Notes from un­der­ground

Ex­ca­va­tion of the Agua Fría School­house site

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Paul Wei­de­man I The New Mex­i­can

INearly De­cem­ber, 17 rooms at the Agua Fría School­house site, which is at least 600 years old, were re-buried and are again invisible. Dur­ing the past year, crews from a Santa Fe ar­chae­ol­ogy com­pany had metic­u­lously ex­ca­vated through lay­ers of sed­i­ment to re­veal the walls and floors of the an­cient rooms. “We’re ei­ther in a sec­ond­story set of rooms here with the first story un­der us, or they’ve done so much re­mod­el­ing that they knocked the lower rooms down and built on top,” said Cherie Sche­ick, stand­ing in one of the roughly rec­tan­gu­lar adobe struc­tures on Nov. 4.

Sche­ick, the pres­i­dent of the Río Grande Foun­da­tion for Com­mu­ni­ties and Cul­tural Land­scapes (the non­profit branch of South­west Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Con­sul­tants), ex­plained that the peo­ple who were here from the mid-1200s to the early 1400s of­ten re­mod­eled their struc­tures. That adds to the puz­zle for re­searchers to­day. “We have a pot sit­ting here with a bunch of ground stone around it right in the mid­dle of all this burned struc­tural de­bris. All this ba­si­cally sug­gests there’s an­other struc­ture be­neath us, a pit struc­ture or a kiva, or lower rooms.”

Th­ese ru­ins are in the tra­di­tional vil­lage of Agua Fría, about six miles down­river from down­town Santa Fe. The Agua Fría School­house site — named af­ter a grade school that was built in 1914 and razed in the 1940s — holds rem­nants of an adobe pue­blo (set­tle­ment) that may have been up to three sto­ries high and oc­cu­pied a se­ries of ter­races on the south side of the Santa Fe River. The site is less well known than an­other pre­his­toric-era pue­blo named Pindi, which was lo­cated about 500 feet north of Agua Fría School­house, on the other side of the river. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists Stan­ley Stubbs and W.S. Stallings Jr. ex­ca­vated 250 rooms at Pindi in the 1930s.

But Sche­ick, who led ex­ca­va­tions at other lo­ca­tions on the 10-acre Agua Fría School­house site in 1988, 2006, and 2009, is turn­ing up a greater de­tail of data be­cause of a newly painstak­ing process. “This

time we tried some­thing new,” she said. “We fine­screened ev­ery­thing, us­ing 1/8-inch screen rather than ¼-inch. It was sort of an ex­per­i­ment, but this site was so rich we didn’t want to miss any­thing. We’ve prob­a­bly re­cov­ered enough data at LA 2 for re­searchers to ex­plore all kinds of as­pects of this cul­ture for the next 50 years.” LA 2 is the Lab­o­ra­tory of An­thro­pol­ogy des­ig­na­tion for the school­house site. Dr. Harry P. Mera, a Santa Fe physi­cian who switched to a ca­reer in an­thro­pol­ogy be­gin­ning in 1929, se­lected Pindi Pue­blo (LA 1) and Agua Fría School­house as the first ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in the lab’s new num­ber­ing sys­tem.

Sche­ick hopes her work, when com­plete, will an­swer im­por­tant ques­tions about the An­ces­tral Pue­bloan peo­ple who lived in the Santa Fe River val­ley in what ar­chae­ol­o­gists call the Coali­tion Pe­riod (1200-1325 C.E.) and the early part of the Clas­sic Pe­riod (1325-1610).

“The Coali­tion Pe­riod in the Santa Fe area was a time of large-scale so­cial and eco­nomic am­pli­fi­ca­tion where the defin­ing el­e­ments of Pue­blo life, namely agri­cul­ture, seden­tism, and vil­lage-scale or­ga­ni­za­tion, ma­tured in size and com­plex­ity,” ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ja­son Shapiro writes in Be­fore Santa Fe: Ar­chae­ol­ogy of the City Dif­fer­ent (Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press, 2008). LA 2 may be the largest of the Coali­tion-Clas­sic Santa Fe River vil­lages. By the mid-13th cen­tury, Pindi had no less than 175 rooms and Agua Fría School­house Pue­blo had more than 500, Shapiro said. At their peak, there may have been 2,000 peo­ple liv­ing in the set­tle­ments on both sides of the river.

