Archaeology Inside and Out

Back in January, I had a request that I update you folks on Jim’s latest dig.  Since the project has now moved into Phase Two, I have accumulated some material that I hope will prove interesting.

The dig is located at the site of the former Judge Steve Herrera County Court Building in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  With the opening of the new county court building, this location is going to be turned to other uses.

Indoor Excavation

Santa Fe County has some of the most stringent regulations for archeological clearance in the state so, even though there has been a structure on the site, archeological clearance is required.  This is not as crazy as it may seem.  At the time this structure was built, local ordinances for archeological clearance were not in place.

Santa Fe has been settled for a long time – at least as we North Americans record human occupations.  The Spanish took up residence in the area in the early 1700s.  Various groups of Indians had been living there long before.  In fact, directly across Grant Street (to the east), there was a pueblo that had been occupied in the 1300s and 1400s.

A few years ago, when the Santa Fe Civic Center was being built, work was halted when construction crews encountered a large number of human remains.  The county was determined that this project would not experience similar costly work stoppages.  That’s why the attached picture shows members of Jim’s crew hard at work inside the building.

This wasn’t nearly as cushy a job as you might think.  In January, in Santa Fe, the temperatures were colder inside the building than outside, where the sun at least gave the illusion of warmth.  Holes were cut in the concrete flooring, so those doing the digging were forced into some very awkward spaces.  Since the usual stratigraphy couldn’t give any clue of where artifacts might be found, extensive screening was necessary to confirm whether or not anything was there.

After a great deal of hard labor, Jim’s crews confirmed that the area directly under the building appears to have been sufficiently disturbed that when the constructions crews move in they shouldn’t encounter any unpleasant or expensive surprises.

In addition to working inside in freezing weather, Jim’s crew had another interesting challenge.  SWAT police teams had been given permission to use portions of the vacant building for team training exercises, so for a day the location was a very surreal place, with uniformed SWAT officers racing around, while Jim’s crew kept out of their way.

Both Phase One and the ongoing Phase Two include outdoor work as well.  While the soil directly under the building didn’t yield anything significant, the outdoor excavations found traces of several of the uses to which the area had been put over the years.

Before we get into that, it’s probably a good idea to explain how archeologists go about digging an urban site.  Most of the outdoor areas were covered either by asphalt or concrete.  This had to be cleared away and the areas fenced, often stirring great (and not always polite) indignation on the part of county workers who found their long-time parking spaces were no longer available to them.

To clear away the asphalt and upper levels of dirt, a backhoe is used.  This doesn’t mean that the archeologists get to sit back and relax while the machines do the hard work.  In order that not the least artifact or trace of a structure will be missed, at least two crew members are posted to monitor the digging.  Monitoring is a job that takes both skill and intense concentration.  Whenever anything anomalous is spotted, the backhoe operator must be immediately stopped and a closer inspection instituted.   The backhoe is also used to make deep trenches to expose larger features, such as walls.

In the past, the site had been the location of a dormitory associated with a Presbyterian boarding school and, before that, a Spanish colonial residence.  As the digging began, evidence of the school showed up in the form of inkwells, marbles, and eventually a section of massive foundations of the wall.  The crew also found arrowheads, musket balls, bits of pottery, and animal bones that might have been associated with the school or the earlier residence.

One day, Karen spotted something white in the dirt.  Signaling the backhoe to stop, she jumped down and came up with a piece of bone.  When this was checked by the osteolgist at the lab, it was confirmed to be human bone.  This meant the police had to be contacted.  Given that the bone came from beneath what had been solid asphalt, in place for many years, the police decided that this was not evidence of a crime and returned it to join the other artifacts.

Once again, multiple uses of the building added a surreal element to the excavation.  This week, a unit from the Longmire television show was on site, filming a portion of a future episode.  On Monday morning, when Jim arrived at the site and walked to where he needed to unlock doors for his crew, he had to make his way through a group of actors being briefed on what they’d be doing that morning.

Everyone turned to look, obviously wondering if he was a late-arrived extra, already in costume.  Doubtless, they were trying to figure out exactly what part of the script called for a burly, bearded archeologist in realistically dirt and sweat-stained attire.

Phase Two is only just getting into its full swing, and is likely to go on for at least another four weeks.  After that, Phase Three will focus on the remains of another building associated with the school.  I’ll let you know what else they find.

If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll pass them along to Jim and post his replies here.

4 Responses to “Archaeology Inside and Out”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Human bone. Boarding school. Hmmm… that’s a worrying combination.

    From your description, that wasn’t an intact burial, so is there anything to indicate where it came from or how it got there? Could be anything from the biology-class skeleton-on-a-stand that wasn’t cleared out when the school was demolished to something much, much older disturbed by the construction of the school. My first thought was that it would most likely be associated with the residence you say preceded the school – which would be interesting since it suggests that the residents weren’t Catholic, or at least in bad odour with the Padres. I can think of a number of reasons for an even older body to be found there, but knowing nothing of the old settlement patterns I haven’t a clue what’s likely to be on the right track.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Right now the working theory is that the bone came in with the fill dirt back when the building was constructed. That would fit with the level at which they found it and there being no related materials.

      Your various speculations are neat — the “what if” from which the best stories come. I very much enjoyed.

      Next question? Anyone?

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Thank you.

    Of course there’s a next question: the ‘working theory’ begs the questions “Where did the fill come from? What else might we find if we could track down the source?”

    Unfortunately, they’re barely worth asking, since the contractor’s records won’t tell us. Even today, when they do have to keep careful records [when you’re doing environmental remediation the ticket for every truck-load is part of the file], they wouldn’t be able to tell you which load was dumped where. The supplier might be able to reconstruct just where the load came from, but it would be an educated guess at best which one the bone arrived in. Even that would depend on someone remembering how the work was done.

    • janelindskold Says:

      You’re right… Good thoughts, though, and if the bone had been “new” (someday I’ll tell you guys about the time Jim was brought a skull from a probable murder victim) there might have been an effort to figure it out.

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