February 23, 2023

Director of state archaeology office ousted from longtime position

Kendra Chamberlain

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

One of the state’s most renowned archaeologists was working under the floorboards when he got the call early last week.

Within the hour, he found out he was fired. 

“I was terminated,” said Eric Blinman, the longtime director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies. “No cause was given. No cause was required, since I am a governor’s appointee.”

Blinman, 69, said in an interview Wednesday he had been working in an excavation site under the Palace of the Governors in downtown Santa Fe when he received a phone call requesting that he go to the Stewart L. Udall Center for Museum Resources around 4 p.m. Feb. 13. That’s when he was fired by Department of Cultural Affairs Deputy Secretary Michelle Gallagher Roberts, he said.

His state laptop and cellphone were confiscated there, he said, and he was “banished” from the building “except for escorted visits to remove personal effects.”

He added, “There are many concerns in my mind about the timing and the logic. It certainly doesn’t feel very good.”

There was “continuing friction” on his job, Blinman said, but he declined to say more. 

Daniel Zillmann, a spokesman for the Cultural Affairs Department, said Blinman was an “at-will employee who was let go according to state procedure.” 

A “personnel investigation” was conducted on Blinman “before his departure,” Zillmann added. He did not elaborate and said it was the agency’s policy not to comment on personnel matters. 

Archaeologist Michelle Ensey and New Mexico Historic Sites Deputy Director Matthew Barbour are acting as interim co-directors of the Office of Archeological Studies until a permanent successor is appointed, Zillmann said.

Blinman confirmed the department had conducted a personnel investigation involving him but said it was related to larger issues within his agency.

The sudden ouster of the state’s top archaeologist came as a shock to many who have worked with Blinman, whose service at the Office of Archaeological Studies began in 1988.

He was part of a planning team that began preparing for the agency’s 33,000-square-foot facility off N.M. 599, where the bulk of the state’s archaeological collections are held, and he became director in 2006.

Alan Osborne, co-founder of the nonprofit, Santa Fe-based Southwest Seminars, said he was “stunned” Blinman was fired. 

Blinman gave dozens of lectures for his organization over the decades and was knowledgable about a wide array of topics, Osborne said. He cited one of Blinman’s most notable achievements: “recognizing New Mexico is one of the most important cultural places in North America.”

He called Blinman a “world-class archaeologist who has great respect accorded to him locally, statewide, nationally and internationally.”

A native of California who studied anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and Washington State University, Blinman has a field of expertise that ranges widely from the history and techniques of Pueblo pottery to climate change impacts and responses, archaeomagnetic dating and what turkey droppings found in ancient New Mexico pueblos say about the people who lived there. 

In a 2016 piece he contributed toThe Filson Journal in 2016, Blinman wrote, “Archaeology is both awesome in the sense of inspiration and awesome in the sense of responsibility. We are the both the first and last to glimpse the evidence of ancient lives, destroying the record even as we try to document it. If we do a poor job of excavation or documentation, it’s like burning a book before anyone has had a chance to read it.”

Several of Blinman’s supporters said they sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham objecting to his termination. 

The letter said Blinman has “spent decades building trusted relationships with our Native American tribes as well as creating and leading counties’ educational programs so that our deep multicultural history may be appreciated in every county of New Mexico.”

The archaeologist’s advocates also raised questions about Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego, who has served in the position since 2019. They expressed concerns in the letter her management style might be contributing to high turnover rates in the agency. 

Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email Wednesday the Governor’s Office received the letter.

“We are unable to comment on personnel matters,” she wrote. “The governor remains fully supportive of and confident in the leadership of Secretary Garcia y Griego and looks forward to her continued work to carry out the mission of the department.”