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Excavated toys and games reflect the changing experience of childhood in New Mexico


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Taos Collaborative Archaeology Project members Pipad Krajaejun, left, and Allison McCabe excavate a house in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. (©SMU 2010, Photographer Hillsman Jackson)

The full moon casts a warm glow across the dirt plaza of Ranchos de Taos and the adobe walls of the church of Saint Francis of Assisi, made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. Inside the parish hall, archaeologist Sunday Eiselt of Southern Methodist University (SMU) faces a small crowd. She’s a little nervous. Eiselt is about to ask the residents of this conservative Hispanic community near Taos, New Mexico, for permission to dig up their backyards and the floors of their centuries-old homes. Today, the area is known as a ski town and a magnet for both the super-rich and hippie artists, but the community was founded in the 17th century, and is one of the oldest in the country.


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A homemade clay horse and a Depression-era toy train wheel were found under the packed-dirt floor. (©SMU 2010, Photographer Hillsman Jackson; all toys Courtesy Taos Collaborative Archaeology Project)

“We’re not here to dig and leave,” Eiselt says once the audience is settled. “We want you to tell us where to look and what to look for.” She emphasizes that the Taos Collaborative Archaeology Project can only move forward with the community’s blessing and support. Started by Eiselt in 2007, the project is part of a broad-based effort to investigate the history of Taos (see “Whiskey Rebellion” page 42). Locals begin to ask questions about the excavations and eventually offer suggestions on where to look. Father Francis Malley, the parish priest, promises to announce the project in next week’s mass and put it in the church bulletin. Everyone is enthusiastic, which probably has something to do with the project’s surprising goal: instead of ancient ceramics or prehistoric fire pits, Eiselt and her SMU students are looking for toys.

Some of the discoveries they’ve already made cover a folding table in the back of the room: jacks and marbles, a doll’s head, part of a tiny teacup, a gray Lego plank. Residents gather around when the meeting is over and point out items they recognize. One woman identifies a scrap of gauzy fabric as a doll’s veil. “We didn’t have dolls until the 1960s,” she says. “We used homemade toys before that.” With its focus on how local children’s lives have changed in the past 150 years, the project is revealing an often overlooked aspect of society and showing that “Barbie dolls and bubble gum wrappers can be part of archaeology, too,” says Eiselt. She is interested in how the introduction of American consumer culture and a changing educational system affected the lives of Hispanic children in the area, where Catholic and Presbyterian parochial schools existed alongside American public schools. “The introduction of American wage labor economies in the early 20th century brought many economic benefits, but at a cost,” she says. It also changed the way children were raised, and this should show up in children’s material culture over time.

A purely historical approach to this change isn’t enough, Eiselt says. “Archival documents pertaining to children are selective,” and written by adults with their own biases toward children, especially their own. Archaeology contributes a different perspective by looking at the objects children actually interacted with, as well as direct evidence of their activities. As a result, she says, archaeologists can help show children are “active cultural agents who can have major influences on society.”

Julian Smith is a frequent contributor to ARCHAEOLOGY; his book Chasing the Leopard will be published this summer.

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