Stabilizing Archaeology: Engaging the Public in Architectural Preservation

Celebrating 35 Plus Years of TAC - Behind the Scenes with the People of the Archaeological Conservancy

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Larry L. Baker at work in 2012. Courtesy Larry L. Baker.
Larry L. Baker at work In Northern New Mexico in 2012. Courtesy Larry L. Baker.

By Larry L. Baker,  Salmon Ruins Museum, San Juan County Museum Association

In 1974, I was hired by Dr. Cynthia Irwin-Williams for her research projects at the Salmon Ruins, near Bloomfield, New Mexico and the Rio Puerco Valley Project, northwest of Albuquerque. One of my roles was to train in ruins stabilization and Cynthia had set up a program with the National Park Service for me to serve as an adjunct trainee in architectural preservation of masonry structures. The Park Service’s Ruins Stabilization Unit, based in Tucson, Arizona, was still operating at the time; and that year, the summer duty stations were Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins. These were perfect locales for learning the methodologies and techniques related to preserving Chacoan architecture and understanding the complex masonry of Chaco culture. I would later apply this knowledge to stabilization and research at Salmon Ruins and other masonry structures in the northern Southwest.

Pueblo Bonito is Chaco Canyon’s largest great house. A number of macaws, which are thought to have been imported from Mesoamerica by Chaco’s upper class, were found here. Credit: Chaz Evans.
Pueblo Bonito is Chaco Canyon’s largest great house. Credit: Chaz Evans/The Archaeological Conservancy.

During my time as a trainee at Chaco Canyon and Aztec, I had a number of experiences that provided anecdotal situations to my understanding of the requirements of structural stabilization of Southwestern masonry. My first day at Pueblo Bonito was fraught with anticipation and the project supervisor came to me and indicated that we were going to apply our newly acquired instruction in condition assessment. He asked if I was afraid of heights and pointed to the fourth story section of Bonito’s backwall. I indicated that I had some reservations, but I would take it to task. I took my forms, camera, and plenty of water and stayed up on the remnant fourth story all day because I wasn’t coming down until the job was complete.

Another story has to do with the plaster in the reconstructed great kiva at Aztec Ruins. The repairs needed were to the color coat of the interior walls. I anticipated that we would be learning how to prepare gypsum and hematite plaster and apply it to the interior, which is a very specialized skill and technique. Instead, we took a fragment of color off the wall and went down to the local paint store to make a color match. Needless to say, my new found enthusiasm as a preservationist was crushed, but to replicate and apply the original hematite and gypsum plaster would have been prohibitively expensive, even in 1974.

The West Ruin was the largest of the great houses at Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico. It was a public building consisting of some 400 rooms. Credit: NPS
The West Ruin was the largest of the great houses at Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico. It was a public building consisting of some 400 rooms.
Credit: NPS

As I developed further expertise in structural stabilization, it became even more apparent that it was critical to preserve not only the structural integrity of the buildings, but the stylistic integrity as well. The maintenance of variability in Chacoan wall patterning is important to distinguish successive constructional episodes at an intra-site level, but also necessary for interpretation by students and the public in regional differences in Pueblo and other Native American architectural styles, for example Navajo defensive sites (pueblitos). As we see the need to maintain architectural inter and intra site variability, these approaches emphasize the importance of not just preservation, but the need to have quality assurance related to masonry patterning and constructional details.

These approaches are essential at a time when society seems to have less interest in elements of archaeology, history, and heritage. This lack of interest will escalate further, if we do not maintain our heritage sites and let them further be reduced into homogenous, non-distinct structures or worse, deteriorate into generic rubble mounds. We must engage the public as well as students and professional archaeologists in the architectural preservation process. This is the only way that we can insure authentic, long-term preservation of our diverse cultural heritage related to the built environment. Outreach to the general public is key and critical in this regard, if we are going to maintain a support base for maintaining architecture.

Preservation of historic and prehistoric structures is further complicated by the fact that it is a labor intensive and expensive process. It is not just basic construction and using hardened materials, e.g. Portland cements, can actually accelerate the deterioration of stone masonry structures. Consequently,  using both skilled approaches and condition assessments are necessary to not only understand the construction materials and attributes of historic structures, but the mechanisms related to structural deterioration and the principle erosive forces. If we are going to promote preservation of National Register of Historic Places properties and World Heritage sites, funds must be secured and made available for ruins stabilization. Training programs to provide expertise in preservation/stabilization need to be supported as well. These factors related to funding and education require public awareness, interest, and involvement. I am delighted that the Archaeological Conservancy is promoting heritage site protection and preservation at a number of levels.

The Team works away at Preserving the Navajo Garcia Canyon Pueblito.

Several years ago the Archaeological Conservancy acquired a classic Navajo pueblito, Garcia Canyon, from the private sector. The structure is positioned along the edge of a mesa, typical of the defensive emplacement of many pueblito structures. The architecture has standing wall sections and a partially intact roof containing a total of nine rooms. Dendrochronological data indicates that initial construction of four rooms was in A.D. 1712, early in the sequence of pueblito buildings.

Team member Working on the Garcia Canyon Preservation Project for the Archaeological Conservancy.
Stabilization team member working on the Garcia Canyon Preservation Project for the Archaeological Conservancy.

Garcia Canyon Pueblito is the only Navajo defensive site owned by the Archaeological Conservancy and one of a limited number of Conservancy properties with standing architecture. Interested in the preservation of this unique structure, the Conservancy engaged the Division of Conservation Archaeology/San Juan County Museum Association to conduct a comprehensive structural stabilization program with its team of Navajo stabilization masons. Undertaken in 2015, the structural and stylistic attributes of the pueblito have been preserved for future generations to enjoy and study. Located near Navajo Reservoir, the site can be visited by contacting the Archaeological Conservancy to gain permission to access the site. The Conservancy should be commended for taking on the purchase and preservation of this unique historical legacy related to the early Navajo occupation of the region.

BIO: Larry L. Baker has been a professional archaeologist working in New Mexico for 43 years. He has served as the Executive Director of the Salmon Ruins Museum for over 24 years. He has been involved in the diverse programs offered through Salmon Ruins including: archaeological research; cultural resource management; ruins stabilization; archaeoastronomy; educational outreach, and regional tourism.

Up-close with the detailed work required to do architectural preservation.
Up-close with the detailed work the team is required to do to get architectural preservation right.

Learn More about Larry’s Help Saving the Holmes Group Site, A Chaco Outlier and learn more about Larry’s team’s work: Preservation in Action at Garcia Canyon Pueblito

Plan Your Visit to  Salmon Ruins Museum, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

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Larry L Baker at work stabilizing ruins in 2004.
Larry L Baker at work stabilizing ruins in 2004.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Larry, I thought you made some enlightening points on archeology. It makes sense why it’s important to engage the public in architectural preservations processes. It seems like there’s a lot you can learn by taking time to observe sites.

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