Office of Archaeological Studies - Connecting the Fascinating Past and the Present
Ancient handprints with the shadow of a modern hand from the Office of Archaeological Studies.

A division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, the Office of Archaeological Studies has a broad mission that encompasses the interpretation of archaeological sites across the state, supports ongoing research and analysis, and educates communities across New Mexico about archaeology, history, and the heritage of the state.

Renowned for its specialized laboratories, the Office of Archaeological Studies uses cutting-edge technology to help us understand what existence was like in the past and how it has shaped our present way of life. New Mexico’s history and culture have deep roots; the Office of Archaeological Studies is one of the state’s best resources for uncovering and sharing the stories of the people who have called this land home for more than 13,000 years.

Office of Archaeological Studies preserving artifacts.

 Education and community outreach

The Office of Archaeological Studies offers education outreach that crosses state lines. In both New Mexico and in surrounding states, staff use their expertise to answer questions about the past. What tools did people use to hunt? How did communities grow and store food? What traditions are still thriving today? The answers to these questions reveal so much about the cultural, historical, and scientific heritage of our state and the surrounding region. These learning opportunities are for children and adults alike. Community educators can take advantage of resources provided by the Office of Archaeological Studies to support learning in the classroom and extracurricular programs. Adults with interests in archaeology can also take part in volunteer opportunities or attend special lectures.

Scientific instruments at the Office of Archaeological Studies.

State-of-the-art research and analysis

The Archaeomagnetic Laboratory, established in 1988, is one of the only dedicated archaeomagnetic contract laboratories in the world. This lab analyzes the magnetic properties of burned archaeological deposits. When soils and sediments are heated, the magnetic fields of the tiny magnetic grains can become disoriented and upon cooling, they can realign with the prevailing magnetic field. Comparing the magnetic direction in the burnt archaeological features with models of Earth’s dynamic magnetic field can render an age of the sample.

The Low-Energy Plasma Radiocarbon Sampling Laboratory specializes in sampling for radiocarbon dating, an archaeological dating tool developed in the 1950s. Since then, it has continued to be refined, both in terms of techniques used as well as how archaeologists interpret results. The basis for radiocarbon dating is founded in the ratio of the naturally produced radioactive isotope of Carbon-14 compared with the non-radioactive and very common isotope Carbon-12.

When a plant or animal dies, it no longer incorporates atoms of Carbon-14 into its life structures. This starts the clock for scientists. Over time the Carbon-14 isotopes decay, changing the ratio. The decay rate is perfect for archaeology because it takes about 5,730 years for half of the Carbon-14 isotopes decay and disappear from the life structure, and this decay repeats another roughly 10 times until the Carbon-14 is not measurable. This process proves to be a very effective way for scientists to measure time, going back easily to about 45,000 years.

The Office of Archaeological Studies Radiocarbon Sampling Laboratory extracts carbon dioxide gas from archaeological material for dating. The method has been used to date rock art sites across the state and throughout the world, in addition to wood and corn kernels.

“Do not destroy” technique

The Nondestructive Chemical Analysis Laboratory uses portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to determine what metals (like iron and manganese) are present in an artifact. The result is at hand in minutes. When samples are in limited supply or are protected — like painted pictographs, for instance — being able to analyze them without destroying any portion is important, and the result tells what the sample is made of.

Pots or sherds—who made them and when? Office of Archaeological Studies: Woman planting seeds in soil in starter pots.

The Ceramics Analysis Laboratory analyzes pottery — both sherds and complete pots — recovered from all Office of Archaeological Studies projects. Significant studies have been done in many areas including Spanish and Pueblo sites across the Northern Rio Grande region, Chaco, Cibola, Chuska, Mimbres, Mogollon, the Northern and Southern Jornada, and the regions of the Four Corners Ancestral Pueblo and Diné.

The Lithics Analysis Laboratory analyses stone tools including flaked and ground stone materials recovered from Office of Archaeological Studies projects. Significant studies have been done on materials dating back thousands of years ago during the Archaic period throughout northern New Mexico as well as many other portions of the state

The Zooarchaeological Laboratory analyses the remains of animals from Office of Archaeological Studies investigations. Major studies have occurred in the Northern and Middle Rio Grande valleys and contribute to the understanding of past relationships with animals as well paleoenvironmental studies.

What people ate and where food came from

The Ethnobotany Laboratory processes soil samples, extracting the plant material. When dried, the samples are examined to retrieve floral parts. Tiny seeds and charcoal fragments tell the story of how and why people selected food and fuel, as well as the distribution of subsistence and manufacturing activities within sites.

Where to find the Office of Archaeological Studies

The New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies is in Santa Fe, housed within the Center for New Mexico Archaeology. There is no better institution to answer the questions of the past, while engaging with the people of today.

Learn more about the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs here. See more about the Office of Archaeological Studies here.

Story by Bud Russo • Photographs courtesy of Friends of Archaeology New Mexico.



NM Department of Cultural Affairs logo.


This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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