How many times did Indiana Jones wander into a forgotten land, his only guide coming from tales of legend and maybe a tattered scrap of an ancient map hinting at where X marks the spot?
Just imagine how many times he could have spared himself the trouble had he used high-definition drone footage to survey the area first.
Dr. Jones would have been thrilled to work with The Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit based in Albuquerque and founded in Santa Fe. It’s a place where the past collides with the future, as the organization launches an initiative for its 40-year anniversary to use drone footage to document its sites and share the information with its nearly 20,000 members.
Created in 1980 by its president, Mark Michel, its purpose is to acquire land containing significant archaeological sites and preserve it for posterity and future research. With regional offices around the country, the conservancy owns hundreds of sites from coast to coast, and several of those spots are scattered around New Mexico.
It is here that Michel is embracing the next step in the conservancy’s outreach.
“These features are hard to see on the ground,” he said, standing atop what used to be a massive three-story structure at Pueblo San Marcos, a sprawling ruin about a 5-iron shot off N.M. 14 between La Cienega and Madrid. “If you see it from the air, it’s a different thing. They’re so big on the ground, you can’t really tell what you’re looking at.”
Enter April Brown, the conservancy’s social media coordinator.
An archaeologist herself, she was doing petroglyph studies as part of an honors research project at the University of New Mexico when she hatched the idea of using a drone to survey cliff faces. She used her own money to purchase a $1,200 drone, learned how to fly it and then field-tested it as part of her research.
“I thought, you know, no better way to study it than to stick a drone up there and take photographs of it head-on,” she said. “You’re never going to get that kind of perspective from the ground.”
Michel’s staff proposed the idea of using Brown’s skills to survey their acquisitions as part of an ambitious new plan to highlight sites on the conservancy’s expanding social media platforms. Brown used her drone to get footage of a site at Arroyo Hondo near Eldorado and just last week launched a more aggressive campaign at Pueblo San Marcos.
Virtual tours for each site have been posted on the conservancy’s Facebook and YouTube accounts. A longer, more extensive video of Michel’s guided tour at Pueblo San Marcos will be ready in July.
“Personally, one of the happiest days of my life when was I came out here and dug out that fence,” Michel said as he casually waved his right hand in the direction of what used to be a 20-acre spread that once cut the site in half.
Until the conservancy came along, the entire location was threatened by development.
The organization’s mission is to keep sites intact for future generations. Regular tours of most locations are conducted, but actual research is done by trained professionals. To date, the conservancy has preserved sites as old as 16,000 years to as recent as a 19th-century frontier Army post. The treasured Pueblo San Marcos site was inhabited from 1400 to about 1700, after which it was abandoned.
Given its sheer size and historical significance to New Mexico’s past, the condition of the subsurface ruins makes Pueblo San Marcos a popular destination spot for researchers and conservancy members. Michel has authorized light and laser mapping — lidar mapping, for those in the business — to survey the pueblo, but Brown’s footage brings the kind of bird’s-eye view that is, frankly, visually appealing.
“It’s a way to really tell the story of the site in this kind of broad perspective,” Brown said. “You’re not just walking around looking at individual bumps on the ground. You’re seeing all those bumps from the air along with everything else, and it puts it all together when you can look at historical maps.”
It’s atop what looks like a nondescript hill situated just 50 yards from the back door of a neighboring house at Pueblo San Marcos that Michel talks about an ancient Catholic church buried under his feet. As he speaks, the soft buzzing of Brown’s drone records his every move.
On this day, the drone is piloted by Alex Rose, who gathers panoramic footage from several hundred feet and mixes it with sweeping shots closer to the ground. It’s in the air that the fantastic stories Michel talks about roar to life for the non-Indiana Jones types.
To the casual observer, that mound over there is just a natural feature covered in weeds and rocks. Up close, it’s easy to find shards of pottery and, on occasion, beads of turquoise.
From the air, the hills form gentle lines of forgotten architecture, features that hint at the meandering layout of a sprawling pueblo that once housed as many as 600 people. It was here that generations of Native Americans and, later, Spanish settlers pioneered the earliest known smelting practices in New Mexico.
They discovered three natural springs in a nearby arroyo and used them to construct poured-adobe structures that eventually became at least three kivas, eight plazas and expansive multistory dwellings with approximately 3,000 rooms of various sizes.
What is now N.M. 14 was then the well-traveled freight route to the south — a road that championed the turquoise trade and served as a main artery into Santa Fe and locales to the north. Just a mile or two away are the Cerrillos hills, and off in the distance in opposite directions are the Sangre de Cristo and Sandia mountains.
It remains a special place for Michel. For 15 years, the conservancy was located in Santa Fe, and this site was one of his first major acquisitions. Extensive studies have been conducted here, and just moments after his impromptu tour concluded, he took a look at Brown’s raw footage.
“I love it,” he said, wiping his brow under the shade of a nearby tree. “Fantastic. We’ve done aerial photos of this location but nothing like this. Just amazing.”