Chiles and Sherds and Other Stuff, Too

A sixteenth century crossbow was amazingly heavy.

Carved Hawk and Raven at Open Spaces

Rabbit fur blankets are made from strips of fur bound together on a loom. Turkey feather blankets are made in a similar fashion. Both are as warm as modern down coats.

To use a chest crutch, you need to punch, not just push.

Pueblo pottery from between 1325 and 1700 can be accurately typed and dated by rims. An expert can tell blindfolded with just a fragment when a piece was made.

Yucca fiber can be used to spin a very strong cord.

The historic pueblo of Mojo is quite likely located right off Coors Road in Albuquerque.

If you’re going to open-fire pottery, you need at least a breeze or the fire won’t get hot enough.

These and other marvelous bits of information were among the things I learned this past Sunday when I attended the “Chiles and Sherds” archeological event hosted by the Office of Archeological Studies (OAS) of the Museum of New Mexico.

“Chiles and Sherds” is OAS’s annual fund-raiser and educational event. The venue changes from year to year, but the event’s emphasis is always some aspect of New Mexico’s rich archeological tradition.

This year, the location was the lovely Albuquerque Open Spaces Visitor Center on the west side of the city. Tucked between Coor’s Road and the bosque (river forest), the Open Space’s Center is an oasis of quiet – a real jewel that I can’t decide whether I wish more people knew about or that I want to keep a secret.

Just north of the center, on land owned by the City of Albuquerque, are the ruins of an adobe pueblo that was occupied roughly between 1300 and 1600. Thousands of local residents drive by it each day, unaware that what looks like gently rising and falling ground (you can’t even really call what’s there “hills”) is shaped the way it is because below the surface are the remains of plazas, middens, and thousands of rooms.

Exactly which pueblo this was is open to debate. In fact, several of the talks given during “Chiles and Sherds” explored the evidence for and against this being Mojo – a pueblo that Coronado besieged for months, and where several pitched battles were fought.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this was a dry academic event. Far from it! Remember those crossbows I mentioned? In honor of one of the Coronado Expedition’s most popular weapons, a hobbyist named Don Menning very kindly brought along a part of his collection of crossbows, including a couple of accurate replicas of the bows Coronado’s men would have carried.

Perhaps I should say “hauled.” When Don insisted I pick up one of the replicas, I was staggered – literally – by the weight. I don’t usually consider myself a wimp. I carry twenty-five pound bags of guinea pig chow around with ease. These, however, must have weighed nearly twice that. The bow section was made of thick steel, so was the mechanism. The wooden stock was a solid chuck of wood. The cord used for the winding was twice the diameter of my clothesline.

According to Don, the quarrels (that’s the proper term for a crossbow arrow) with their folded metal tips would have weighed about a pound apiece. A solider going into battle would have carried about twenty of these – in addition to the bow, in addition to the heavy winding mechanism, in addition to the weight of his steel breast and back plates, and steel helmet.

The great advantage of a crossbow over a long bow was the time it took to learn to use one effectively. Long bows – especially of the size and weight used to punch through armor – take a lifetime to master. Within a week or two, a solider could be trained to arm and point a crossbow – the bow’s mechanism provided the punch and carrying power.

No wonder the Indians residing along the bosque when Coronado’s forces came riding through were overwhelmed. Their armaments included bows, however, these weren’t the great English longbow. They were shorter bows, meant for hunting rabbits, squirrels, water fowl, and the occasional deer.

Of course I couldn’t shoot the crossbow – no one did, given that these have enough power to punch through a steel plate or a modern wall. However, Don very kindly let me shoot a light-weight replica of a Chinese repeating crossbow. If I ever write a fourth book in the “Breaking the Wall” series, you can count on these showing up! It was really neat.

After playing with the crossbows, it was inevitable that between tours (I was volunteering as a supporting guide), I would find my way out to the range where you could try an atlatl or bow. I’ve used an atlatl (often called a “spear thrower”) before, but it’s been years since I fired a bow. When I was a kid, I worked out how to make bows, starting with twigs and bits of grass, graduating up to something like a crude short bow. However, I never studied archery and my mostly city life hasn’t exactly provided room for flinging projectiles around.

Mary and Isaiah, who were running that event, encouraged me to take up a short bow Mary had made. I found I remembered enough to get some decent distance, not enough to actually hit the target (okay, I’ll blame the breeze), but the activity certainly did awaken a desire to take up playing around with such again. I understand that OAS has a pamphlet on making arrows. Maybe I’ll get a copy…

Meanwhile, Jim was demonstrating not only traditional flintknapping, but how a device called a “chest crutch” could be used to knock longer blades off a chunk of obsidian. These blades provided the sharp cutting edges of the macanas, a sort of hybrid sword/ club that was the principle melee weapon used by Coronado’s indigenous allies.

