Thursday, July 11, 2013

Preservation at the Continental Divide

I'm in New Mexico right now, near the Continental Divide and far away from St Augustine and Tolomato. But never really far away - I was thinking about our upcoming preservation work day (July 27, lest you forget!) and about the cleaning of the headstones and inscriptions in particular.

These are always hard to manage. If you clean them too much, the inscriptions become illegible. If you scrub the too hard, they wear away. And if you don't do anything, lichens  and acid from tree run-off attack the stone and they flake off or the stone degrades and they disappear.

But our problems are nothing compared to El Morro National Monument, where they have inscriptions (in this case, "historic graffiti") dating back to 1605, from the time of the first Spanish expeditions through the Southwest.  Inscriptions continued during the following US period and both were frequently engraved next to pre-European petroglyphs left much earlier by the various Indian groups (the Pueblos and the Zuni).

"Morro" is the Spanish word for headlands or bluff (or the snout of an animal!), and describes this magnificent sandstone crag that rises 800 feet above the already nearly 8000 foot altitude of these mountains, not far from Gallup.  At the foot of the cliff is a pool of fresh water, run-off from the snows and rains of this area, which has apparently always attracted human beings in this barren, harsh environment. At the top of the crag was a pueblo, nearly inaccessible from below and thus secure, with residents descending from the peak to bring up water. After the time of the Indians, Spanish expeditions and then later US pioneers and military expeditions also stopped here.  Below are some Indians carvings, also known as petroglyphs.

All the different passers-by left their marks.  Juan de Oñate, explorer of the Southwest and the Pacific coast, left the first European inscription in 1605 as he returned from his search for  the "South Sea" (he reached the Gulf of California and the Pacific).  The inscription is below and records these facts in his own hand.  And behind him came many soldiers, friars, governors, and even the occasional bishop, all of whom stopped to inscribe their dates, their names and their missions.  I was particularly struck by the fact that many of them even engraved their "rubrica," that is, the distinctive flourish that Spaniards still use to authenticate the document as their own.  

To give you a sense of scale, in the photo below, I am pointing at the Oñate inscription and the petroglyph shown above.

When the US took over New Mexico as a territory in1847, US expeditions - either to fight or make treaties with the Indians - made their way last this point. In 1849, LT. J. H. Simpson and a military artist, R.H. Kern, returning from making a treaty with the Navajos, took it upon themselves to transcribe all the Spanish inscriptions.  Their record of their work, which they engraved on the north wall, is the first in English. It also contains a spelling error - "insciption" instead of "inscription," but stone is unforgiving and  at that point, correcting it would have been more trouble than it was worth.

Carving on the wall was halted in1906 when the National Parks system was established, and following that, various attempts were made to preserve or even improve the readability of the original graffiti. The reason that Oñate's words stand out so much is that in the 1920s, some of the older inscriptions were darkened with graphite (that would be a #2 pencil) and later some were filled with other substances. But in 1924, attempts were made to clean off some off the more modern inscriptions, considered of no historic value, by rubbing them out with a piece of sandstone. Unfortunately, some of the important inscriptions were erased,too, among them that left by the famous Archbishop Lamy, the subject of Willa Cather's work, Death Comes For the Archbishop

Currently, preservation consists mainly of protection. There's really no way to preserve a perishable material like stone forever. The fact that these have endured for 400 or more years is something to be grateful for, particularly now that we have the technology to record them and to recover earlier descriptions of them. And maybe that's really all that can be done, particularly because there are many things beyond our control in an outdoor environment, such as a cliff face - or a cemetery.  

In fact, I was not even able to see all of the inscriptions because just a few hours before my visit, a rock fall had closed part of the pathway and the rangers were still evaluating the damage done to the graffiti. There hadn't been a rockfall there for decades, but that is certainly no guarantee that it will never happen, and another rockfall was inevitable. And so are more in the future, some of which will no doubt damage or destroy these inscriptions.

Preservation is all important - but sometimes this doesn't mean preserving the actual item (which is it always possible or even never possible) but instead an accurate record, particularly now with the great techniques we have for doing this.

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