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History Close to Home

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

One reason why I chose to live in New Mexico (or perhaps why the L of E chose me) is its rich history. I know, no matter where you live, you can find interesting historical tidbits about people and places, but something about that intersection of the three cultures here, played out amidst such amazing scenery, has captivated me since my first excursion to Santa Fe and Taos more than 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, of late I haven’t been exploring the area too much to experience some of that history firsthand. I rectified that a bit yesterday, with a trip to the Puye cliff dwellings followed by a drive to Los Alamos. It was a day of contrasts: the ancestral Pueblos and 20th-century Americans, pottery shards and detritus of the Cold War. But all of it was framed by the Jemez Mountains and a sense that this is truly a unique place.

The Puye Cliffs

The Puye cliff (and mesa) dwellings date back to about the 900s and were occupied for almost 700 years. Today’s descendants of the residents live just to the east and north at Santa Clara Pueblo. The Santa Clarans administer the cliff site today and provide the guides for the tour.

Before the tour, I wandered around the Exhibition Hall, which had a one-day treat. Two state archaeologists were on hand, displaying artifacts—genuine and replica—representing some 14,000 years of New Mexico history. The state, you may know, was the home of two paleo-Indian sites that gave their name to past cultures: Clovis and Folsom. We saw arrowheads from the era, some made from obsidian, which turns up frequently at Puye (the Spanish, when confronting the Aztecs to the south, quickly learned of the acute sharpness of weapons made from this volcanic rock, and in modern times surgeries have been done with obsidian tools, which leave behind smaller scars). The discussion included a short lesson on how the paleo-Indians hunted, and how the dry New Mexico climate has helped preserve artifacts that would have disintegrated in other parts of North America.

We also heard how the first New Mexicans used the atlatl, as people around the world did to increase the range and force of their thrown missiles. The diffusion of the atlatl is a mystery: was it spread by migration and/or trade contact, or did it originate independently in areas as distant as Australia and South America? I don’t know, but I do know I love to say atlatl. Atlatl, atlatl, atlatl!

Thank you for indulging my juvenile diversion.

The archaeologists went on to explain how the ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants made a fiber from yucca, which was used for shoes, clothing, and baskets, among other items. One of the archaeologists explained that waterproofed yucca vessels could be used as cooking pots, with hot rocks dropped inside to warm a stew. In recent years, some Indians of New Mexico have been turning to that fiber again.

On the mesa

I added to the collection of shards and obsidian started by tourists before me.

For the tour itself, I chose the mesa dwellings, since I’d already seen the larger and better known cliff dwellings at nearby Bandelier. Sam was our guide, and he took us inside the kiva on the mesa, which is surrounded by the ruins of several buildings with many small rooms, one fairly well-preserved larger building, and a spot where a reservoir once sat (farming went on down below the mesa). Sam explained that artifacts still cover the site. The Santa Clarans had halted an early dig there when the Anglo professor in charge, Edgar Hewitt, took all the bones his team found of the long-dead dwellers and less than respectfully threw them into a heap, which he then covered with rocks. Today, Sam said, some tourists take home pieces of pottery they find (which is against the rules), only to return home and begin experiencing odd, supernatural occurrences. The shards are returned post haste.

To return to the welcome center, we had a choice of taking a van or walking down, then using a ladder, as the Pueblos once did, for the final descent. One woman in our party was game, so the rest of us followed. That simple choice showed the serendipity one must rely on when traveling/exploring. Although I sometimes unsteadily navigated the foot holes long ago cut into the rock, I made it down to the ladder. And on the ledge Sam pointed out petroglyphs, including one he said is perhaps the earliest depiction of a Spaniard in what became the United States. He also showed us a tiny piece of turquoise he found on the trail. The gemstone, like the pieces of obsidian we saw all around, came from mines not far from the dwellings.

The Spaniard clutching a heart–religious symbolism, or something more nefarious?

