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Archaeology & Culture

Encountering the Prehistoric People of New Mexico

Join pioneering excavations of prehistoric quarries in the Valles Caldera and discover how humans interacted with this volcanic landscape 10,000 years ago.


The remote Valles Caldera, formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, provides a one-of-a-kind glimpse into human history.

Obsidian: people used this gleaming black rock for centuries to make arrowheads, knives, and other essential tools. On this expedition, you’ll help archaeologists investigate prehistoric obsidian quarries in New Mexico’s stunning and remote Valles Caldera National Preserve. Your work will help reveal how, exactly, past people used this natural resource and the land around it.

You’ll spend most of your days in Obsidian Valley, an intensely quiet, beautiful site that conveys a palpable sense of the ancient past. As the occasional eagle glides overhead, you and your team members will dig into the valley floor, then sift through the removed dirt to find artifacts. You’ll also help transport finds to the lab where you’ll organize and record them. For almost two weeks, you’ll live the life of an archaeologist.

To better inform your work, project scientists will tell you all you need to know about the recent and ancient cultural history of the Southwest, making and using stone tools, and the geology of the area. You’ll have an unparalleled opportunity to get to know the caldera, and your work will help build our understanding and appreciation of how people have enjoyed this landscape across the millennia.

The facts

Why the research is important

Why the research is important

You won’t find the typical Southwestern archeological sites in this volcanic landscape. Help researchers decode completely different evidence from our past.

Humans have shaped the land of the Valles Caldera for over 10,000 years - but only 15% of the preserve has been checked for archaeological sites.

We still have a lot to learn about how ancient people used this land and how the environment may have shaped their communities. We do know that the archaeological record in the Valles Caldera National Preserve is dramatically different than in surrounding areas: instead of the iconic adobe cliff dwellings, pueblos, and pottery - the remnants of early Pueblo agrarian societies - that cover the rest of the Southwestern U.S., the surface of the caldera is dotted with both large and small scatterings of prehistoric obsidian artifacts.

Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico, USA

Learn about the geology of the Valles Caldera, the local and regional history, and Stone-Age technology.

The unique archaeological record in the preserve, then, could help us understand not only the broader geographies and economies of the area’s people - for example, when and why did they use the land in the caldera? Who might they have traded with there? - but also to explore how people lived in the Southwestern U.S. for many thousands of years before the relatively recent Pueblo farmers. Ultimately, a better understanding of both ecological and cultural history of the place will help us preserve and share the lessons learned from its invaluable cultural resources.

About the research area

Valles Caldera, New Mexico, United States, North America & Arctic

 

Northern New Mexico is famous for its archeological heritage. But even within this culturally rich region, the Valles Caldera, in the middle of the Jemez Mountains, stands out. Long a site of earthly and spiritual importance to native Pueblo people, the caldera has more recently hosted ranchers, hunters, miners, scientists, and moviemakers looking for authentic Western scenery. The preserve is also home to a great diversity of wildlife, including elks, black bears, lynx, weasels, prairie dogs, and eagles (not to mention five species of slime mold!).

Jemez Springs (population 250) boasts gorgeous canyon views and natural hot springs. The village runs a bathhouse with hot springs access and massage services, and there are many other interesting sights: two churches, a cloistered nunnery, a Buddhist retreat center, art galleries, and several dining options, including a French bakery and an Old-West-style saloon and restaurant.

Daily life in the field

Itinerary

This is a summary:

  • Day 1: Meet the team and researchers, project introduction
  • Day 2: Van tour of Valles Caldera National Preserve, talks on geology and stone tool technology
  • Days 3-9: Fieldwork, one full free day to explore the area
  • Day 10: Departure

 

Each morning, you’ll drive past herds of elk and chattering prairie dogs into the heart of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to begin fieldwork. You’ll usually stay outdoors from the morning through early or late afternoon, and then spend some late afternoons in the lab.

In the evenings, you can relax at the Science and Education Center or attend optional evening talks (in the center’s classroom space) from both project scientists and guest speakers. You’ll learn about the geology of the Valles Caldera, the local and regional history, and Stone-Age technology. You’ll also likely see a live demonstration of flintknapping (the process of making a stone tool). You may even get to try your hand using an atlatl, a prehistoric spear launcher. You’ll hear from experts while on breaks during your days in the field on topics ranging from wildfire management, wildlife biology, and the oral traditions of the Pueblo people.

The team will have one full free day near the middle of the expedition, when you can plan to explore some of the activities in the area—there are so many that you may want to plan time before or after your expedition to take them all in. You’ll also have some free time in the early mornings or after fieldwork has ended for the day during which you can explore Jemez Springs.

Note: Field conditions and research needs can lead to changes in the itinerary and activities. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

Volunteer archaeologists, New Mexico, USA

Document extraordinary findings that will help protect a National Preserve.

The Scientists

MEET THE LEAD SCIENTIST

Anastasia
Steffen
Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico & Cultural Resources Coordinator, Valles Caldera National Preserve

ABOUT Anastasia Steffen

Anastasia Steffen has led inventory of cultural resources at the Valles Caldera National Preserve since its creation in 2000. Her research interests include prehistoric stone technology, debitage analyses, and landscape-scale management of cultural resources. Ana is passionate about all things related to fire, obsidian, volcanoes, and hot springs.

READ MORE +

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations and Food

Reviews

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