Living on the Edge

Arroyo Hondo and the Archaeology of Santa Fe

Aerial view of partially excavated eastern section of Arroyo Hondo showing Roomblocks 10 and 11 as well as Plaza C. Photograph by David Noble, courtesy the School for Advanced Research.
By Jason S. Shapiro

In 1915, the world was consumed by a devastating world war—but it was also the year that a tall, thin, Danish archaeologist made his second trip to New Mexico in order to study the archaeology of the Galisteo Basin in the northern Rio Grande Valley.

Nels Nelson, working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, made numerous test excavations at several large pueblos, including a site just outside the city of Santa Fe: an archaeological gem called Arroyo Hondo. When he died at age 89 in 1964, Nelson could not have known that a young archaeologist whom he once had met in the hallways of the museum in New York would, within a short time, build on his work and make Arroyo Hondo one of the most comprehensive archaeological projects in the history of Southwest archaeology.

The late Dr. Douglas Schwartz was that young archaeologist and, in 1967, he became the president of the School of American Research in Santa Fe, now the School for Advanced Research, a position he would hold until 2001. In 1970, Schwartz began a five-year project that would add immeasurably to our understanding of how people lived in and around Santa Fe more than 600 years ago. Almost fifty years later, scholars are still learning from the corpus of material uncovered, catalogued, and analyzed by Schwartz and his team.

Arroyo Hondo (LA 12) is a large pueblo site encompassing about 25 acres that sits on a small, windswept mesa about 6 miles
southeast of Santa Fe. The site is private property currently owned and maintained by the Archaeological Conservancy. Schwartz initiated his project in order to understand the chronology, culture, history, and land use patterns of the people who lived at Arroyo Hondo, together with what those patterns might mean for the larger northern Rio Grande region.

Map showing Arroyo Hondo in relation to Santa Fe and other sites referenced in text.
Courtesy the School for Advanced Research.

In order to answer his questions, Schwartz assembled an interdisciplinary research team that included archaeologists, ethnographers, ecologists, botanists, and even a professional photographer. Over the course of five field seasons, the team excavated and analyzed the roomblocks and plazas, and also recorded aspects of the local geology, hydrology, plant and animal life, climate, and geography. The results of Schwartz’s efforts have been published in a series of nine monographs together with numerous articles and academic dissertations, all of which are accessible on the official Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project website.

The actual pueblo remains, adjacent to a spring that is the only permanent and dependable water source along the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was never a “lost site” like some Puebloan Machu Picchu. Indeed, many local residents remember that as children they rode horses across the site or played among the roomblocks. But aside from Nelson’s brief foray in 1915, and then Schwartz in 1970, no one had ever attempted to systematically excavate and analyze that site.

Detail of room construction showing adobe courses, ca. 1915. Photograph by N.C. Nelson. Courtesy the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History, Neg. No. 2A23683.

A sequence of tree ring dates has revealed that Arroyo Hondo’s occupation straddled two cultural periods: the Coalition Period (1200–1325 CE) and the Classic Period (1325–1540 CE), a time of dynamic change throughout this region. By the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the northern Rio Grande was filling up with people—though it was an environmentally challenging area for maize-based agriculture, and there was not very much well-watered, arable land. Larger pueblos could muster more agricultural workers and warriors in what had become a highly competitive landscape. Arroyo Hondo was the first local settlement to experiment with “bigness.”

We know that Arroyo Hondo had two separate and distinct occupation episodes (components) that in total spanned about 125 years. Beginning with the initial building phase around 1300, the pueblo grew rapidly until within a few decades it encompassed 1,000 rooms arranged in twenty-four mostly orthogonal roomblocks around thirteen plazas. The initial construction was masonry—tabular sandstone rocks held together with adobe mortar, although within a relatively short time there was a shift in construction methodology to puddled adobe and “ladder type” roomblock construction. This shift most likely was for the sake of convenience; using a puddled adobe/ladder roomblock approach was a more expedient way to build larger accommodations more quickly in order to deal with an influx of people.

