Researchers excavate site believed used by ancestors of several

Sunday, August 18, 2002

CIMARRON, N.M. -- Delayed by a threatening forest fire and a daily climb up a sheer cliff, archaeologists excavated and catalogued a seasonal rock dwelling they say may have been used 1,500 years ago by an ancient Indian family.

Warren Lail, a 51-year-old attorney-turned-archaeologist, has headed University of Oklahoma excavations at the Philmont Scout Ranch for two successive summers. He's focusing on a little-known area occupied by eastern Anasazi, believed to be ancestors of several Indian tribes.

Last year's site on Middle Ponil Creek has been radiocarbon-dated at A.D. 780. The nearby site excavated this summer on North Ponil Creek, Lail said, is about 200 feet higher and may be 200 years older -- atop a high rock ridge that requires mountain-climbing gear to reach. By late July, the team had gathered more than 800 artifacts, such as arrow points.

But the four-member group came close to losing everything. When lightning started several fires on the scout ranch in late May, the Oklahoma team was asked to stay clear of its excavation. The Ponil Complex fire burned 92,500 acres.

When the team did return 22 days later, they found charred brush less than 100 feet from the excavation, with its crisscrossing of yellow string and its laser-leveled camera.

Lightning, a perennial hazard, drives the research team off the canyon rim nine days out of 10, says graduate student Brian Lizzo of Chicago. The team usually pulls out by 3 p.m., when the rumblings start.

"We've been rushed off the mountain a few times," Lail said.

Probably used in autumn

Last summer, Lail had said if carbon-dating showed the sites studied in 2001 and 2002 were used concurrently, that could indicate the two sites had been used by the same family, migrating from site to site as seasons changed.

This summer's site is believed to have been used during the fall periods, for hunting and nut gathering. And it is believed to have been used far more frequently than the 2001 site was. But the fact that it also seems to be 200 or more years earlier, from A.D. 500 to 700, may preclude the same family using it. Carbon dating will help determine precise age.

An oddity for their estimated time frame, though, is the lack of pottery fragments, Lail said. Pottery normally would have been part of their culture by A.D. 700. But these hunter-gatherers were not that far along culturally, he said.

"They're a little bit behind," he said. "Ideas may have been slow to travel."

A day earlier, Lail found an arrowhead he estimated could date as early as A.D. 400. It was perfectly formed with subtle flaking, and he said it seemed never to have been used.

And while fire delayed their work this summer, he said, it may make future summers easier. Fire has a way of burning off the cover that hides archaeological sites and subsequent rains wash artifacts out into the drainages and riverbeds.

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