"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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In June, 1937, Abundio Peralta sold the pueblo of Abó and the visible ruins of the church and convento to a group of University of New Mexico alumni headed by Pearce Rodey of Albuquerque. The group then donated the site to the University. The University then divided the ownership among itself, the Museum of New Mexico, and the School of American Research.

The three organizations immediately began planning excavation and stabilization work on the mission buildings. The work was of critical importance if the last of the high walls of the church were to be saved, preserving the full height of the side chapel wall to the top of the parapet. The loss of the majority of the side chapel walls during the previous three decades demonstrated that the last remaining section had little time left.

The three organizations had completed planning for the excavations and were awaiting final approval on funding by April, 1938. Joseph Toulouse, a young graduate of the University of New Mexico who had been working as part of a team of excavators on prehistoric sites in Texas, was selected as the field director for the excavations. Reginald Fisher of UNM was to supervise the work.

First Excavations at Abó: June-December, 1938

On June 1, the Soil Conservation Service signed a contract to supply labor to the excavations, and Toulouse moved into housing at the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Manzano. He and a crew of about twenty-five men began work at Abó on June 6.

The first priorities were to fence the site to protect it from vandals, and to build a storeroom to protect the tools and equipment left on the site overnight and on weekends. The fencing work proceeded slowly and was not completed until late in the year. Toulouse elected to rebuild several rooms of the ruins of the Marcos Luna house and use it as his toolroom. Work on the reconstruction of the rooms was completed by June 30. Later, in 1939, Toulouse demolished the toolroom and all other traces of the Luna house that he could recognize.

The crew began trenching into the rubble mounds of the convento along the south side and at the southeast corner on June 20. By June 24, the trenches outlined the south wall and southeast corner. The search for the north wall of the convento began. Toulouse began excavating inside the first three rooms at the southeast corner about the same time. [1]

Marcos Luna house at Abó
Figure 47. The Marcos Luna house at Abó. It is being converted to a toolshed by workmen under the direction of Joseph Toulouse about June 28 or 29, 1938. The Luna house can be seen in earlier photographs taken at a distance from the church, but only the lower few feet of walls still stood at the time. In 1882 Adolph Bandelier drew its outline on his map of the ruins of the pueblo of Abó, along the east edge of the mounds left by the collapse of the convento. Toulouse raised the walls by about 5 feet and added doors, windows, a roof, and a fireplace. The entire building was removed in late 1939 as part of the final cleanup of the area.
Courtesy Museum of New Mexico, # 45415.

The north, south, and east walls of the convento had been located and the first three rooms cleared by July 6. On the same date, Toulouse began construction on the scaffolding along the west wall of the church for use by the stabilization crew, employing a team of carpenters from the Soil Conservation Service.

The excavation crew excavated the church from July 6 through the end of the season in late December. Stabilization work on the west wall of the building continued during the same period. Toulouse's first priority was to locate the end walls of the church, since both had fallen so completely that only nondescript mounds of rubble marked the general location of these two areas. The north end of the church, Toulouse decided, extended across the property line onto Federico Sisneros's property. Until Sisneros agreed, on July 27, to donate the narrow strip of land to the University, Toulouse concentrated on the south side of the church. Because the access to the convento along the north side was so restricted within the land owned by UNM, work on the convento also concentrated on the south side during this period.

By the last week of July, the excavators were seeing the flagstones of the south terrace, and finding the first charred beams of the fallen choir balcony at the front of the church and the balustrade and roofing of the portería. Toulouse began to see the first indications of the walls that had supported the portal or choir balcony across the front of the church in late July and he began excavations along the walls inside the church. By August 16, the crew had located both sides of the main entrance doorway of the church at the south and seen the first indications of the charred sill beams. [2]

Toulouse's notes for the items, features, and artifacts found in 1938 are difficult to use because the coordinate system of 1938 differed from that used in 1939. The 1939 system is recorded on the plan of the mission published in Toulouse's final report and described in the report. The 1938 system, however, is mentioned only in passing in Toulouse's diary, when he states that he will use forty-foot squares and four-foot units. Fortunately, references to physical locations of items within rooms, and a detailed plan of the locations of a number of charred beams on the south porch at the front of the church and in the portería, allow a reconstruction of the 1938 coordinate system. The places of discovery of many of the artifacts found by Toulouse can be located on his plan to within two feet using the two grid systems. It is difficult to transfer these locations accurately to the most recent HABS plan of the buildings, however, because Toulouse's plan is distorted. A rectilinear grid cannot be drawn on the recent plan that replicates the 1938 and 1939 coordinate systems. Nonetheless, most artifact locations can be reconstructed with little loss of accuracy.

