The history (and prehistory) of a street corner
THE HISTORY (AND PREHISTORY) OF A STREET CORNER
As early as December, demolition will commence at the old district court building at the corner of Catron Street and Grant Avenue. A few months later, Santa Fe County will build its new administration annex there — but not before archaeologists have a final go at the site’s subterranean layers. In July, the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies completed a six-month series of excavations at the site. Most of the uncovered features and artifacts relate to the old Allison School that stood on the site beginning in the 1860s. It was replaced by Leah Harvey Junior High School, which opened in January 1938, and then that building was remodeled in 1978 to form the Judge Steve Herrera Judicial Complex.
“The sequence is, we had an adobe building [near Staab Street] that was the original school building, then to the east of that there was a dormitory, three floors of brick on a limestone foundation,” said James Moore, leader of the excavations by the Office of Archaeological Studies. “The adobe was demolished to build a laundry and infirmary building. We have thousands of artifacts, including lots of historic Pueblo pottery and chipstone materials.”
It’s easy to picture the Native people of yesteryear chipping stone for projectile points and hide scrapers, but the Spanish in Santa Fe also used chipped-stone tools. They employed sharp-edged stone flakes as cutting tools, and until the advent of the safety match and the percussion cap, “the world was still in the Stone Age,” Moore said. “To start a fire, you used flint and steel. Flint is rock. And you used gunflints for flintlock weapons.” There were many combs unearthed, which is easy to understand because of the old girls’ school at the site. In the adobe building, Moore found a key, some marbles, and pieces of slate. He wasn’t sure whether that came from blackboards or from a building’s mansard roof — those were traditionally shingled with slate.
Moore believes the adobe building was built by Anglo settlers, rather than by Native or Spanish people. “There was an area where we could see adobes intact on the foundation, but you couldn’t distinguish it from the native soil, because it was made out of the native soil. So to make sure we were following the wall, I had to dig through it to get to the foundation stones. In so doing, I was pulling sherds out of the adobe and I had our ceramics specialist look at them and he dated them all to the 19th century. That demonstrates that this was not the Esquibel House.” That residence is believed to have been built as early as 1693 and seems to be indicated on a 1766 map of the city by Spanish draftsman José de Urrutia. “There have been suggestions the Esquibel House was on this property. We were looking for it.”
In searching for buried adobe walls, archaeologists can sometimes distinguish them from the surrounding earth by subtle differences in density and color. “And sometimes from the sound your trowel makes. When I hit a floor in a Pueblo structure, I can usually tell from the sound of the trowel. But that’s not quantifiable. And I can’t explain it or describe it.”
The old school in whose ruins Moore and his crew delved was founded in 1866 by David McFarland, the first minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe. The school’s teacher was Matilda Allison, who arrived in 1881 and three years later took in 10 girls to be educated in the renovated adobe. By 1889 the students at what was initially known as the Santa Fe Industrial and Boarding School for Mexican Girls were lodged in a dormitory just north of the Presbyterian church. After Allison retired in 1903, the institution was called the Allison School. In 1928, the old building on the church grounds was put on the market, and the girls moved into a new building, where they were joined by the students of the Mary James Missionary Boarding School for Boys. This building was the Allison-James School; the structure remains at 433 Paseo de Peralta.
The archaeologists uncovered the walls of the dormitory’s foundation, the top of which was just a foot or so below the paved parking lot of the former court building. The most common artifact finds were sherds of historic Pueblo pottery. “This was heavily used by the Spanish: the disposable plates of Santa Fe. It’s in every Spanish deposit, because getting pottery from Mexico was really expensive. We found a little majolica and Mexican glazed tinwares, but there were also sherds from vessels that would have been imported over the Santa Fe Trail — whitewares and other ceramics of American manufacture, which you don’t get before [Mexican independence in] 1821, because the Spanish Crown had a very proprietary view on trade goods.”
Moore’s team also dug under the floors inside the court building. “Everything under the footprint of the building is pretty much gone,” he reported. “We did five test pits under the floor and hit seven feet of construction infill, and cultural deposits in this area don’t go down more than four or five feet.”
