Rising from the refuse heap A newly published report documents the 2004-2006 excavations at the Railyard
Excavations at the Railyard
Time is a supremely valuable commodity to archaeologists — what they discover, notate, measure, and photograph in their painstaking excavations takes years to organize and write up. The report on archaeological digs performed between 2004 and 2006 in what is now the Santa Fe Railyard was only recently completed and published. “One of the neatest things is that we had a Spanish colonial midden (refuse heap) at the base of a more recent trash dump,” said Jessica A. Badner, project director at the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies. “It hadn’t been messed with too much, so it’s a little time capsule.”
Badner authored “From Acequias to Industry: the Archaeology of Neighborhood and Infrastructure at the Santa Fe Railyard” with fellow archaeologists Chris T. Wenker, who conducted the excavations, and Matthew J. Barbour, and she served as editor on the report. “It is somewhat of a miracle that that deposit exists because of all the industrial railroad activity that went on in that area for so long. The train-maintenance bays and the water tower foundation are big industrial installations, and there were wagonloads of massive blocks of sandstone going over that ground.”
In railroad’s heyday in Santa Fe — the late 19th and early 20th centuries — that water tower was connected to a well, and there was a colossal windmill to pump water up to the tower. According to Badner, there was “a huge pit with limestone blocks layered in sort of a backward series of pyramids, and the tops were stone blocks about 30 centimeters square — and on those the pylons for the water tower were set.”
These industrial features were associated with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, which came to Santa Fe (via a taxpayer-funded spur line from Lamy Junction) in 1880. The AT&SF was joined in 1887 by the Texas, Santa Fe and Northern Railway (known as the Denver & Río Grande, or “Chili Line,” beginning in 1895) and in 1904 by the Santa Fe Central (known as the New Mexico Central Railroad after 1908). The old railyards are filled with artifacts, or evidences, relating to trains — such as railroad ties and rails, service pits, and the remnants of coal-storage facilities — as well as the depots still in use today, the 1909 Santa Fe Depot (which the AT&SF built to replace its original 1880 depot), and the 1903 Union Depot (now the location of Tomasita’s Restaurant).
Examples of the precision in the 942-page report, which includes nearly 250 pages of tables, are exacting lists of every bottle, bolt, button, potsherd (by type), and animal bone that was unearthed; the dimensions of all trenches made by backhoes during the investigation; and precise measurements of features, such as of the four massive foundation pillars for the windmill. The Spanish colonial midden — one of the “hottest” finds in the two-year project — was uncovered on the northern border of the archaeology site, just west of where the Outside magazine building is now located. Up to 31 inches below the surface, it produced a variety of materials dating from the early 18th century into the Mexican Period (1821-1846). Almost 95 percent of the finds were sherds of historic Pueblo ceramics, but there were also sheep, goat, and cow bones; glass and metal Euroamerican artifacts; majolica; a glass bead; a squarecut nail; and other items.
Badner said the midden showed archaeologists that there were people living on the site a long time before the trains came. “The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway complex was installed into the Barrio de Guadalupe, changing the previously agrarian neighborhood forever,” she says in the report. C. Dean Wilson, writing a chapter on Native ceramics, affirms that “material from this midden is likely associated with a small Hispanic farmstead.”
The most common decorated pottery type found in the midden is Powhoge Polychrome. Of the 5,041 Native sherds identified, just five date back to prehistoric times, possibly as far back as the 13th century. Other uncharacteristically venerable materials were found during excavation of one of the Railyard acequias. There were 17 chippedstone artifacts, but those probably washed onto the site from above the Railyard property.
How often do artifacts point precisely to their time? “Sometimes,” Badner said. “We have what we call ‘diagnostic artifacts.’ That’s where you can look at just a piece that has either a style or, if it’s ceramic, potentially a paint or temper type or design or, with historic archaeology, maybe a maker’s mark, like old bottles that have markings on the bottom that you can look up.”
