He was influential in making Chaco Canyon a national monument, which happened in 1907 under President Theodore Roosevelt. Wetherill was murdered in the Chaco in 1910.

Standing just feet from where ground-penetrating radar detected what the students and their professor, Chip Wills, believe was Wetherill’s home, Tarin said living and working in the canyon has given him the real-world experience he needs to find a job once he graduates this year.

The experience has also been exhilarating, he said.

“This is equally gratifying as military service, because you’re trying to recover the history of people. So I think it’s just as honorable as military service,” Tarin said.

Wills, who has led field classes in the canyon since 2004, said working under the partnership between UNM and the National Park Service is an “incredible opportunity” for aspiring archaeologists. Students live in the park Monday through Friday and go home on weekends, he said.

The students and their professor have a rigorous routine that starts at 5:30 a.m. and doesn’t end until late into the evening, Wills said. Students spend most of the day excavating and surveying. When they return to the campground, they analyze and log findings and attend lectures or lab sessions. They take turns making dinner for the group.

Living and working together for such long hours in such close quarters gives the students a great bonding experience, Wills said.

Leigh Cominiello, a doctoral student working as a teacher’s assistant, agreed.

“It really is the ultimate team experience on multiple levels,” she said.

Cominiello has helped students excavate what Wills believes is a trading post established by Wetherill around 1897, next to Pueblo Bonito, the cultural site in Chaco Canyon inhabited by the ancient pueblo people about 1,000 years ago. Parts of the structures uncovered were built with ancient stones that Wetherill likely took from Pueblo Bonito, Wills said.

So far, students have found a woman’s hair comb, leather gloves, tableware, shoes, fabric, household items and a medallion from the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, at which Wetherill and his wife won a prize for the Navajo rugs they displayed. Once students have logged and analyzed findings, they turn them over to the National Park Service, Wills said.

Tarin said the work is labor-intensive, more so than his work in the Navy, especially under the burning sun and often heavy winds.

“It’s actually challenging when the wind is 15 mph, but it’s not a bad price to pay for being able to work out here,” Wills said.

Ben Ludwig, who just graduated with a bachelor’s in anthropology with a focus on archaeology, said the hard work is already paying off. Helping to push a machine that uses radar pulses to image subsurfaces, Ludwig said the field class has been a well-rounded learning experience because all of the class leaders have different specialities to teach.

Ludwig, a St. Louis native, said he decided to enroll in the class because he wasn’t quite sure what to do after graduation and wanted some direction. Working in Chaco has helped guide him toward pursuing a career in archaeology, he said. For now, he’s going home to St. Louis to teach, but he is thinking about applying to graduate school at UNM.

Standing with Ludwig was Jennie Sturm, a doctoral student who is helping the class. Sturm, who owns a company that provides radar-machine services, said finding unexpected sites such as the Wetherill homestead has been especially rewarding.

Getting to live in the historic canyon has also been a plus. “It’s kind of nice to get way from all the noise, all the TV of life,” she said.

Matt Clinton, a non-degree student who is hoping to enter the anthropology graduate program, has been doing a different kind of work.

Clinton and a couple of other students spent Thursday several yards from the rest of his class, surveying and assessing land for possible environmental threats, while also collecting GPS data to create a map.

“It’s fairly arduous,” he said.

But, like the rest of his classmates, Clinton said the sunburns, the minimal sleep and the less-than-modern living conditions are well worth it.

“It’s been fantastic. Every day’s been exciting. … You never know what you’re going to find,” he said.