Seven hundred years ago, a small pueblo along a ridge in the Galisteo Basin mysteriously burned. Corn grown by the inhabitants was left drying on the roofs of the buildings and scattered on the ground when they fled. Archaeologist James Snead, who has worked at the site, calls it “one of the great archaeological puzzles of the Southwest.”

In a deal announced Friday, the federal government has acquired Burnt Corn Pueblo, one of 24 nationally significant archaeological sites in the basin.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees other properties in the area, is purchasing the 365-acre parcel with $1.5 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The transaction, reached with help from the Trust for Public Land and the state’s congressional delegation, will help protect the pueblo and open up access to more than 2,000 acres of public land in Santa Fe County.

Snead, a professor at California State University at Northridge, first visited Burnt Corn Pueblo in 1999 and then got a grant to conduct fieldwork there. He worked at the site on and off for seven or eight years, and has taken groups of local archaeology enthusiasts on field trips there.

The village, not as visually dramatic as some other archaeological sites in New Mexico, is adjacent to Petroglyph Hill, which is on county-owned open space. Burnt Corn contains nine structures made of stone and mud brick, but unlike nearby Arroyo Hondo, a pueblo occupied for about 100 years on and off, Burnt Corn was inhabited for only a short time. The landscape has changed little from the 1200s.

All the roofs were made of wood determined to have been felled at the same time. In an interview Friday, Snead, who grew up in Santa Fe, said tree-ring data show the structures were built between 1290 and 1302. Because they were never repaired, he estimates that they burned around 1310.

But what caused the inhabitants to leave so soon? An accident? An attack?

After examining excavation data from Burnt Corn and other nearby pueblos, Snead determined that the people abandoned their homes because of a war.

The war, he said, occurred during a time of great population movement in the Southwest. Lots of new people were coming to live near the Rio Grande. The weather was good, but the rules about access to land and resources were not clear, and there was widespread conflict. Arroyo Hondo expanded, while Burnt Corn was destroyed and remained empty.

“It came to an end rather dramatically,” Snead said.

He supports the property’s purchase, with some reservations. “The public deserves to be able to have access to these places in the public domain,” Snead said. “But the issue is always one of security.”

The ruin was once part of the Thornton Ranch, named for a family that owned as many as 17,500 acres in the Galisteo Basin. When Santa Fe County landowner Buck Dant bought the property that included half the Burnt Corn ruin in 1998, he was conscious of the threats from pot hunters and vandals. He authorized research to quantify damage already done and put a conservation easement on the land. According to Snead, Dant was a “great land manager” and worked closely with the BLM, which owns adjoining property, to protect it.

Dant declined to discuss the sale Friday.

Snead said it will be a relatively select audience that makes its way down the trail to Burnt Corn Pueblo, but he is still hoping that “the site steward program keeps an active eye on it.”

In announcing the land purchase Friday, along with other members of the New Mexico congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said, “The Galisteo Basin is home to numerous sites with deep historical and cultural significance, but many are scattered and still lack public access and protection. Purchase of Burnt Corn Pueblo will allow for conservation of historical resources and open up new land for visitors interested in the Native Americans and early Spanish settlement ruins.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said, “This incredible success wouldn’t be possible without the advocacy of pueblo leaders and community members who’ve worked for years to have this site preserved.”

Over its 50-year history, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped conserve national parks and forests; land by rivers, lakes and oceans; working forests, farms and ranches; fish and wildlife refuges; trails; and state and local parks, according to its website. It is funded by a portion of federal offshore drilling fees. Although $900 million is deposited in its account annually, billions of dollars have been diverted to other uses.

Udall said in his statement that he intends to “keep fighting for full, permanent funding” for the fund.

According to a news release, more than $261 million from the fund has been spent in New Mexico since 1964 to protect natural resources and provide recreational opportunities.

The Galisteo Basin Archaeological Sites Protection Act authorizes the public acquisition of land within the boundaries by donation or purchase.

Besides Petroglyph Hill, Burnt Corn and the Lower Arroyo Hondo Pueblo, the Galisteo Basin includes numerous other pueblos such as Espinoso Ridge, La Cienega, Manzanares, Pueblos Blanco, Colorado, Galisteo, Largo, San Cristóbal, San Lazaro and San Marcos.

And the Galisteo Basin Preserve, a land conservation and community development project of the Commonweal Conservancy off U.S. 285, eventually will include 50 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails designed to connect with other open-space areas and county trails, including the Rail Trail.

“The acquisition of the Burnt Corn Pueblo land represents a significant and timely investment in the larger protection goals and ambitions for the Galisteo Basin. Commonweal Conservancy celebrates the wisdom and commitment of the BLM and the New Mexico delegation,” said Ted Harrison, president of the Commonweal Conservancy.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

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