The bone keeper

Joanne Dickenson walks the trails at the Blackwater Draw archeological site on March 23. Dickenson lives on the 157-acre sit and works as its curator. (CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

An early morning rain has made the earth soft.

On days like this, Joanne Dickenson strolls through her back yard, searching for treasures revealed by the rain.

She bends down and examines something, shifting her glasses from her neck to her nose. The bottoms of her white sneakers sink into the ground.

“This is just caliche,” she determines, tossing the rock back to the ground. “Bones,” she explains, “have pores.”

One day, Dickenson hopes to find human remains here — not so strange a hope, since her back yard is one of the most famous sites in North American archaeology.

Dickenson is the curator of the Blackwater Draw Site near Portales. She lives with her husband and dog in a modest home on the 157-acre site, which is considered to contain some of the oldest evidence of humans in the Americas, with fossils dating back 11,500 years.

However, fervor over when and how long “Clovis Man” was at the site was renewed in February when Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and Thomas Stafford of Stafford Research Laboratories in Colorado published a study that implies the people who hunted at Blackwater Draw were not the first humans in the Americas.

The study said “Clovis Man” — identified by distinctive fluted spear points — were there about 500 years later than believed and stayed for a shorter period of time. Waters and Stafford dated bone, ivory and seeds from the site to draw those conclusions.

Disputes regarding Blackwater Draw are by no means new. None alters Dickenson’s mission.

“My first priority is to protect this site,” said the Eastern New Mexico University archaeologist, standing near a bed of mammoth bones excavated in the 1930s.

Fluted points used for hunting and other artifacts were also found at Blackwater Draw in the excavations.

Twice a week Dickenson dons soft-soled shoes and sweeps debris from the famous excavation site, now sheltered by a metal building.
“Mice,” said Dickenson, whose eyes are almost neon blue, “try to reclaim their territory. I won’t let them.”

She protects the site from people, too. She calls the police when she spots vandals and nighttime trespassers, which happens rarely, she said.

Dickenson’s second priority is teaching the public about the treasured site.

“The site comes first. People are a close second,” said Dickenson, who has been the Blackwater Draw Site curator since 1994.

She knows the story of the site by heart, she said. She wants others to know it, too.

Gravel miners almost destroyed Blackwater Draw through the 1960s. They ground countless animal bones into tiny fragments with bulldozers and destroyed nearly 40 acres of the historic preserve, she said.

What was preserved she shows in tours: mammoth skulls, bison bones, a hand-dug water well.

“People cannot see such a feature (hand-dug well) anywhere in the new world,” Dickenson wrote in an e-mail to the Clovis News Journal.

The last sentence of Waters’ study, published in Science Magazine, reads: “The archaeological data now shows that Clovis does not represent the earliest inhabitants of the Americas and that a new model is needed to explain the peopling of the Americas.”

This is where the work of Dickenson and Waters merge. She agrees that more can and should be learned about the peopling of the Americas.

She also believes the things unburied and buried at Blackwater Draw are a window to that past.

To arrange a special guided tour of the Blackwater Draw Site with curator Joanne Dickenson, call 356-5253.
The site will be open on weekends in April, May, September, and October.
The site is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day.