Archaeology and Prehistory of Northwest Mexico:
A "Rough Essay"

David Phillips

Historical Archaeology

This page will not examine historians' accounts of Oasis America; those are extensive and widely acccessible. Instead, the page focuses on archaeological studies of the Historic period (A.D. 1540–present) Euroamerican and contact culture.

San Antonio de Padua, Chihuahua

Just as Charles Di Peso set the standard for prehistoric research in northwest Mexico through his study of Paquimé, he did so for historical archaeology through his work at San Antonio de Padua, a mission site just north of Viejo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua.

In 1663, the Spanish divided the Casas Grandes Valley between the native population and colonists. The Spanish gave themselves the southern half of the valley, and allowed the local Suma to retain the northern half. At the dividing line, the mission of San Antonio de Padua was built to serve both groups (Di Peso 1974 3:900). Native resistance led to abandonment of the mission in 1686.

San Antonio, also known as the Convento Site, overlooked the Rio Casas Grandes. It included a Viejo period component, described on a different page. The historical component included a church, its attached buildings (convento), and a cluster of Suma Indian dwellings (Di Peso 1974 3:876).

The church was a massive but simple adobe structure with cobble foundations. The main interior space measured 26 by 6 m. Besides the attached convento the mission complex included an adobe-walled garden, corrals, and a cemetery (campo santo). At one corner of the cemetery was a line of posts indicating that before the adobe wall was built, a post fence had been emplaced. The garden was served by a small ditch, which undoubtedly also provided water for domestic use. A concern for safety, over and above that provided by usual mission designs, was indicated by construction of two defensive towers at corners of the complex (Di Peso 1974:885–898).

Di Peso exposed a number of burials but, due to local wishes, left the human remains in place. Strangely, one of the burials was of a horse or mule (Di Peso 1974 3:939).

The church faced east, towards the Suma huts and the river beyond. The Suma village included six clusters of structures, for a total of 11 rooms. Most of these had walls of adobe brick over cobble foundations. Living room areas averaged 11 square meters, with a range of 1.8 to 25 square meters. A possible outdoor work area was indicated by a series of pits (Di Peso 1974:876–878).

The site's material culture was a mix of native and European items. Native items—most notably, pottery—were used in the convento and European goods were found among the Suma dwellings (Di Peso 1974:916–929). Examples of goods used by the Suma included traditional tools such as grinding stones and perforated sherd spindle whorls, and introductions such as metal tools and cooking containers. European metal tools had completely displaced the native flaked stone tradition; only four pieces of debitage were located, and these might have been intrusive from the prehistoric deposits (Di Peso et al. 1974 7:493). Subsistence information was limited. Maize, a peach pit, and bones of sheep, goats, and cattle were recovered (Di Peso 1974 3: 931, 939). Because the mission was abandoned not long after being founded, Di Peso's work at San Antonio de Padua provides a clear sense of material life on the early northern frontier of New Spain.

Magdalena de Kino, Sonora

If Di Peso's study of San Antonio de Padua set a standard, the work at Magdalena, Sonora can be seen as a missed opportunity. In 1711 the missionary Eusebio Kino, one of the most notable figures in early Sonora history, died at Magdalena and was buried there. The 1965–1966 quest to find his remains might have created a systematic archaeological record of the town and of northern Sonora's early Euroamerican history. Instead the gains were limited to an exciting but narrow discovery: Kino's final resting place. This outcome may be due, in part, to the fact that the field director for the project was an art historian, not an archaeologist.

In 1965, local boosters began a program or more or less random trenching in search of Kino's grave. A Jesuit historian, Charles Polzer, learned of their efforts and was instrumental in obtaining professional leadership for their work. The field director for the resulting (1965–1966) fieldwork was Arturo Romano; other staff included Jorge Olivera, William W. Wasley, and Kieran McCarty (Fontana 1968:45). By the end of the effort, more than 2 km of trenches had been dug (Polzer 1968:36–37). As Bernard Fontana (1968:45) put it, "Digging was done on a rather random basis."

Fortunately, historical research narrowed down the probable location of Kino's remains to the existing plaza area, where subsquent trenching was concentrated. This work uncovered the foundations of two early churches: that of Father Agustín de Campos, and the small chapel of San Francisco de Xavier. Kino's remains were found among the ruins of the latter, along with remains of other individuals, and the locations of their remains corresponded to historical accounts (Polzer 1968:39–40). After the discovery, the plaza area was rebuilt and Kino's grave was converted into a public monument.

No project report was ever published; apparently, the notes from the project were taken back to Mexico City by Romano. Summary accounts can be found in Romano (1966), Polzer (1968:35–41), and Fontana. Wasley's photographs and press clippings from the project are in the archives of the Arizona State Museum. The best published account of the local archaeology is Fontana's (1968) description of glass bottles, based on a collection submitted to him by Romano. Fontana's analysis showed that in Magdalena's earliest years, glass bottles were rare to absent; instead, ceramic vessels such as olive jars must have been the usual containers. By the mid-1800s glass bottles were more common, but were used again and again until they shattered. By the late 1800s, Magdalena was linked to industrial centers by railroads, and glass bottles became so common that they were disposed of before breaking (Fontana 1968:53).

As is usual in trash deposits of the adjacent U.S. Southwest, most glass bottles were packaging for alcoholic beverages. Makers' marks indicated that Mexican and U.S. factories produced most of the machine-finished bottles in the collection (Fontana 1968:48).

Kino's home mission was at the mission of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) in the San Miguel Valley north of Cucurpe. Ironically, in the late 1900s a large portion of the site was bulldozed as part of an effort to develop the site to honor Kino.

Other Projects

Other projects focusing on the Spanish-Mexican occupation have been rare. Most notable among them is Gerald's (1954, 1957, 1968) surface mapping and testing of the presidios and related structures along the northern defensive line for New Spain.

Bowman and Heizer (1967) reported ono the uncovering of the remains of Juan Bautista de Anza in Sonora, in February 1963. Some information of historical value was preserved, but the effort was "not, in any sense ... an archaeological investigation" (Bowman and Heizer 1967:7). The remains were transferred to a new resting place that March.

Also in Sonora, Canchola V. (1982) excavated a segment of an 18th century masonry-lined canal.

Francisco Mendiola (2002) has documented historic rock art from central Chihuahua, including examples of riders on horseback (Mendiola G. 2002, Figure 11).

From this brief review, it can be appreciated that in northwest Mexico, historical archaeology remains in its infancy.

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Last revised December 29, 2009.
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