Coyote and roadrunner, pre-Warner Brothers

The tour at Puye is not cheap–$20 for what was supposed to be an hour, though ours was more like 90 minutes, thanks to the walking descent. And Bandelier gets all the attention for cliff-dwelling attractions. But this little excursion barely an hour from my home was rewarding because of Sam—a person with direct ties to the people who once lived there. And like other ruins of ancient Southwest cultures or the surviving pueblos of New Mexico, Puye awed me again with the resourcefulness of people who could thrive in such seeming isolation in a challenging environmental setting.

Leaving Puye, I headed for Los Alamos, on a drive that offers some stunning scenery. In the town, I headed for spot decidedly less ancient than Puye and less stunning than the drive: the Black Hole. Something of a Los Alamos institution, I only heard about it because it was holding its going-out-of-business sale this weekend. The Black Hole was the all-consuming passion of “Atomic Ed” Grothus. He called it a military surplus store, but from what I saw, nothing of it was the guns and camo you usually find in such places. Grothus gathered much of his surplus from the nearby Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb (Grothus once worked at “the  Lab,” as everyone here calls it, until he decided he’d rather not be at a place associated with nuclear annihilation.)

A must for every home–the atomic toilet!

Grothus was not overly about selling his wares; he just liked to accumulate them. As he told NPR a few years back, his store’s name reflected the fact that things enter the Black Hole, but they never leave. I wandered through the collection of atomic-era relics, mostly wondering what I was looking at. But a group of what I assumed to be artists, at-home tinkerers, and curio buffs seemed to be finding things to their liking. When the sale is over, I wonder if some of this stuff will end up in a dump—or a museum.

Our archaeologists back at Puye said that the essence of their work is using artifacts to explain how people lived. The obsidian and shards on the mesa tell one tale. What will the electronic equipment and pumps and pipes Ed gathered say about us? At least we can say, with I hope some conviction, that the nuclear holocaust that seemed so imaginable during the Cold War is a distant memory. But what the Los Alamos scientists wrought will never go away, even if the Black Hole does. The histories of the modern era and the ancestral Pueblos will still sit side-by-side here in northern New Mexico, and the History Nerd is better for it.

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People Come, People Go

November 10, 2009 Leave a comment

When I was a kid, my father pulled out an old arrowhead that came from somewhere around our house. I don’t know if he had found it;  maybe the workmen who built our house had. Sadly, I also don’t know where it ended up, that little piece of Connecticut history.

If I still had that arrowhead, I could bring it to Nick Bellantoni. He, of course, would have seen its value as an artifact. He might have been able to date it and tell me more about who made it. And if he’d been around when it had been discovered, maybe he would have called off the house building and called in his team. Bellantoni is the state archaeologist.

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Bellantoni holds a net sinker, used by CT Indians, well, to sink their fishing nets

Most states, by law, have a state archaeologist. Connecticut’s is supposed to “identify, manage, and preserve Connecticut’s archaeological resources.” In his job, Bellantoni works with Indian tribes to preserve skeletal remains; reviews privately funded development projects to watch for any impact on culturally important sites; and assists local officials in preserving history (among other duties). Last weekend, Bellantoni was in West Haven to speak about Connecticut’s Indian heritage, as he and other archaeologists understand it.

The talk was kind of an Archaeology 101, since the audience was mostly curious laymen attending a Native American arts and crafts festival. Bellantoni discussed the basic chronological periods archaeologists use to classify the different Indian cultures in North America: paleo (roughly 13,000 to 7,000 years ago), archaic (7,000 to 3,000 years ago), woodland (3,000 to 600 years ago), and contact (time of the first European explorations).

He also talked about the last great Ice Age, when the ice was a mile thick over Connecticut. The gigantic glacier, and later its melting waters, shaped southern New England. Pointing to Long Island Sound just a literal stone’s throw from the lecture hall, Bellantoni explained that it was once a fresh-water lake. The rising seas linked the lake to the Atlantic, and covered up some Indian villages in the region, meaning some archaeological treasures are almost impossible to find. The Mashantucket Pequots and scientist/deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard are teaming up to search for submerged sites off the New England shore.