Some of the newly ex­ca­vated rooms in the Agua Fría School­house com­plex — walls and floors that were slowly worked by Sche­ick’s team with shov­els, trow­els, and brushes — showed a va­ri­ety of “fea­tures,” in­clud­ing the re­mains of fire pits, hearths, and food­pro­cess­ing bins. The walls them­selves were con­structed us­ing the “coursed adobe” tech­nique. “The hand-pat­ted adobe was laid down as one long course, al­lowed to dry, then the next course was added on top,” Sche­ick ex­plained. “So they might take a bas­ket full of wet clay, glob it on, pat it down, glob it on, and smooth it out un­til they had one long course. And then they smeared mud or ap­plied plas­ter to hide the cracks be­tween cour­ses.”

The un­trained ob­server can marvel at the ar­chae­ol­o­gists’ abil­ity to dis­cern a wall within the mass of dirt that most of us see as sim­ply “the ground.” Sche­ick ad­mit­ted that the process of gen­tly dig­ging through dirt look­ing for adobe (dirt) walls can be mad­den­ing. “You can see color change, but there’s so much clay in adobe that there’s no sep­a­ra­tion. It comes down to the den­sity and the con­sis­tency of the ma­trix. We wait till it dries and it will show a bet­ter line, then we dig down, and the clay from the packed adobe starts to sep­a­rate, and you can see a line, and then you pop it [the layer of dirt] off.”

One of the rooms has what looks like three post­holes on one edge. Sche­ick had no idea how those holes may have been used. And what about all the pits of var­i­ous sizes in the floors? “That’s what we have to fig­ure out. First you do the ex­ca­va­tion, then you try to fig­ure it out,” she said. “Some of them could be mix­ing pits, which is what Stubbs and Stallings talked about at Pindi. They said peo­ple dug pits to mix adobe, then they built the walls, then they filled the pits and built the floors on top.”

The crews found lit­tle ev­i­dence of roofs, which were prob­a­bly made of three lay­ers: in­su­lat­ing earth on top of brush or reed mat­ting on tree-trunk logs, which were laid across the walls. The sci­en­tists did find an un­usual amount of the brush com­po­nent;

She­ick said that ma­te­rial was pre­served be­cause of the high pro­por­tion of moist clay found at the site.

The Foun­da­tion re­searchers, pro­cess­ing ex­ca­vated earth with hand-screen­ing de­vices, have re­cov­ered about 45,000 ar­ti­facts from all the LA 2 digs thus far. Among them are beads, cot­ton pollen, stone pro­jec­tile points, pipes, flutes, lit­tle ce­ramic an­i­mal ef­fi­gies, and lots of pot­sherds; the pot­tery types in­clude Gal­is­teo Black-on-white, Wiyo Black-on-white, Agua Fría Glaze-on-red, and some Santa Fe Black-on-white. Many of the ar­ti­facts tend to be func­tional and plain, but the peo­ple did em­ploy dec­o­ra­tive pig­ments. On one wall, Sche­ick’s crew un­cov­ered a big dot of yel­low ochre. Af­ter be­ing ex­posed in the dig, it did not last long. “We kept all this cov­ered with con­crete blan­kets in the win­ter, but it de­te­ri­o­rates so fast,” she said. “Con­den­sa­tion just eats away the walls. It tells you how much main­te­nance this all would have re­quired when peo­ple were liv­ing here.”

The pres­ence of cot­ton pollen sug­gests that the res­i­dents ei­ther ac­quired cot­ton in trade or grew it them­selves. Be­sides the plant’s value for wo­ven ma­te­rial, cot­ton seeds could have been ground for oil, pos­si­bly for cook­ing flat breads, Sche­ick said. Bi­o­log­i­cal rem­nants that il­lu­mi­nate the Pue­bloans’ diet in­clude maize and squash, rab­bit, fish, deer, bi­son, moun­tain goat, moun­tain sheep, and an­te­lope. It is also likely that the peo­ple kept tur­keys, ac­cord­ing to a project sum­mary Sche­ick sub­mit­ted in a Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places nom­i­na­tion.