Curiously, the site yielded no artifacts related to El Pueblo de Santa Fe, the ancestral Tewa village also known as Ogapoge that was encountered during archaeology before construction of the Santa Fe Community Convention Center right next door. “We didn’t find much in the way of Pueblo at all,” Moore said. “We went down to where we hit sterile preoccupation deposits and we had a few scattered pieces of prehistoric pottery but no structures, no burials.” How could there be virtually no Pueblo material, when, just a few hundred feet away, excavations in 2004-2008 tallied more than 600,000 ancient Native American artifacts, as well as human burials and pit structures? “That’s a really good question,” Moore said. “The population wasn’t that dense, for one thing. And as I understand it, the farther west they went at that site, the more and more sparse the cultural deposits were. And this was once all floodplain.”
Flooding in the area was not uncommon before reservoirs were built on the Santa Fe River and before flows in local arroyos were controlled. “The Arroyo Mascaras was less tame than it is now,” said
In July, the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies completed a six-month series of excavations at the site. Most of the uncovered features and artifacts relate to the old Allison School that stood on the site beginning in the 1860s.
archaeologist Stephen Post. “Before the channel was engineered, it used to flood and run across the parking lot of the civic center [which was demolished in 2006 to build the convention center]. I think the pueblo was on a low rise in that floodplain setting — the arroyo and the Santa Fe River kind of dominated that landscape, and the Pueblo folks chose a slightly higher location where the soils were deep and well-drained. Also we don’t know that the Pueblo people weren’t doing some engineering to deflect water, and then after the village was depopulated that maintenance would have ended and the arroyo washed everything away.”
All the artifacts excavated from the courthouse site are now in boxes. “If the work is on private land, the landowner has the right to take possession of the artifacts,” Moore said. “If it’s pueblo land, they have the right to take possession, or to have them curated. If the state or federal government controls the land, by regulation it is put into the repository.” This is the state’s Archaeological Research Collections repository that holds about 8 million artifacts, including items collected by Museum of New Mexico founder Edgar Lee Hewett in the early 20th century.
The recent excavations at the old Allison School site were conducted under the rules of the state’s Cultural Properties Act, which “makes it unlawful for any person to excavate, injure, destroy, or remove any cultural property or artifact on state land without an archaeological permit,” according to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). “It is also unlawful for any person to intentionally excavate any unmarked human burial, and any material object or artifact interred with the burial, located on state or private land in New Mexico without a permit.” The agency’s Cultural Properties Review Committee reviews applications concerning excavations on state land — and on private land if the work involves mechanical earthmoving equipment. “We’re trying to make sure people aren’t going in and using mechanical equipment on archaeological sites and doing irreparable damage,” said Andrew Zink, who is in charge of archaeological permits for SHPO. “Private property owners can pretty much do anything they want until they hit human remains.”
A 1987 city archaeology ordinance runs in line with the state law. The
proponents of projects such as sewer-line trenching and building development must contract for archaeological review. “That’s always going on, and the city does send a copy to SHPO for review,” Zink said. The city’s Archaeological Review Committee conducts public hearings twice a month to consider plans and archaeological investigations. Recent ARC agendas included approval requests for archaeological monitoring of CableCom and CenturyLink projects to trench for fiber-optic lines on several downtown streets, the New Mexico School for the Arts project to build new quarters at Sambusco Center, and the Santa Fe Water Division’s trenching for water-line replacement on the Santa Fe University of Art & Design campus.
There are three archaeological districts governed by the City of Santa Fe Archaeological Review Ordinance. One is the Historic Downtown Archaeological Review District, and one of its better-known projects was conducted at Sena Plaza east of the Palace of the Governors. A selection of the artifacts found by Southwest Archaeological Consultants are on display in a wall case just inside the portal entry to Sena Plaza on East Palace Avenue. Another example of the ordinance at work concerns the new Drury Plaza Hotel. Excavations led by Moore turned up a cobblestone street — possibly Santa Fe’s oldest — and a lime-slaking pit that probably produced plaster for the construction of what is today called the Basilica Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi.