Bellantoni described the hunter/gatherer lifestyle of Connecticut’s first settlers, noting that mastodons once plodded across the region. Archaeologists have located the huge mammals’ remains at six CT sites. Then he discussed the transition to a farming-based, more sedentary lifestyle, centered around the three main Indian crops across the Americas: beans, corn, and squash. But even as agriculture rose in importance, Connecticut’s Indians moved between seasonal sites. And the Sound, with abundant sea life, remained important to their culture.

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Connecticut has about 5,000 known archaeological sites.

With no written records, archaeologists study the artifacts the Indians left behind, and the signs of their impact on the environment. High-powered microscopes let the history detectives decipher the “scars” on arrowheads and other stone tools. The distinct markings help the archaeologists determine which were used to cut meat, which were for leather or plants. Some tools contain microscopic blood residue from slaughtered game, letting the scientists pinpoint which animals a long-ago hunter killed.

Along with going over the nuts and bolts of his trade, Bellantoni made three observations that struck me. We modern folk, out of the Western/Near Eastern tradition, are a people of technology. We have made great changes in lifestyle based on technological advances, and we judge other cultures by their technology, or lack thereof. From Columbus on, the Indians were judged inferior because their technology was inferior—no guns, no mills, no metal tools. Never mind that they had adapted well to their environment and had developed a spiritual worldview that some would argue surpassed the West’s.

The second point was environmental. As much as some moderns praise the Indians for their rich, respectful relationship with nature, sometimes they had a negative impact on their surroundings. The archaeological evidence along the Sound shows signs of the overfishing of oysters. At one point, the Indians were hauling in oysters as big as a man’s shoe. Over time, the catch featured oysters more like the size of the modern mollusk. (And a recent NYT article showed a native people’s negative impact in South America: Deforestation of the ecologically vital huarango tree in Peru started several thousand years ago, as the Nazca cleared the trees to plant cotton and corn. The decimation continues today.)

So, maybe romantic notions of the pure aborigines and indigenous people of the world have to be put in perspective. The ancient Indians were people, people trying to survive. They did some things very smartly. They did some things that affected their environment in harmful ways. Of course, you can’t overlook the fact that an invading people basically destroyed their lifestyle and introduced their own ills.

And that leads to the third point. Several times, Bellantoni wondered what some far-future archaeologists will think of the remains they find from Homo sapiens Americanus. The long-abandoned refrigerators filled with plastic containers. The silicone breast implants near decayed bones  (my example, not his). The radioactive waste dumps. I wondered if the audience had ever pondered this point, one I have: We Americans will not be around forever. For all the talk of a city on a hill and the indispensable nation, our empire will fall, as all the ones before it have. Americans will not endure, just as America will not endure, not over the epochs. We will be merely the  studied; no longer the studiers or makers of history (assuming, as Bellantoni did say in a less-than-cheery moment, 21st-century humans don’t annihilate the world first with nuclear weapons).

Bellantoni’s work helps us learn more about the Indian world of long ago. Archaeology in general helps us see the links between our culture and distant ones, and hopefully remind us that any given people and their artifacts are just a blip in the grand historic scheme.

Hidden Historic Treasures

October 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Non-historians tend to think of history as a dead thing – dead people, dead civilizations, maybe some dead languages (and yes, with the passing of Mr. Garcia lo those many years ago, even Dead Heads seem a relic of the past).  But some exciting discoveries in the past few weeks shows why history truly is a living entity, both because new facts are discovered and new theories develop, based on those facts or simply the ever-changing ideological winds.

Not exactly finder's keepers, but Terry Herbert should do all right.

Not exactly finder's keepers, but Terry Herbert should do all right.

A few months ago in England, a metal-detector-wielding amateur scooped pro archaeologists with his stunning find of 7th-century Anglo-Saxon gold and silver items, a discovery worthy of front-page play in the NYT. The cache included intricately worked items that adorned weapons and clothing, and experts think they were prizes ripped from defeated foes during or after battle. Under British law, the finder is due a sizable chunk for his share of the valuable find – somewhere around $1.5 million, by the latest estimate. Not bad for a middle-aged bloke who was on the dole while digging through the dirt. And the historians say the trove shows the level of craftsmanship at work during the time, an era often called “the Dark Ages.”

