ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Generations of archaeologists worked patiently to uncover the ruins at what is now Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that lies about 60 miles west of Cuba in northwestern New Mexico.
Their work established that Chaco was a cultural center for more than two dozen ancient puebloan tribes between the early 800s and the mid-1100s. Around 60,000 visitors now visit the site each year.
Students from the University of New Mexico are continuing investigations there, learning the archaeologist’s craft as they search for more remnants of life and commerce that once flourished at the remote site.
“It’s just fabulous experience for us at UNM to compare notes from earlier surveys to what we are doing now,” said UNM Professor of Anthropology Wirt Wills.
Wills oversaw a group of 11 UNM archaeology students participating in a six-week research program at Chaco this fall. The program involved continuing the search for a former homestead and trading post next to the extensive Pueblo Bonito ruins. Students also reviewed the condition of sites examined by archaeologists in previous years to document any changes.
The object of the course was to teach the students basic techniques of field research methods like mapping, artifact identification and excavation to equip them for potential careers in cultural resource management.
For the diverse group of men and women ranging from their mid-20s their mid-40s, it was also a learning experience in getting along together.
Chaco is about a three-hour drive from Albuquerque and can only be reached by driving several miles over a rough dirt road. During the program, the students lived in tents at the location, sharing meal planning, cooking and cleanup chores.
“The best thing we’ve uncovered is friendship,” said Jason Conner, a dread-locked 29-year-old who said he’d bounced around different jobs before starting his archaeology studies. He fell in love with Chaco on visits as a kid.
Former TV stuntman Kurly Tlapoyawa, 42, is pursuing a bachelor’s in anthropology and hopes to go on to graduate school.
“I’ve always been into archaeology and ethnohistory,” Tlapoyawa said. The work at Chaco, he said, “is very meditative. I like to imagine it as though you’re reading the earth like a history book, peeling back the layers.”
Eric Faull, 44, spent 20 years in the restaurant industry before returning to school thinking he might try teaching.
“I took an archaeology class last semester and loved it. So now I’m a double major in history and anthropology,” Faull said. He hopes to teach at a community college.
This year, the students spent most of their days uncovering the foundations of the homestead built by Richard Wetherill in the 1890s. Wetherill had excavated the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and was excavating Pueblo Bonito, sending artifacts to various museums. He eventually opened a trading post that drew many Navajo families from the area, Wills said.
Wetherill kept adding rooms to his compound even after the National Park Service took over management of Chaco Canyon in 1906.
UNM began working with the Park Service to do research work at Chaco in 1929 and built a field station close to Pueblo Bonito.
In 1952, the Park Service tore down the Wetherill compound and the field school. At the time, said Aron Adams, Chief of Cultural Resources at Chaco, the buildings “were not seen as historic sites and not related to the mission of the park.”
Over the next half-century, windblown sand gradually completely covered up the foundations of the demolished buildings.
“It doesn’t take much for soil to expose or bury something,” said Roger Moore, an archaeologist working at Chaco.
Under a new agreement, UNM students began doing research in the area around Pueblo Bonito in 2004. The following year, while investigating some unusual erosion, they discovered what eventually proved to be a well that dated to around 1900.
“The folks in the trading post hand dug a really big hole out here,” Wills said. “Then, we noticed that there were walls radiating out from it and those were the walls that are associated with the (Wetherill) buildings.”
Wills said the Park Service did not have any record of the well or the buildings. Park staff asked UNM to try to figure out where the original buildings were so they could have a record. Wills said the students were able to continue the search, using photos he obtained from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City that showed the Wetherill complex in the 1940s.
The work of finding the walls has taken several years. UNM only holds the research program every two years and the 2013 session was cut short by the government shutdown that fall, Wills said.
On the last day of the 2014 program, they located one end of a wall but bad weather forced them to postpone further work. Students excavating the site this year revealed a line of foundation stones buried beneath one to three feet of hard rock and clay and dirt.
“We’re very pleased with this because now we really do have the north side of the original house and that means we can click in other pieces of the puzzle,” Wills said.
Once the work is complete, the next step might be to install signs to explain the history of the site. The Wetherill compound walls might even be rebuilt to show the outline, Moore said.
Whatever the outcome, there will be plenty more opportunities for UNM archaeology students to learn their craft. Adams estimates there are several hundred more historical sites waiting to be discovered at Chaco.