SANTA FE, N.M. — The rather optimistic belief among some visitors from Connecticut that an expanse of grassland south of Santa Fe would be a great place for a dairy set off a chain of events that led to one of the most comprehensive modern assessments of a Puebloan settlement from the 1300s and early 1400s.
Douglas Schwartz, principal investigator of the Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project, chuckles when he tells the story.
“They thought they’d build a dam across the arroyo and they’d have a pond for irrigation,” he said of that effort back in the 1920s. “They bought 330 acres … . The first thing they built was a dairy barn just like a Connecticut dairy barn.”
And they built that dam and, come the first big storm, “a flood came out of the mountains that tore that dam apart like it was paper,” he said.
They went bankrupt; their bankruptcy attorney happened to be on the board of what was then the School of American Research (now the School for Advanced Research) and he convinced them to donate to SAR about 20 acres that just happened to include prehistoric pueblo ruins that initially had been identified by Adolph Bandelier in the 1880s.
That provided the grist for the Arroyo Hondo Research Project, an archaeological excavation and study that Schwartz launched in 1971 after he was lured from his research in the Grand Canyon and faculty position at the University of Kentucky to lead SAR into a revamping and expansion of its mission.
“I thought it would be a really interesting research project,” he said, noting that it would add an exploration of the eastern edge of the Southwest, as well as a later historical era to his studies. “It would really flesh out my own archaeological career in the Grand Canyon.” The National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society helped fund the five-year excavation in the 1970s.
What he and the many other researchers who studied the site found was that the Connecticut folks’ experience of a promise of natural riches that collapsed into failure was not unique – it had happened over a longer span of years at least twice before on a much larger scale.
From a settlement of about 100 rooms begun around the year 1300, the Arroyo Hondo Pueblo turned into a boom town of some 1,000 rooms and 10 plazas by 1330. But then, by 1345, it was abandoned.
People returned around 1370, building a more modest settlement of about 250 rooms on the remains of the earlier town, Schwartz said, but then disappeared again around 1425.
The boom and bust was not unusual for area settlements then, Schwartz said. Drought caused periodic famines that would make survival chancy for areas such as Arroyo Hondo, away from the main rivers that offered a more consistent lifeline for other pueblos. Other factors, such as trees cut down to serve as roof supports and subsequent erosion, played into how many people could be supported by the land.
The site, about five miles south of Santa Fe, off Arroyo Hondo Road south of Interstate 25, does have the advantage of being at an intersection of ecological zones, including one created by the water flow in the arroyo – at least when there was enough water to flow – along with the grasslands extending to the south and the mountains rising to the north. That helps explain why the site yielded bones of 91 species of animals. Most were wild, but some were domestic: dogs and turkeys, Schwartz said.
And the story of the turkeys helps illustrate how modern research techniques can yield new information for years after excavations have been finished – this one ended by the late 1970s, but analysis has been ongoing since then. Just recently, a new website, www.arroyohondo.org, has been set up to include the nine monographs and additional wealth of discoveries that have been published long after the digging was done.
The digging yielded evidence of pens to hold the turkeys and blankets made from the turkey feathers, but no one knew if, as often happened, the young women of the time herded the turkeys out to forage or whether the poultry stayed in the settlement.
But, just six months ago, a graduate student asked for some eggshells to study with modern techniques and determined that the birds laying those eggs ate only corn meal – so they weren’t being herded into the nearby forest for a more natural meal, Schwartz said.
Besides corn, which made up almost three-quarters of the humans’ diet, the people living there also farmed squash and beans – the traditional Three Sisters of Pueblo culture. Meat accounted for only 15 percent of the residents’ diet, with two-thirds of that coming from deer, he said.
Evidence of malnutrition
Ann Palkovich, who studied the human bones for evidence of illness, found that half of the skeletons from a similar time frame had evidence of iron deficiency anemia and that those from one particular part of the pueblo suffered disproportionately from rickets, caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, calcium or phosphate. Both illnesses have their roots in malnutrition.
But they raise an interesting question, Schwartz said. In a society we think of as egalitarian, why were some people in the pueblo subject to diseases from malnutrition, while others weren’t?
That’s a tougher question to answer, along with the questions of where the people came from and where they went.
Unlike many pueblo ruins found in the Santa Fe area, those at Arroyo Hondo haven’t been claimed as ancestral dwellings of any of the current Pueblo peoples, Schwartz said.
Did the Arroyo Hondo residents all die out? Did they dribble out to relatives in a variety of other area settlements? Did they revert to a hunting-gathering lifestyle in the mountains?
It’s hard to say. It’s possible none did migrate to still-viable pueblos – or it’s possible that, for some reason, there’s a ban on speaking about the Arroyo Hondo Pueblo, he said.
Pueblo legends do include tales of witches, who were targeted with blame when things went wrong. It’s possible witches were killed and the dwellings burned to cleanse the spot and give the residents a chance to make a new start elsewhere, he speculated. Or – and there are signs of burning, as well as seven skeletons found killed by a cave-in of a kiva roof – the people might have been attacked and buildings burned during a raid by nearby tribes looking for food in a time of scarcity.
The original settlement was walled off like a fortress, suggesting the need for protection from raiders, he added.
There was no sudden appearance of human bones to suggest a major die-off around the two times Arroyo Hondo Pueblo lost its population, Schwartz said.
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, he added. At very stressful times, when people are suffering from starvation and disease, burials aren’t conducted as usual, he said. People might be dying, not by their home’s fireside, but crawling around outside looking for food or water. In that case, through a combination of foraging insects, birds and mammals, evidence of their bodies would soon disappear, he said.
While Arroyo Hondo Pueblo was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior, it’s unlikely you’ll see it opened as a tourist site. The SAR donated the land to the Archaeological Conservancy to be preserved for future research.
Schwartz declined to describe the exact location. It is easily accessible, he said, with signage to indicate it’s not open to the public without prior permission. But since, as is current archaeological practice, the site was reburied after plastic was placed on the floors of excavated rooms and plazas, there’s not much to be seen now. It looks like rolling grassland, but with some patterns of mounds and depressions that suggest a manmade design to the discerning eye, he said.