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Volunteer group helping with latest excavation of Coronado Historic Site

In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, with 500 soldiers and 2,000 Indian allies from New Spain, entered the Rio Grande Valley seeking the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. But instead of treasure, he found a dozen villages inhabited by prosperous native farmers who spoke Tiwa, and their ancestors had already been living in this area for thousands of years.

Brian Gilmore is president of the Friends of Coronado Historic Site, whose members are helping with an excavation of the site. (Gary Herron / Rio Rancho Observer)

About 550 years later, Brian Gilmore discovered the long-abandoned site – and he believes the site itself is a treasure.

Gilmore, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, discovered Coronado Historic Site almost by accident.

A resident of Rio Rancho the last 10 years, he recalls being at dinner about seven years ago one evening in Bernalillo, maybe at the Range, and somehow wondering aloud what Coronado National Monument was all about.

Someone heard their conversation, filled them in and the couple visited the site.

“We came out and fell in love (with it),” said Gilmore, the president of the Friends of Coronado Historic Site, while giving a guided tour to a visitor. “It’s not just the ruins … It’s a true buried treasure in New Mexico.”

True, much of it is buried. And quite a few of the 376 Friends – “(with) probably no members under the age of 50,” he says – have helped make a difference at the site.

Gilmore still chuckles as he tells about people who think the only thing at the site is a statue of Coronado.

Not so – it’s a 110-acre site, first inhabited in the early 1300s, which nobody can guarantee Coronado actually reached.

Another funny story, says Gilmore: In the 1930s, under the direction of Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, the site was excavated, with Hewett hoping some archaeological proof could be found, showing Coronado had wintered there in 1540-41. Hewett founded the Museum of New Mexico, established the School of American Archaeology (now the School for Advanced Research), and served as president of New Mexico Normal School in Las Vegas (now New Mexico Highlands University) from 1898 to 1903, where he taught some of the first courses in anthropology to be offered at any U.S. college.

But when that excavation didn’t yield enough evidence to support his theory, he ordered the ruins to be back-filled, rendering them underground. So what visitors to the site today see are a “footprint,” new adobe walls that show the outline of the pueblo’s 1,200 first-floor rooms and two plazas. (Interestingly, Tiwa people used a “puddle-adobe” method to build, not adobe bricks, associated with the Spanish.)

Last winter, Gilmore said, thanks to funding – partially helped by state Sens. John Sapien and Craig Brandt – a new survey conducted by the Office of Archaeological Studies went beyond the site of the original pueblo and discovered about two-dozen sites that had never been recorded.

And over those sites are where archaeologists and Friends volunteers are crouched, meticulously digging and scraping down four inches at a time in “test pits,” roughly two feet by two feet. They use large screens, suspended by three poles, to sift away the considerable amount of sand, seeking pottery shards and anything else of significance.

Anything found is labeled and placed inside a plastic bag. After the top four inches have been screened, the next four inches are dug.

“We just started last week,” Gilmore said, with the project going on through August.

Gilmore and his wife spend a lot of time at the site; he finds it a great place to find serenity, usually by hiking one of the trails that leads into the bosque on the west side of the Rio Grande. As he walks, his head moves from side to side, watching for artifacts – he still gets a rush when he sees a pottery shard or, better yet, an arrowhead – and rattlesnakes.

He said they had done quite a bit of research on where to live when he retired from the Navy; he was familiar with Albuquerque, or at least Kirtland Air Force Base, having flown onto the base in the past.

“We read Rio Rancho was a great place to retire,” he said, and that became their destination.

He didn’t know anything about the state’s rich history, including Kuaua Pueblo, until he started reading about it 10 years ago.

“There’s so much more here,” he said.

“To me, the real story of this place isn’t Coronado, it’s the kivas and paintings,” he said. “It’s a glimpse into the past, the history of America.”

To many, Gilmore says, that “history of America” began with either Columbus back in 1492 or the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.

Back then, Kuaua Pueblo – believed abandoned shortly after the Pueblo revolt of 1680 – had some 2,000-3,000 rooms and was four stories high, “one of the biggest pueblos in the middle Rio Grande region.”

And when Coronado visited the area in 1540-41, there were at least 14 and as many as 20 pueblos in the region, “four after he left and now two – Isleta and Sandia.”

Understandably, this former naval officer says, “It’s a great place to get away.”

Or, for New Mexicans, a great place to discover.