The city ordinance also applies on lands within the River and Trails Archaeological Review District. Speaking with Pasatiempo on June 30, Post asked, “When is a trail not a trail? The ordinance has caused us as archaeologists and historians to come to grips with the question: Are all ruts equal?” He was referring to the landscape depressions that bear evidence to the Santa Fe Trail, which was active from 1821 until the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe in 1880. “Just yesterday I documented what I think is a thousand-meter-long section of trail that parallels I-25. The way I recognized the beginning of it was a line of new-growth piñon and juniper.” Perhaps ruts of wagon-wheel-compressed earth hold water longer? “Yeah, and they were running in a perfect diagonal line across the prevailing topography.”
Last is the Suburban Archaeological Review District. The best example of work performed in this zone was in advance of the development of the large Tierra Contenta subdivision on Santa Fe’s south side. Archaeologist Matthew Schmader excavated several sites that yielded the remains of late Archaic Period (5500 B.C. to A.D. 400) structures. These were seasonal family camps that were occupied for a month or two at a time, Post said. How did Schmader find them? “By looking at charcoal stains in arroyo cuts: charcoal stains and fire-cracked rock,” Post said. “He showed through his radiocarbon dating that these sites were lived in, or that the area was occupied in sort of this hunter-gatherer way, from about A.D. 950 back to about 1700 B.C. It’s really cool, because this use continued right up well into the period that we associate with farming and agriculture of the Ancestral Puebloans.
“To me, what Matt was looking at was the transition between different lifestyles, the synthesis of two different peoples, and that the Archaic people and hunter-gatherer people were not only ancestors of the Pueblo farmers, but they were also being assimilated into Pueblo society in the 800s, 900s, 1000s in the Río Grande. But it’s difficult to prove these theories.”
Another Archaic site in the city was discovered by Post in an archaeological survey on North Ridgetop Road, off N.M. 599. “OAS completed an excavation on a 14th-century B.C. family camp that had been used, abandoned, and rebuilt through time. There was a wickiup [brush shelter] and an activity area with hearths in front of the house, then a midden downslope. This was a layout very similar to what you see in Ancestral Puebloan sites, but it was for hunter-gatherers. But they were in there for a longer period of time; they were almost sedentary.”
The relatively exciting nature of some of these results of archaeological investigations belie the fact that the life of an archaeologist can be tedious, full of the long and difficult work of cautious digging in all sorts of weather and the tedium of enumerating and classifying artifacts and writing detailed reports, but there are also rewards. Post last talked with The New Mexican in midSeptember 2016 for a story about the restoration of the courtyard walls at the Palace of the Governors. Also last summer, he was on the island of Yap in Micronesia with fellow archaeologist James Snead, documenting about 10 miles of historic stone pathways. Post has been working in the field for 40 years, and he recently retired from 33 years with the Office of Archaeological Studies, including as deputy director.
Moore, whose area of expertise is the chipped-stone artifact, has been with OAS for three decades, but he has been employed in archaeology around the state for 44 years. One of his career highs came just five years ago when he found a Folsom Point fragment at the Spaceport America site near Truth or Consequences. “I’ve worked on hundreds of sites, and there are certain ones I remember with great fondness. But a lot of times, the reasons I think they’re cool won’t carry over to other people. They look at me and go, ‘Um, but it was just dirt!’ One of my favorites was a stratified Archaic site along the Pojoaque corridor that had multiple layers of Archaic occupations, and all we got out of there were hearths and broken rocks, but that’s something I’m really interested in.”
There are stories there, in those broken rocks. After all, today we try to picture the people who lived here hundreds and thousands of years ago. “How did they live here?” Moore said. “What were they doing here? There was an area at that site that was used for making large bifacial tools of obsidian, and I could practically tell you where that guy’s butt was sitting when he did that flaking.”
There was an area at that site that was used for making large bifacial tools of obsidian, and I could practically tell you where that guy’s butt was sitting when he did that flaking. — archaeologist James Moore
Exposed foundation of the old Allison School dormitory, courtesy James Moore; top, Presbyterian Mission School dormitory, photo Dana B. Chase, circa 1888, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 110511; opposite page, archaeologists working at the Allison School site earlier this year, courtesy James Moore
Remains of brush structure and domestic fire pits on North Ridgetop Road dating to the 14th century B.C., courtesy Stephen Post