Also found at the Railyard site were a small Bakelite pistol handle, stove bolts, garter clips, clothespins, pomade jars, Falstaff and Lemp beer bottles — Lemp was a St. Louis brewery that operated in Santa Fe out of the building that today houses the Jean Cocteau Cinema — and the bottom of a PLUTO Water bottle. This concoction, bottled in French Lick, Indiana, was advertised as “America’s laxative” with the slogan, “When Nature Won’t, PLUTO Will.”
“A good allegory for all of this is to imagine that you had a little house and your family lived here for
a hundred years and you threw everything out in a pile out back. Then you needed somewhere to put your car, so you leveled the land and you drove on it. Ninety percent of what archaeologists recover is that stuff. And most of what we find is broken. It’s like saying we’re going to try to determine where the people who lived here came from by looking at their discarded, broken stuff.”
Badner joined the staff of the Office of Archaeological Studies in 1997 and also has been involved in excavations of Archaic Period (5500 BC-AD 600) sites along N.M. 599 and American and Spanish colonial buildings behind the Palace of the Governors. As with the Santa Fe Railyard, much of the work performed by her and others with the Office of Archaeological Studies is done in advance of the construction of buildings, parking garages, and road-widening projects.
“These days, you just don’t go out thinking, ‘Hey, there’s something cool out there. I want to dig it up.’ You have a research design. You have a plan. You conduct controlled excavations or surveys, and you report what you find. It’s not like we’re going out with a shovel and having a grand old time.”
Speaking of shovels — and trowels and dirt-sifting screens — archaeology work can be pretty rough on bodies, all that digging and crouching in holes and sifting earth. But there are rewards. Badner mentioned the time spent out in beautiful New Mexico landscapes — on good days. “Also, I enjoy when you’re doing an excavation and you have real difficult stratigraphy [layers below the surface] and you’re looking at it, scratching your head and thinking, ‘What happened here? How was this built? How did people put it together? How did it fall down?’ Then all of a sudden there’s a moment when the puzzle sort of falls together. One of the things that’s never unusual is to see an archaeologist looking into an open trench, wondering, ‘What is this about?’ ”
Looking in a trench? What is there besides dirt? “Everybody thinks dirt is just dirt,” Badner said, “but it has colors and it has structures and it can be consolidated in different ways, and when it’s laid down, it’s layer on layer on layer until it’s disturbed, at which point layers fall together and pits are created and there are new deposits.
“We have this very cool educational outreach. We give the kids dirt and have them layer it, and we tell them, ‘You just created the native geology. You had a river course that went through, you had ash from a forest fire, and deposits of tuff from a volcano.’ Then we say, ‘Pretend you’re a nomadic family and you make a fire, then pretend you’re a bison,’ and they push on the surface with their fingers. ‘Now you’re the wind and the rain,’ and they use a spray bottle, then we add a different color of dirt — or there’s been a flood, and you add sand. This is done in terrariums, and you can see the layers and how stratigraphy isn’t just simple.”
Badner is currently working on several projects. One of them is a six-volume report on a series of early Developmental Period (AD 600-1200) sites at Peña Blanca. “We found huge storage cysts, bell-shaped features as big as me. The opening is maybe 30 or 40 centimeters and belling out to more than a meter and then maybe three feet deep.” These are not ceramic features, but earth burnt on the surface. “Someone made a fire in there and it oxidized and hardened the soil. We think it was used to store corn. That’s what we found in there: very early corn.”
That corn was probably tiny, the kind of thing most of us wouldn’t even see. Archaeologists are trained to ferret out details, applying effort, logic, and intuition to piece together the stories of past cultures. Badner described them as having “weird personalities. They’re nitpicky. It’s the minutiae. They tend to be the square pegs.
“I have realized more and more that the best archaeologists I know, the people who taught me, were really curious, constantly and unyieldingly curious. Like Chuck Hannaford and Steve Post. I bet, when they were kids, they took apart their parents’ watches and stuff: What is in there? What’s underneath there? And for me, it’s like I want to be able to explain it. I want to know why, and often I don’t get to know why.”
Left, excavated pits once used to service locomotives from underneath; top left, a Bakelite pistol handle unearthed in the Railyard; top right, Badner is among the archaeologists at work in this scene drawn by Stanford in May 2005; below, coins unearthed at the site of the 1880 Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe depot