Karl Laumbach, the Associate
Director of Research and Public Education for Human Systems Research, Inc., joined Scholastic.com for a live interview on November 19.
Q: I am a third grader at Youth Elementary School in Loganville, GA and I would like to know if you have ever done any work in GA. If you have, what did you find?
A: No, I haven't. All of the work I have done has been in the Southwest, primarily in New Mexico. Because the archeology varies so much from region to region, just because you are a specialist in one area, doesn't mean that you will do a good job if you move out of that area.
Q: What is the most important discovery you made this last season?
A: The most important discovery we made this season was that an area we were excavating was really a pit house and not just a natural hole in the ground. We determined that by finding a floor and a fire pit at a depth of five feet. A pit house is a structure where Native Americans dug a hole in the ground and built a roof over the top of it.
Q: Once you find an artifact, how do you learn more about it like how old it is and the significance of it?
A: Sometimes where you find the artifact determines the age of it. If it is above or below other artifacts that you already know the age of. If you have a button that is found in association with an 1889 dime, then that gives you a general idea of when the button was left there. Sometimes specific kinds of artifacts have clues about their age or where they came from. In the case of charcoal, like a piece of charred corn, it can be sent for radio carbon dating. And other times the design or style of a particular artifact, like a side-notched arrow point versus a corner notched arrow point, will give you clues to the age and place it came from. Sometimes the material from which the artifact is made will give you clues as to where it came from.
Q: What do you find the most of?
A: In our sites, we find many broken pieces of pottery called sherds of pottery or we get broken pieces of stone that has been chipped to make tools. If we find a lot of sherds that we suspect came from the same pot, we have a specialist who puts it all together.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you found?
A: The most surprising thing I ever found was a coin, and I wasn't excavating. I was doing what we call an archeological survey where you walk around the land and look for new sites. I was in some sand dunes near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and there was a coin lying all by itself. It was 1856 quarter reale minted in Chihuahua, Mexico. It was surprising because you just don't find coins in the desert that often, and it wasn't even from the U.S. And it was dropped at a time that coins were rare.
Q: Do you ever find whole pots or ones that are broken only a little bit?
A: Occasionally, but very rarely. A whole pot tells us about as much as a broken pot that we put together. It does tell us about vessel size and possibly how the vessel was used. One of the more suprising pieces I have found, was a complete pot that was overturned and sitting on top of a rock.
Q: What is the oldest thing you have ever found?
A: A Folsom point that dates to about 10,000 years ago. It was made by hunters who hunted extinct forms of bison and the Folsom points are very beautiful because they are not notched and have long flakes taken out of the point base from both sides, creating a flute. They are very distinctive. Ironically, this particular point was found very close to the bunker where the button was pushed to test the first atomic bomb. That was what I was recording, this bunker, but then I looked down and saw the Folsom point lying there.
Q: How long does it take you to dig some thing up?
A: It depends on how deep it is and the kind of soil we are digging into. If it is sand, it moves pretty quickly. If it is clay and rock it goes much slower.
Q: How do you know where to dig in the first place?
A: Usually there is some evidence on the surface in terms of artifacts and alignment of stones, and that's what we look for when we do archeological survey.
Q: What are some of the tools you use?
A: We use shovels, of course. Every archeologist uses a trowel, and the Marshalltown trowels are most popular because they don't break. Other times we use brushes like a whisk broom to really fine brushes. We also use big spoons to dig into a narrow hole or between rocks and dentist picks to pick away at things like hard soil cemented around a ceramic vessel. The dentist pick is very gentle.
Q: I am a second grade teacher in MA. I will be starting a Native American unit next week. What specifically would you think it is important for me to highlight in teaching my students about pueblo archaeology?
A: One that the Pueblo world evolved from the use of corn, squash and beans. That it was an agricultural origin for the Pueblos. And that the Pueblos and the Pueblo societies are still alive and well. We are not talking about people who are gone. They are very vibrant and have held their groups together in the face of a lot of change. I think the what archeologists use the most when we are learning about early Pueblo cultures, is the fact that the early ceramic pottery styles were different from pueblo to pueblo, region to region, and they also changed over time. So learning about the pottery types and how the pottery was made, tells us both where and when a particular pottery type was made. Pottery is the main language of southwestern archeologists. When an archeologist says he's found Mimbres Black-on-white (a type of pottery), other archeologists immediately know that he's talking about the 11th century and he's talking about the southwestern region of New Mexico.
Q: Why did the ancient Pueblo peoples live in the area you are studying? Why did they move?
A: The reason why they lived there is that there is a really consistent source of water. The stream that goes down the canyon is fed by a warm spring called, in Spanish, Ojo Caliente. The water from the spring is warm because it comes from 1500 feet below the surface and it produces 2,000 gallons of water a minute, year round. In the desert southwest, a water source like that is extremely valuable. The Pueblos must have abandoned the area because even with the great amount of water in the stream, during a drought the other resources in the mountains and plains, would have been diminished. Wild plants and animals would have diminished forcing them to move. They still needed these other resources. This is just a theory right now and we are trying to prove or disprove it.
Q: How did the agriculture help the Pueblo world to evolve?
