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Kuaua research yields questions for future archeologists

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The view east from Coronado Historic Site across the Rio Grande through saltbush, yucca and cottonwoods to the craggy Sandia Mountains remains mostly unchanged since earlier civilizations lived there hundreds and thousands of years ago.

“That’s the view people would have seen, especially during the summer, when Kuaua was inhabited,” says Ranger Ethan Ortega, adding that riverbanks and floodplains have realigned. “When it’s a good place on a high spot like this, we see people living there over and over.”

While the pueblo village of Kuaua (kwa-wa) was established about 1325 and occupied more than 300 years, early ceramic and botanic artifacts unearthed from the adjacent campgrounds date the inhabitants to 3000 B.C., he says.

Edgar Lee Hewett and teams of archeologists from the University of New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico and School of American Research excavated the village in the early 1930s hoping to prove that this was the spot where Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his army camped in 1540. While they found the expansive pueblo rooms and ceremonial kivas, they found no Spanish relics.

The dig uncovered more than 200 complete or restorable pots between 500 and 700 years old. The ridges of adobe walls were reburied to preserve the site, Ortega said.

Instead, evidence of Coronado’s camp was discovered when N.M. 528 was widened about two miles south of Kuaua in a place known as Santiago. Among those artifacts were nails that Spanish explorers would have used, Ortega says.

“It’s best to let the site speak for itself and tell its own story,” he says. “From the beginning, people have tried to make Kuaua something it wasn’t.”

Coronado sought gold, found farmers

Coronado Historic Site and the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo are just north of Albuquerque in Bernalillo. Coronado, with 500 soldiers and 2,000 Indian allies from New Spain, entered the Rio Grande Valley in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Instead of treasure, he found a dozen villages inhabited by prosperous native farmers. Coronado called them, “Los Indios de los Pueblos.” He and his men visited all 12 Tiwa villages during the course of the next two years because they survived on food and other supplies that they obtained from them. Without the assistance of the Tiwas – whether willing or unwilling – Coronado and his men very likely would have starved to death. Kuaua was the northernmost of the 12 villages. About 1,200 people lived in Kuana when Coronado arrived.

There are still many unanswered questions and mysteries.

For example, the pre-Columbian murals, some of the earliest examples of that kind of art in the United States, on display at Coronado’s Visitor Center were found in a square kiva, but Kuaua also had two circular kivas. What is known is that the circular kivas were built before the square kivas, also some are oriented to the east and others to the south.

“We know they started building square kivas and quit building round kivas, but we don’t know why,” Ortega says.

Photos from those early excavations show murals on the floor of one kiva. Archaeologists have argued about whether people painted them on the floor or if they somehow slid down the wall. “What we know now is that adobe crumbles and breaks into pieces as it hits the ground, but these murals were intact. We just (recently) identified those photos.”

This winter the Friends of the Coronado Historic Site are volunteering to work alongside Ortega and other researchers at the four locations around the state where Kuaua artifacts are housed to assemble a database of the Kuaua collections, from bags of turkey feathers to polychrome vessels.

Many of those early field research notes are cryptic, with similar initials and fractions that identify separate artifacts, but can be deciphered, Ortega says. “It was eight years of excavation. There are more than 3,000 artifacts.”

One artifact, a turkey leg bone, shows a healed break. In the wild, a turkey with a broken leg wouldn’t have survived, he says.

Was it a pet? Was it saved for its feathers? Or was it saved so it could be a fatter, more mature bird when it died?

“It’s fun to guess,” he says. “We know that they cared about the bird staying alive.”

“We’re doing archaeology on the archaeology of the 1930s. Our children and future generations will have other interpretations,” Ortega says. “The data doesn’t change, but the interpretations do.”

Interactive displays new to visitor center

The visitor center was revamped last year for the site’s 75th anniversary and has new displays to explain the latest findings and interactive video displays that allow visitors to build a pueblo room and unearth images of actual artifacts. Volunteer docents lead scheduled tours along a route, about a quarter-mile, through the pueblo ruins from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and explain what lies underneath the mounds of earth. The Friends group, at about 400 members, is one of the largest such groups, while the Coronado Historic Site is one of the state’s smaller monuments, he says.

About 75 percent of the remains of Kuaua have been explored, but a small fraction of the entire property has been excavated, containing much more to be discovered.

“We’ve learned so much in the past few years,” Ortega says. “I’m sure there is more to learn. Our goal is to bring Kuaua to life.”