Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Adventure at Pueblo Shé

Map of (some of) the ruins at Pueblo Shé. Nels Nelson, 1914 

Up the road apiece, past the Zorro Ranch and over the ridge into the Galisteo Basin, the vast acreage of the Singleton holdings goes on for miles and miles. The Singleton ranches have various names. I forget most of them, but all along the route north almost to the village of Galisteo, the red and white painted gates sport the Bar-S brand signifying yet more of the Singleton properties.

Up over a hill past the Anaya Ranch, and across the road from Tom Ford's 20,000+ acre Cerro Pelon Ranch, is a gate that is sometimes open -- say when a movie is being shot on the land (part of Hostiles was) or cattle are being driven, or once when I saw a cowboy hauling bales of hay for the horses.

June 2,  the gate was open and we turned in, waving at the dudes by the gate -- "Just follow the road" they said, a dirt track really, but not in bad shape despite the rain the day before. 

We were on our way to Pueblo Shé. The weather was distinctly cool and foggy and threatened more rain, but we didn't much care. It seemed like a good day to go exploring on forbidden land, this place now called San Cristobal Ranch, yet another of the Singleton family properties in New Mexico. They have ranches all over the west, and in the Galisteo Basin, big ranches are liable to host one or more Pueblo Indian ruins, and the ruins can be enormous. Pueblo Shé is one of the bigger ones.

We jounced along the dirt road around curves and up hills and down, past log cabin ruins that were used in the filming of Hostiles and maybe some other pictures, too. We kept going and going, close  to arroyos and stands of cholla and piñon pine until we came to a series of tents and lots of cars and cattle lowing in the distance. This was the place. We would be joining perhaps two hundred others going to the ruins in small groups led by volunteer archaeologists, each of whom had their take on where we were and what it meant in the vast eternal scheme of New Mexico's long habitation by its varied populations.

Our group was an early morning one, and we set out relatively promptly once everyone on the list was assembled. We were warned by our tour leader that the hike would be about two miles some of which would be fairly strenuous, but accommodation would be made for those who might be slower than others. We could expect to be out exploring for about two hours. We should be prepared for rain.

I looked around and it seemed to me pretty much all the dozen or so in our group were in their 70s and a few were even older. There was one young fellow, Paul D., who was one of three archaeologists in our group. He said he was with the City of Santa Fe, and he'd never been to Pueblo Shé before -- well, except for the previous Friday when the volunteers were taken around . None of the archaeologists had. Not even our tour leader, John W., had been there before last Friday. It was to be a new adventure to all of us. Access was so restricted that the ruins hadn't really been investigated or excavated for more than 100 years.

Ms. Ché and I had brought our walking sticks so the first part of our trek up hill from the tent encampment was... OK. The ground was rough and dotted with snake holes and cow-pies, but this was no great problem. We noticed right away pot sherds on the ground. Lots and lots of them. We climbed a slight rise and John W. explained it was one of the trash middens left by the peoples who had occupied Pueblo Shé, and he said that as far as anybody knew the site had been "de-populated" and abandoned sometime after 1500 but before the Spanish arrived (starting with Coronado in 1540). Why it was abandoned was a mystery, but several of the pueblos in the Galisteo Basin were abandoned about the same time, and a theory was that there was an extended drought, and the populations of abandoned pueblos migrated to other pueblos or areas where water remained accessible and available. Perhaps.

John also said that it wasn't entirely clear who had lived at Pueblo Shé. There were a number of different Native kin and language groups who lived in the Galisteo Basin over time, and every indication was that these groups mixed and mingled and there was no way to say that this group or that were the exclusive residents of any one pueblo. John was convinced that pueblo populations were always mixed throughout time as they are today.

What we saw on the ground was an indication of the complexity of the site. There were hundreds -- thousands -- of pottery sherds, many of them highly and finely made and decorated. Other household objects had been retrieved from the trash middens and from the nearby room blocks, one of which was our next destination.

