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The Treasures of Tularosa Cave

In 1950 Field Museum anthropologist Paul Martin hit the motherlode: a dry cave in New Mexico that hid tens of thousands of artifacts of a little-known Native American culture. Most of them are still in storage at the museum, waiting for someone to unlock


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Near the end of the Underground Adventure exhibit at the Field Museum is a small display case with a few Native American artifacts collected in New Mexico in 1950--corncobs, squash seeds, a turkey foot, a muskrat-skin bag, a piece of shell on a cord, a black corrugated pot, a miniature bow and two arrows, a child's sandal. They're unassuming things. Yet they're more than 1,000 years old, part of a larger collection in the museum's storage rooms that's one of the best and longest records of a prehistoric culture in North America.

The objects had been left in Tularosa Cave, which was occupied from 350 BC (give or take 200 years) to AD 1100. Centuries of windblown dust had buried them in layers, until they were uncovered by a team of archaeologists led by Paul Martin, chief curator of the museum's anthropology department. A native of Winnetka and a graduate of the University of Chicago, he'd been hired as a curator in 1929, and his love of the American southwest would push his department's work in that direction for most of his 43-year tenure. He personally oversaw more than 70 archaeological digs in the region, almost half the department's expeditions, and brought back hundreds of thousands of artifacts.

Many of the objects from Tularosa are remarkable because they're so rare. In the open corncobs, yucca sandals, and wooden arrow shafts rot, but in the cave, which was dust dry, they were perfectly preserved. Researchers glean information from such things that they can't from stone or pottery, though even a potsherd can be telling. Some of the objects in the collection give a sense of a people across time, others of an individual caught in a moment. Changes in the corn they ate tell us they were selecting varieties that grew best in their fields and offered the most nutrition. A dwindling number of corncobs and squash seeds and an increase in the number of wild plants at one level in the cave suggests they were coping with a drought. A feather from a scarlet macaw, a species that lives in southern Mexico, must have been carried a great distance, though we can only guess what significance it had.

In the 1930s archaeologists believed the area of west-central New Mexico around Tularosa Cave had been inhabited in prehistoric times by the Anasazi, the people who built the famous cliff dwellings of the Four Corners region. Their culture had been studied for years, though most of the excavated sites were well north of Tularosa. When Martin first came to the Field Museum he spent several summers digging Anasazi sites in southwestern Colorado, including Lowry Pueblo, a large group of masonry buildings dating from around AD 1090. Then he read a 1936 book by archaeologist Emil Haury, who argued that the sites he'd dug in west-central New Mexico were different enough from Anasazi ones that the people who'd lived there had to be from a different culture, which he called Mogollon after a local mountain range.

This was heresy to many archaeologists, but in a 1937 review of the book Martin called the findings "astonishing" and "far-reaching." Two years later he and a team of workers began excavating a site in an area Haury had suggested to him. "It was an ambitious move," says Steve Nash, who's head of collections in the museum's anthropology department and is writing a book on Martin. "It would be easier for a young guy to make a name for himself doing Mogollon research, which was something that was inherently controversial, as opposed to digging more classic-period Anasazi sites. In the words of some scholars, Anasazi was a sucked orange at that point--which wasn't true, but that's what people said."

With the exception of the four years during the war, when gas was rationed, Martin, his assistant John Rinaldo, and crews made up of students and local laborers spent the next decade in New Mexico, digging sites that had been occupied as early as 1500 BC and as late as AD 1100. Many of their finds provided additional evidence that Haury, who'd moved on to other things, had been right. Early Mogollon axes were different from Anasazi axes of the same period. Mogollon and Anasazi kivas were different, and the Mogollon had built theirs earlier. Their pottery was different too, and the Mogollon had begun making theirs long before the Anasazi. "That's what ticked off the Anasazi specialists, quite honestly," says Nash. "Everyone wants to have the earliest." But Martin also saw that by AD 900 the Anasazi were influencing the Mogollon and that their influence only grew.

