San Miguel Mission excavators dig up artifacts

Sante Fe, New Mexico (AP) April 2011

Archaeologists excavating around San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe have found everything from animal bones and pre-Columbian artifacts to a quarter-real Spanish coin from the 1820s and a 20th century school-tax token.

San Miguel Mission is known as the oldest church in the United States. It was built in 1610, destroyed by fire in 1640, rebuilt in 1645, destroyed again in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt again in 1710.

The nonprofit Cornerstones of Santa Fe, which has helped restore more than 360 churches and other earthen structures in the Southwest, began working on the mission last year. The work, largely by volunteers, is expected to continue for two more years.

Archaeologists Alysia Abbott and Elizabeth Oster supervised the excavation of a 75-foot trench on the south side of the church. The trench will allow water from the roofs of the mission and adjacent buildings to flow into a storm sewer.

As expected, the excavation turned up human remains, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Most were disarticulated bones, which indicated they had been disturbed by previous excavations for utility work, Oster said. A nearly complete skeleton was also found, but it was not known whether the person was Native American or of European descent.

Oster said the excavators eventually will meet with tribes and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to determine what will happen to the bones.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act regulates human remains and funerary objects and items considered part of a tribe’s cultural patrimony. Oster said neither of those types of artifacts has been found.

What has been found are pieces of Santa Fe black-on-white pottery from the 1300s, Tewa polychrome pottery from a more recent era, ceramics with the imprints of corncobs and a tiny Pedernal chert dart point used to hunt birds.

One intriguing item blends Old and New World technology: a whorl or disk from a Native American hand spindle, made from a piece of talavera pottery.

The trench that was dug in the excavation is as deep as 5 feet in some areas. Oster and Abbott pointed out layers of previous construction and a parallel drainage ditch of brick with flagstone over the top. The old ditch still functions, but its leaks cause water to seep into the foundations of the adobe church.

Oster and Abbott say that after an 18-inch PVC pipe is laid in the trench, it will be covered up.