Serfs up! (Had to see that one coming, right?)

Serfs up! (Had to see that one coming, right?)

Some historians are increasingly claiming that the label is a misnomer. Sure, the Roman Empire was gone in the West, and the Renaissance (even the “mini-Renaissance” of the 12th century) was hundreds of years away. But Europe did not collectively crawl under a rock and wait to be revived by Abelard, Anselm, and Bacon; Chaucer, Petrarch, and Giotto (or even Tinkers, Evers, and Chance).  The monks of the British Isles and elsewhere wrote and created art. Skilled artisans crafted the tidbits recently found . And beyond the borders of the old Western Roman Empire, Byzantium and the Arab empires kept classical thought alive and, particularly with the Arabs, expanded on it. Not so dreary after all, unless you were a feudal serf, who, one book says, lived lives of “unrelieved drudgery.”

Ciao, Bella!

Ciao, Bella!

Of course, once the Renaissance did hit, you saw some sparkling scientific and artistic achievement, and the appearance of perhaps the greatest  “Renaissance Man.” Another recent discovery put good ol’ Leonardo da Vinci in the news. I’m glad I wasn’t the guy who had to relay the bad news to the previous owner of La Bella Principessa: “Yeah, that work you sold for $19k – well, it was actually done by da Vinci, and it’s probably worth, oh, 150. Million.”  And what was the telltale sign that it was the master’s work? A fingerprint. Evidently Leonardo often got his hands all over his work, and some high-tech sleuthing revealed that a print on the principessa matched one on a known da Vinci work. OK, aside from thinking, “That guy who sold it was a moron,” you have to think that it’s cool to have another work from one of the greatest minds of all time. You have to, damnit.

(In  the interest of fairness, let me say this story could take a twist; the Time article cited above points to a counterclaim – from an art dealer who once sold the painting –  that it is not a Leonardo. We shall see.)

Former home of the Crusaders -  the fighters, not the musicians

Former home of the Crusaders - the fighters, not the musicians

Our third find of historical import comes from Syria, card-carrying member – albeit second string – of the Axis of Evil. Gee, don’t you miss those heady days of early Bush II, with those pithy sayings and talks of crusades? Appropriately enough, the new discovery relates to the Crusades, the real ones, back when the monotheists unabashedly bashed it out in the Holy Land. Archaeologists working at an old crusader fortress,  the al-Marqab Citadel, found murals depicting scenes of heaven and hell. The citadel started as an Arab fort in the 11th century, came under Greek control, then ended up with the Western Crusaders during the 13th century (my source for this is sketchy…).

The murals, about 8 feet by 11 feet, are on the walls of a chapel inside the fort and represent images of heaven and hell. A little more detail, courtesy of MSNBC: “The panel depicting hell shows people being tortured inside a wheel covered with knives and others being hanged and burnt, said Marwan Hassan, head of the Department of Antiquities in Tartous. The one portraying heaven includes saints surrounded by light colors.”

So this is Yankton...(or just outside it)

So this is Yankton...(or just outside it)

The experts say the artwork is rare, since the Crusaders moved around a lot and didn’t have time to do much painting (and there was all that fighting stuff too). The murals should give insight into the mindset of the Crusaders – or at least the ones stuck on this godforsaken slice of Syria, far from the hustle and bustle of Damascus and Jerusalem. It’s probably the equivalent of doing National Guard reserve duty in Yankton, South Dakota. (I’ve been to Yankton. I might prefer Syria – at least you can get decent hummus and falafel.)

For all three discoveries, the research goes on, new info will come out. The History Nerd gets excited about finds like these, as you can tell. Long-lost letters and documents are cool too. Even the diaries of common folk, hidden away in an attic, can reveal so much about an era. So, start hunting through Grandma’s old trunks, and if you see a guy with a gray beard walking around the Connecticut shore with a metal detector, it might be me.