Yes, 'farming with rocks' is a thing

That's the subject of a fascinating history lecture planned by a former state archaeologist

By Rick Romancito
Posted 9/11/19

By Rick RomancitoA lecture titled "Farming with Rocks" is no joke. That's a subject on which former New Mexico state archaeologist Glenna Dean is an expert and which she hopes to share with her …

You have exceeded your story limit for this 30-day period.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Yes, 'farming with rocks' is a thing

That's the subject of a fascinating history lecture planned by a former state archaeologist


A lecture titled "Farming with Rocks" is no joke. That's a subject on which former New Mexico state archaeologist Glenna Dean is an expert and which she hopes to share with her audience Friday (Sept. 13), 6:30 p.m., at the Kit Carson Home and Museum, 113 Kit Carson Road in Taos. Admission is free.

Dean will explore "farming technology as well as botanical, biological, ecological, archaeological and cultural aspects of farming in Northern New Mexico before 1492," Carson Museum Director C.J. Law says in an announcement.

Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate established the first colony for New Spain in 1598. It was located at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, a village of Tewa-speaking native people 30 miles north of the community that would later be known as Santa Fe. In Northern New Mexico, Native tribes today speak Northern Tiwa (Taos and Picuris pueblos), Tewa (Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Pojoaque, Nambé, and Tesuque pueblos), Keres (Cochiti pueblo), Towa (Jemez pueblo) and Southern Tiwa (Sandia and Isleta pueblos).

There, Oñate and his settlers took advantage of settled farmers living in a multistory adobe pueblo village as large as villages in Spain, the announcement continues. Clothed in woven cotton garments of high quality, the indigenous people "greatly impressed the Spanish colonists as did crops of corn, bean, squash and cotton growing on seemingly barren hillsides away from surface water."

We asked Dean if she would explain the title of her talk. She noted in an email exchange, "Instead of removing rocks from a farm field as is common today around the world, the ancestral Tewa people brought rocks to the area, forming borders with larger stones and filling rectangular subdivisions within the borders with gravel.

"Based on experiments conducted by myself as well as others, at least one of the benefits of the border stones and surface roughness formed by the gravel is the slowing of surface runoff from rain or snowmelt, allowing moisture to seep into the ground where it won't readily evaporate. These rock features are known in archaeological circles as 'gravel-mulched grid fields' and generally date between 1250 and 1500 CE in Northern New Mexico.

"When I was involved in this research topic during the 1990-2000s, gravel-mulched fields were found in the area roughly bounded by the Río del Oso and the Río Ojo Caliente, extending south to the Española area."

Dean holds advanced degrees in archaeology and botany. An avid experimenter, she combined her interest in how people did things in the past with her love of public outreach. "Now retired," the museum statement reads, "she enjoys making color every day by dyeing churro-wool, colcha-embroidery yarns and sock and sweater yarns with natural dyes that she grows, collects off the roadside before the county mows them down, trades and buys through the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center."

The museum description of the talk says it will be about "farming technology before 1492." What sources did she use to compile this information?

"I generated my data from archaeological soil samples submitted to me for analysis in the 1990s and 2000s and my own independent experiments, including growing native cotton under various conditions," Dean wrote. "My expertise in archaeology is the analysis of pollen grains and other botanical remains from archaeological soil samples. I made the first identifications of cotton pollen grains from Northern New Mexico gravel-mulched field samples (botanical data), generated empirical data from small experimental grid fields planted with aboriginal varieties of corn, beans, squash and cotton (farming technology, ecological data), helped field archaeologists figure out how to sample grid fields to focus specifically on recovering cotton pollen grains (archaeological data) and came to understand the transformation of a tropical perennial (cotton) into a short-season annual and its movement through Arizona into Northern New Mexico in prehistory (cultural aspects of farming)."

Granted, most scientific research relies upon physical evidence and whatever written account may exist, but a vast amount of data also exists within tribal oral traditions. Has her research included this aspect and if so how was it gathered?

"I have not been fortunate enough to engage in discussions of ancestral farming with indigenous people in Northern New Mexico or Arizona," Dean replied. "However, indigenous individuals have occasionally asked me to share information and seeds."

Most people believe woven items used the wool of sheep and other animals, but prior to colonization none of this existed. Or did it? What kinds of materials were used by pre-Columbian tribes? How were they woven?

"Domestic sheep arrived with the Spanish in the late 16th century," Dean wrote. "During the many centuries before that time, indigenous spinners and weavers used human hair, the fur of specially bred domestic dogs, the wool of mountain sheep caught on bushes during the shedding season, as well as rabbit skins or turkey feathers incorporated into yucca or cotton yarn and twined or netted into blankets and other apparel. When the Spanish arrived in Arizona and Northern New Mexico, they were much impressed that Puebloans wore cotton clothing woven using a variety of tools, including the upright loom now associated with the Navajo."

Can you explain a bit about farming in the Southwest where tribes had to deal with periodic drought conditions?

"Archaeological data generated during my research period (1990s-2000s) show that the gravel-mulch method of farming was invented by the ancestors of the Tewa people in the mid-13th century in response to significant population movements, themselves caused by drought followed by shortened growing seasons resulting from the Little Ice Age," she wrote. "By the early 16th century, growing seasons were too short for even the water-harvesting and temperature-moderating gravel-mulched fields to surmount and the fields and their technology were abandoned. Yet the ingenious fields actively gather and store rainfall and snowmelt below the gravel mulch even today."

For more information, call the museum at (575) 758-4082 or visit kitcarsonmuseum.org.


Private mode detected!

In order to read our site, please exit private/incognito mode or log in to continue.