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Disturbing the Pieces

Is New Mexico doing all it can to protect its ancient history?

February 25, 2009, 12:00 am

Signs of ancient life are everywhere in New Mexico. Consider the Galisteo Basin, just outside the city of Santa Fe, where hundreds of archaeological sites blanket the ground. These range from drawings etched hundreds of years ago onto boulders and scatters of flaked stone—where someone sat and chipped a tool, leaving behind bits and pieces of rock—to entire villages and sacred ceremonial structures.

“Large numbers of people moved into the basin and built eight large pueblos; there are many hundreds—if not well over 1,000—rooms in each of these pueblos,” David Eck, trust land archaeologist with the New Mexico State Land Office, says. “So you’re probably talking about a population of a minimum of 10,000 to 12,000 people scattered across the basin, farming the whole basin.”

The eight pueblos were built in the very late 1200s or early 1300s; people lived there until around AD 1500 when the weather became drier and warmer—“and it became hard to make a living,” Eck says. Half of the sites, he adds, were no longer occupied when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century; the sites bear no signs of chapels, churches or other religious structures associated with the Christianity of the Spanish world.

One of the pueblos, Pueblo Blanco, was partially excavated by an archaeologist from the American Museum of Natural History during the early part of the 20th century. In 1981, it was placed on the State Register of Cultural Properties—a list of archaeological sites considered important or special enough to be preserved.

Nonetheless, Pueblo Blanco was in danger of being destroyed: Pothunters had looted portions of the pueblo and, most alarmingly, a small arroyo running through the site was eating away at the structures, revealing burials and destroying valuable data that might one day be studied to learn more about the people who once lived here.

Three years ago, the state land office appropriated $50,000 to protect Galisteo Basin archaeological sites. At Pueblo Blanco, archaeologists and engineers stabilized the site, building retaining walls and backfilling dirt over exposed areas. They restructured a portion of the drainage to stop more archaeological remains from washing downstream. Eck describes the work as a “really good example of what we’ve been doing,” and Assistant Commissioner Kristen Haase says the State Land Office spends $50,000 to $100,000 each year on archaeological projects.

But not everyone believes the State Land Office is properly overseeing the thousands of archaeological resources on state lands. As a result, archaeologists say, history is being lost.

Under New Mexico law, sites on state lands are not afforded the same protections as those on lands owned by federal agencies such as the US Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service or National Park Service. A bill before the state Legislature, if passed, would create more stringent oversight regardless of jurisdiction.

Critics say the State Land Office is in particular need of such oversight.

While Land Commissioner Pat Lyons maintains there is no destruction of archaeological sites, of the estimated 250,000 such sites on state lands (according to the State Land Office’s Web site), fewer than 5,000 have been identified and documented.
Furthermore, the State Land Office does not require its leasees to survey for cultural resources before breaking ground on projects. As a result, New Mexico Archeological Council President Deni Seymour writes in an e-mail to SFR:

“Many important archaeological sites are damaged or destroyed, without being recorded or studied.” She adds: “It is sad and it is surprising that a state agency does not see the discovery and protection of cultural resources as part of its obligation and fiduciary responsibility.”

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