The grasslands of the East Fork Area of the Jemez River from Cerro La Jara (November 2007).

The UNM 2009 Southwestern Archaeological Field School will be held from June 8 to July 10, 2009, in the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.  High alpine meadows, forested mountains, perennial streams, and multiple large obsidian flows have drawn hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists to this place since humans first set foot in New Mexico at the end of the Ice Age.  However, little is known about how they used this place other than to obtain obsidian, whether they used this place more during some periods than others, and whether this landscape played an important role in Archaic and Paleoindian settlement and subsistence systems.

This year’s Field School marks the beginning of the Valles Caldera Archaeology and Paleogeography Project (VCAPP), a multi-year investigation of the importance of high altitude landscapes to Southwestern hunter-gatherers.  VCAPP seeks to understand how environmental and cultural changes may have affected the pattern of human use of the Valles Caldera over the course of the Holocene.  Thus, the project is concerned with both the archaeological record of landscape use as well as the geological and paleoecological records of landscape change that may affected the attraction of this landscape to hunter-gatherers over time.

The VCNP is an 89,000 acre wilderness area with valley floor elevations close to 8600 feet above sea level and mountain peaks that reach up to 10,200 feet at their highest points. The preserve encompasses the Valles Caldera, the remains of a large volcanic eruption 1.25 million years ago.  Volcanic activity continued beyond the primary eruption, resulting in the formation of a large resurgent dome known as Redondo Peak, and a ring of smaller rhyolite domes that gives the Caldera the appearance of a bear paw in aerial photographs.  Two of these rhyolite domes, Cerro del Medio and Rabbit Mountain, contain large obsidian flows on their surfaces.   Prehistoric use of these flows as quarries was extensive, as evidenced by the amount of reduction debris left behind at these locations today.

But the Valles Caldera offers other resources that may have been of equal interest to prehistoric hunter-gatherers.  These include extensive grasslands capable of supporting large deer and elk populations, as well as habitat for bears, mountain lions and other animals.  Perennial streams would have been an important resource, particularly in dry summers when rain might fall only at the highest elevations, and streams dry up before reaching the parched bottomlands. 

Within the VCNP, the project area that will be the focus of fieldwork in Summer 2009 is the East Fork of the Jemez River, where one branch of the Jemez River drains the large grassy meadow of the Valle Grande.  The East Fork area is one of the few roadless areas in the VCNP.  It is also an area where no archaeological work has been conducted:  the work done by this field school will be the first inventory of the archaeological record along this important river corridor that connects the VCNP to the Jemez Valley, the Rio Puerco Valley, and points south and west of the mountains.

Cerro del Medio in the Valle Grande, in the southern part
of the VCNP (photo by Scott Worman).