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University of North Florida & University of Missouri 76 Draw Project

            I am co-director with Drs. Todd and Christine VanPool (of the University of Missouri) of a field project centered on the borderlands between Chihuahua and New Mexico that seeks to expand our understanding of the development of the Casas Grandes culture.  The site we are investigating, called the 76 Draw site, lies at the northern edge of the Casas Grandes phenomena just south of Deming, New Mexico.  For the past several years, my colleagues and I have been arguing that Casas Grandes was primarily a religious center.  From this perspective, a detailed examination of a community on the periphery of the Casas Grandes sphere of influence is essential to our understanding the nature of this religious system.  After two seasons of ground penetrating radar surveys and one season of preliminary sub-surface excavations at 76 Draw, we are convinced that this site presents a wonderful opportunity to test our model.  The 2010 season at the site will provide us with (1) the opportunity to train students in scientific archaeological field methods, (2) the opportunity to salvage critical prehistoric remains that are in danger of natural destruction, and (3) the necessary data to test our model.  We are currently preparing a National Science Foundation grant proposal to fund two years of fieldwork at the site. 

See below for more background information and a description of our previous work.

            Sometime at the beginning of the thirteenth century A.D., a large, urban community of several thousand people emerged in one of the harshest deserts of the Americas.  This community, called Casas Grandes due to the size of its ruins, developed in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, 130km south of the Mexico-U.S. border.  The ruins of the site are indeed impressive, stretching out over 120 acres with standing adobe walls reach two stories high.  When the site was excavated by archaeologists in the 1960s, they uncovered a complex community that included intricately decorated multi-color ceramics, carved stone implements, platform and effigy mounds, ball courts, a canal system that included an underground walk-in well, altars and other ceremonial spaces, copper bells, millions of pieces of shell, and thousands of pieces of turquoise, as well as evidence that the ancient people of Casas Grandes raised colorful macaws and turkeys.  The site persisted for over two hundred year, and then mysteriously collapsed.  However, during its height, its influence spread over at least 250 km around the main settlement.  What is clear is that Casa Grandes was a complex community that had far-reaching impact.  What is still debated by archaeologists is how the community developed, what was the nature of its influence over the surrounding area, and why did it collapse.
            While considerable work has been conducted at Casas Grandes (DiPeso 1974, DiPeso et al. 1974) and in the area immediately surrounding it (Whalen and Minnis 2001, 2009), less has been done in the far-flung hinterland of the culture area.  Surveys and limited examinations of sites and materials from the area just north of Casas Grandes in southern New Mexico indicates that the prehistoric peoples from this region participated in the cultural, economic, and religious sphere of influence of Casas Grandes. However, the exact nature of that participation is not currently known. Some scholars have suggested that Casas Grandes did not exert direct influence over the region; while others argue for direct control by Casas Grandes.  In essence, the question is how the emergence of Casas Grandes as a major urban center in the region impacted the surrounding area.  It seems to us then that understanding the structure and level of integration of more distant sites from Casas Grandes is central to understanding the development and nature of Casas Grandes itself.

2006 Fieldwork

          In the summer of 2006, under permit from the Mexican government’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Drs. Christine VanPool and Todd VanPool (of the University of Missouri) and I co-led an archaeological field research project in conjunction with scholars from INAH that conducted an extensive, reconnaissance survey of a region just north of Casas Grandes.  The area selected for examination was the region surrounding the town of Janos approximately 60km north of Casas Grandes and 75km south of the U.S. – Mexico international boundary.  The purpose of this initial archaeological reconnaissance was to visit, explore, and identify regions and sites for future archaeological exploration.  Ourproject located and surface surveyed over two dozen sites including; lithic scatters, petroglyph sites, agricultural features, late (A.D. 1200 – 1450) and early (A.D. 600 - 1200) prehistoric sites, possible Mimbres sites, historic settlements, and modern shrines.  Surface features and artifacts included; roasting pits, ball courts, exposed walls, ground and chipped stone artifacts, prehistoric pottery, historic glass, human and animal bone, shell, obsidian, turquoise, and copper objects.  This fieldwork led to presentations at professional meeting by students and faculty (Rakita et al. 2007a & b) and a forthcoming international publication (Van Pool et al., in press).  Subsequent to our fieldwork, we submitted a National Science Foundation Senior Research grant proposal for funding of a three year intensive exploration of the archaeological remains in this region (NSF proposal #0714907 with a budget of $74,415 at UNF and $147,685 at MU).  The proposal was returned with a recommendation for a revise-and-resubmit. Of six individual reviews, one rated the proposal as very good to good, one rated it very good, and three rated the proposal as excellent.  The panel “very strongly encourage[d] the principal investigators to consider submitting a revised proposal.”  In the meantime, however, violence related to narco-trafficking in northern Mexico has rendered fieldwork with students unadvisable.  Therefore, we have shifted our fieldwork north of the Mexico-U.S. border and are currently undertaking the necessary revisions to our NSF proposal.

