(August 19, 2016)—Odds are good that when you think of archaeology, you’re thinking of an outdoor activity, whether that’s a bunch of dust-covered researchers poking around in square holes or just you, experiencing a place on the landscape with a deep human history.
Protecting those kinds of places is absolutely at the core of what we do at Archaeology Southwest. We also do archaeological field work of the “square holes” variety—most extensively as part of our annual Preservation Archaeology field school in the Upper Gila River area of New Mexico—and for many years, the field school students and staff have reported on their experiences in the field, from the field, on this blog.
But it’s also true that most archaeological research happens away from the field—for every day spent on excavation, many more are spent in the lab, analyzing artifacts and samples, doing background research and making comparisons, and finally reporting on the results and preparing the collections for curation (proper storage at a museum or similar facility). More and more research is also drawing on the potential of existing collections to produce new data.
What I want to do here and in my next couple of posts is to provide a picture of what we’ve learned thus far from the Upper Gila research, and particularly from analyzing the collections from our field work in Mule Creek. In the next posts, I’ll focus specifically on synthesizing the results of our work at the Fornholt site (which, not coincidentally at all, features heavily in my now-thankfully-complete-and-filed dissertation). Here, I want to give you an example of what we’ve learned from the analysis of a single artifact type, namely ceramics (because that’s my thing).
The pottery recovered from our test excavations in Mule Creek and in the Cliff valley provides most of our information about the dating of those sites—I wrote about this some time ago in regards to the Late Pithouse period in Mule Creek (and Deb Huntley explained the role of ceramics in site dating here). Our work at Fornholt focused primarily on the use of the site after the Classic period, in the late 1100s through early 1200s, and I’ll come back to the role of pottery in establishing Fornholt’s chronology in a subsequent post. Our excavations in the Cliff valley and at the other Mule Creek sites have concentrated on the Cliff phase of the 1300s and 1400s. Sherds from Salado polychrome vessels are typical (“diagnostic”) of settlements inhabited during this time period.
The pottery also gives us an idea of who lived at the sites and of their social connections in relationship to the larger Southwest. For example, at the 3-Up site in Mule Creek, one portion of the site has a high proportion of ceramics associated with immigrants from northern Arizona (Maverick Mountain Series ceramics, which are essentially locally made copies of “Kayenta” vessels, made beginning in the late 1200s), suggesting the presence of an immigrant “enclave.” We now know, based on a compositional study, that both Maverick Mountain series pottery and Salado polychrome vessels were made locally in the Upper Gila.
In addition to providing evidence for the presence of immigrants at 3-Up, this fits with a larger pattern of local production of Salado polychrome (aka Roosevelt Red Ware) at settlements across much of the southern and central Southwest. It also stands in stark contrast to many other Southwestern pottery types that circulated over very large areas but were made in only a comparatively small region.
Several researchers—beginning with Patricia Crown in her 1994 book, Ceramics and Ideology, Salado Polychrome Pottery—have suggested that the widespread production of Salado polychrome is related to the adoption of an ideology across socially diverse sites and regions. The ceramics collected during the recent and future excavations in the Cliff valley will let us speak to the degree of variability among Cliff phase assemblages—we can already say, for example, that polychrome pottery from northern Chihuahua is present at Dinwiddie in the Cliff valley, and entirely absent from 3-Up in Mule Creek. This, in turn, should give us some information about the diversity of backgrounds and connections among the people who came together in the 1300s at Cliff phase sites in the Upper Gila.
By my calculations, we—that is, I, Deborah Huntley, and several volunteers—examined around 23,000 sherds from the sites in Mule Creek. The compositional study required selecting sherds for analysis from a number of existing collections, and therefore involved collaboration with several institutions, including the researchers at the University of Missouri Research Reactor (who did the actual irradiation of the sherds).
The arguments we’ve made about the Upper Gila sites are based on the artifacts we collected through field work, but also on a long tradition of past research and interpretation. The point I want to make here is that, while field work is a critical part of archaeology and often offers more thrills than much of the daily grind of lab work, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of archaeological research. We backfilled our last units at Fornholt in July of 2012. In my next posts, I hope to give you an idea of just how much we’ve learned about the site since then.