Climbing a low mound, we looked down into a squarish pit. "What do you suppose this is," asked John. Some of us said a kiva. Nope, wrong answer. No, this was one of the excavations made at the site by Nels Nelson in 1914, the only real archaeological excavation that had ever been done there.

Nelson excavated approximately twenty rooms and a few kivas at Pueblo Shé, ran a trench through a trash midden, collected lots of things and shipped them off to AMNH New York where they still are, stored in boxes out of sight, and that was that. He went on to his next excavation and recovery site in the Galisteo Basin and eventually went far beyond. Nelson is credited with refining if not originating stratigraphic excavation and interpretation of archaeological sites, techniques he practiced at Pueblo Shé and elsewhere in the region.

Nelson determined that there were more than 1500 rooms on the ground floor of this pueblo complex. There are 7 main buildings at Pueblo Shé arranged in rows facing south. Several have wings facing east/west. There is also a detached section that we would visit. It appears to have been started but never completed. It's as if the footings or foundation had been laid but no superstructure had been built.

Like most of the rest of the pueblos in the Galisteo Basin, Pueblo Shé had been built of puddled adobe interspersed with local stone. The adobe had melted away while the stone had tumbled to the ground. Nothing was left of the pueblo but scattered squarish stones and low mounds. But the shape and extent of the buildings was easy enough to trace on the ground. Each mound was several hundred feet long, forty or fifty feet wide, and most buildings had probably not been more than two stories high. One building, which we would explore late in the tour, had left a taller mound, quite steep to climb, a mound that John W. said indicated at least three storeys and possibly more.

Some of us noticed right away that there were no vigas in the ruins, nor any sign that there ever had been any. Vigas are cross beams, usually ponderosa pine in Northern New Mexico, that are used as roofing beams and floor beams of multi-storey buildings. Their apparent absence at Pueblo Shé was interesting to some of us. Had there never been any? If not, how were the buildings roofed? If so, then where did they come from and what had become of them? Toward the end of the tour, John W. suggested the vigas would have to have come from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains some distance away and they might have been taken and recycled at other pueblos after Pueblo Shé was abandoned, as was the rule for valuable and not easily replace lumber not only prior to the arrival of the Spanish but since then too.

After checking out several of the building mounds and some Spanish era foundations that John W. said was likely a colonial era house (and someone on the tour suggested might have been a chapel), we headed off to a hill overlooking the ruins.

The approach was not particularly steep, but once we got near the top, the climb became rocky and precipitous. We were expected to 'summit' -- and it was clear there was no way I would be able to do so. John warned the group "You may have to do some scrambling" and most were able to make the steep and slippery climb to the top, though one lost her shoe, and several slid down before they figured out a way up.

I stayed behind with Paul D. who was kind enough to share pictures he'd taken at the top on Friday. There were petroglyphs. Not a lot of them. Two large ones only. He asked me what I thought one of them was. I said it was an antelope. He said that's what he thought too, but he was told it was a macaw or a parrot, very exotic birds in this area, as they could only have come from Mexico or Central America. Images of macaws are not rare in New Mexico, however, regardless of how rare the birds may or may not have been.

The other petroglyph I thought was a turtle or tortoise. Paul D. said it wasn't clear to him what it was. I've since done some research and realized that what I thought might be a tortoise was probably a representation of a pueblo resident protected by a large oval shield. These representations are found in many locations in the Galisteo Basin. On our way to the base of the summit, we'd both noticed a large flat-faced boulder on which was carefully pecked the letter "A".

 It wasn't too long before the group that had clamored up the sheer rock face to the top of the hill started picking their way down on a less steep path and we headed off to the next destination.

Little did we know what a challenge it would be. Remember, this was a group of mostly elderly people, spry though most might have been. John W. (no spring chicken himself) wanted to show us something he thought was vitally important. And getting there would take some doing, specifically climbing down into and then up the other side of a deep and steep-sided arroyo. OK, then.