Excavation of Roomblock 2 showing “ladder-type” roomblock construction, ca. 1915. Photograph by N.C. Nelson. Courtesy the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History, Neg. No. 128868.

Available evidence suggests that Arroyo Hondo never had more than 700 or 800 residents at its maximum and probably fewer people for most of its occupation, but that still made it the largest single community in the vicinity of Santa Fe in its time. The initial construction is identified as Component I. Nothing in this area had previously been built that looked anything like Arroyo Hondo, but subsequent local pueblo constructions loosely followed the template established by Arroyo Hondo. Given its protected setting on a natural bench overlooking Arroyo Hondo Creek, the site seemingly had a favorable location. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear and which may be related to an extended drought, by the 1340s Arroyo Hondo could no longer feed its population and the remaining residents left. After a hiatus of perhaps twenty-five or thirty years, some people arrived at the site and built a new and separate pueblo literally on top of the old one.

This second settlement is denoted as Component II, but in some ways it is so different from the original pueblo that it could be considered an entirely new settlement. Only ten of the original twenty-four roomblocks were rebuilt, which resulted in a much smaller pueblo with approximately 200 rooms and only three plazas. Clusters of tree ring dates indicate the builders of Component II worked at a relatively rapid pace, particularly during the 1380s, but this new settlement was occupied for no more than two generations before it too was abandoned.

Archaeologists have found evidence of extensive burning throughout the pueblo associated with tree ring dates around 1410 that initially supported the idea of an external attack by raiders from another community. This hypothesis is still supported by a number of archaeologists, but Dr. Ann Palkovich has suggested an alternative hypothesis based upon intra-pueblo violence. Whether this violence was the result of tensions among political factions, different cultural groups, or even because of alleged witchcraft is not clear. The presence of several unburied skeletons, physically traumatized skeletons, and twenty-five skulls without bodies is clear evidence of some kind of violent episode, whether internally or externally based.

In addition to its much smaller size, the residents of Component II organized their space differently than had the residents of Component I. Living areas within the roomblocks became somewhat more private and more difficult to access, whereas public spaces such as plazas became more accessible and less restricted than they had been during the initial occupation. Whether these differences reflected fundamental changes in community social structure or whether they reflect different needs associated with the much smaller second occupation remains to be determined. In any event, after the fires in the 1420s, the burned rooms were not reused and the last residents appear to have left the pueblo around 1425.

In order to properly appreciate Arroyo Hondo within its complete context, one also needs to know that the large Classic site is less than 2 miles downstream from Upper Arroyo Hondo (LA 76), an earlier Coalition Period settlement with possibly 100 to 200 rooms. Although it has never been fully surveyed and barely tested—Nelson excavated twelve rooms in 1915—its size and location make Upper Arroyo Hondo a presumed contributor for at least some of the people who built and occupied the larger pueblo downstream. The Coalition Period was locally characterized by numerous small settlements all located along small secondary and even tertiary streams. While a few larger sites such as Pindi and Agua Fria Schoolhouse were built along the Santa Fe River corridor south of the city and were eventually comprised of as many as 200 or more rooms, most of the contemporaneous Coalition sites had fewer than a hundred rooms.

Although a class of specialized Pueblo architects probably never existed, the enclosed plaza layout at Arroyo Hondo suggests a degree of community-level planning by some “core group” who designed the settlement according to preconceived ideas of “how things should look.” Classic Period pueblos such as Arroyo Hondo may appear more planned and less eccentric than the earlier Coalition pueblos because the method of decision-making may have changed. This does not mean these pueblos were always built in a single construction episode, but it implies some overriding and mutually acceptable idea about how pueblos like Arroyo Hondo should look. Not every large settlement that developed during the Classic Period was configured the same way but, overall, the size and spatial complexity of Classic pueblos was unlike anything that had ever been built before in the northern Rio Grande.

