Ancient Northern New Mexico communities focus of El Rito conference

A 1929 aerial view taken by Charles Lindbergh of he Sapawe ruins near El Rito. Courtesy photo

The mysteries of a long-abandoned pueblo called Sapawe are among of the subjects of a weekend conference that will discuss significant but little-known archaeological sites in North-Central New Mexico.

Billed as a free, “nontraditional scholarly conference,” the event — From Sapawe to El Rito: A Community Explores Its Rich Cultural Heritage — aims to attract young people, particularly students from Mesa Vista High School in Ojo Caliente and Northern New Mexico College, organizer Susan Boyle said in an email.

Famed archaeologist Adolph Bandelier once described Sapawe “as the largest ruin in the Southwest,” according to conference organizers.

At least eight experts will give presentations at the event, held at the El Rito campus of Northern New Mexico College. The conference, funded by the New Mexico Humanities Council, has expressed three goals:

• Share unpublished archaeological research.

• Inspire “local people and their children to learn and value the rich cultural heritage” of the area.

• Provide discussion between locals and archaeologists on coordinating future site access.

“We are getting together to compare notes with each other and help the folks in that area to learn what we now know about the history and prehistory of the area,” said retired archaeologist Haywood Franklin.

Franklin, a conference presenter, was one of the researchers who participated in a Sapawe excavation as part of a University of New Mexico field school in 1969. The location is believed to have been occupied from about 1350 to 1550.

“It’s typical of many other sites that were contemporary” in the northern Rio Grande and Chama River basin, he said. Researchers don’t know why Sapawe was abandoned.

“That’s one of the unanswered questions at many archaeological sites,” Franklin said.

Sapawe, about two miles from El Rito, is on about 30 acres of state land, consists of seven plazas and is estimated to contain 1,820 ground-floor rooms and 23 kivas, according to archaeologists Thomas Windes and Peter McKenna, who have written about it.

Also to be discussed is the historic settlement of La Casita.

Although centuries more current than Sapawe, La Casita is no less mysterious. The site is in Carson National Forest about eight miles from El Rito. The beginnings of the historic Hispanic community “are, for now, unknown,” but minimal work at the location indicates the community started in “the early decades of the 19th century until it was observed to be in ruins in 1882,” University of California archaeologist Kojun “Jun” Ueno Sunseri wrote in her doctoral dissertation.

She will present at the conference along with her mentor, El Rito community historian Esperanza Gonzales, who guided her research for years.