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LAMP Southwest: the Birthplace of American underwater archaeology, and the other Oldest Settlement

Posted by: Chuck Meide in LAMPosts

The 41st annual Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, January 8-13, 2008. As this is the most important gathering of maritime archaeologists in the U.S. and abroad, LAMP staff archaeologists were sure to be there to catch up with our colleagues and get the latest news on the latest research and preservation projects being carried out throughout the world.

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No, 900 historical and underwater archaeologists let loose in downtown Albuquerque didn't wreak this degree of havoc--a crew was filming a science fiction movie a block away from the conference hotel.

The highlight of the conference was a session of papers in honor of George Fischer, my old college professor and a true pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology. LAMPost readers will remember that professor Fischer recently donated his personal archaeological library to LAMP. He was also presented with a unique Lifetime Achievement award by LAMP and the Lighthouse during last year's Northeast Florida Symposium on Underwater Archaeology. At the SHA conference, the four papers were presented by eight of George's former students, and I was proud to participate in this latest effort to honor him. While the speakers gave a great overview of George's personal life and career, at times the symposium was more of a roast, and we were treated to a host of great stories about our favorite mentor. We were all pleasantly surprised to see that even before the first paper began the audience was standing-room only. The crowd--students, colleagues, and old friends--enjoyed themselves thoroughly and the whole thing was great fun.

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Pioneer underwater archaeologist George R. Fischer (fourth from the left) surrounded by many of his former students at the 2008 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology. From left to right, Chris Horrell, Kelly Scudder, Russ Johnson, George, Dave Ball, Melanie Damour (sporting the Fischer mustache), Steve Dasovich, Chuck Meide, Kira Kaufmann, and Russ Skowronek.

George Fischer directed not only the first underwater archaeological study in St. Augustine, but the first archaeological dive ever for the National Park Service, and one of the earliest such projects in the entire U.S. This historic diving project occurred--of all places--in the desert environment of the Southwest, at a unique sinkhole named Montezuma Well, in the Montezuma Castle National Monument near Camp Verde, Arizona, in 1968. This year will be the 40th anniversary of that pioneering research project.

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Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole through which some 1,400,000 gallons of water flow each day. It was used as a home and source of irrigation for Native peoples as early as the eighth century AD. In Florida, similar springs and sinkholes were used by prehistoric peoples, but none feature such sophisticated material remains as are preserved at this spectacular site. In 1968, George R. Fischer led the first underwater archaeological survey for the National Park Service, and possibly the first in the U.S., in these waters.

At the end of the conference, my wife Amy flew out and we spent a week of vacation exploring New Mexico and Arizona. One of the "must-do" visits was a trip to see Montezuma Well. Here I am after descending closer to water level to get a look at the site of what may have been the first systematic underwater archaeological surveys in the country. Behind me are visible ruins of ancient cliff dwellings suspended above the sinkhole.

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Here is a closer view of the cliff-dwellings at Montezuma Well. While one would not expect maritime traditions among a desert people, they certainly made regular use of the aquatic resources provided by this natural phenomenon, including the construction of canals to harness the sinkhole's natural flow in order to irrigate their crops of corn, beans, and squash.

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Even more impressive are the highly intact cliff dwellings preserved at Montezuma Castle, an associated habitation site located several miles away from the Well.

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These ruins had nothing to do with the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but were actually built by native peoples known to archaeologists as the Sinagua around 1400 AD. This five-story stone and mortar structure contains 20 rooms and once housed around 50 people. The builders took advantage of natural formations and overhangs which are seamlessly integrated with the architectural remains.

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Another trip we made was to the Acoma Pueblo, also known as "Sky City," which is perched atop a 370' tall sandstone mesa located in New Mexico some 60 miles west of Albuquerque.

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This is not an abandoned ruin, but is still the home for a number of families whose ancestors founded this settlement around 1100 AD. The Acoma people are proud to relate that Acoma Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the U.S.

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The Oldest City claim is one usually made by St. Augustine residents! But there is little dispute here, as Acoma has been continuously inhabited since the 12th century! Like St. Augustine, Acoma has a history intertwined with Spain's colonial empire. In the early 17th century, Spanish authorities forced the Acoma people to submit to Spanish rule and Catholicism. The large, two-towered building in the background below is the cathedral which was built as a Franciscan mission on top of the mesa in 1641. It is the only such cathedral to survive the ensuing Pueblo revolt of the 1680s. Today, the Acoma people retain their traditional pre-hispanic religion, while many still practice Catholicism.

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While I have to acknowledge Acoma's status as America's oldest city, we in St. Augustine can still be proud that we are, without question, our Nation's oldest port!

I'll leave you all with a few other pictures of the sights we've seen on our tour of New Mexico and Arizona.

Sunset and migratory birds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico . . .

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The one and only Grand Canyon . . .

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The snow-dappled basalt lava flow from the volcanic eruption of Sunset Crater (ca. 1180 AD) . . .

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The 12th century pueblo ruins at Wupatki National Historic Monument . . .

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And late afternoon hiking through the red rock country of Sedona, Arizona . . .

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