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Introduction: Long Lessons and Big Surprises

erial view of Firecracker Pueblo taken in 1980 after the first rooms of the pueblo were exposed. Across Highway 54 is an abandoned fireworks stand that gave the site its name.
Aerial view of Firecracker Pueblo taken in 1980 after the first rooms of the pueblo were exposed. Across Highway 54 is an abandoned fireworks stand that gave the site its name.
Looking west across site area toward the Franklin Mountains in the distance. With only 8 inches of annual precipitation
Looking west across site area toward the Franklin Mountains in the distance. With only 8 inches of annual precipitation, the site environment today supports semi-arid desert shrubs with little grass, lots of mesquite, creosote bush in gravelly areas, and some narrow-leaf yucca. Pueblos tend to be concentrated near mountains where runoff could be used to water crops and surface water would have been available for drinking. The mountains and foothills supplied timbers for houses, a variety of plant and animal foods, and raw materials for chipped and ground stone artifacts.
Sgt. Richard Dillard and his daughter working in Room 2. The drill sergeant at Ft. Bliss had noticed the work at the pueblo while passing on Highway 54. Like many others he stopped, visited, asked questions, and returned to help with work at the site. He and his daughter are representative of the many families that assisted as a family with the work at the site.
Sgt. Richard Dillard and his daughter working in Room 2. The drill sergeant at Ft. Bliss had noticed the work at the pueblo while passing on Highway 54. Like many others he stopped, visited, asked questions, and returned to help with work at the site. The Dillards are one of many families who took part in the work.
Hal Siros uncovers a finely shaped mortar and pestle set cached in pit of Room 15, one of the pithouses found beneath the pueblo.
Hal Siros uncovers a finely shaped mortar and pestle set cached in pit of Room 15, one of the pithouses found beneath the pueblo.
Site director Tom O'Laughlin at Firecracker Pueblo in the mid 1980s. For 10 years O'Laughlin worked with members of the El Paso Archaeological Society, university students, and many other volunteers, including members of the Texas Archeological Society to excavate the site. Photo by David Guiffe.
Site director Tom O'Laughlin at Firecracker Pueblo in the mid 1980s. For 10 years O'Laughlin worked with members of the El Paso Archaeological Society, university students, and many other volunteers, including members of the Texas Archeological Society to excavate the site. Photo by David Guiffe.

Firecracker Pueblo appeared to be a small and unremarkable pueblo when it was first recorded in 1975. Next to Highway 54 in northeast El Paso, Texas, 8 km south of the Texas-New Mexico border, the leveling of sand dunes had revealed the adobe walls of what was thought to be a pueblo of some 6 to 10 rooms. Between 1975 and 1979, additional grading of the site area exposed more walls, dark soils, and a variety of ceramic and stone artifacts. Temporary fireworks stands placed on the site during this period gave the site its name. Vandals began digging in several rooms, and the area became part of an industrial park. Fearing greater damage or loss of the site, formal excavations to document the site were started in the summer of 1980. At the time, we had no idea—or desire—that the Firecracker investigations would last for ten years.

Volunteers led by archeologist Thomas C. O'Laughlin provided the direction and work force for the project, and literally hundreds participated in the excavation on weekends, holidays, and, on occasion, for one or two weeks in the summer. The youngest volunteer was 4; the oldest over 80. Many were members of the El Paso Archaeological Society (EPAS), but the location of the site next to a major highway lured numerous passersby into lending assistance (see Public Archeology). Television and newspaper coverage also stimulated interest. Professors in a variety of disciplines from the University of Texas at El Paso spent time at the site, as did their students (sometimes for credit). In 1986, the Texas Archeological Society held its field school at the site and over 200 people participated in the eight-day event (see "Just Barely in Texas").

The field investigations of Firecracker Pueblo lasted 10 years in part because of the intermittent schedule of an all-volunteer operation, but mainly because the site proved larger and more complex than we first expected. As we learned more about it, we saw opportunities to address new questions and altered the strategy accordingly. Prior to the investigation of this site, there had been no systematic excavation of areas lying outside of pueblo rooms. In the Jornada region, pueblo sites had been treated as if the pueblos themselves were all that was important to study. At Firecracker, we wanted to know what lay beyond the adobe walls—what did the whole site look like? Therefore, we conducted systematic and extensive excavations of extramural (outside-the-walls) areas and found numerous and varied features, superimposed structures, and considerable trash. Some findings were expected; others were intriguing. Perhaps the most important discovery was that of 17 pithouses from one or several shortterm occupations immediately prior to the construction of the pueblo.