Over near the archery/atlatl range, several potters, including Eric Blinman of OAS and Ulysses Reid of Zia Pueblo were demonstrating how pottery could be fired over an open fire rather than in a kiln or pit. The same light breeze that was enough to send my lightweight reed arrows off course was not enough to get the fire quite hot enough. Still, later in the afternoon, I saw Eric wandering around, his newly-fired bowl hanging from his fingertips. When he tapped it, it rang like a bell. Although he wasn’t satisfied with it (are experts ever?), he did admit that it was a functional piece, that is “It wouldn’t melt if you cooked in it.”

The “chile” part of “Chiles and Sherds” is a high-class catered lunch. This one was fantastic, even better for being served on a perfect autumn day under a tent in good company. That sense of good company continued throughout the day. Eventually, Ulysses the potter took a break and wandered over to sit with Jim and discuss flintknapping. Various experts and enthusiastic amateurs engaged in a vivid cross-fertilization of ideas and theories.

By the end of the day, slightly sunburnt (I forgot to put on extra sun-block when I twisted my hair up) but very, very happy, I assisted Jim in loading his gear into the car. I’d listened to several lectures that had deepened my appreciation for local history. Even better for someone who lives a little too much in her own head, I’d gotten out and played with some neat toys, smelled what pottery firing over a fire is like, and added to my store of “know.”

What do I mean by that? Well, an axiom of the trade is “Write about what you know…”

17 Responses to “Chiles and Sherds and Other Stuff, Too”

  1. Tori Says:

    I have never seen the sort of crossbow you’re describing, but it sounds like the equivalent of carrying around, I dunno, like a bazooka or something. Crazy how they carried all that equipment. Do they know if those soldiers were really strong and had great endurance? Or do they think battles were over relatively quickly?

    Sounds like a great event!

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    I’ve seen crossbows such as you describe in museums and they’ve always looked scarily lethel. I was quite amazed at the size and evil ugliness of the quarrels. I’ve never touched, lifted or fired one but the thought of doing it (and the even nastier thought of being on the receiving end) is quite horrid. There’s something about points and edges on weapons that gives me the shivers.

    It sounds like a fun day out and a great idea — I wish they’d do such things here. New Zealand has quite a rich heritage of Maori archeology. The Maori were a stone age, agricultural culture so they did have permanent settlements, most of which were fortified (because they were a warlike culture as well). But you tend to see only static displays in museums. Fascinating though these are, I think something interactive and immersive would be both a lot more fun and a lot more memorable. It would give a greater insight into how the (to me, very foreign) culture worked.

    So I’m quite jealous of your day out!


  3. heteromeles Says:

    Oooooh, fun!

    One request: next time one of these events is coming up, please post it in advance? I’d love to try to make it.

    Another thought, and this is one I actually pitched to Mythbusters years ago (went nowhere, of course).

    The odd thought was whether the Conquistadors’ arms and armor were so much better in every way that an arbitrarily small number of them could take down any culture in the Americas. Obviously that crossbow was amazing, but something like that against 1,000 Incan slingers or Aztec atlatls? Not necessarily. I tend to place the blame more on disease, and on the fact that the Conquistadors came from a culture that had been fighting large-scale wars of conquest and reconquest longer than any American culture.

    I’ve sometimes wondered what would have happened if the various diseases of the Conquest had made their way to the Americas for centuries beforehand, perhaps via infrequent trade with Europe and Asia. Cortes and Coronado might have met a very different fate, and the southwest would look very different.

    Just a thought, in case you’re thinking of stories. It’s not anything I’m planning on using.

    Back to writing and polishing my jade mere.

  4. Patrick Doris Says:

    That sounded like a great day. I can see one of the Snakes using the repeating cross bows I think both of the Tigers may be too “honorable” in the pejorative military sense for a bow but the old Horse would not be

  5. Rowan Says:

    That is awesome. Sounds like great fun!

    On the crossbow thing, my stepdad built a medieval one sometime back, and he let me fire it off a few times. It was practically as long as my arm. And that sucker had recoil, too. Healthy respect for crossbows from this corner.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Love the comments.

    Patrick, I agree with you about who would use what… On the other hand, I think it would depend on the Tiger. I’m not sure Thundering Heaven would avoid anything that would give him more claws.

    Heteromeles: I can mention such events, if I think of them, but the fact is, I know readers (like you) are out of state and so I don’t think of mentioning such things.

    This weekend’s event for me is the Women Author’s Book Festival in Santa Fe. I’m speaking on Sunday. It’s at/near the Palace of Governors and the new History Museum.