Stabilization and excavation of Abó by
Joseph Toulouse
Figure 48. Stabilization and excavation of Abó by Joseph Toulouse, 1938. The photograph was taken in the last week of July or the first week of August. In the foreground, a crew is clearing rubble away from the north wall of the convento in the process of tracing the wall face outside rooms 13, 14, and 15. In the background, the scaffolding for the masons stabilizing the west wall is visible on the inside and outside faces of the wall, but no work has started on the north end around the bell tower.
Courtesy Museum of New Mexico, # 6357.

After Sisneros agreed to donate the property along the north side, the crew began trenching for the apse end of the church. The excavations at the north end soon demonstrated that the surviving wall here was very low, and as of August 17 no clear indications of the rear wall had been found.

The following day excavators began to see the top of the west side-chapel altar as they trenched to trace the west wall north from the bell tower. Toulouse described this as an "adobe structure" at first, indicating that it was made predominantly of adobe brick. [3] Later he revised his description, saying the altar had a rubble stone core with adobe facing. On August 19, work began on rebuilding enough of the west side-chapel wall to form a buttress for the bell-tower.

The crew finished exposing the sill and fallen beams at the front of the church in the last week of August. From here the excavation began to uncover the rest of the south terrace, following it east and west across the front of the church. By September 13, they had located the south wall of the baptistry (room 4) and indications of the "east porch," the portería of the convento.

During the week from September 15 to September 21, 1938, Toulouse uncovered the burned bench lying on the flagstone floor of the portería. This process was especially difficult because part of the roofing and the balustrade across the front of the portería had fallen across the bench as the building burned, and Toulouse had some trouble determining which pieces belonged to which construction. [4]

By September 28, Toulouse had cleared the portería, and was almost certain that the walls on the west side of the church were the baptistry. When he discovered the niche and altar on the north wall of the baptistry the next day, it confirmed the identity of the room.

During October, Toulouse began excavating within the nave northward from the main entrance of the church, and within the convento from the door opening off the portería. On October 13 he found the fireplace at the west end of the south corridor.

The stabilization crew finished work on the bell tower and its associated walls and buttresses on October 26. During the first few days of October the crew had lifted huge beam sections into place high on these walls, filling the spaces left when the originals burned out of the walls. On the last day of October Toulouse removed the scaffolding from the bell tower and began shifting it to the south end of the wall for reconstruction of the south buttress, baptistry, and front wall on the west.

At the end of the first week of November the crew found the first indications of the stairs to the choir loft. They had been tracing the walls of the south and west corridors, and in the process located the entrance to the choir stairwell. By November 14, the choir stairs had been uncovered to their surviving height.

Stabilization on the baptistry area proceeded rapidly. By November 21, the crew was placing the new piñon beams of the lintel for the baptistry doorway. Bad weather was beginning to hamper operations, however, and Toulouse began to plan for closing down for the winter. The last stabilization work for the year was the completion of the baptistry doorway and the walls above it. Perhaps one-third of the interior of the church had been emptied. Along the west wall, the crew had reached the floor from the front entrance almost to the side chapel. In the central and eastern areas of the nave, the fill had been removed to forty feet north of the front wall. Throughout the nave, the crew found large fragments of burned vigas in the rubble.

The crew did no stabilization work on the east wall of the church during 1938, nor did the excavation team find more than traces of the north wall or the altars in the sanctuary. These structures and the sacristy were not defined until the 1939 season.

In the convento, the excavation crew exposed the west half of the south corridor, enough for Toulouse to know that "a number of doorways" opened off of this hall. In the west corridor, work stopped with only the southern third of the hall excavated. In all, no more than perhaps a tenth of the convento had actually been excavated. However, the north, east, and south walls of the convento complex had been defined, so Toulouse knew the limits within which he would be working during the next season. The excavations closed down the 1938 season on December 22.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006