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Hundreds of metal artifacts pinpoint the possible site of a bloody battle between conquistadores and a Puebloan people


A rich assembly of metal artifacts from the site of Piedras
Marcadas in New Mexico

A rich assembly of metal artifacts from the site of Piedras Marcadas in New Mexico reveals the location of a violent episode during Francisco Coronado’s expedition. Top row: piece of copper armor, belt or strap loop, the tip of a belt or scabbard, piece of lead shot Middle row: broken dagger tip, “caret head” nail, chainmail link, two crossbow bolt heads, ornate belt loop Bottom row: needle, lead button.
(Courtesy Matt Schmader)

In a dirt lot five miles from downtown Albuquerque, Matthew Schmader, the city’s archaeologist, kneels to examine a sharp flake of obsidian. “This could have been from a weapon one of the native troops brought up from Mexico,” he says, referring to the sixteenth-century Spanish expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Cars hum past on Coors Boulevard, and a breeze ripples cottonwood leaves along the Rio Grande River, half a mile east. If the weather is good, and sometimes even if it’s not, chances are Schmader will be hard at work in this city-owned property surrounded by housing developments.

A rich assembly of metal artifacts from the site of Piedras Marcadas in New Mexico reveals the location of a violent episode during Francisco Coronado’s expedition. Top row: piece of copper armor, belt or strap loop, the tip of a belt or scabbard, piece of lead shot Middle row: broken dagger tip, “caret head” nail, chainmail link, two crossbow bolt heads, ornate belt loop Bottom row: needle, lead button.

“The site is pretty much the most important thing that has happened in the past 20 years relative to our understanding of Coronado,” Schmader says. The ground is littered with pottery fragments and hundreds of red marker tags staked in the dirt. Each tag represents a metal artifact—the tip of a crossbow bolt, a broken buckle—from Coronado’s 1540 to 1542 expedition. The first major organized expedition into what is now the southwest United States, it ended in fighting and failure, setting an ominous example for future relations with the region’s native inhabitants. Schmader stands up, brushes his knees and smiles. “It never fails to amaze me every time I’m here,” he says. “I feel like I was handed a gift from the archaeology gods.”


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Julian Smith is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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