Windows to an Ancient World
We stand in the afternoon light peering through window after window into the remains of an ancient world at Abo Ruins. The walls stand silent today but we can imagine the sounds reverberating through the village as women ground corn, masons shaped stones and children chased wild turkeys through the courtyard.
In today’s sparsely populated Estancia Basin of central New Mexico evidence of great pueblos recall a time when thousands lived in the valley. Clovis people hunted here 10,000 years ago. As prehistoric populations learned to grow corn they began to stay in one location longer, living in pithouses.
Mesa Verde in southern Colorado was once the center of Anasazi culture. After abandonment of Mesa Verde circa 1300 some groups from that culture moved south along the Rio Grande and into the Estancia Basin. Stone villages and towns were built, fields farmed, trade flourished. Salt was collected from nearby lake beds, the commodity used for trade with plains Indians and other pueblos, such as Zuni 200-miles to the west.
In 1598 Spanish explorers entered the area, within the next 20 years missions were established in most of the Rio Grande pueblos. Fransican priests directed the building of churches and conventos, each larger and grander than the previous one. Cultural conflict, Apache raids, disease, drought and famine ensued. The entire Salinas district was deserted by both Indian and Spanish populations by 1677.
Three missions and portions of their villages comprise the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. We’d passed through Mountainair, New Mexico on several previous trips only slightly aware of the missions. This time we stopped at the small in-town visitors center. A video and museum displays gave background information, piquing our interest in visiting the three sites: Quarai, Abo and Gran Quivira (Las Humanas).
Stepping through the entryway to the old stone mission church at Quarai I’m struck by the walls towering nearly 40-feet high centuries after the last villager departed. Imagine the effort and engineering required to construct this grand church, the largest church of the Salinas Province as the Spanish called the region. The stones beneath our feet are believed to be from the original flagstone floor, an unusual feature since most mission church floors were packed earth at that time.
The mission at Quarai was built in the shape of a cross with side altars and a choir loft. Rows of empty sockets once held vigas, or roof beams; today we look up to open blue sky. We can imagine how imposing this structure seemed to the pueblo people use to living in small, low rooms.
Along a half-mile trail we see mounds signifying unexcavated house blocks, evidence of the 400-600 people living here before the Spaniards. After winding through the mission ruins the trail leads to the spring and stream that provided water essential for the community and fields. Giant cottonwoods shade the stream banks.
We arrive at Abo in the late afternoon, the low angle of the sun warming the red sandstone walls. The stone found at Abo broke easily into horizontal pieces. There’s more symmetry here than we see at the other two sites; row upon row, mortar of clay and water holds the tabular blocks together.
What strikes me at Abo is the sense of the convento – dining room, kitchen, storerooms, residence cells where the friars lived, porteria, stables and corral. This is where much of the business of the mission occurred. We don’t view these rooms from afar – the interpretive trail leads us along convento passageways and through waist-high doorways.
Gran Quivira (Las Humanas)
We were so inspired by our stops at Quarai and Abo the next morning we decided to put Gran Quivira on the agenda. Called Las Humanas by Spanish explorers, Gran Quivira was the largest of the Salinas pueblos. Once home to as many as 2,000 people, today it is the most remote. From Mountainair we travel 25 miles southeast. Unlike the other two pueblos, Gran Quivira sits atop a mesa with no immediate water source. Runoff from sporadic rains was trapped in shallow pits to supplemented the limited water from wells and roof-fed cisterns.
As we approach the ruins we realize they are much larger than those we’ve seen at Abo and Quarai. Yet, Mound 7 is only excavated one of 20 house blocks that once stood at Las Humanas. The square-room ruins we walk through were constructed between 1550-1670, stones held together with an ashy-colored mortar. Beneath these walls archaeologists uncovered 200 wedge-shaped rooms arranged in five to six concentric circles built around a grand kiva. Yellow caliche mortar was used to construct this pueblo in the 14th century. We can stand atop the later pueblo and peer down a shaft into the lower rooms.
Construction on the first Las Humanas mission church began in 1630. The pueblo did not always have a resident priest, instead it was a circuit parish served by clergy from Abo. A second church was begun around 1659, the ambitious cross-shaped sanctuary never saw completion.
The museum at Gran Quivira exhibits examples of the various pottery styles used in the pueblos through the centuries.
Reflecting on our Salinas Pueblo Missions tour we realize that these churches were built, used for worship and totally deserted nearly a century before the first of the famed California missions was established. We’ve had the opportunity to see into an ancient world.
When You Go: Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. The monument visitor center is in Mountainair, New Mexico. From Mountainair Abo is 9 miles southwest, Quarai is 8 miles northwest and Gran Quivira 25 miles southeast. Each of the three sites have a small visitor center and picnic areas. Camping is not allowed; campgrounds can be found in the nearby Cibola National Forest.