BLOOMFIELD — Salmon Ruins employees are preserving history at the Chacoan site once again thanks to a $26,400 state grant funded by the National Park Service and a $28,000 match from the park's own budget.
Larry Baker, the museum and heritage park's executive director, got official notice of the state Historic Preservation Division of the Office of Cultural Affairs grant award Dec. 31.
"It was a joyous new year, (the) first time the National Park Service funded brick and mortar projects since 1996," Baker said. "There was a quarter million available, which funded 11 projects throughout the state. We were one of them. We were quite fortunate — it felt pretty good."
Preserving the Puebloan architecture at Salmon Ruins is an ongoing mission, Baker said.
"We never completed a lot of needed repairs that stem back to major excavation efforts in the 1970s," Baker said. "So we've been in catch-up mode ever since. This year's work will go a long way toward progress here."
Field work on 26 wall areas at the 22-acre ruins site began in May and is expected to be completed by Aug. 1. With the funding in place, Baker hired project manager Chris "Zeke" Zeller and a four-man crew of Navajo stabilization masons — brothers Mike, Calvin and Bruce Jim, and Burt Bitsillie — to do the painstaking work. Mike and Bruce Jim also work full-time at the ruins as maintenance staff. Mike Jim has been involved in preservation work there since the 1970s when most of the ruins collection of 1.5 million artifacts was discovered during excavation, Baker said.
"They've worked with me on a myriad of restoration projects," Baker said of the masons tasked with the job. "When we started the stabilization program here in the 1970s, we felt it was important to involve Native Americans in the professional aspect of the archaeology."
Working in sweltering heat, the crew, armed with mason's hammers, chisels, trowels and whisking brushes, were crouched down against the site's ancestral Puebloan structures first built between 1088 and 1090 A.D.
The restoration work — redoing walls in five different masonry types — is a balance of stylistic and structural integrity, Baker said. He credits Zeller and Mike Jim's years of expertise on many projects for achieving a seamless repair that is reversible, should improved masonry technologies be made available by future generations to improve the work.
"We're trapped between emulating the previous stabilized fabric of the walls with what existed originally. That's the artistic part of it," Zeller said while lying on a cardboard mat along a wall, gingerly repointing small stone fragments called chinking stones, or spalls, into a freshly applied mortar mixture of area sand, clay and silt blended with an acrylic polymer emulsion to fight off moisture erosion. "It's a dying art. It's also challenging work — trial and error and blood, sweat and tears — but I love a challenge."
Zeller and the crew consult early photographs and research Pueblo architectural documentation to achieve the greatest possible accuracy. That effort is often complicated by the site's outlier style, which is primarily Chacoan in design and feature, but has many variations that lead to more questions than answers as to the original intent behind the masonry there.
One anomaly is a stone mosaic discovered by Dr. Stephen Lekson in the 1970s on a second story wall at Room 59. Ten brick red stones in a seemingly random pattern have been placed along a wall of otherwise uniform banding of larger stones in the Chacoan style. Baker believes the mosaic is evidence of the astronomical observations practiced by Chacoans there that emphasize the linkage between the pueblo's architectural design and the stars above.
Though the task is tedious, Zeller said he enjoys every minute of the work.
"You get lost in it," Zeller said. "But it's an immense privilege and honor to be entrusted with this nation's cultural heritage. I mean that from the heart."