Officials break ground for archaeology center

By Deborah Baker
Santa Fe, New Mexico (AP) 7-09

New Mexico officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking during July for a new state archaeology center. Fittingly, they used replicas of ancient digging sticks – used to plant seeds or dig holes – rather than shovels.

The $6.4 million project on the southwest edge of Santa Fe will provide a permanent home for an estimated 10 million artifacts in the state's collection.

Currently, those items are scattered among temporary storage sites in government buildings around Santa Fe. They had been kept in the basement of a state-owned former hospital in the city until 2004, when the basement flooded, damaging thousands of them.

``We desperately needed a home for these artifacts. ... We're taking a major step today to preserve our treasured past,'' said Gov. Bill Richardson.

The governor was given the fanciest of the wooden sticks – a hoe-like instrument called a tchamahia with a stone affixed to the end – to do his part in digging up a dusty clump of desert grass.


State archaeologists sift through the dirt for artifacts at sites where roads or other construction projects are planned. When they inspected the 25-acre plot for their own proposed Center for New Mexico Archaeology, they concluded it had been a hunter-gatherer camp.

There were thousands of flakes of obsidian and basalt left from toolmaking, along with arrowheads, tools for processing cactuses and other plants, and five hearths, said Stephen Post, deputy director of the Office of Archaeological Studies.

The camp is anywhere from 500 years to 3,000 years old; charcoal from the hearths will be radio carbon dated to determine that, Post said.

The state's collection of artifacts, some of them excavated more than a century ago, includes human bones and other items that have deep spiritual significance to Indian people. Under federal repatriation law, tribes have the right to decide whether artifacts they consider sacred materials are returned to tribal lands or held by museums.

For tribal members who would come to the archaeology center to view remains or associated funerary objects, the 34,000-square-foot building will include a private, indoor-outdoor space for prayers or ceremonies that would, for example, prepare them to be around the material or purify themselves afterward.

Christine Sims of Acoma Pueblo, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, reminded the audience at the groundbreaking that the science of archaeology must be tempered with respect.

``Many of the things we see here as artifacts ... they were once part of somebody's family,'' said Sims, who is on an advisory panel at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. ``Many of the things we see today (as artifacts) were meant to go with the people as they left this world.''

Construction of the state-funded center, which has been planned for five years, could begin within a couple weeks and is expected to take about 15 months.

The center is eventually planned to function also as an administration and research site for other state museums as well.