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Saving Our Past From the Jaws of Subdivision

Causes: Be it a pueblo or a plantation, if it has historical significance and is endangered, Mark Michel and his Archaeological Conservancy brethren want to buy it.

November 11, 1996|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CERRILLOS, N.M. — Pueblo San Marcos slumbers peacefully in the afternoon sun beneath a blanket of grama grass, cholla cactus and an impressive crop of ragweed.

Shoulder-high mounds of earth mark where two- and three-story buildings of puddled adobe once stood. Only birdcalls and distant traffic sounds from State Highway 14 intrude on a place where thousands of people once lived and worked.

His sandy hair scattering in the stiff autumn wind, Mark Michel crouches next to an ant mound and points out tiny flakes of turquoise gleaming amid bits of decomposed granite. All around, the ground is littered with painted potsherds.

"This is one of the richest, most incredible sites that anybody's ever seen," he says. "It's been known as the Turquoise Pueblo from time immemorial."

But this 60-acre pueblo ruin, the largest in the United States, is surrounded by an area slated for development as new residents push beyond the city limits of Santa Fe, 15 miles to the north. Were it not for the efforts of Michel and the organization he leads, the Archaeological Conservancy, the ruin would almost certainly be doomed to destruction.

"In America, whoever owns the land, no matter if it's part of the national patrimony, can do pretty much what they want," Michel says as he picks his way among the mounds. "The solution, which is an American solution, is to buy it."

Accordingly, the Archaeological Conservancy has a mission of acquiring endangered archeological sites and sparing them from development. During the past 16 years, the conservancy has acquired--either by purchase or donation--130 projects in 24 states, including several in California.

The conservancy's property inventory is valued by its accountants at $5 million.

"It's a meaningless figure to us. We don't see them as assets--we see them as responsibilities," says Michel, 51, who has been president of the conservancy since it was founded in 1980. Funds come largely from corporations, foundations and conservancy members.

Sites range in size from an acre to 900 acres. Holdings include long-vanished Indian villages, early pioneer settlements and old plantations in the South, Midwest and West.

The conservancy, which is headquartered in Albuquerque, counts 12,000 members. The typical member "is a highly educated, world-traveled person with an interest in archeology who is older than 50," Michel says.

Regional directors around the country identify sites in need of preservation and approach landowners about acquiring them. Like Michel, they are expert negotiators, schooled in the art of gentle persuasion and the intricacies of the tax code.

One of the conservancy's newest California projects is a plan to protect the Asistencia San Francisco Xavier, an early 19th century Spanish mission outpost near Santa Clarita. Lynn Dunbar, the conservancy's western regional director, says Newhall Land and Farming has donated 8 acres out of its proposed 25,000-home Newhall Ranch development.

"This is really an exceptional place," Dunbar says. "We can learn a lot about the history of California from this place."

Adds Michel: "Every time we save a site it makes me feel great. If we didn't do it, it probably wouldn't get done. There would probably be houses here," he says of Pueblo San Marcos. The conservancy bought one-third of the site in 1980. Under new agreements, it will buy the remaining 40 acres by January 1998.

Written records and limited excavations carried out 80 years ago indicate that the pueblo's long ago residents mined turquoise in the hills nearby and traded it widely.

Countless bits of the blue-green mineral were discarded in refuse heaps known as midden piles, some of which lie so close to the surface that ants often unearth the debris, Michel says.

The Spanish established a mission at the pueblo early in the 17th century and perpetual springs made it a way station on the Camino Real, the royal road that ran from Mexico to Santa Fe. At one time there may have been as many as 5,000 rooms in the complex, Michel says.

"We know from Spanish records that in 1630 there was a large church here," Michel says. "The records say there were still 600 people in 1680." That was the year pueblos throughout New Mexico and Arizona rose up in revolt and expelled the Spanish from the territory. When the Spanish returned 12 years later, Pueblo San Marcos had been abandoned.

Michel pauses by a clearing and points to a mound fringed with cholla. "This is the church right there," he says. An aerial survey using ground-penetrating radar has confirmed the building's outlines, while earlier excavations found walls that were 3 feet thick.

"I'm guessing that at least the bottom 6 feet of the walls are still here," Michel says. "This is the best place in New Mexico to find out about the pre-revolt contact with the Spanish. . . . It's just been sitting here waiting for us for 316 years."

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