More than 20 years ago, New Mexico archaeologist Karl Laumbach was at the White Sands Missile Range collecting data at the site of the July 16, 1945, atomic bomb test detonation when he looked down and saw a perfect Folsom point, an edged stone projectile created about 10,000 years ago.
“It was one of my signature moments,” said Laumbach, 67, who works for Human Systems Research Inc., a nonprofit that does archaeological and related research in southern New Mexico. “I was recording what was left of the South 10,000 Bunker, a bunker 10,000 meters south of where they set the bomb off. It must have been right on top of a (prehistoric) site.”
Only in New Mexico would it have been possible to find a projectile point designed by early man for hunting at the same place where the nuclear age was launched with the fiery, first explosion of an atomic weapon.
“Obviously New Mexico is rich in archaeology and history,” said Amy Rutledge, communications manager for the Society for American Archaeology, which is holding its 84th annual meeting at the Albuquerque Convention Center Wednesday through Sunday, April 10-14.
About 5,000 archaeologists will take part in 420 sessions during the conference.
“It’s probably one of the most important networking environments you can be in,” said Matthew Schmader, adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico. “You run into colleagues, people working on the same topics. You meet new people. People are cutting book deals.”
Founded in 1934, SAA has more than 7,200 members, including professional, student and avocational archaeologists working for museums, colleges and universities, government agencies and the private sector. With the exception of the World War II year of 1943, SAA has held an annual meeting every year since 1935. The first was in Andover, Mass., and host cities have included Austin, Honolulu, San Francisco, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. It was in Santa Fe in 1968, but this is the first time it has been in Albuquerque.
Because the conference is so well attended and geared so specifically for archaeologists, it is not open to the public. Unless he had pre-registered, Indiana Jones might not have been able to get in if he showed up Wednesday with the Ark of the Covenant in tow.
“It’s a very intensive several days of professional papers and presentations,” Schmader said. “If you are trying to figure out who you want to hear, you have to go through a 350-page program.”
Multiple sessions going on at the same time run from 8 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 8 a.m. to noon on Sunday.
One of the highlights of this year’s conference is a Saturday session called “Protecting the Greater Chaco Landscape: Native Voices,” during which a panel of American Indian speakers will talk about the spiritual importance of the Chaco Canyon area in northwest New Mexico, which is now threatened by fracking associated with oil and gas development. U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., one of the first American Indian women elected to Congress, will make opening remarks.
New Mexico archaeologists from state universities and other agencies and entities will be well represented at the presentations.
Schmader, who got his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in anthropology at UNM, is chair of a Saturday symposium titled “Archaeologies of Contact, Colony and Resistance.” He is presenting a paper during that symposium called “The Persistence of Resistance: Resiliency and Survival in the Pueblo World, 1539-1696.”
“The paper details the response native people had when they encountered the first European exploration and later on the first colonies in New Mexico,” said Schmader, 64, who served as superintendent of the city of Albuquerque’s open space division from 2005 to 2016. “Native peoples have always tried to resist attempts to completely change their culture. What I end up saying is that if the Pueblo people had not fought back, their culture might not have survived.”
Laumbach was born in Springer, N.M., and earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology at New Mexico State University in 1974. He is the discussant in a Sunday symposium titled “Recent Research at Jornada Mogollon Sites in South-Central New Mexico.”
“A discussant is someone familiar with the area (of research) who can wrap things up at the end of the session and make concluding remarks about the papers,” Laumbach said.
He fits the bill. Laumbach has directed hundreds of archaeological projects in southern New Mexico, ranging from the prehistoric Southwest and Anglo-Hispanic interaction to the Apache wars, range wars and the Cold War.
Now he is involved in the Cañada Alamosa Project aimed at uncovering and understanding the stories of the generations of people who lived along Alamosa Creek, which flows through Socorro and Sierra counties to the Rio Grande in southwest New Mexico. Starting in 1999, Laumbach supervised the excavation at four major pithouse, a dwelling partly dug into the ground, and pueblo sites as part of the project.
“The largest of the (pueblo) sites, the Victorio site, had 450 rooms,” Laumbach said. “We worked on (the digs) for 13 years and are compiling all the data now.”
Emily Jones, associate professor of anthropology at UNM, is a zooarchaeologist, which means she spends a lot of time looking for animal bones at archaeology sites. In research she does in France, Spain and here in New Mexico, she tries to determine what roles animals played in the lives of people in past eras. What kinds of animals, for example, were those people eating?
In the fall of 2017, she spent four months looking at animal bones in a 15,000-year-old cave in northern Spain.
“It was really fantastic,” Jones, 44, said. “We found a series of modified bone tools. It was the first time I had worked with anything like that.”
She is involved with several presentations at the SAA conference this week. On Friday afternoon she is a co-presenter of a session with the dizzying title “Tracking Individual Raptors in the Archaeological Record Using Stable Isotope Analysis: Some Implications for the Study of Ritual Economies in New Mexico.”
Jones laughs when asked to break that down. She said it is about determining how Puebloan people of several hundred years ago used the bones of raptors, especially eagles.
“My part of it is what animals (hawks, eagles, other raptors) were eating in A.D. 1300 to A.D. 1600,” she said.
For Jones, who earned her master’s and doctorate in anthropology at the University of Washington, the fascination of archaeology is imagining the landscapes people of the past lived in and trying to see that world through their eyes. In order to stay connected with people who see and think the way she does, she attends every SAA annual meeting she can.
“They are critically important, a chance to hear what research others are doing and to present your research,” she said. “It’s a chance, maybe, to meet future collaborators.”