Native Archaeologists & Time Team Field School Inspire Zuni Students
In an empty parking lot at the University of New Mexico Gallup, Zuni Campus, field school director Dr. Alex Jones prepared for the first day of class by breaking plates—literally. Lookers-on dodged flying bits as Alex hurled red, blue, and green plates at the concrete, trying to break them into dozens of smaller pieces.
But why you ask? To make sherds of course! Alex needed faux-sherds to stage a survey site for her students. Amidst the crashing and banging, her laughter was still clearly audible. "It's not often that you get to break plates without getting in trouble," Alex says as she delivers a blow to a plate with a metal stake. It fractures and she smiles, "I love my job."
When the survey activity began the next day, it didn't take students long to comment on the abundance of colorful ceramic bits littering the ground. They quickly learned however, that this was science at work. Armed with a handful of small red flags, students slowly traversed the grid marking each little sherd they could find. Afterwords they recorded the location of each flag on a map with colored pencils, which led to a theoretical discussion about where archaeologists might excavate on this pseudo site.
The same grid was also utilized for a metal detection activity. Each student was given a metal detector, and asked to locate and record where they found metal objects in the ground (also planted on the site by Alex). Although metal detection is a controversial method in archaeology, Alex emphasized to the students the value in finding large concentrations of metal artifacts at a site. The artifacts themselves are of course important, but a high quantity in a given area is an even better indication of human activity.
After they learned survey techniques, students got the privilege of interacting with a panel of Native American archaeologists. Some from Zuni Pueblo, some from surrounding areas. All of the panelists had inspirational stories about becoming archaeologists and using their professional experience to give back to their communities. The panel left a truly significant impression on the students. One girl reflected, "I never thought that Zuni people could be archaeologists... only white people or non-Zuni people." After seeing and hearing that Indigenous archaeologists were indeed very real, she said that it made her feel pretty, well, "awesome".
But this inspirational moment between the panelists and the students wasn't just a happy accident. Alex is not only creative in developing activities for the students; she is also highly strategic about her lesson plans. "We don't just do the same field school everywhere we go. These programs are specifically designed to engage and inspire each unique population of students that participate in them," says Alex. The Native panel was a very intentional, and successful way of connecting with the students.
"I hope the students realize now that just the things that they've learned growing up, like being raised around Zuni pottery gives them an incredible knowledge that is unique to them. And that given knowledge becomes very useful as an archaeologist when you're studying artifacts," says Alex.
Another activity that greatly impacted the middle schoolers was a field trip to the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, NM. Here students rotated through six different stations where they got to throw Atlatls, count tree rings, look at artifacts under a microscope, identify native plants, watch flint knapping, and see authentic pot sherds.
These workshops were coordinated by Dr. Eric Blinman, director of the Office of Archaeological Studies, with help from his staff. And although the bus ride from Zuni Pueblo to Santa Fe was very long (3.5 hours each way), exposing the students to the tremendous archaeological resources available in their state was an important part of encouraging them to pursue the field of science themselves.
The next day, in the bright morning sunlight, students kicked off day three of field school with a "simulated dig" activity. Each student had his or her own sim-pit, where they dug for artifacts and logged their findings. Some found chain mail, some found Zuni pottery, and afterwards they had to use their analytical skills to identify what type of site they were studying based on the artifacts they discovered.
From sunglasses to laboratory goggles, it was time for the students to learn more about what happens to artifacts after they leave a site. Conservation is an important part of the archaeological process because it allows artifacts to be preserved for future generations of study. Students practiced clipping, scrubbing, and categorizing old rusty nails from a 19th century archaeological site brought by PhD candidate Heather Law Pezzarossi.
This was a rare opportunity for the field school students, Pezzarossi explains, because young people don't usually get the opportunity to work with real collections. "We're glad that the kids were able to get some hands on experiences with actual artifacts from an actual site."
As soon as the students had washed off the dirt and rust from conserving iron, it was time to get their hands dirty all over again painting pots. Ceramic design is experimental archaeology that holds special meaning for the students culturally. Zuni pottery is world renowned, and the practice is as ancient as the culture itself. Each of the students were given their own pot, and practiced adapting traditional Zuni designs with help from local expert Milford Nahohai.
Perhaps more than any other activity during this field school, the students intensity and focus during the pottery workshop was unwavering. Many of the students had previous experience painting pottery, but they were delighted to realize that art and design could have scientific significance as well. By recreating traditional Zuni designs, the students gained a better understanding of what it might have been like for their ancestors to paint pots. And understanding that process might give them a greater appreciation for the abundant number of sherds found on the land where they live.
The last day of field school was as engaging for the students as the rest. Comanche Nation archaeologist from Santa Clara Pueblo, Mary Weahkee came all the way from Santa Fe to Zuni Pueblo to demonstrate ancient technologies for the group.
Mary taught the students the craft of flint knapping, how to weave sandals out of yucca leaves, and how to make cordage out of yucca fiber. Students patiently and persistently practiced twisting the wet fibers into tiny bits of rope. Once complete, they created beautiful yucca bracelets with shells.
Overall the field school in Zuni Pueblo was a sweeping success. The students were engaged during every activity, and their inspired reflections on the week's events were a clear indication that the field school was a unique opportunity for learning about the field of science and archaeology. Feedback from participating teachers was just as positive.
Whether or not the middle schoolers will now pursue careers in science or archaeology is still unknown, but regardless of whatever path they choose, "They have hope and a little more direction, motivation, and courage to move upward in their lives," says Zuni Middle School Science Teacher Mark Carling.
"The students had a really fun time," reflects Alex. "Science isn't as hard as some people think it is - it's fun! And now these kids know just how cool it can be."