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Museums: Road Scholars Volume 57 Number 4, July/August 2004
by Tim Folger

[image] An exhibit in New Mexico displays artifacts found during highway excavations. Objects include prehistoric pottery, historic bottles, and a shell pendant carved in the shape of a fish between A.D. 1110 and 1400. (Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Blaire Clark) [LARGER IMAGE]

When highway construction destroyed part of a prehistoric, 1,700-room pueblo in northern New Mexico in 1952, Fred Wendorf knew it was time to act. Wendorf, then at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, pushed state officials to give archaeologists access to any sites uncovered by road crews. So began New Mexico's fifty-year-old Highway Archaeology Program. "Roads to the Past," an exhibition now at the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe until August 13, and running at the Silver City Museum from September 19 through December 5, chronicles the history of the country's oldest and most ambitious effort to save--or at least document--archaeological sites threatened by highway construction. Black-and-white photos included in the exhibit provide dramatic testimony that the first preservation efforts were frantic indeed, with archaeologists laboring just a few feet ahead of bulldozers. Field reports and follow-up lab work were practically nonexistent. Wendorf and his colleagues were pressured not to delay roadwork.

Working conditions have improved considerably since those hasty times. Laws now protect archaeological sites on state and federal land. Since 1954, archaeologists have studied more than 10,000 miles of land that lay in the path of New Mexico's roads, and in the process mapped nearly 8,000 years of the region's rich history. The exhibit showcases some of the discoveries they made in a small but diverse collection, ranging from 7,500-year-old stone spearpoints to a tin of Merry Widow condoms recovered from a town abandoned 80 years ago.

The items are arranged chronologically, and every few steps carry you a thousand years or more through time. Not far from the spearpoints is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for the introduction of agriculture to North America--a stone tool that was used for grinding corn 3,000 years ago. And nearly all the display cases hold fragile reminders that highly sophisticated cultures thrived in this arid land for thousands of years. One of the most striking objects is a delicate, paper-thin, fish-shaped pendant carved from shell sometime between A.D. 1100 and 1400 by an artisan from the Mogollon culture.

A deceptively ordinary-looking photo of an excavation records what might be traces of one of the most momentous events in the history of the Americas: the arrival of the first Europeans in the Southwest. In 1540, Francisco Coronado marched up from Mexico with a thousand Spanish soldiers and Mexican Indians. Archaeologists had found little physical evidence of the expedition, but that changed in 1986 when construction of a highway near Albuquerque uncovered what appeared to be a campsite, along with fragments of armor, metal nails, and sheep bones. Radiocarbon dates from the site fall within the time of Coronado's explorations. The exhibit's most recent artifacts-an empty snuff can, a ceramic doll's arm, and a metal steering wheel from a toy car-date only to 1920 or so. When compared with the aesthetic discernment evident in the fine Anasazi pottery on the other side of the room, however, or in the delicate shell pendant, it's obvious that newer isn't necessarily better.

Tim Folger is a freelance science writer and editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America