Ris­ing from the refuse heap A newly pub­lished re­port doc­u­ments the 2004-2006 ex­ca­va­tions at the Rai­l­yard

Ex­ca­va­tions at the Rai­l­yard

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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

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