One notable element at Arroyo Hondo is that the thirteen plazas are not interconnected; rather, each plaza has its own external gateway that controls access. The existence of the gateways suggests that individual plaza-roomblock sections did not blend seamlessly into one another but were designed as semi-discrete units within the larger settlement. People could move between the plazas and roomblocks, but overall, the plaza-roomblock design at Arroyo Hondo allowed resident groups to maintain some autonomy within self-contained and plaza-centered “barrios.”

View of partially excavated Roomblock 16, Component II, showing a variety of floor and wall features, ca. 1973. Photograph by David Noble, courtesy the School for Advanced Research.

The assumption is that as Arroyo Hondo absorbed the residents of numerous smaller Coalition Period communities, it must have functioned as more of a “mixing bowl” than a “melting pot.” At Arroyo Hondo one can see that pueblos were no longer just variations of large, extended family compounds; they were evolving into small towns with more complexity and internal diversity but where residents still knew almost everyone with whom they lived and interacted.

A typical residential room at Arroyo Hondo was probably quite spartan, but readers should not infer that ruled out the existence of art, music, and a complex spirituality rooted in the natural world. Among the innumerable pottery sherds and stone tools, archaeologists discovered bone, shell, and ceramic pendants, beads and other kinds of jewelry; as well as ornaments: a variety of ceramic and carved stone pipes, ceramic and carved stone animal effigies, ceremonial stones, a prayer plume base, and several bone whistles and other musical instruments. Life at Arroyo Hondo was demanding, but it was not without its pleasures.

Interior Room 36, Roomblock 16, depicted ca. 1325. Illustration by R.W. Lang.
Courtesy the School for Advanced Research.

Although it would be nice to say that Arroyo Hondo thrived, “struggled” is probably a more accurate description of life in the pueblo, and there is compelling evidence that the people living at Arroyo Hondo were not in robust health. Skeletal remains suggest a scenario of a community under substantial nutritional stress, experiencing high infant mortality, and suffering from an incidence of anemia greater than most of the surrounding pueblos, including El Pueblo de Santa Fe (LA 1051), located under the Santa Fe Convention Center, a mere 5 or 6 miles to the north.

As stated by Nancy Akins, an osteologist with the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies, “Rather than typical, the Arroyo Hondo population, or at least segments of that population, was considerably more stressed than other groups in the surrounding area. Life and the general health at LA 1051 were probably more typical of the Late Coalition and Early Classic periods in the northern Rio Grande.” The people at Arroyo Hondo did the best they could, but the vagaries of soil and water conditions meant that Arroyo Hondo’s existence was always somewhat marginal.

As a matter of fact, a subset of the population actually suffered from rickets, a remarkable conclusion given that the disease results from a Vitamin D deficiency in an area that receives more than 300 days of sunshine every year. Dr. Palkovich, who reached that conclusion based upon careful examination of Arroyo Hondo’s skeletal remains, believes that groups of children had been kept indoors for extended periods either because of concerns for their safety, or because they constituted a marginalized group—perhaps war captives or an out-of-favor ethnic minority living in the pueblo.

One of the ongoing challenges for archaeologists is to reconcile seemingly incompatible data. If the mortuary remains from El Pueblo de Santa Fe reveal a much healthier, more vigorous population with little evidence of either the nutritional stress or physical trauma experienced at Arroyo Hondo, one wants to understand this dichotomy. Did the residents of El Pueblo de Santa Fe have access to more and better food, especially protein? Were the downtown residents connected to social or economic networks that provided them with both material support and protection that Arroyo Hondo did not have? Archaeologists have not yet answered the question why two contemporaneous settlements so close together should have such divergent demographic profiles, but it is yet another issue that demonstrates the need for continuing study.

As archaeologists, we need to remain sensitive to the reality that as we excavate “our sites,” they constitute places where real people lived out real lives. Seven hundred years ago, Arroyo Hondo was a place where several generations of people were born, worked, farmed, struggled, and died. Both Upper and Lower Arroyo Hondo were most likely southern Tewa sites, and as such, both appear to have constructed a Tewa-like network of shrines that helped to structure a spiritual life that extended far into the surrounding landscape beyond the roomblocks and plazas.