All of the Mogollon sites Martin and his crews dug were out in the open, so they rarely found anything beyond the most durable artifacts: stone tools, pottery, bones, and shell ornaments. They did find a few pieces of charcoal with tree rings that provided some precise dates, and they got rough dates by comparing the potsherds they dug up to pottery from sites of a known age. But they couldn't be sure how old many items were, and there were periods for which they had nothing that was datable. Even the objects they could date didn't tell them much about what the Mogollon ate, what they wore, what they used as containers besides pottery, or how these things had changed over time.

Martin knew a large, dry cave could fill some of the gaps, and he and Rinaldo spent several years looking for one. In the summer of 1949 they found four, including Tularosa, which was on U.S. Forest Service land just east of Aragon at an elevation of 6,762 feet. It sat at the top of a steep, rocky slope some 150 feet above the Tularosa River and was 30 feet wide at its opening and 40 feet deep. The mouth was well hidden, but looters had already dug four shallow pits.

In June 1950 Martin, Rinaldo, and a small crew returned to the cave. At some point it had been used as a donkey corral, and the surface of the dirt fill inside was covered with dung, along with pieces of relatively recent trash: calico, a medicine bottle, a mule shoe. They laid out a grid of two-meter squares and dug through them 20 centimeters at a time until they hit bedrock, which in some places was nine feet down. The dirt was dry and fine, and dust quickly filled the cave each morning, forcing everyone to wear goggles and respirators despite the heat. "If one walked or crawled from front to rear, an impenetrable cloud of powder arose," Martin later wrote. "It required about forty minutes for the pulverized, ashy particles to settle."

As the crew discovered objects they recorded the block in which each was found, often taking photographs and sometimes filming unusual finds. (Martin was one of the first archaeologists to use film to document a dig.) He and Rinaldo knew some dates for the styles of pottery and stone tools they found, and they assigned those dates to the perishable objects from the same level. They dug up six pots that were either in one piece or could be glued back together and 5,710 potsherds, mostly from bowls and jars. There was no pottery in the deepest layers of fill; the first fragments showed up sometime after 100 BC. Sherds that had been incised or painted--with parallel lines, saw teeth, scrolls, nested triangles--appeared after AD 500, and 200 years later came sherds from pots that had probably been made by the Anasazi and traded to the Mogollon. The archaeologists sorted through the sherds, discarding the plain ware ones and shipping the textured and painted pieces back to the museum.

They uncovered bows and arrows at even the deepest levels of the cave, and miniature ones, which Martin speculated might have been ceremonial objects, appeared after AD 700. At every level they found stone tools: knives, spear points, scrapers with animal tissue still on the edges, and corn-grinding basins, which were not as flat as Anasazi ones. The basins were also heavy, so they weren't sent to the museum.

Lots of corn turned up in almost every layer, and the oldest ears would later be radiocarbon-dated to set the earliest date for the cave at around 350 BC. Martin shipped 33,000 cobs back to the museum, along with 38 boxes of other plant remains--beans, nuts, cactus fruit, squash rinds, tied bundles of grass, sunflower-seed heads--and six boxes of animal bones, mostly deer and rabbit. "We have already shipped home 7 times as many cartons as we usually get in one season!" Martin wrote Clifford Gregg, director of the Field Museum, in early September. He also sent back a bag made of bison hide containing a pound of squash seeds as well as an unknown number of turkey mummies; the turkeys were all from before AD 500, which suggested the Mogollon had been domesticating them long before the Anasazi.

The archaeologists uncovered parts of 32 baskets, some at each level, including prepottery styles that hadn't appeared at Anasazi sites until much later. They found cigarettes made from reeds before AD 500, some with one end charred, wild tobacco still inside--something that had never been seen at any Anasazi site. Woven cloth, often made of cotton and sometimes dyed, started showing up around AD 700, and there were 956 pieces of cord from all periods, many with the same knots we still use--granny, square, half hitch. "Yesterday we made a marvelous find, a cache of two bundles of snares," Martin wrote Gregg. "Each snare is about six feet long and is provided with a large noose big enough to catch a deer or a mountain sheep. The yucca rope of each is braided, is about as thick as a lariat rope, and is as strong today as it was when it was made--which was prepottery times, about 2,500 years ago."

