History Underfoot

Artifacts from the Hohokam people are abundant throughout the Tucson basin—if you know where to look

The sun beats down on our backs, causing beads of sweat to form on our exposed skin. Though the ground looks barren—cracked with drought and flat for miles—our eyes are open, unblinking, as we look for subtle pattern variations in the soil.

And then we see it: a small shard of clay, about the size of a half-dollar, with a deliberate red stripe running down its center.

We stop and focus on the area underfoot. Within seconds, another shard of clay pops into view, this one thicker and almost completely gray, with a touch of rust red. Our hands sweep carefully over the soil, tracing a path for our over-anxious eyes, and the effort pays off: Piece after piece of fired clay comes into view. It does not take long for us to realize that the gently sloping hill of loosely packed, slightly darkened soil beneath us is not just another hill on the desert landscape, but a communal refuse mound left by the Hohokam people hundreds of years ago.

According to archaeologist Rich Lange, of the Arizona State Museum, mounds such as these are not uncommon in the Tucson basin. For the Hohokam people, they were part of daily life, where broken pottery, animal bones and ash were discarded. The bits of broken clay in my hand are common examples of what you could expect to find in one of these areas.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Los Morteros was a thriving Native American community built along the flood plain of the Santa Cruz River. Though the river has long since dried up, the landscape then was very different. According to Hohokam Indians of the Tucson Basin, by Linda M. Gregonis and Karl J. Reinhard, available online for free from the University of Arizona Press (www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/HOHOKAM/TITLHOHO.HTM), "reports of the Tucson basin written between A.D. 1700 and 1870 mention that the rivers flowed year-round, that cottonwood and mesquite grew along their banks, and that, in some places, beavers built their dams." Crops such as corn, several types of beans, squash and even cotton were planted near the banks of the shallow river, where they were irrigated by seasonal flooding.

According to Desert Archaeology Inc., during the excavation of Los Morteros between 1987 and 1994, researchers identified nearly 800 sites of archaeological significance, including 349 structures such as pit houses.

Traces of settlements, though uninhabited by tribal peoples for the last five centuries, can still be found within the Tucson city limits. Though the historical artifacts from these sites are plentiful, they are so subtle that they often seem to be hiding in plain sight.

The area in and around Fort Lowell Park is perhaps the best example of one of these barely hidden treasures. Founded in 1873 as part of the U.S. Army's "Apache Campaign," Fort Lowell was not excavated until 1973. Lange was a member of that excavation team as a graduate student at the UA. Today, as he leads student and museum-member groups through Fort Lowell Park, he and his disciples pick handfuls of ancient pottery from the remaining natural area.

Through no fault of their own, a vast majority of the park's visitors seem to be "oblivious to what's under their feet," says Lange. The unintended secrecy of these sites, though, has likely helped to preserve them for future generations.

"Clearly, we are encouraging people to go (to these sites) and look and enjoy," he says—although those interested in doing so need to maintain a certain level of respect. "It's about what you can walk by, and look on the ground and see," he says.

The value of these historical sites may seem intrinsic, but the preservation of Tucson's native heritage has not always been a top priority. It was the public interest in the old Army fort that saved what is now known as the Hardy Site in Fort Lowell Park, the location of a major Hohokam community for several centuries. In fact, according to Rich Lange, it is through a fortunate accident that much of that history is being inadvertently preserved today—under a layer of grass, planted to provide a pleasant place to picnic or play a baseball game.

But not all of Tucson's historic sites have been so well-protected, Lange says. In fact, the location of the Tucson Convention Center was a topic of major dispute in the 1970s. Some of the oldest pottery ever discovered in the Sonoran Desert (from approximately the year A.D. 50)—including the findings which put the Tucson basin on the map as one the oldest continuously inhabited areas in North America—were found where that structure now stands.

However, Lange emphasizes that we are extremely fortunate to have what we do. Though the Hohokam were also prevalent in the Phoenix basin—and were perhaps even more successful in the region due to its topography—very little remains of the archeological artifacts from that area. "It's all buried under downtown Phoenix," explains Lange.

Archeological preservation has often taken a reluctant backseat to modern development in Tucson, too; however, a number of sites exist that are completely accessible and open to the public. The Romero Ruins in Catalina State Park boast the remnants of a 6-foot wall that once encircled an enormous, apartment-style compound and two distinct ball courts. A 2008 article in the Tucson Citizen suggested that this may have been the site of a major tournament—perhaps the Super Bowl of the Hohokam sports world.

The hot spring at the Whiptail Site at Agua Caliente Park has attracted native settlers since about 2500 B.C. Even at a distance, our native past remains in focus; the large terraces built around Tumamoc Hill can be seen from the ground miles away.

Though these areas are absolutely littered with historical artifacts, "the problem with the stuff in the Sonoran Desert is, it's really subtle," Lange says.

To help you in your quest to better understand and locate the historical riches of our area, archaeologists recommend that you begin by exploring with a professional.

There are a number of organizations in Tucson that provide the opportunity to engage in hands-on archaeological experiences. Many of these groups gear up for tours and lectures in September as the desert air starts to cool. Old Pueblo Archeology is offering a tour on Friday, Sept. 23, for $15 per person, which stops at the Los Morteros site as well as the famous Picture Rocks site; visit www.oldpueblo.org for more information.

The Arizona Archeological and Historical Society (www.az-arch-and-hist.org) kicked off a new year of lectures this month, as has the Center for Desert Archaeology (www.cdarc.org). Or swing by the Arizona State Museum (www.statemuseum.arizona.edu) to see the world's largest collection of Native American pottery, with more than 20,000 vessels and counting.

Though modern development has radically altered the landscape of the Tucson basin throughout the last half-century, the Hohokam were able to sustain life in the area for nearly 1,500 years—a feat which commands respect and admiration from any desert-dweller. Though evidence of this history may be hard to see with the naked eye, it rests right under our noses, waiting to be discovered. All you have to do is take the time to look.