Dr. Alfonso Ortiz, the late anthropologist from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, has written about Tewa shrine systems, and the remnants of the system at Arroyo Hondo appear consistent with Ortiz’s writings. The fact that Tewa speakers had a formal name for Arroyo Hondo (Kua-Kaa) may not necessarily be determinative of Tewa status, but it demonstrates that at a minimum, the Tewa were aware of Arroyo Hondo as a place in their ethnogeography.

The shrines identified at Arroyo Hondo include one large world quarter shrine (a semi-subterranean unroofed rock circle), several ground slick rocks (stones in the ground used to grind and sharpen tools, but also serve an ideological purpose; grinding was paired with making offerings and contemplating community), a few upright boulders, and formerly at least one large boulder with cupules ground into its surface (unfortunately, the boulder “disappeared” from its position near a residential road). 

Although Arroyo Hondo has generally avoided the vicissitudes of pot-hunting that has been a scourge throughout the Southwest, the encroachment of residential development has definitely impinged upon and affected areas with cultural deposits adjacent to the pueblo.

The world quarter shrine (LA 10608) was located on a small hill approximately three quarters of a mile southeast of Arroyo Hondo and was identified and photographed by Nelson in 1915. Most large Tewa sites are associated with these circular, semi-subterranean, uncovered structures that appear to have been used in connection with agricultural rituals.

In 2005, in preparation for the construction of a private residence that ultimately destroyed the shrine, it was surveyed, mapped, and tested in connection with a legally mandated archaeological data recovery program. Diagnostic pottery sherds associated with the shrine were consistent with the early fourteenth- through early fifteenth-century occupations at Arroyo Hondo. The final survey report produced by Lone Mountain Associates is ultimately noncommittal regarding the nature and affiliation of the shrine, and concludes: “The site may have been part of the ritual landscape network of three different pueblos, beginning with Lower Arroyo Hondo, followed by Pecos Pueblo, and most recently the home of the Pecos Pueblo descendants, Jemez Pueblo. Each affiliation likely brought a different set of relationships with similar sites on the landscape.”

In other words, the affiliation and use of that shrine, while initially part of Arroyo Hondo’s ritual network, may have been recycled and repurposed by subsequent communities.

Aerial view of partially excavated eastern section of Arroyo Hondo showing Roomblocks 10 and 11 as well as Plaza C. Photograph by David Noble, courtesy the School for Advanced Research.

Conceivably, a pueblo as small as Arroyo Hondo’s second occupation, located in a somewhat marginal agricultural zone, simply could not sustain itself, and so became a target for one or more of the larger local pueblos that had developed by that time. One enduring question has always been, “So, where did the remaining people go?”

As the crow flies heading due west from Arroyo Hondo, it is not far to the pueblos of Cieneguilla and La Bajada. Either of these pueblos could have absorbed the relatively small population from Arroyo Hondo, and logic tells us that one or both settlements may have done just that. Logic, however, is not a substitute for evidence, and neither archaeology nor ethnography has provided any clear answers. None of the contemporary Rio Grande pueblos have claimed any ancestral relationship with Arroyo Hondo. This is an almost unprecedented situation within the complex cultural landscape of the northern Rio Grande, where residential abandonment and relocation does not usually denote a permanent loss of connection to a former settlement, and where traditional associations with archaeological remains are passionately guarded and maintained. Ancestral sites and cultural landscapes remain an important and active component of Pueblo life, and yet for reasons that have never been articulated but probably involve some past traumatic event, no descendant Pueblo community wants to be associated with Arroyo Hondo.

The final occupation of Arroyo Hondo ended in the early part of the fifteenth century, around the same time that the occupations of several other local pueblos (including Pindi, Agua Fria Schoolhouse, Chamisa Locita, and El Pueblo de Santa Fe) also ended. The results of several excavations in the city of Santa Fe support the view that the downtown settlements were either completely or substantially unoccupied within a generation or two after 1400. Thus, three of the fourteenth century’s local settlement nodes—east of the city, west of the city, and downtown—all closed down within slightly more than a century.