Five feet apart at the back of the cave they found the 1,200-year-old mummified remains of a man and a woman. He'd been buried on a deer or antelope hide laid over a bed of grass, a bundle of feathers lying on his chest. She was buried on a rush mat over grass and, like him, was facing south, half-reclining, arms crossed and knees bent. She was wrapped in a blanket of rabbit fur and near her feet was a coil of fiber, which Martin guessed would have been used to make baskets.

By the end of September, when they headed back to Chicago, Martin and his team had also unearthed wooden spoons, wooden drop spindles, cloth made of feathers, three cradles woven of strips of yucca and lined with grass, two polished shell bracelets, four reed flutes, two pieces of carefully carved and smoothed stone in the shape of feet, and 200 sandals for adults and children, most made of woven yucca leaves with loops to hold the toes and cords that went around the ankle. Some of the sandals were worn through at the heel, and there were also hide moccasins with holes that someone had carefully stitched closed.

"Everyone (by that I mean some of the arm-chair pessimists) prophesied that we would find no dry Mogollon materials comparable to that of the Anasazi for the reason that the Mogollon people were too simple and primitive to make sandals, fine textiles, etc," Martin wrote Gregg. "To our great joy, these crepe-hangers are wrong."

Over the next couple years Martin excavated more Mogollon caves in New Mexico, some that had been occupied almost as long as Tularosa, though none that yielded nearly as many artifacts. He also began focusing on later open-air sites, where the pottery and masonry showed the clear influence of the Anasazi. He found few 14th-century sites and none that had been occupied after AD 1400, though he knew some slightly later ones had been found in Arizona. In 1955 he began digging in the east-central part of that state.

He discovered that the Mogollon as a distinct culture had disappeared by around AD 1450, and in 1956 he wrote in the Field Museum's member bulletin that when the Mogollon left the area they might have merged with the early Hopi and Zuni cultures--a bold conjecture for the time. "If it wasn't his idea he was certainly putting it forth before anybody else," says Nash. In the same article Martin went even further: "I am making the wild guess that the Zuni language--a language that cannot as yet surely be fitted into any linguistic grouping and thus appears to stand alone--may be the Mogollon language! This is certainly going out on a limb, and someone may saw it off from under me." So far no one has.

The question of what became of the Mogollon hasn't been settled either, and Nash thinks it curious that he can find no evidence Martin ever asked anyone from the Hopi or Zuni pueblos what they thought. "If you want to know where the Mogollon went," he says, "go talk to the Zunis, see what their origin myths are, and then test the archaeological record against their myths."

Martin would continue trailing the Mogollon for the museum until 1972. In poor health for decades, suffering from diabetes and heart problems, he moved to Tucson, where he died two years later.

In the maze of storage rooms behind the museum's exhibition halls is a row of high metal shelves and banker's boxes filled with sealed plastic bags containing the bulk of what Martin shipped back from Tularosa--the corncobs, potsherds, bone tools, tied bunches of grass, sunflower leaves, knotted cord, basket fragments. There are also shallow wooden trays filled with bagged sandals, snares, coiled rope. A few small pots sit together on the back of one shelf.

As far as Nash knows, nearly everything Martin sent back is still there. With the exception of the foot in the Underground Adventure display case, the turkey mummies are gone. "They started to smell so bad the director of the museum made him get rid of them," Nash says. And last fall the remains of the man and woman were repatriated to members of the Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma pueblos, along with the objects that had been buried with them.

A few years ago Nash finished cataloging the 600,000 artifacts in the larger Martin collection, and descriptions of them are now online, where researchers can scan for objects they might want to study. He rarely hears from anyone. "People recognize Martin's collection and its importance, but they don't really come to study it," he says. "Most of the people who've come to look at it in the past seven years were my grad-school colleagues."

