Saturday, July 30, 2016


Entrance to Sandia Cave (the
spiral staircase just left of center).
Photograph Peter Faris, 1990.

Sandia Cave (previously known as Sandia Man Cave) in New Mexico is an iconic site in the study of prehistory of North America. Frank Cummings Hibben conducted excavations in the cave from 1936 - 1941, searching for evidence of pre-Folsom occupation. "Because his excavations were conducted prior to acceptance of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s, his interpretation was based upon the stratigraphy of the cave. Hibben purported that below a Folsom Age stratigraphic layer that contained several fluted projectile points was a layer where the Pleistocene fauna were found in association with a distinct type of projectile points." (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:12)

Sandia type projectile points.
Photograph Public Domain.

This distinct type of projectile point resembled European Solutrean projectile points dating from 22,000 - 17,000 BP, having a single shoulder on one side. The lack of hard dates, however, and the state of the deposits in Sandia Cave, have made Hibben's claims somewhat controversial and the archaeological world has still not reached any solid consensus on them, although the site itself is important because of its place in history, and its record of use from the Paleoindian period to the present. (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:11)

Sandia Cave, New Mexico.
Photograph Peter Faris, 1990.

I made a visit to the cave in October, 1990, to see the site where these important, although somewhat controversial, discoveries were made. Hiking up the trail and climbing the metal stairway, I was horrified to find that the cave had been used as a toilet facility for some time, supposedly by nearby campers, and proved an absolutely disgusting place to be. Watching my step, and snapping a few quick photographs, I beat a hasty retreat without a detailed examination of the cave. I wrote this off as pretty much a total loss and let it go at that.

First chamber, pre-restoration,
From Arraz-Coambs and Rich, 2016,
Sandia Cave Restoration: National
Historic Landmark, p. 14.

I have now recently learned, however, that the situation at Sandia Cave has changed. An article by Sandra Arazi-Combs and Carrin Rich in the April 2016 issue of the National Speleological Society News outlines a comprehensive restoration project for Sandia Cave. "In fall 2013 the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands paired with Sandia Grotto to address the possibility of restoring Sandia Cave to a more natural-looking state." (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:12)

A coalition of interested parties from the National Park Service, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, affiliated Pueblo tribal representatives, and representatives of the National Speleological Society (NSS), and the NSS Southwestern Region met, and over the course of two years developed a proposal for mitigation and restoration of Sandia Cave.

First chamber, post-restoration.
From Arraz-Coambs and Rich,
2016, Sandia Cave Restoration:
National Historic Landmark, p. 14.

"In January 2015 UNM Public Archaeology Graduate student Katherine Shaum collaborated with Sandia Grotto and the USFS to submit a grant to New Mexico Historic Preservation Division to fund the restoration." (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:12)

Enhanced handprint pictograph,
Sandia Cave, From Arraz-Coambs
and Rich, 2016, Sandia Cave
Restoration: National Historic
Landmark, p. 13.

Red ochre lines on cave wall, Sandia
Cave. From Arraz-Coambs and Rich,
2016, Sandia Cave Restoration:
National Historic Landmark, p. 12.

Under the hands-on supervision of Stratum Unlimited LLC, the restoration work was conducted by volunteers from the involved parties and the general public, and their wonderful results can be seen from the accompanying photos. Additionally, two ochre markings, one of which is a handprint, are illustrated which were discovered in the cave. All-in-all this seems like complete success and I congratulate all parties involved. Perhaps I will someday try to visit it again.


Arazi-Coambs, Sandra (USFS), and Carrin Rich (Sandia Grotto),
2016   Sandia Cave Restoration: National Historic Landmark, p. 11-14, National Speleological Society News, National Speleological Society, Huntsville, AL.

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