It’s a predictably sunny day in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico and the cottonwood trees lining the Tularosa Creek glow copper in midmorning rays. I relish their rare shade on a walk downstream to a small wooden bridge, to the far side of the Tularosa Canyon. I then bat away prickly mesquites and creosotes that poke at my shins on the hike over to a round, semi-subterranean ceremonial structure known as a great kiva. It’s still partially buried in the arid earth, so I fall to my knees, grab my trowel, and begin the meditative work of unearthing this ancient structure—one tiny scrape at a time.
Some folks know this prickly patch of land, three hours south of Albuquerque, as the place that turned Henry McCarty into Billy the Kid; others associate it with nearby Roswell and its fabled UFOs. David Greenwald, president of the Jornada Research Institute, a nonprofit that studies the archaeological heritage of New Mexico, sees what everyone else seems to miss. He’s dedicated his life to uncovering the hidden cities built more than a millennium ago by an advanced society that transformed this lifeless desert into vast fields of corn, beans, and squash.
For the past two days I’ve been digging with Greenwald in the Tularosa Canyon, unearthing a great kiva built by the Jornada Mogollon, who occupied this area between 600 and 850 C.E. Greenwald, who has been digging here since 2013, thinks it may have been used not only for ceremonial, sociopolitical, and administrative activities but also celestial observations given its alignment with the solstices. But we’ll need to keep excavating for clues.
“To do this work, you have to like getting dirty,” he says, as we kneel together, caked in dust, baking under the New Mexico sun. Luckily, I do. That’s how I found myself here in the first place as part of a citizen science program where paying volunteers get the chance to work on active archaeological digs. The idea is that travelers like me can gain access to historical sites and actively participate in the work of understanding them better. Meanwhile, nonprofits like Jornada get a pair of helping hands, as well as needed cash to help fund their research.
“In order to do a thorough job of interpreting the information we gather, we have to send a lot of samples off to laboratories for specialized analysis,” Greenwald says. “That’s the part we have a hard time paying for. So, by creating these participation programs where people actually come and pay a fee to participate, that helps us cover these expenses.”
On our breaks, the seasoned archeologist shows me some of the estimated 200 to 250 pit houses at a site called Creekside Village, as well as evidence of the vast irrigation systems and agricultural terraces that allowed the Jornada Mogollon to survive yet another day in the desert. He also takes me up to the Mescalero Reservation, in the pine-covered Sacramento Mountains, to better appreciate the culture of the Apache, who moved into these lands in the 13th century. The goal is to spend half the time digging and the other half contextualizing the experience.
I discovered Jornada Research Institute through Ancient Odysseys, a new online marketplace that links travelers with excavation sites open to amateurs like me. Founder Marisa Rodriguez launched the company in 2020 after a life-changing experience unearthing a 65-million-year-old triceratops from the grasslands of Wyoming on a program through the U.S. Forest Service. “I was hooked,” the former marketing consultant says. “But when I scoured the internet to find more digs, they were extremely hard to find.”
That’s when she got the idea for Ancient Odysseys, which is the only online marketplace for archeological and paleontological digs. The site expanded this year beyond the United States to offer 15 total experiences in places like Australia and Peru, which could be anywhere from one day to two weeks in length.
Rodriguez is the first to caution that this kind of tourism isn’t for everyone. “It’s citizen science on steroids,” she says. “You’ve got to be prepared to sit in the dirt in the elements and be there to help— not necessarily to be catered to by the researchers—because you really are out in the field doing the work.”
Beyond the scientific work, travelers can also book custom itineraries with culturally immersive activities that complement the themes of their project. In Tularosa Canyon, for example, that might include night sky observations that harken back to the celestial activities that may have taken place at the great kiva.
Ancient Odysseys has seen a 68 percent growth in traffic this year as travelers increasingly seek out experiential vacations like these. Rodriguez says she truly believes that, “on an excavation, everyone has the chance to experience the thrill of discovery.”
That’s exactly what happens to me back at the great kiva in New Mexico on my final day, when I spot my first find: a sherd of pottery with a bold geometric design. It’s lying amid a pile of pebbles I’ve sifted from the dig site. After dusting it off, Greenwald says it’s in the Chupadero Black-on-White style and might have been part of a bulbous jar. What I’m holding in the palm of my hand could have been made close to a thousand years ago.
I hand the sherd to Greenwald for safekeeping; he tells me that the desert is speckled with hundreds of pieces just like it. He hopes participants like me gain a greater respect for cultural resources like these, as well as a better appreciation for the early inhabitants of this land. “There is so much we can learn from our past,” he says, “and so much we still don’t know about it yet.”