BELEN — Three weeks in the summer sun of New Mexico, removing dirt a centimeter at a time has proved fruitful for a team of archeologists excavating the site of Nuestra Señora de Belen.
“We found what we believe to be the church foundation and maybe even one of the bell towers,” said Dr. Ventura Perez, associate professor of biological archaeology University of Massachusetts Amherst and the primary investigator for the dig exploring the original site of Our Lady of Belen Church.
Located in what is referred to as Plaza Vieja in the old part of the city of Belen, there are no visible remains of the first church. After flooding caused the collapse of multiple walls of the adobe colonial church, it was rebuilt at its current location to the west on 10th Street.
Perez said the excavation of the old church site could last from three to five years. With the information they have gathered this year, he will be able to apply for grants to fund future digs.
Perez said when the team returns next season, they will know better exactly what it is they uncovered. In addition to the stone foundation, the archeologists found isolated remains but no intact burials, he said.
“This was expected, given the amount of disturbance over the years,” Perez said.
Although the dig is over, the site is still monitored around the clock by surveillance cameras to protect it.
Since the church was relocated, the property it and the cemetery and convent once occupied has passed onto private ownership. Alberta O’Neal says to her knowledge, she is the fourth generation to own the property.
“We always knew it was the old church,” O’Neal said. “I remember as a child finding a very ornate hinge that, to me, was quite large. Maybe it was off a door. I would describe it as forged.”
When her father, Fidel, passed away in the 1980s, her mother, Valentina, made it her mission to preserve the historic plaza and original church location. Valentina built a gazebo on the property and erected a sign proclaiming it the site of the first Our Lady of Belen Church.
“It was her project; we called it her museum,” O’Neal recalls.
Perez and his team aren’t the first to excavate parts of the property. The University of New Mexico sent a team out several years ago, she said, but could only work for one season before funding dried up.
“I guess word got around and Dr. Perez was interested. Having known them now for two years, they are quite a group,” O’Neal said. “They are very forthright and very respectful. I felt confident this would be the right thing to do.”
During this season, Perez and his team of bio-archeologists — Dr. Pamela Stone with Hampshire College; Dr. Debra Martin of University of Nevada, Las Vegas and her PhD student, Clara Ralston — stabilized the test units started by UNM.
“Those were done at the behest of the landowner. We aren’t sure why they were where they were, so we’ll have to see what we have,” Perez said.
The university dig wasn’t the only time the area has been explored. The owners, over the years, used metal rods to probe the ground, looking for objects beneath and had dug a few holes, all of which was within their right to do as the property owners, Perez said.
“The problem with those methods, with a rod, you can damage something. When you simply dig a hole with a shovel, it destroys the context of any artifacts that might be found,” Perez said. “If there is something like a bone found, you have no idea where it was, how deep.”
Under shade structures, the team works in precisely dug trenches and deep rectangles. They slice off dirt a quarter inch at a time, sometimes less, slowly exposing the stone foundations.
At one point, on the north end of the unit, they hit what is called “sterile” dirt, which is an area with no new finds. There is a clear line of demarcation between the disturbed and undisturbed soil. Typically, once sterile dirt is found, the archeologist has to decide whether to continue exploring in that direction or move in another direction.
“This is a lot of intense human labor, so you have to use it wisely,” Stone said. “When you find something, like the stones, you won’t know what you really have until you find the edge and go down.”
Church records show 4,861 burials in the old church cemetery and probably inside the church itself up to 1900. There were a few human remains found — a long bone from a child and an adult finger bone.
The bone from the child indicated he or she was fighting an infection at the time of death, and the finger bone seemed to have a deep cut on it.
“The equipment we have in the field gives us a very preliminary look at these remains,” said Martin, who divided her time on the excavation between the field lab and the units because the team was so small. “We can’t say for sure, for instance, that the child died due to the infection. This does allow us to document the lived experience of these people — how they lived and died.”
Animal bones found on the site can indicate what the typical food sources were for the people living there at the time, she said. To build a picture of early Belen life at the plaza, Perez’s team will use existing records, items found during the dig itself and oral histories and memories of residents.
“A lot of next year will be dedicated to interviewing the elders of the area, finding out what they remember and doing oral histories,” Perez said.
One of the hallmarks of bio-archeology is a lot of time and energy dedicated to community outreach.
“Since last year, we’ve been visiting with people from the community, the church, family members, and a lot of those people have come and helped with the excavation,” Perez said. “We do all that before we ever put trowel to dirt, establish that relationship.”
To maintain that relationship and show respect to the ancestors of the community, Perez, who has worked in the field for more than 20 years, doesn’t allow pictures to be taken of the human remains.
“These are daughters and sons, parents and grandparents. Never in their wildest dreams did they think they would end up under a microscope or the lens of a camera. It’s about respecting them as human beings,” he said. “We are trying to respect them as individuals. Allowing pictures turns a person into an object.”
Perez said it is completely and utterly unacceptable to excavate for the sake of finding human remains.
“This is sacred ground. Families in the area have routinely found human remains so we look at this as a rescue mission more than anything,” he said. “Any remains we find will be re-interred at the new church. They need to be in consecrated Catholic ground, as they originally were.”