Yesterday I went with my mom and my sister on the RailRunner to Santa Fe to check out the New Mexico History Museum, behind the Palace of the Governors. It was the first time any of us had either taken the train or seen the museum, which just opened in 2009, and we were very impressed with both. The museum is very well-designed, in a contemporary, interactive way, and unlike many museums it doesn’t overwhelm by putting too many things on display at once. The items that are displayed are accompanied by extensive, bilingual (English and Spanish) interpretive texts which help to place them in context. The approach is broad rather than deep, but it gives a good, balanced, and very accessible introduction to the rich history of the state. Since it’s part of the Museum of New Mexico, the collections available for display are extensive, and the curators have selected some fascinating original items to show. They have also arranged for loans of other important original items from other museums with extensive collections of material related to New Mexico history.
One such museum is the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sponsored several important archaeological expeditions to the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and thus has a large collection of artifacts, almost all of which remain locked away in storage rather than on display. The American Museum doesn’t even seem to have a single permanent exhibition showing its Southwestern material. (I haven’t been there yet myself, so I can’t confirm this personally.) A lot of this material is from the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations at Chaco, which the American Museum sponsored, and visitors at Chaco would often ask about these artifacts and whether they could see them anywhere. When I would tell them the answer, that the artifacts were in New York and not on display, they would often get pretty upset, but I would just say that that’s what museums do: they collect things. They display some things, but they collect much more than they display, so most of the stuff ends up in storage, awaiting future temporary exhibits or loans to other museums.
With that context in mind, imagine my reaction when I walked into the permanent exhibition of the New Mexico History Museum and the very first artifact on display was a bone scraper from Pueblo Bonito on loan from the AMNH. This particular scraper is one of the most famous and most spectacular of the artifacts found at Chaco. It is inlaid with a band of turquoise and jet mosaic that is just exquisitely done. It was found by the Hyde Expedition in 1897 in Room 38 of Pueblo Bonito, along with the even more famous jet frog, and it features prominently in the article George Pepper wrote on the artifacts from Room 38. Being able to see the real thing, in person, is just extraordinary, and even more so for me because it was such an unexpected surprise. Like I said, the AMNH collections from Chaco are almost completely inaccessible to the general public, which is very unfortunate since they include some of the most amazing artifacts ever found in the Southwest. The loan of this scraper is a significant step away from that, and I congratulate both the AMNH and the NMHM for arranging for its loan and display. There are a few other items from Chaco on display in the same gallery, but this is by far the most famous. The museum doesn’t allow photography, so I don’t have a picture of the scraper, but I highly recommend a visit to see it to anyone interested in Chaco.
Pepper’s article includes a bit more information about the scraper. It was found in the summer of 1897, the second season of work at Pueblo Bonito. It was actually one of two similar scrapers found next to each other in the western part of Room 38, which is an unusually large rectangular room in the oldest part of the site, known as Old Bonito and made up mostly of small rooms with an early style of masonry, the most famous of which is probably Room 33. The two scrapers in Room 38 were probably originally similarly decorated with mosaic inlay, but one of them was positioned in such a way that the inlay was pointed downward and had fallen out when it was found. The other scraper, however, was positioned so that the inlay was facing up, and it was therefore preserved intact. This is the scraper now on display in the NMHM.
The inlay consists of a combination of elongated and triangular pieces of turquoise and jet, alternating and arranged in bands in a way that produces a very striking effect. The mosaic was put into a groove cut into the scraper just below the butt end and apparently attached with piñon gum. Once all the pieces were in the whole surface was polished to a high sheen, which is very noticeable even today.
It is unfortunately very difficult to date the artifacts excavated by the Hyde Expedition. Pepper kept detailed field notes during the excavations, and the work is therefore fairly well documented by the standards of the day, but those standards weren’t very high compared to today’s practices. There were no absolute dating techniques available at the time, and even the relative dating technique of stratigraphic analysis was still being developed and was not used during the Hyde excavations. All Pepper had to say about chronology in his article on Room 38 was that there was no evidence of contact with the Spanish. The NMHM label for the AMNH scraper gives a range of AD 700 to 1130, which is basically the maximum range for Pueblo Bonito as a whole. Given the very precise dating techniques available to Southwestern archaeologists today, it may be possible to narrow this down a bit, even with the unfortunate lack of context from the early excavations. I know Steve Plog at the University of Virginia is working on reëvaluating the field notes and other information on these excavations to get more precise information. The Chaco Archive, which is connected to this effort, has a lot of pictures and documents from the early excavations, and it seems like more stuff is being added to it all the time.
Dating is particularly difficult for the Old Bonito artifacts, for a number of reasons. Although the rooms were the earliest to be built at Pueblo Bonito, as suggested by the masonry style and confirmed by tree-ring dates, the artifacts within them probably date to much later, perhaps even to the very end of the occupation of the site. They are both numerous and exquisite, which suggests that the rooms in Old Bonito may have been reused for storage of fine objects after they were no longer used for their original purpose, which would presumably have been after the expansion of Pueblo Bonito starting around AD 1040. With objects made of organic materials, such as bone, it would be possible to try radiocarbon dating the artifacts themselves, but to my knowledge no one has attempted this, possibly because they are so fragile and valuable. Thus, while it may be possible to narrow down the date range for the bone scraper, as of right now the very wide range given by the NMHM is probably the best way to go.
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010