Site Map with Room Numbers

Most of the site maps used in this exhibit have been simplified or altered for emphasis. This map shows the room numbers assigned to both pueblo and pithouse rooms.
Most of the site maps used in this exhibit have been simplified or altered for emphasis. This map shows the room numbers assigned to both pueblo and pithouse rooms.

Sliding into Archeology

Tom O'Laughlin, the archeologist who led the Firecracker investigations and the primary author of this exhibit, became interested in archeology in a most unusual way. As a child, he lived at White Sands Missile Range where his father served in the Army. He remembers being intrigued with scattered pieces of pottery and other strange objects he found in his backyard. These, he was told, were very old Indian artifacts. Then one day while playing baseball on a sandy lot behind the school, a teammate slid into third base a bit too enthusiastically. When the dust settled, bones were visible in the freshly ploughed sand—human bones. O'Laughlin returned to the sandy lot the next day and watched with fascination as a tall lanky man carefully exposed what remained of the burial.

As it turned out, the man was archeologist Larry Hammack, then on loan to the Army from the Laboratory of Anthropology at the Museum of New Mexico. He was there because the Commanding General of White Sands was keenly interested in archeology. With the Commander's encouragement, Hammack and off-duty military personnel excavated a small El Paso phase pueblo on the base. O'Laughlin visited the dig every chance he got, asking questions and learning about what was being found. Others took him on field trips and introduced him to rock art. He was hooked. O'Laughlin joined the El Paso Archaeological Society in 1960 and has been a member ever since.

After his family moved to Las Cruces, he started archeological projects on his own, recording sites in the area. While still in high school he began giving presentations and writing papers, efforts that earned him an award from the New Mexico Archaeological Society. The summer he graduated from high school he attended the University of New Mexico field school at Taos and became acquainted with professional archeologists who became his mentors and life-long friends. His path was set.

In college he pursued biology and anthropology, earning several biology degrees from New Mexico State University and a Masters in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico. Throughout he worked on archeological projects every chance he got, first as a volunteer and then as a paid archeologist. Some of his early projects included Fremont sites in Utah through Jesse Jennings, the Anasazi Origins Project directed by Cynthia Irwin-Williams in central New Mexico, and excavations at Fort Fillmore directed by John Wilson of the Laboratory of Anthropology of the Museum of New Mexico.

Today O'Laughlin is the Assistant Director of the Albuquerque Museum. He has been long associated with natural history and history museums. While running the Firecracker excavations, he served as chief curator at the El Paso Centennial Museum and Director of the Wilderness Park Museum. He has also done contract archeology, taught at UT El Paso, and co-directed the Jornada Anthropological Research Association.

Throughout his career O'Laughlin has maintained a close relationship with avocational archeologists. He is a longtime member of not only the El Paso Archaeological Society but also TAS, the New Mexico Archaeological Society, and the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society. Presently, he is a Trustee for the New Mexico Archaeological Society.

Firecracker Pueblo lies at the heart of O'Laughlin's geographical area of interest—central to southern New Mexico and west Texas, with extensions into Mexico. Although a specialist in the pueblo period, he has worked on many other kinds of sites. For example, he worked with J. Charles Kelley at Alta Vista in Zacatecas, Mexico, a major ceremonial center of the Chalchihuites Culture about A.D. 500. Currently (2001), he is working with Mike Adler and Michael Bletzer of Southern Methodist University on the investigation of Piro pueblos near Socorro, New Mexico.


Looking west across the first four rooms of pueblo to be excavated.
Looking west across the first four rooms of pueblo to be excavated.

Click images to enlarge  

Members of the El Paso Archaeological Society admiring a job well done at the end of the day. In the foreground is a nice pueblo room.
Members of the El Paso Archaeological Society admiring a job well done at the end of the day. In the foreground is a nice pueblo room.
Room 22, excavated by Rob Vantil's TAS crew, is a deep pithouse thought to have been used for storage because of the absence of the usual floor features. Trash had been dumped in this room by the later occupants of the pueblo.
Room 22, excavated by Rob Vantil's TAS crew, is a deep pithouse thought to have been used for storage because of the absence of the usual floor features. Trash had been dumped in this room by the later occupants of the pueblo.
Tom O'Laughlin helps map Robledo Mountain Pueblo near Las Cruces, New Mexico, while still a teenager. His precocious archeological work as a high school student earned him an award from the New Mexico Archaeological Society and set his career path. Photo by Dave John.
Tom O'Laughlin helps map Robledo Mountain Pueblo near Las Cruces, New Mexico, while still a teenager. His precocious archeological work as a high school student earned him an award from the New Mexico Archaeological Society and set his career path. Photo by Dave John.