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Artifacts raise questions about Albuquerque ruins

A battleground in the first major conflict between Europeans and Native Americans in what would become the U.S. Southwest is a vacant lot on the west side of Albuquerque.

Copper bolts (points for crossbow projectiles) found at  Piedras Marcadas Participants in this month's "Chile and Sherds" fundraiser for the Friends of Archaeology will get a rare tour of the site.

For a century, archaeologists and pot hunters have known of the ruins called Piedras Marcadas ("marked boulders") — once one of at least a dozen thriving Tiwa-speaking villages in the central valley of the Rio Grande, known collectively as Tiguex (pronounced tee-wesh).

Recent discoveries of 16th-century metal artifacts at Piedras Marcadas indicate it also had been involved in an armed conflict with the first European expedition into New Mexico.

Heart of the pueblos

Capt. Gen. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was just beginning to lead his expedition into the interior of the North American continent in 1540 when he heard of Tiguex. While recovering from an injury in Zuni, he was told of Tiguex's fertile fields of corn from an Indian known as Bigotes — Spanish for "whiskers."

Bigotes led a group of soldiers to investigate. They reported back that in addition to corn, the Tiguex had plentiful beans, melons and turkeys, dressed in animal hides, cotton and long robes of turkey feathers, and that their elders held authority. The advance guards were so impressed they suggested their general winter over in the "heart of the pueblos."

By December 1540, the Coronado expedition had taken over at least one of the Tiguex pueblos, forcing its people to move. When they demanded more room, food and warmer clothing, the Natives resisted. They accused the invaders of consorting with Tiguex women. Desperation for firewood and allegations of an ambush of a Spanish officer finally ignited the war in the coldest days of January 1541.

Tiguex's final refuge

The pueblo of Moho, sometimes spelled Mohi, was the Tiguex's final refuge — a virtual Thermopylae, Alamo or even a 9/11 for the Pueblo people.

At first, even with crossbows and early firearms, the Spanish were unable to break through the defenses. But they diverted a spring that supplied Moho with water and began a siege that went on for more than two months. At first, Moho's people got drinking water from snow. When that ran out, they began to dig a well. But the sides of the hole collapsed before water was reached, killing 30 people.

Much of what we know about the War of the Tiguex comes from an investigation conducted in 1544 into the expedition leaders' treatment of the Natives and the written recollections some 20 years later of Pedro de Castañeda de Najera, a member of the Coronado expedition. He recalled the Spanish learned of the well collapse when 100 noncombatant women and children were released from Moho in March 1541. Fifteen days later, Moho's last defenders tried to escape across the Rio Grande.

"Taking the women in the middle, they came forth during the quarter just before daybreak," wrote Castañeda de Najera. "Forty horsemen were keeping watch during that quarter, and they gave the call to arms. The (men-at-arms) in don Rodrigo Maldonado's camp attacked (the Indians). The enemies knocked one Spaniard and one horse down dead and wounded others. But (the men-at-arms) happened to break through and work slaughter among them until, (when the Indians) were withdrawing, (the men-at-arms) attacked them in the river, which was flowing rapidly and was extremely cold. Since the troop from the real (a type of camp) arrived very soon, those who escaped death or injury were few."

Moho site disputed

Some believe the Piedras Marcadas ruins are those of Moho. Among them is Matt Schmader, an archaeologist and superintendent of the city of Albuquerque's Open Space Division who used a metal detector to find the 16th-century artifacts at the city-owned site.

So far, Schmader had turned up 20 copper bolts (points for crossbow projectiles) plus wrought-iron nails for horseshoes and other purposes, lead shot from arquebuses (a predecessor of the musket), aglets (copper tips for clothing laces), buttons and the steel tip of a small dagger — all of them likely to have been left there by Coronado's expedition, probably during a siege of the pueblo.

Schmader said the accounts of the expedition indicate Moho was about four leagues from Coronado's main encampment near the pueblo called Santiago — 4.3 leagues or about 11 miles from Piedras Marcadas. But the strongest evidence, he said, may be a 75-foot-wide indentation — possibly the collapsed well.

"In my mind, it's at least coincidental or highly suggestive that the feature that we see today and the activity they describe in the accounts could match up," he said.

But Richard Flint, a historian with The University of New Mexico's Latin American and Iberian Institute who has spent 30 years studying the Coronado expedition, believes Moho was atop a basaltic mesa near today's San Felipe Pueblo and that the Piedras Marcadas site is another pueblo ruin.

He said the indentation at Piedras Marcadas resembles the remnants of a square kiva rather than a well. Remote-sensing techniques already have identified another square kiva at Piedras Marcadas. Flint allowed that it is possible the Tiguex, desperate for water, began to dig their well in the bottom of a kiva, but there's another problem with the theory.

Spanish documents say Moho was on high ground, affording it some natural defense, while Piedras Marcadas is so low and near the river that the well diggers would have been able to reach the shallow groundwater table without the walls collapsing around them, Flint said.

No excavations allowed

Schmader, however, thinks Flint's theory about Moho being on a mesa near San Felipe is flawed because it would have been futile to try to hand-dig a well through basalt. While the water table at Piedras Marcadas is only 10 to 12 feet below the surface, if the well was dug inside an adobe compound with walls rising directly around the hole, "the whole thing might collapse on you," Schmader said.

The only certain way to determine whether the indentation is the well mentioned in the Spanish documents would be to find the remains of the 30 defenders said to have perished in the collapse. Remote-sensing techniques are not likely to identify skeletal remains. But actual excavation is not possible because of an agreement by the city of Albuquerque, which acquired the land in the 1980s, with the pueblos of Isleta and Sandia — the only Southern Tiwa pueblos to have survived the War of the Tiguex.

"This is recognized as an ancestral village and it's highly protected ... with respect to their wishes," Schmader said. He asked that the exact location of Piedras Marcadas not been identified in this article and said he would ask tour participants to keep the locale confidential as well. "I don't want to have minor publicity flare up to the point they say you've betrayed their trust."

Mexican battle garb

Both Schmader and Flint will speak about their theories at the "Chile and Sherds" fundraiser. But expect a friendly discussion rather than a debate between an archaeologist and a historian. Both say better remote sensing or excavations in the general area, outside of the city-owned land under the agreement with Isleta and Sandia, might produce new evidence that would sway them to the other's point of view.

"Eventually we may be able to determine what pueblo it is and maybe it will be Moho," said Flint. "But even if it isn't, it doesn't really matter. It tells significant things about the Coronado expedition that we did not know in the past and offers the opportunity for learning a lot more."

Flint said one common misconception about the Coronado expedition is that it involved a tiny group of armored conquistadors facing large Indian populations. In fact, he said, the expedition included about 400 Europeans — not only Spaniards but also Portuguese, Italians, French, English and Scots — plus an equal number of black slaves and between 1,200 and 2,000 Mexican Indians allied with the Spanish. Most of them were single men in their teens and 20s. Vasquez de Coronado, at 29, was one of the oldest.

"Not only were these Mexican Indians dressed in their traditional ways, but the war gear that was available to the Europeans was very scarce in Mexico, so 90 percent of the Europeans also wore Native (gear)," Flint said. "It looked more like a group of warriors from central Mexico than it did like a group of, say, European knights. There were hardly any people who had metal armor. We know of only 40 helmets."

None of the Tiguex groups was as large as the Coronado expedition, "so it's sort of the opposite of the version of conquest as has been presented," Flint said. "It's really remarkable that the pueblos even chose to confront such a large group, but they did."

Author: Tom Sharpe | Source: The New Mexican [September 12, 2010]]


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