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Discoveries in Cave Speak Volumes About History

Posted on December 18, 2000

A page from the explosives instructions and an empty lunch bag tell the short story of how road crews exposed a cave containing prehistoric human artifacts in the Sacramento Mountains 51 years ago.

State archaeologists in October and November mapped and cataloged the prehistoric contents of the cave above U.S. 82 between Alamogordo and Cloudcroft.

A 3,000-year-old corn cob, stone dart points and mother-of-pearl jewelry removed from cave may yield new clues about early hunter gatherers who may have summered in southern New Mexico well before the birth of Anasazi civilization or settlements farther north at Chaco Canyon.

Dry, tranquil conditions inside Hill Rolls Cave preserved for thousands of years perishable hemp sandals, grass bedding, primitive brooms and fragments of baskets. Pieces of knotted string recovered from the cave still bend to the human touch and bounce back after more than three millennia in storage.

“These are all the things that archaeologists never find,” said State Archaeologist Glenna Dean of the state Historical Preservation Division.

Dean was just one onlooker in a stream of professional and amateur curiosity seekers to visit last week a table-top display at the Office of Archaeological Studies. “This is the stuff people used every day of their lives.”

The cave’s protective seal was broken in 1949 when a highway construction project removed about 40 feet of the cave. The instructions and the remains of a lunch were found alongside much older human artifacts.

A site stabilization and protection grant arranged by the State Highway and Transportation Department paid for the excavation at Hill Rolls.

The Office of Archaeological Studies, a division of the Museum of New Mexico, did the work, selecting the cave for preservation during a survey of about 200 endangered sites.

Pot hunters had discovered the Hill Rolls Cave, boring holes in search of treasure on U.S. Forest Service land, according to Stephen Lentz, excavation project director.

The exposed cave above U.S. 82 also was beginning to deteriorate from the weather and rumbling truck traffic, sending artifacts into the roadway.

On a mission of preservation, state archaeologists discovered the detritus of daily life circa 1000 B.C., including an ear of early Chapalote corn, which originated from farther south in Mexico, and another ear of an unrecognized variety of corn.

“This could be the beginnings of agriculture” in the region, Lentz said. He explained why finding prehistoric corn is a point of fascination for anthropologists and archaeologists. Hunting and gathering has been the human way for “99.99 percent of the time that we’ve been around,” he said.

In another thought-provoking find, pieces of abalone jewelry originating from the West Coast were recovered. Archaeologists also rescued a rock-hard coprolite — possibly fossilized human fecal matter.

Reconstituting this sample could provide an “instantaneous snapshot of what one person ate over a couple of days,” according to Lentz. “Did they have a good diet or a bad diet? Were they struggling or were they in good shape?”

A stool sample can help tell scientists how far a person traveled or what species of plants were growing thousands of years ago, according to Dean, a self-deprecating expert in the study of coprolites who calls herself “Doctor Dung.”

“It’s a microscopic adventure into what was not digestible,” Dean explained, while carefully handling the coprolite. “There’s a warehouse of information in this humble specimen.”

No human remains were found in the cave — a blessing in disguise for modern archaeologists observing stringent restrictions on the handling of Native American graves.

The dig is over but the anticipation is mounting as the Office of Archaeological Studies prepares to send samples to laboratories across the country for analysis. A laboratory in Florida will use radiometric techniques to date several objects and the office still is in the hunt for a basketry expert.

Lentz entered archaeology in 1976 and has traveled to Mexico, Africa and France, where he worked in paleolithic caves (13,000 B.C.). Despite such experiences, the Hill Rolls excavation and analysis stands out as a highlight.

“You can wait around a long time before you get to do rsomething like this,&dquo; Lentz said. He was assisted by Evan Oakes, Phil Alldritt, Dorothy Zamore and Brian Shanks, among others.

The crew painstakingly recorded every square foot of the narrow cave on graph paper. Taped together on a wall in Santa Fe, the sheets created a serpentine map of the passageway, Lentz said.

Lentz said the excavation provided clues about life in the era:

  • Hill Rolls Cave is on the cool north-facing side of the valley and bone fragments from juvenile game — rabbit, deer and pronghorn elk — hint that the cave may have been used only during spring and summer fawning periods.
  • Inhabitants of the cave evidently pulled up tufts of grass and weeds to rest on.
  • Packed with a variety of plants, pollen and spores, the bedding should be a treasure trove for botanists. Samples are removed by briefly floating the mattresses in water and then trapping organic material under a microscope.

The excavation at Hill Rolls Cave will add to the findings at Fresnal Shelter. The caves are within view of each other, located on the opposing side of a steep, arid valley. Fresnal Shelter was excavated in the 1970s but many of the findings were never published for lack of funding, Lentz said.

Some of the Fresnal artifacts have been placed on display at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. The contents of Hill Rolls belong to the Forest Service and eventually may be shown at ENMU or at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Lentz said.

Copyright © 2000, Albuquerque Journal. All rights reserved.