Notes from underground
Excavation of the Agua Fría Schoolhouse site
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.”
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