BELEN—A team of archaeologists has once again come to Belen to excavate the site of the original Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church and build a picture of early life in the city of Belen.

St. Mary’s Catholic School students Isabella Baldonado and Maria Lucero, both 11, watch as Dr. Pamela Stone from Hampshire College and University of Nevada, Las Vegas PhD student Clara Ralston mark the location of an artifact found at an archeological dig at the location of the first Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Dr. Ventura Perez, associate professor of biological archaeology University of Massachusetts Amherst, Dr. Pamela Stone with Hampshire College; Dr. Debra Martin of University of Nevada, Las Vegas and her PhD student, Clara Ralston, have returned to the Plaza Vieja to learn more about the city’s people and the long-gone church at the site.

The first church — Nuestra Señora de Belen — was destroyed in a flood in 1855 and rebuilt at its current location on 10th Street.

This year, the bio-archaeologists were joined for the first week of the dig by several students from St. Mary’s Catholic School, thanks to a grant from the American Association of University Women.

“The students are able to see the whole arch of archaeology — from the digging to cleaning to the examining the artifacts,” said Dr. Martin. “They all gravitated to what suited them best. For instance, Kiera (Casias-McKay) cleaned once in the lab and never came back.”

Kiera’s younger sister, Ainsley, 10, found her home in the “pit” and in the piles of dirt from the sifters.

“I thought it would be exciting to dig things up and know everything,” Ainsley said. “It’s all been exciting.”

She continued, saying it was weird the archaeologists cleaned remains and artifacts with common toothbrushes.

“I expected fancy, high-tech tools,” added Maria Lucero, 11.

Martin laughed and said soft, cheap toothbrushes really are the best tools to clean the fragile finds from a dig.

During their time on site, the five girls helped unearth human bones, as well as more modern artifacts, such as the soles of shoes and a small bowl. Those came from a trash deposit much newer than the church, Perez said.

In the lab, there is a full library of research books, along with microscopes and calipers for measuring bones.

Keira Casias-McKay, 12, a student at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Belen, watches as Dr. Debra Martin, with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, examines a bone fragment found during the dig at the first Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church.

Martin said if they are able to find enough intact bones, such as the adult radius bone found in the first week, they can estimate things like the average height of people from that time period.

Last year, the team found 72 bones, many of which were fragments, while so far this year, 125 have been found.

New dig units have been opened more toward the center of the property, getting away from areas that have been disturbed by flooding and building.

Martin said some of the bones found are giving the researchers ideas about the everyday physical stresses of life, as well as possible nutritional deficits.

Once piece of bone from a cranium have a very irregular surface, indicating internal bleeding from scurvy, a severe deficiency of vitamin C

“We can’t say why there was such a deficiency, but we do see the effects,” Martin said.

Another bone found was initially confusing, Martin said, because it appeared to be a vertebra but was missing the spinal cord portion.

There is a condition caused by repeatedly carrying very heavy loads on the back that cause the bone to break off, which is what Martin determined was found.

Bones can often show signs of repetitive motions, such as grinding grains, squatting or sitting in a certain position for long periods of time.

“This shows us what people in that period were doing with their bodies,” she said.

Any human remains found at the dig site are being cataloged and kept in a repository in Santa Fe. Once the dig is finished, they will be reinterred at the new church cemetery.

Perez said the team is still finding individual bones and haven’t located an intact burial site yet.

“Once we find that, we will be able to build a more complete picture,” Perez said.

Last year, part of the foundation was located and Perez is working to establish the perimeter of the church by opening additional dig units this year.

The majority of what is being found at the site are bones, said Dr. Pamela Stone, but while the News-Bulletin was on site, a few small beads were located in one of the units.

“This year, whatever I say the opposite happens,” Stone said, laughing.

Still, the dig is yielding mostly human remains, not exotic treasurers, she said, which are beginning to paint a picture of life in the valley in the mid 1800s.

“We are finding a lot of remains of young children, babies, possibly even premature births,” she said. “We’re not sure why, but if people were experiencing some sort of nutritional stressor, that’s not surprising. It takes a lot of nutritional resources to be pregnant, nurse after birth.

“We aren’t finding items, like a lot of people might expect. People weren’t buried with things like clothes and jewelry. We often forget we’ve evolved in how we send off people.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.