2008 Fieldwork

         In the summer of 2008, we conducted field surveys in the northern-most portion of the Casas Grandes region; an area that falls within southern New Mexico.  During this season we identified an archaeological site that holds the potential to answer many of the questions we have regarding the relationship of Casas Grandes to its northern hinterland.
            The 76 Draw site (State of New Mexico site number: LA 156980) lies at the far northern edge of the Casas Grandes interaction sphere 30 km south of Deming, New Mexico and 180 km north of Casas Grandes. The site was apparently visited by E.B. Sayles earlier, but was first reported by Donald Brand (1933: 68, see also 1943:132–133), who indicates it was the northernmost Casas Grandes period (AD 1200 - 1450) culture settlement he discovered.  The site lies north of the 76 Draw (a seasonally dry creek bed).  The terrain is typical Chihuahuan desert scrubland with large quantities of mesquite and creosote bushes, rabbit brush, snake weed, grasses, cacti, and yuccas.  Currently, the land is utilized for cattle grazing.  The site is immediately visible as a scatter of surface materials including stone and pottery artifacts over a 500 by 350 meter area split between privately-owned (ca. 90%) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM, 10%) land.  A two-track, dirt road bisects the site into north and south halves.  Closer inspect revealed several exposed adobe walls, concentrations of burned adobe, a probable roasting pit, remains of animals, projectile points, large mounded deposits typical of prehistoric habitation ruins, and several possible platform mounds and plaza areas.  The pottery fragments from the site suggest it was occupied during the later prehistoric periods (ca. AD 1000 – 1400).  Recent flooding from seasonal rains and the breaching of a retaining dam further up the draw has caused significant alluvial erosion on the middle portion of the site (north of the BLM section and south of the road).  This erosion has seriously deflated any archaeological remains that existed in this part of the site.  Indeed, during the 2008 season, we were unable to closely examine the privately owned portion of the site due to flooding.
            In 2008 we conducted a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of a small section on the BLM portion to: 1) evaluate the potential of GPR in the 76 Draw region, and 2) assess the research potential of the site.  GPR sensing was conducted in a 6 meter by 10 meter area of aeolian dunes adjacent to the 76 arroyo.  While the dune itself was not wet, recent and heavy monsoonal rains produced standing water (which generally hurts GPR’s effectiveness) near the dune’s base.  The survey area was covered with light grasses, salt brush, and mesquite, most of which was cleared before the GPR survey.  A light ceramic and stone artifact scatter extended downhill from the survey area, and the southern edge was heavily disturbed by burrowing animals (possibly prairie dogs).  The results of the 2008 GPR survey indicated that GPR is broadly applicable in the 76 Draw region.  For example, the rodent disturbance on the survey area’s southern edge was clearly shown as a high amplitude anomaly ranging from the surface to at least ½ meter deep.  There was also a linear high amplitude area extending ½ meter deep running from the southeast corner to the middle of the northern edge of the survey area.  This corresponds generally to an area with less vegetation than the rest of the survey zone, perhaps indicating that recent rains penetrated into the exposed area, saturating the subsurface soil, which in turn produced the high amplitude GPR signal.  Based on these results, we conclude that intact subsurface deposits were possibly present.  Our field work, along with other research on the Casas Grandes culture by us, our students, and others was presented at both regional and national professional meetings (Rakita and VanPool 2009; VanPool and Rakita 2008).