That frustrates Nash, who says a lot still can be learned from the material. In 1997 he sent out samples of burned roof beams Martin had gathered at some early sites but never dated, and he got back 17 precise tree-ring dates to take the place of Martin's ballpark figures. "We've never done radiocarbon dating on the entire sequence," he says. "One thing that we should do is go and select corn, select grasses, select squash from each of the excavation units, select a piece from all of the sandals, all of the blankets, and just radiocarbon-date the heck out of that." He's working on a grant proposal in hopes of getting funding for such a project.

In 2003 a group of researchers who'd taken DNA from old corncobs, including six from Tularosa, published a study in Science showing that Native Americans had been carefully selecting for cob size and quality of starch and protein for thousands of years. Nash thinks more could be learned from Tularosa corn because there's so much of it across so many centuries. Martin and his colleagues analyzed cobs from just two of the blocks they dug in the cave, and they pretty much just counted the number of kernel rows--though that provided evidence the Mogollon had selected for larger kernels. They also looked at only 13 percent of the other plant remains.

"Few of the analytical techniques that we have available to us today have been applied to that site," Nash says. "We could do all kinds of sophisticated analyses on the ceramics to figure out where they were coming from. The early brown ware sherds might be coming from nearby in the southwest. When the first black-and-white wares show up they may be coming from the Four Corners region. We know that generally, but with these kinds of analyses we could actually pinpoint it to some degree."

He also thinks that researchers could find out exactly where the few obsidian tools Martin found came from--the geochemistry of every volcanic area is unique--and that someone could use the basket fragments to look at the evolution of basket-making techniques. A researcher at the Peabody Museum told him it's probably possible to get human DNA from the spit on tobacco quids found in the cave.

In the preface to his 1952 report on Tularosa Cave, Martin complained about earlier archaeologists who hadn't documented their excavations well, then added, "Certainly some time in the future, students will criticize our own study and will feel frustrated because we did not obtain the proper information."

Perhaps he was thinking of how much he must have missed at Lowry Pueblo, where he'd used horses and a mining car to remove the fill. "He excavated 50 rooms over the span of four years, and in some days was moving 21 tons of dirt," says Nash. Martin saved only the nicest stone and bone tools, whole pots or pieces that could be glued into whole pots, and decorated sherds. Not counting the sherds, there are only 500 objects from the site in the museum's collection.

Even at Tularosa Martin missed details a modern archaeologist would have caught. Nash points out that Martin noted only which two-meter block an artifact was found in, not where within a block it was found, making it impossible to know how one thing might have been related to another or exactly when either was left in the cave. He also didn't record whether pack rats, common in the southwest, had burrowed through the fill and moved objects. "Think about what we could get if he'd only dug half the site," says Nash.

Still, Nash calls Martin's report on the cave a classic, and he praises Martin for publishing so much of what he discovered at so many of his sites. "Nobody of his generation--Haury or anybody else--published that many reports," he says. "People don't even do it today." Yet Martin didn't publish anything on 27 of his sites, and Nash doesn't even know where a few of them were. "The record keeping on those sites ranges from absolutely horrific--essentially no records kept--to reasonably good," he says. "Some of them, we've got artifacts, but we don't know the context that they came from. That's an indictment of Martin's record." When he visited Martin's field station in Arizona he found trenches filled with potsherds that had simply been left there. It's impossible to know where they came from.

"You dig the site, you destroy it," says Nash. "You can't go back to that site and reconstruct it and dig it again. That's why archaeologists today don't dig 100 percent of a site." Yet he knows that whatever Martin missed or threw away, the things he sent back to the museum could have been lost forever. Martin did leave one small corner of Tularosa Cave untouched, but when he came back a few years later looters had completely dug through it. The cave is now empty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Paul Martin, courtesy of the Field Museum, James Barter.


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