A Chat with Archaeologist Stephen Post

Stephen Post is deputy director of New Mexico’s Office of Archaeological Studies (OAS) and has co-curated the New Mexico History Museum’s newest exhibit, Santa Fe Found: Fragments of Time, opening Nov. 20. We interrupted the tail-end whirlwind that always seems to accompany exhibit mountings to pester him with a few questions about the past that’s always beneath us, about some amazing tree rings, and about himself.

How did you come to be involved in New Mexico archaeology?

I moved to Santa Fe in 1977 and got a job washing artifacts at the Laboratory of Anthropology. Three weeks later I was working on the Chaco Wash and fell in love. History in the great outdoors; it couldn’t get any better.

You were involved in the dig on the New Mexico History Museum site, which yielded something like 90,000 artifacts. Tell us about what was in that bounty, including a key find or two.

Actually, the excavation team recovered about 800,000 artifacts and samples, and about 90,000 were from the 17th century. From the 17th century, we found the furrows of the governors’ earliest gardens, a light-duty metal working pit, and a lot of butchered sheep, goat and cow bone mixed with Native-made pottery sherds, mayolica from Mexico, and precious personal objects, such as earrings, crosses, and higas that had been lost for more than 300 years.

What surprised you about the finds?

Frankly, the volume of artifacts from the History Museum site was a bit overwhelming. Archaeologists often dig 2 by 2 m squares in levels 10 to 20 cm thick. In some these units, we were recovering more than 1,000 artifacts per level.

There’s going to be a cross-section of a Ponderosa pine on display in Santa Fe Found. What’s significant about it?

It’s amazing. The tree was in the yard of an OAS employee, Robert Turner, south of Santa Fe. The tree had died in 2004. So, Robert and Eric Blinman, our director, cut slices out of the stump. Eric matched the tree-ring pattern with known samples from Glorieta Mesa and estimated the time of tree birth. OAS volunteers counted the rings and learned that the tree was born in 1670. That means it witnessed 334 years of Santa Fe’s history before its death.

Lots of people are interested in archaeology, and there’s so much to be found in New Mexico. What tips – and cautions – do you have for people wanting to try a little backyard exploration?

If you have an archaeological site in your backyard, you want to leave everything in place. If you pick up an artifact, put it back where you found it. Where artifacts are found relative to one another is important. If you can’t preserve your site, call a professional archaeologist. Finally, if you want to learn more about archaeology and do it with fun people, join the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Friends of Archaeology.