The installation of a sprinkler system and a new heating and ventilation system in the Palace of the Governors has shut the popular tourist site’s doors since August 2018. But the state-funded project, which is scheduled to be completed at the end of the year, also created the rare opportunity for the Museum of New Mexico’s Office of Archaeological Studies (OAS) to explore now-hidden areas of the building, parts of which date back more than 400 years.
But this isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark. Over roughly six weeks, the archaeologists work in a narrow dirt trench just over 20 feet long, painstakingly digging in 4-inch increments. It can be backbreaking work with few big payoffs. But even small finds can mean significant differences in their understanding of this historic site and how people have lived.
OAS director Eric Blinman tells me archaeologists are beginning to dig a trench (which is designed to accommodate the drains for the fire suppression system) in the Palace’s long, northeast room.
As they dig, the archaeologists prepare to encounter sections of adobe or stone foundations or walls (which are labelled as “features”). They will carry the loose dirt outside, where volunteers sift it through screens for potsherds and other artifacts. They can only go as deep as is required for installation of the sprinkler-drain system. That’s all the budget allows.
An 1869 plan of the building shows a wood house, a pair of privies, a carriage house, and a stable. (Washington Avenue is just beyond the outside wall of the former stable.) When the narrow section of concrete floor over the trench was removed, they discovered a void that was several feet long. The floor, it appeared, had been floating over a privy dating to the mid-19th century, in the days of Fort Marcy.
The area around the trench also revealed wall or foundation segments that may have once been a part of two small buildings shown on the oldest map of the city, a 1766 work by José de Urrutia. One of the segments also may line up with a foundation that was discovered during the 2003-2004 demolition of the 1900 Armory building and subsequent excavations for the lower levels of the New Mexico History Museum, which is immediately due north.
Archaeologists Susan Moga and Karen Wening are working inside the Palace. At the east end, next to the wall on Washington Avenue, Moga stands in a rectangular hole (actually a “pit riser” for the sprinkler system) that’s about four feet deep. She points to the west wall, where large adobe bricks are separated by mortar so dark it’s almost black and up to 2.5 inches thick. Dozens of cobbles used to create a foundation — from fist size to larger than a football — are in a long pile on the cement floor next to the trench, which extends westward from the hole.
“We’re going to cut down and take out each adobe brick, and then we’re going to scrape the mortar off and bag it all,” Wening says. “Then we’ll shoot it with an XRF [x-ray fluorescence testing], which gives you the mineral signature, and we can look at that and compare them with the bricks from previous excavations and see whether these were from the same clay source.”
In the Palace courtyard, a volunteer named Paul Fink sifts through the loose dirt. Wening says they have found animal bones and Native ceramics. “Some is historic and some might be ...” Excited, Wening pauses. “We are so close. There’s so much prehistory right here.” A few feet away, Fink examines a small potsherd showing a part of a painted design. “The whole thing is about what you find and the context in which you find it,” he says.
The trench is now a few feet deep.
At one place near the west end, a cobble wall has been exposed. The museum’s archaeological team will record this as Feature 12. A few feet to the east, there appears to be a segment constructed of adobe that’s not in brick form. That becomes Feature 7. I wonder aloud what’s under the trench. “I don’t know,” archaeologist Steve Post says. “This is as deep as we’re allowed to go.”
Wening uses a brush to gently work through unconsolidated earth in the trench and watches for pieces of adobe. “You look for a change in color and compaction and material,” Post says.
How do the archaeologists make sense of the foundation and wall segments they encounter? “We are very much relying on maps but also on the superimpositioning of lower and higher foundations.”
Post describes a compacted surface within the carriage house that is substantially below current grade. “What we may be looking at is the pre-1868 surfaces, so Mexican Period, late presidio Spanish Colonial period and early American use of ruins.”
The presidio dates from 1791 to 1868. “The Americans used the same buildings that the Mexican army and the Spanish had used, but in different ways.”
He mentions the black mortar and the big adobe bricks they found in the east end of the trench. “We found adobe walls on soil, and the adobes were 22 to 24 inches long and 12 inches wide and weighed 65 pounds.” Typically, bricks in the Palace are 16 by 10 inches and they weigh about 40 pounds.