During the early fifteenth century, there seems to have been a wholesale shift in settlements away from higher elevations in favor of lower elevations near water sources that was encouraged by the “usual suspects,” including the onset of cooler temperatures and shortened growing seasons, drought, population pressure on limited resources such as arable land, and conflict. If we substitute the term “settlement shifting” for the culturally loaded term “abandonment,” then the idea of mobility, of being able to relocate when conditions were not conducive to group survival, appears to have been a constant theme. Fifteenth-century Puebloan farmers may have had a more difficult time relocating to new areas than did small bands of Archaic foragers 1,500 years earlier, but the adaptive strategy was essentially the same.

Archaeologists survey the area around the pueblo. Photograph courtesy the School for Advanced Research.

Even with all this settlement-shifting, people continued to occupy areas north of Santa Fe in the Tesuque Basin, south of the city along the Santa Fe River near the Cienega escarpment, and in particular, southeast of the city in the Galisteo Basin where several Classic Period pueblos more than twice as large as Arroyo Hondo were built. Beyond the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe, large towns existed at Pecos, Taos, and the areas around Albuquerque, a number of which remained occupied at the time of the Spanish entrada.

In my opinion, the roomblock-and-plaza style that evolved during the fourteenth century as exemplified by Arroyo Hondo was a more sustainable form than the smaller Coalition Period settlements. The evolution of settlement form was not just about aggregation, the idea of collecting people into larger units, but also included amalgamation and accommodation. People found themselves living in communities that were both larger and more diverse than the Coalition communities of only a few generations past. Everyone needed access to land and water and people had to be blended into the community’s social fabric.

If we cut away all the overlays of social and cultural elaboration and are willing to indulge in some reductionism, we can say that the Classic Period was essentially about the idea of “bigness” as an adaptive solution to the problems of environmental productivity, population growth, and conflict. In a sense, bigness became the ultimate survival strategy that packaged economic, social, political, and ideological ingredients in new and larger ways in order to ameliorate the inherent riskiness of life in the northern Rio Grande. Even though Arroyo Hondo did not persist as long as some communities, it was the first local community to experiment with “bigness.” The sheer size of subsequent Classic pueblos coupled with their apparent ability to field a critical mass of warriors suggests that the capacity to “look big” was really important, an early manifestation of Cold War Deterrence during a period of considerable local volatility, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Bigger settlements were built, bigger associations of those settlements were created, and finally even bigger ideological and ceremonial movements such as the Katsina system and inter-community medicine societies evolved. The ways in which those “big” entities were organized and directed are still being studied, but if institutional continuity is one proxy of measure for long-term cultural success, then we know that at least until the sixteenth century when Europeans arrived in the Rio Grande Valley, all three elements—large pueblos, multiple alliance systems, and large-scale ceremonial systems—were still going strong.

Arroyo Hondo has something to tell us about the dynamic cycles that many northern Rio Grande communities experienced. The three Arroyo Hondos all grew, declined, were abandoned, in some cases reused, and in the final case, were seemingly wiped off the collective memories of local Pueblo people. These cycles form a common thread throughout Southwestern archaeology, and yet very few communities have three separate and distinct occupations that can be analyzed as either standalone sites or viewed as part of a singular process.

We cannot be certain of what the residents of Arroyo Hondo thought about their pueblos or how they viewed the role of those pueblos within the larger environment that included other communities as well as local and distant landscapes, but Arroyo Hondo remains a place, a process, and a people that is critically important for a more complete understanding of the archaeology of the northern Rio Grande.

Jason S. Shapiro, PhD, is the site steward for Arroyo Hondo Pueblo. He has been studying and writing about Arroyo Hondo for twenty-five years. This article is dedicated to the vision, research, and memory of Dr. Douglas W. Schwartz.