State project works to protect ruins against further erosion

By Raam Wong
Galisteo Basin, New Mexico (AP) 6-08

Buried in a sandbar a mile downstream from an old pueblo rests garbage left by the American Indians who once called this wind-swept swath of high desert home.

The broken pots, animal bones, charcoal and other odds and ends lie on top of one another like fallen dominoes.

Archaeologists say the layering of the material suggests it was washed there during a major, even catastrophic, flood.

Flooding, erosion and climate change may have been primary factors in Pueblo Blanco’s abandonment in the 1600s.

“The whole pattern of evidence (suggests) they were trying to cope with erosion and drought simultaneously and lost the game,” said David Eck, an archaeologist with the state Land Office, which owns the 20 acres southeast of Santa Fe where the ruins sit.

Today, the same nameless arroyo that likely wreaked havoc on the pueblo’s Tanoan-speaking residents is threatening to wash away the visible traces of their existence.

Centuries of monsoon-season flooding have eaten away at the arroyo’s banks, atop which rest piles of rock showing the outlines of what once were blocks of rooms. Already, remnants of several of those rooms are thought to have tumbled down into the arroyo, erasing key evidence of what went where.

“We could lose so much of this in one flood,” said Land Office environmental engineer Thaddeus Kostrubala.

The erosion has also left some burial sites exposed and vulnerable to looters. The dead were sometimes buried below the floors of the living quarters.

The state Land Office is completing a stabilization project meant to protect the pueblo with earthen retaining walls for the next 50 to 100 years.

Workers are stacking and staking bales of juniper along the arroyo’s 14-foot-high vertical walls. The juniper was collected during forest-thinning projects on trust land near Las Vegas, compressed and bound together. The bales eventually will be covered in soil and vegetated, forming a gentle slope buttressing and protecting the ruins.

Black fabric goes between the pre-existing and the new soil, demarcating for future generations where the preservation work occurred.

“Cultural resources in the Galisteo Basin have great significance in the Native American and Spanish colonial history of our state and these sites must be preserved and protected,” said state Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons.

Sheltered between the Sangre de Cristo and Sandia mountains, the Galisteo Basin became a population center for pueblo communities in the 15th century. The weather was good, and conditions at the time allowed them to dry farm corn.

Archaeological evidence shows Pueblo Blanco was one of the region’s big, densely populated sites, with about 1,450 rooms, a few plazas and kivas and about 1,500 people at its peak.

After a couple hundred years, archaeologists believe the region experienced changing weather patterns that caused both drought and flooding.

The community struggled to cope by constructing earthen dams that formed two or three reservoirs capable of holding several acre feet of water. But perhaps fed-up with erosion and with parts of their community washing away, the residents picked up and moved.

The traces of what they and other pueblos left behind, like rock art and potsherds, are frequently cited by opponents of a Texas-based company’s plans to drill for oil and gas on the basin.

Congressional legislation in 2004 protected 24 of the archaeological sites, but money for a complete federal study of the basin’s historic areas still hasn’t been allocated.

Archaeologist Nels Nelson of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History partially excavated Pueblo Blanco between 1912 and 1914.

A map drawn by Nelson indicated that, even back then, several blocks of rooms had already washed away. Eck, the archaeologist, estimates that further erosion since has destroyed another 5 percent of the pueblo.

Still, the bulk of the pueblo remains hidden – and protected – beneath earth, juniper and desert grasses. The rock piles and potsherds that are aboveground could easily be overlooked in the dusty landscape.

Eck said Pueblo Blanco is fortunate because it’s mostly gone untouched by looters. Its location remains a closely guarded secret, and Land Office staffers joke that they blindfold members of the public lucky enough to take one of the agency’s occasional tours of the site.

Scores of other excavation sites across the Southwest have been picked over, leaving a confetti of broken bones and artifacts strewn across the ground.

That reality underscores the need to protect the Pueblo Blanco from threats, whether they be from pot hunters or flooding, the archaeologist said.

“We gotta hang onto the small pieces we have left,” Eck said.