“In our 2003-2004 excavations for the history museum, we found black-mortared adobe bricks on cobble foundations, but at elevations that predate 1868. We know that all the buildings behind the Palace were leveled in 1868-1869 to clear an open space for the Fort Marcy reservation. So, if that black mortar was from 1846 [the year of the U.S. takeover] or earlier — and it’s consistent with what we’re seeing here, with a wall on dirt — it probably dates to the Mexican Period or earlier.
“Those 24 x 12 bricks are significant because they link this construction here with that at the history museum, which we’ve never been able to do before. I’m wondering if the adobe wall stub with the black mortar isn’t the west wall of the north-south building on the Urrutia Map.”
(On Aug. 2, Post revised that assessment, saying he thinks it is more likely that that wall segment with oversized bricks is related to either the 1791 presidio construction or to a building from the Mexican or early-Territorial period — that is, between 1821 and 1865.)
“We finished the excavations yesterday, and it’s as interesting for what we didn’t find as what we did,” says Blinman. “There were surprisingly few artifacts in the deposits we trenched through, but we cut through a series of walls and foundations, giving Steve Post a lot to think about.”
Archaeologist Jeffrey Cox stands by Feature 12, the cobble wall on the west end of the room. “There are at least two cobble courses below this one, but we can’t excavate any further down,” he says. “It’s frustrating.”
Toward the Washington Avenue end of the trench, Moga uses a sampling auger to bring up dirt from about 16 inches below the trench bottom (they can’t excavate below the trench, but they can collect dirt samples), then sifts the dirt through an eighth-inch screen. She holds a small object in the palm of her hand and examines it. “I just got this. I’m not even sure what it is. I think it’s brass and a little leather. Coming out of an auger, that’s pretty unusual. It looks kind of squared; it could have been some kind of a button. So that’s pretty cool.”
Post responds to questions about the exact nature of features 12 and 7. “The cobble foundation, I believe, is a weight-bearing cross wall foundation built between 1867 and 1869 when the northeast and northwest wings were rebuilt as part of a major renovation of the Palace. The adobe bricks [Feature 7] are the remnant adobe brick flooring. This likely predates the 1867-1868 remodel.”
Archaeologist Wening concludes Feature 12 is the west wall of the privy, “definitely Fort Marcy era.” Feature 7 is a north-south adobe wall. “It was an odd duck because it was the only wall without defined adobe bricks. It just looked like a puddled mud wall. One interesting thing about that wall was that the fill west of it was chock full of metal — melted blobs of all sizes, possibly related to the assayer’s office behind the building during the Territorial period.”
Eric Blinman reports that the trench has been filled and compacted, but there is more to do. The void they found under the floor may happen again if the old privy fill sinks again. So they’ll take special measures, maybe using a thicker, steel-reinforced slab in that area.
Until everything is tallied and the reports are written, he only has field observations regarding artifacts found during the trench work. There are bones, rusty bits of iron, evidence of meat cut by handsaw (not by axe, which would mean quite early; or by bandsaw, which would be later), and rare glass (perhaps from lantern globes), plus a smattering of early Native-made pottery, all recovered from adobe bricks and earthen plasters that the builders used on cobble walls.
Blinman stresses a central point of the work: “My impression is that all of the constructed walls were for buildings that were in use or that were constructed in the 19th century.”
Next, the OAS archaeologists consolidate all the written and photographed findings, the results of which end up in a report about the dig. It’s likely that there won’t be any solid conclusions drawn, but hopefully, the findings will add a new piece to the puzzle of what’s underground and what it used to be.
During a visit to the trench, which is mostly filled in, the interim director of the Palace of the Governors and New Mexico History Museum says that the first phase of the $975,000 work is approaching completion. “Based on current estimates, the remainder of the work will be done by the end of the year,” Billy Garrett says. “Once rehabilitation is complete, three exhibitions are scheduled for installation over a six-month period.”
Garrett adds that, beginning this fall, the New Mexico History Museum will offer guided tours of the Palace of the Governors (105 W. Palace Ave., palaceofthegovernors.org) during breaks in construction activity. Starting on Aug. 30, tour information will be available at the museum’s front desk or by calling 505-476-5200. ◀