Research team to take fresh look at delicate artifacts

Tech
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A team of researchers is getting federal funding to analyze perishable artifacts as part of an effort to better understand the people who lived in and around caves in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas centuries ago

Sandals and baskets that have withstood the ravages of time will be among the perishable artifacts analyzed by a team of scientists looking to learn more about a corner of the southwestern United States that was first excavated decades ago.

Depending on what they uncover, officials are hopeful that the $200,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will lead to more research opportunities in the Guadalupe Mountains, which straddle the New Mexico-Texas line and are situated within one of the nation’s busiest oil and gas basins.

The University of New Mexico is partnering with the Lincoln National Forest, the University of Pennsylvania, the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center, the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the Carlsbad Museum and Art Center.

The team plans to use existing museum collections to build a time line of basket and sandal styles used by those who once inhabited the area. They also will take a new look at two rock shelter sites using new technologies, including a drone and photogrammetric mapping.

The project is spearheaded by Robert Dello-Russo and Alexander Kurota of the University of New Mexico’s Office of Contract Archaeology.

“This study will ensure meaningful consultation with, and self-determination for, the Native American tribes who claim ancestry with the Guadalupe Mountain region,” Dello-Russo said in a statement.

No ceremonial artifacts will be subjected to any kind of analysis as part of the project, officials said.

The Guadalupe Mountains still represent an important spiritual sanctuary for the Mescalero Apache, a once nomadic Native American tribe now based in south-central New Mexico.

The Mescalero Apache harvested plants such as agave, sotol and bear grass. The agave’s fibers were used for ropes, blankets and sandals.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, excavations of Burnet’s Cave and Hermit’s Cave during the 1930s uncovered artifacts made of fiber, wood and feathers. They included sandals, baskets, ropes, fiber bundles and grass rings that are now part of museum collections.

Officials say most of the artifacts have not been examined since their excavation some 80 years ago, before the development of radiocarbon dating. The new analysis will allow the artifacts to be placed into more precise time periods.

The research will determine whether the perishable artifacts can be linked to farmers of the Formative era, which dates from 1000 BC to 500 A.D., or to hunter-gatherer communities stretching back thousands of years.

The researchers say the preservation of such perishable items is of utmost importance as they can provide invaluable knowledge about the daily lives of those who lived on the land long ago.

They’re hoping to answer questions about what native plants were used and whether certain weaving or construction techniques were favored at certain times.

Elsewhere across the Permian Basin, contracts have been awarded for other archaeological work, including surveys and limited excavation at 36 sites located in Salado Draw in southeastern New Mexico.

Officials say a number of prehistoric sites were found there — all discovered while surveying for oil and gas wells or pipelines. They believe human activity in the draw dates as far back as 12,000 B.C.

That work will include looking at pollen and charred plant materials found in hearths or roasting pits.

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