A: It allowed them to stay in one place and not move over a wide area in search of wild plants or game. Staying in one place allowed them to develop villages.
Q: What can you tell us about today's Pueblo people as far as everyday life goes?
A: The Pueblo people maintain their religion and their Pueblo social hierarchy. Most Pueblo people live and work like we do. They go to schools and universities. They keep their Pueblo identity while living in modern world. While there are still some traditional potters, some Pueblo potters have developed very individual styles.
Q: Why did you want to be an archeologist?
A: Because from the time I was about 6 years old I was totally fascinated with the past. I don't know why. I grew up on a ranch, and my father was a cowboy. He told me stories and showed me places where Native Americans had camped. Showed me the ruts of the old Santa Fe Trail, and my fascination continued when one of my older sisters bought me a book called "The Lost Americans" when I was 12 years old. Then I was told that archeologists couldn't make any money so I put it on the back burner until I went to college. There I took an anthropology class. (Each student should realize that archeology is a branch of anthropology which is the study of humans). My professor took us on a field trip to a Pueblo site in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico, and I fell in love with archeology all over again.
Q: How long did you have to go to school?
A: I went for four years. I have a bachelor's degree. These days, I would advise anyone thinking about becoming an archeologist to get their masters degree which takes two additional years.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
Q: What sorts of jobs do you get as an archaeologist?
A: The standard jobs are academic jobs where you are teaching in colleges or universities. Now there are jobs in what we call "contract archeology." Federal law requires this archaeology every time earth-disturbing projects like a highway or gas pipeline are built. If those projects are on Federal land, or are funded by Federal money, or are Federally licensed, then it is required that an archeologist do a survey and look for archeological sites that might be damaged by the project. The majority of archeology jobs right now are contract archeology jobs.
Q: What is your favorite thing about your job?
A: It is a nice mix of working outdoors and working in an office.
Q: Can kids do archaeology?
A: Kids can do archeology in situations where they are supervised by an archeologist. There is a great program in Colorado called Crow Canyon where students of all ages can participate in archeology.
Q: How many hours in a day do you have to work?
A: Usually, if we are on contract, then you are working from 8 am to 5 pm. Occasionally, there is overtime. However, to be a successful archeologist, archeology has to become your lifestyle. You have to have a passion for it. For example, I have archeology book by my bed to read in my spare time.
Q: What did you do on your first dig?
A: I excavated as part of a weekend field-training program for a university class. I was excavating a Pueblo room. My first excavation as a professional was Cochiti Dam on the Rio Grande and we excavated five Pueblo sites in the middle of the winter because the dam was going to fill up with water by April and these sites would have been under water. In fact some of them were under water by the time we left.
Q: Have you or your co-workers every found any dinosaur bones?
A: I've heard of some of my co-workers coming up with fossilized bone, but I am not sure if they were dinosaur bones. There is a place in New Mexico called the Bisti Badlands where dinosaur bones have been found.
Q: What is your current job that you are working on?
A: Right now I am juggling 5 different projects. One of them involves test excavations at eleven different sites for the New Mexico Highway and Transportation Department. And I am working on the analysis for the last season of the Earthwatch Prehistoric Pueblo project.
Q: How did you get involved with Earthwatch?
A: We learned about Earthwatch from other archeologists, and we were looking for people to work as volunteers to work on our prehistoric Pueblos project. We applied, we wrote a proposal, which was reviewed and accepted, and this is our third year with Earthwatch now.
Q: How many people are in a team?
A: It varies. At the most we'll have 12 and at the least we'll have 6.
Q: can kids volunteer with you?
A: I think to be an Earthwatch volunteer, you have to be 16 years old.
Q: Have you ever tried another area of the world to have digs?
Q: What was your hardest dig?
A: Probably the Cochiti Dam project in the winter. We were living in tents, the water froze every night, we had to walk down a rocky trail 700 feet into the canyon bottom and then either walk upstream or downstream to where our site was.
Q: Do you have children who choose to follow your path?
A: No, my son Kristopher saw too many piles of rocks growing up, and he didn't want to be an archeologist, but he is working in the New Mexico State University archives, where important photographs and historic documents are kept, so it's a related field.
Q: How long does it take to be trained to volunteer?
A: About two days. We give our volunteers a tour of the site and then we spend a half a day training them on how to dig, how to excavate, and then we put them in the field. Three or four days later, they are very good.
Q: What was your favorite dig you ever had?
A: I think our fall excavations for Earthwatch, two in the fall, the time of year has a lot to do with it being my favorite. The trees are changing colors, the days aren't too warm, the people are great, and very interesting archeology.
Q: How long will the Prehistoric Pueblos project take to complete?
A: We are not sure. You can always do more work. We are just completing our fifth year in the field. I would estimate a minimum of five more years.
I'd like to tell students to read as much as they can because reading gives you an incredible amount of knowledge about a variety of things and also presents you with a wide variety of writing styles. And it is absolutely critical to learn to write well. There have been a lot of promising archeologists come by who did not succeed because they did not like to write and they did not write well. Everyone wants to dig but there is another end to the shovel and that's writing.