Us­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence to try to fig­ure out what peo­ple’s lives were like in this area be­tween 600 and 750 years ago is a wor­thy chal­lenge for the project’s lead ar­chae­ol­o­gist. “I like com­mu­nity for­ma­tion. I like com­mu­nity in­ter­ac­tion; that’s what I like to study,” said Sche­ick, who worked on her first ar­chae­ol­ogy project in 1971 as a ju­nior at Michi­gan State Univer­sity. “I think how Pindi and Agua Fría School­house grew were two sep­a­rate pro­cesses. Pindi was one large pue­blo, all con­tigu­ous with small plazas in­side, and there were a few out­lier roomblocks. LA 2 seems dif­fer­ent. It looks like there were at least six roomblocks sur­round­ing plazas, and each roomblock had small in­te­rior plac­itas.”

If the Pindi and the Agua Fría School­house sites were con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous and only a few hun­dred feet apart, why are they con­sid­ered sep­a­rate pue­b­los? “That’s part of the ques­tion we’re try­ing to an­swer,” she said, and added that it con­forms to a pat­tern of sis­ter sites in the Santa Fe River val­ley. Who were th­ese peo­ple? Where did they come from? “That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,” Sche­ick re­sponded. “There is ev­i­dence that th­ese Tewa peo­ple were an amal­ga­ma­tion of an in­dige­nous group that was al­ready liv­ing here and mi­grants com­ing out of Chaco and Mesa Verde, for ex­am­ple.”

The 2014-2015 Agua Fría School­house ex­ca­va­tion was ini­tially funded by a $50,000 seed grant from the New Mex­ico His­toric Preser­va­tion Di­vi­sion. “The com­mu­nity gave us prob­a­bly $15,000 in vol­un­teer time, the Agua Fría Com­mu­nity Wa­ter As­so­ci­a­tion (which owns the site) gave us $10,000 in ac­tual cash, and be­tween the Río Grande Foun­da­tion for Com­mu­ni­ties and Cul­tural Land­scapes and South­west Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Con­sul­tants, we have more than $50,000 in the project,” Sche­ick said.

Some lo­cal res­i­dents of­fered vol­un­teer help, in­clud­ing screen­ing for, and wash­ing, ar­ti­facts. Oth­ers vis­ited the ex­ca­va­tion site to tell her that they have found ar­ti­facts on their prop­er­ties in the vicin­ity. “I tell them, ‘You’re still on the site. LA 2 is 10 acres.’ Look at all the mound­ing out on the church [Arch­dio­cese of Santa Fe] property on the other side of this fence and in peo­ple’s yards. Those are pue­blo roomblocks.”

At the site in mid-Novem­ber, time was run­ning out. In a few days, the com­mu­nity would be­gin back­fill­ing the ex­ca­va­tions, cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing up. The deep­est the team had delved was about 85 inches in one pit. Pa­trick Bro­gan, one of Sche­ick’s staff ar­chae­ol­o­gists, was us­ing a soil­sam­pling auger to ex­plore that pit fur­ther, and he was still find­ing small ar­ti­facts. “There could even be Pa­leo stuff down here if we went deep enough,” he said, re­fer­ring to the Pa­le­oin­dian Pe­riod that goes back more than 7,500 years. “This is such a nice spot to live.”

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Left, Cherie Sche­ick, pres­i­dent of the Río Grande Foun­da­tion for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Cul­tural Land­scapes, and Pa­trick Bro­gan, staff ar­chae­ol­o­gist, ex­am­ine ma­te­rial from a sam­pling auger; above right, Sche­ick stands in an an­cient room; top, a bone whis­tle ex­ca­vated at Agua Fría School­house; pho­tos Paul Wei­de­man, un­less oth­er­wise noted

A pro­jec­tile point found at the Agua Fría School­house site; above, an artis­tic ren­der­ing of a Coali­tion Pe­riod dwelling by Rob Turner, cour­tesy Of­fice of Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Stud­ies; right, an an­cient wall and “ar­chae­o­log­i­cal north ar­row” tool used to show ori­en­ta­tion and scale in pho­to­graphs, cour­tesy Cherie Sche­ick

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