    As to the issue of Coronado’s entrada… First, one thing that’s usually overlooked is/are the huge numbers of indigenous troups the Spanish also had with them. Estimates for Coronado are somewhere over a thousand. Add the conquistadors to that…

    Given that Mojo, for example, was considered large pueblo, but probably didn’t have a population over 900, you see that actually the Spanish were overwhelming in comparitive force and they didn’t have women, children, crops, and sacred areas to defend.

    Disease was discussed at the conference, and the issue is still open to debate. General sense was that “yes, of course it would have been a factor, but not the extent it was in the East.”


  7. Heteromeles Says:

    Thanks for the calendar. I want to visit New Mexico again, and it’s always nice to have an event as a reason to go.

    You’re right, of course, about the Pueblos. I was thinking more of the bigger settlements in old Mexico, which (I think) fell more to disease.

  8. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I have been saving this post in my “in” box and am catching up with myself now on Sunday. Excellent, interesting, and informative. We have a teenage boy next door who belongs to the local archery club. I’m going to print out this post so he can read it. ~ On a tangent, I love what one discovers about the world simply through reading and good conversation. I learned from one of my Grade Eleven American Literature students this past week (we’re studying Ben Franklin) that the enzymes in the human stomach have adapted over the course of history so that humans could drink wine without having psychedelic experiences. I wonder if Jane might check with Jim regarding the accuracy of that? Another student told me that “distilled spirits” were invented by alchemists who thought of distilling water to purify it ~ and then though, “Well, why not wine?” Any truth to that? Feedback? ~ thanks for a great topic, and wonderful comments.

  9. Heteromeles Says:

    Hi Ann,

    I can answer both of these.

    Your students are right about the “enzymes in the human stomach adjusting…” but not in the way they think.

    Much of digestion is due to bacterial action. Everyone has a whole little ecosystem in their gut. “Probiotic” products like Act*via are there to dump a bunch of commercially selected bacteria into that system. (rant) If you trust what industry normally does to ecosystems, you’ll think this is a good idea. Not that I don’t advocate eating yogurt. I do, and I make my own. I just know that doctors aren’t ecologists, and I am. The way doctors treat gut ecosystems is currently on the level of “Let’s douse the swamp with DDT to kill those pesky mosquitoes, and then we’ll introduce our patented BetterFlies.” For once, the ecologists and environmentalists are a *wee* bit more sophisticated in their use of pesticides and exotic species (antibiotics and probiotics in this case) (/rant).

    Anyway, bacteria evolve *fast.* How fast? (Gross part) One researcher did the experiment. He cultured his own, used toilet paper over the course of a few weeks to see what bacteria he had in his gut. He found that not only did the community composition change as his diet changed (some species became more common, some less), he could see genetic changes in the bacteria in his gut. Yes, the bacteria were evolving in his gut over the course of a few weeks. The students are off on their enzyme adaption story. It’s been happening in their guts since they started school…

    Incidentally, this is why, when you start a radically new diet, you often lose some weight, only to make the weight back a month or two later. At first, your digestive ecosystem can’t handle the new food. You incorporate less of it, and you therefore lose weight. Once your gut acclimates to the new diet, it can metabolize your food more effectively, and that’s when you start gaining weight back. At that point, if you want to keep losing weight, you have to change your diet radically again. And again. And again.

    According to Wikipedia, an Alexandrian Greek figured out distillation of water in the 1st century AD, thus predating the alchemists by, oh, a bit. Alcohol distillation is first recorded in Italy in the 12th Century. It might have been developed by the Arabs before then, but given the Muslim edict against alcohol consumption, they apparently didn’t write about it if they did it.

  10. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Thank you, Heteromeles! I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays, and it will be excellent to share more accurate information with them!

  11. janelindskold Says:

    I can’t decide what impresses me more: the questions or the answers.

    Thanks for the lessons!

  12. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I wish Heteromeles could have been fly on the wall in American Literature today while I was describing the evolutionary process (per se) of the colon in the digestive system. The faces were a combination of amazed and horrified.

  13. Heteromeles Says:

    Ah! Congratulations! Actually, I think I’ve seen that look before, at least in a college context.

    Isn’t evolution wonderful? And it’s going on, every day, right inside you.

  14. Heteromeles Says:

    Late note: For those who want to see something interesting:

    This is a picture of the proportions of bacterial genera found in different parts of a human body. Note that the right armpit and the left armpit (r. axilla and l. axilla, because they’re speaking doctorese) have different bacteria, just as an example. In other words, your skin is a landscape, with different little forests or communities of bacteria on it. Presumably, every human body has its own unique landscape, too.

  15. Ann M. Nalley Says:

    Again, thank you! What interesting information to look at ~ and another great piece to bring in for class on Thursday!

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