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Parametrix Archaeologists Conduct Salvage Excavation of Human Remains in Eastern New Mexico

Ethan Kalosky | 9-27-2018

Co-Authored by Greg Mastropietro and Jessica Alden

It was a calm evening on the plains of eastern New Mexico in mid-August of this year. The sun was slowly setting and painting the sky in hues of yellows, oranges, reds, pinks, and purples reflecting off wispy cirrus clouds. A man was out walking along a desolate dirt road, the nearest house at least half a mile away. The man, Darren Pollock, is an entomology professor at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) in Portales, New Mexico. As he walked along the road about 30 miles west of Portales, swishing his bug net to collect samples of assassin flies for further study, he noticed a strangely shaped rock protruding out of the road cut. Naturally, his scientific curiosity led him to further investigate, and after careful digging, he removed a large stone spear point measuring 8.5 inches in length. Thrilled with his discovery, Dr. Pollock returned to the site with his son. Upon further exploration, they discovered human bones in the vicinity of the spear point.

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Stone spear point as initially discovered by Dr. Pollock

Knowing the potential significance of the discovery, Dr. Pollock contacted an archaeological colleague at ENMU, Dr. Brendon Asher – Director of the Blackwater Draw Museum. The two were very excited about the discovery because the spear point was potentially of Paleoindian age (8,000 to 11,000 years old), and few burials from this period have been found in New Mexico or the American West. Additionally, the burial was discovered not far from the Blackwater Draw Site, which is where the first Clovis Point was discovered. Clovis is largely accepted as the earliest culture in North America.

They returned to the discovery location and contacted the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office to notify them about the discovery of human remains. While the presence of a stone spear point next to human bones implies that the burial is prehistoric, any discovery of human remains must be reported to the appropriate authorities until it is determined that they are not part of a crime scene. The Sheriff’s Office agreed that the remains were prehistoric, at which point Dr. Pollock and Dr. Asher covered the remains with dirt and began contacting colleagues to determine an appropriate strategy for removing them in advance of potential disturbances such as erosion or unauthorized excavation.

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Parametrix’s team of archaeologists were at the burial site in east-central New Mexico near the Texas boarder within 48 hours of being contacted.

Given the location of the burial within a road cut, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) offered to provide funding to remove the burial. Earlier this year, Parametrix was awarded an on-call contract with NMDOT to provide services related to cultural resources. As a result, NMDOT asked us to conduct an emergency salvage excavation of the burial to prevent future damage. Our crew of archaeologists, consisting of Jeff Fredine, Greg Mastropietro, Jessica Alden, and myself, mobilized immediately and were at the burial site in east-central New Mexico, near the Texas border, within 48 hours from being notified of the discovery. 

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Jeff and Ethan screening burial sediments and looking for artifacts

On our first day of fieldwork we met with Dr. Asher and Dr. Pollock, who were able to describe what they had seen upon initial discovery. We then conducted an archaeological survey of the area to define the extent of cultural remains. And then, right as we were about to start putting shovels and trowels into the ground, a monsoon storm opened upon us, with torrential downpours for nearly an hour that turned the dirt into a slick, sloppy, soup.

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Burial site covered by tarp during sudden monsoon storm

The next day we returned to the site and began excavation. By mid-afternoon, we came down upon the burial and started exposing the bones. There were a few scattered puffy clouds in the sky but it appeared our chances for being rained on were low. As soon as we uncovered the bones, however, the clouds converged into a wicked storm cell that unleashed torrential rains directly on our location. We were able to quickly cover the burial with a plastic tarp and then retreated to the trucks for shelter. The rain was nearly sideways, the wind was fierce, and the storm sat over us for about an hour. From the safety of the trucks, we watched the road become a fast-flowing waterway and prayed that the tarps would hold firm.

Eventually the storm passed, and in the late afternoon we pulled the tarp off the excavation. Fortunately, the bones were dry and undamaged by the storm. 

By the end of the day, we had exposed all that we could find of the human remains and associated artifacts. In addition to the stone spear point, we found over ten shell beads, a bird-bone bead and a shaped shell pendant that has the appearance of a circular saw. The bones we uncovered consisted of two femurs, two tibias, a fibula, one rib, a radius, an ulna, and portions of a pelvis; basically the lower half of a body, save for two teeth found down slope north of the burial. The femurs, tibiae, and fibula were all overlapping, suggesting that the individual was buried in crouched or fetal position. Given the position of the burial along the slopes of the road cut, it is likely that the upper half of the body was removed during initial road construction long ago. Several rodent burrows were also observed near the burial during our excavation. Rodent activity has a tendency to disturb dirt and shift bones and artifacts.

The next steps are to conduct osteological analysis of the remains to try and determine the age and sex of the individual, as well as figure out how old the burial is. Dating the burial can be pretty tricky. Initially, we thought that the spear point could be of Paleoindian age. However, based on conversations with other archaeologists who specialize in stone tools, we are thinking that the burial and spear point are likely around 2,000 years old. Determining the most accurate date-range for when the individual was buried may require radiocarbon dating of the collagen within the bones. This process, however, may be subject to consultation between the NMDOT and Native American tribes who may want to rebury the remains without invasive analysis.  

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Spear point and beads; three of the beads are Olivella shell, likely originating from the Sea of Cortez or Gulf of Mexico

One of the things that frequently happens on archaeological projects is that we walk away with more questions than answers. Was this individual traveling from a coastal region where shells were more prevalent? Or, were the shells and spear point traded for? Was this person intentionally buried with the artifacts? Or did the person pass away alone and their remains naturally buried? Was the spear point actually used for hunting, or was it manufactured for ceremonial purposes? And most curious of all: how old is the burial and who made the beautifully crafted spear point? Please stay tuned and we will update you as we learn more!