2009 Fieldwork

            As a result of our 2008 work, we initiated a joint UNF/MU field project in the summer of 2009 to pursue excavations of both the private and BLM portions of the 76 Draw site.  With the permission of the landowner and a permit from the BLM, we and fifteen students from the Universities of North Florida and Missouri conducted four weeks of fieldwork at the site.  Our work included mapping the site, conducting extensive additional GPR surveys, surface collection of select artifacts (including 46 projectile points), and sub-surface excavation at two locations.  Mapping involved the training of students and subsequent use of a Sokkia ST6 electronic distance measuring (EDM) transit.  Over the course of the season, students collected over 800 individual mapping points to map the over 175,000m2-large site and its visible surface features and artifacts.  Field crews also conducted over 4,450 meters of GPR survey including a 20m x 9m intensive survey grid and over 3,000 meters of individual lines.  Detailed analysis of the EDM mapping and GPR data are currently ongoing.
            We also conducted excavations at two locations.  We opened a 10m by 10m unit near a concentration of exposed walls and burned adobe just south of the road and a 4m by 4m unit on the BLM portion of the site.  The BLM unit was excavated to determine the sub-surface nature of the high sand dunes on this portion of the site and to test the results of the 2008 and 2009 GPR surveys.  A paucity of artifacts and generally loose sandy deposits overlaying more dense layers suggests that the BLM dunes are just that; wind-blown sandy deposits over water-laid sediments.  GPR results suggested sub-surface deposits, however these may have been false readings generated by rodent activity, invasive vegetation, and the denser layers.
            The 10x10 unit, however, exceeded expectations.  This unit was placed in the portion of the site heavily impacted by flooding with the hope of salvaging any remaining prehistoric materials.  However, our excavations exposed at least 1 meter of cultural materials.  In all, this unit contained intact adobe wall segments, the floor and wall foundations of a much older habitation structure (a pit house), a possible human burial (left unexcavated), over 13,000 pottery fragments, 10,000 pieces of animal bone, and 6,000 stone artifacts.  Student field crews conducted the majority of the excavations, field paperwork, and laboratory cataloging of the excavated materials under the supervision of the Project Director (Dr. C. VanPool), the Field Director (Dr. T. VanPool) and the Laboratory Director (Dr. Gordon Rakita).
            While laboratory processing of the data and artifacts is still ongoing, we do have some preliminary results of our fieldwork and have already presented at a regional conference (Van Pool et al. 2009).  To begin with, the 76 Draw site exhibits a curious mixture of traits from nearby cultural areas.  For example, the use of coursed adobe architecture is a familiar Casas Grandes cultural practice.  However, the walls at 76 Draw are composed of a much softer adobe mixture than commonly seen further south and their orientation (NE-SE) is more typical of groups living to the east and north (the Jornada Mogollon).  Also found at the site were several collared hearths of the type found at Casas Grandes sites indicating a cultural connection to the south.  Additionally, the site contained numerous pieces of Casas Grandes pottery (Ramos and Escondida polychromes).  However, we also found many examples of pottery from cultures to the north (Mimbres) and the east (El Paso polychrome).  Animal remains indicate dietary or economic practices that also have a connection to nearby regions.  The 10m by 10m portion of the site seems to contain large numbers of lagomorph (rabbit) remains.  A site, Villa Ahumada, to the south with connections to both the Jornada and Casas Grandes cultures contained a similar large number of rabbit remains.  Finally, the older habitation structure is similar to that found during a time period prior to the rise of Casas Grandes, and thus might provide crucial information about the historical development of the 76 Draw community.
            Continued research at the 76 Draw site has considerable potential to shed light on the nature of the Casas Grandes culture.  Through further archaeological explorations of the mosaic of cultural traits exhibited in at the site, we should be able to clarify the nature of the interaction between the ancient inhabitants of 76 Draw and both Casas Grandes to the south and other cultures to the north and east.  It is also clear that deep deposits at the site will provide crucial information regarding the early settlement in the area and how that settlement grew into an impressively large, community with clear ties to far-off cultures.