The University of New Mexico Department of Anthropology is offering an exclusive opportunity to students from around the world. Through a partnership with Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, students can get hands-on experience excavating, researching and exploring the past through one of the great historical mysteries of the American Southwest.

“Chaco is a massive complex of stone buildings, architectural innovation, social complexity like we’d never seen in the southwest up to that point a thousand years ago,” said Professor W. H. Wills, who leads the UNM Chaco Canyon Field School.

The Great Houses of Chaco Canyon are part of about 4,000 prehistoric and historic archeological sites in the park, which span more than 10,000 years of human cultural history. Through excavation, researchers can prove there was a boom between A.D. 900 and 1100, resulting in increased agriculture methods, social complexity, engineering, astronomy and economic organization. The indigenous people also accomplished great feats of architecture, like the massive stone walls of the Great Houses that draw thousands of visitors to Northern New Mexico every year.

“We may never know the underlining, unusual kickers that turned this place from something that was not very complex into something that was complex,” Professor Wills said. “But we will try. Archeologists will always want to have those answers.”

Professor Wills and Professor Patricia Crown lead a team of archeologists, including UNM students, searching for answers on what lead to the social dynamism in Chaco Canyon. The cooperative partnership between UNM and the National Park Service dates back to the designation of Chaco Canyon as a national monument in 1906. Although the National Park Service is responsible for managing Chaco Culture National Historical Park, much of the early archaeological research in Chaco Canyon was done under the auspices of University of New Mexico Department of Anthropology.

“UNM provides an exclusive opportunity for students to gain experience in the Chaco Semester,” said graduate student Jacqueline Kocer. “They gain lab experience, a classroom portion, a service learning component and actual hands-on field work where they get experience excavating. No other university offers this type of learning.”

UNM ran advanced archaeological field schools from 1929 to 1942, with one final post-war session in 1947. Several UNM students went on to careers in the National Park Service, continuing to work in Chaco Canyon and resulting in the joint 1970-1985 Chaco Project.

In 2005, UNM Professors Wills and Crown began a new phase in the evolving UNM-Chaco relationship. Over a series of summer and fall field seasons, they re-excavated trenches dug in the 1920s during the National Geographic Society's Pueblo Bonito Expedition.

“It gives us a very unique and gratifying opportunity to work intensely with the students,” Professor Wills said. “To spend a lot of time with graduate students and training them to run field schools.”

During the first four weeks of the integrated course, students attend classes at UNM’s Main Campus. Using the laboratories and collections of the Department of Anthropology and the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology as they are introduced to the fundamentals of archaeological data analysis, field research, and Chaco prehistory. For the following five weeks, students spend four days a week living at Chaco Canyon, helping to excavate during the day while attending labs or lectures in the evenings. They then return to the main campus for the remainder of the semester to analyze material and delve deeper into issues facing Chaco.

“It’s an on-the-ground research project where we’re getting real results, but it’s also our legacy,” Professor Wills said. “It’s UNM’s legacy to the field of research. We’re training students who 10 or 20 years from now will come back and do their own research.”

Click here to read more about the Field School and Chaco Canyon.