Vanishing Past

Important archaeological sites face growing threats

Narrow your eyes here, and it's easy to imagine ancient Hohokam villages fanning across the flats, smoke from their low fires curling into desert. Tagged Los Morteros by archaeologists, for bedrock mortars found atop boulders, this Tucson Mountain site bustled with civilization long before civilization gave it a name.

But open your eyes a bit wider, and now what you see is the subdivided sprawl of Continental Ranch. Today, entombed under Continental's tidy concrete--beneath the cul-de-sacs and curbing and meaty foundations--are the ghosts of this finally vanished world.

Meanwhile, in areas less touched by development than Los Morteros, looters, vandals and off-roaders are taking up the slack. Last year alone, monitors with a state-run volunteer program reported 212 vandalism incidents, 27 lootings, 21 trashed signs, two unearthed human remains, 13 cases of spray-painting and two petroglyph thefts.

Amongst deliberate destruction, blind ignorance and so-called progress, Arizona is quickly losing its prehistoric heritage. And that dismays Mary Estes, who runs the volunteer Arizona Site Steward Program for the State Parks Department.

"You'd think people would have a little more respect for Arizona's past," she says. "But unfortunately, much of this damage is done by people who haven't been educated to the fact that it's our collective past--a past we should appreciate and enjoy."

But one man's enjoyment is another's destruction. "For example, people will go into an archaeological site, and they'll see all these neat litter sherds, and they'll put them in a neat little pile," Estes says. "But those sherds have been taken out of their context. And for an archaeologist, that destroys some of the story the site would tell to them."

This situation was recently highlighted in a report by the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, a federal committee advising the president and Congress on border issues. The March report also listed possible remedies, from beefing up protection through private and public partnerships to increased education, more purchases of archaeologically sensitive areas and creating incentives for property owners to preserve ancient remains.

It also cited the need to reduce illegal activity along the border. But protecting sites in that crime-ridden region is daunting, says Carol Griffith, deputy director of the State Historic Preservation Office. "We have (volunteers) monitoring those areas. But they are not law-enforcement officers."

Heavy illicit traffic takes a toll on sensitive areas such as the long-inhabited Quitobaquito Springs, on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Similar damage has occurred at Tinajas Altas, on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near Ajo. Tinajas hosted a primeval campground and, not coincidentally, nine natural water catchments. Just as those catchments attracted prehistoric visitors, however, they also draw thirsty immigrants. Next door on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, petroglyphs have been targeted by vandals.

Still, this battle is hardly new. In Arizona, it dates back at least to the 1980s, when the Governor's Archaeology Advisory Commission and the State Historic Preservation Office created the Site Steward Program.

Twenty years later, some 750 steward volunteers act as eyes and ears for public agencies ranging from the National Park Service to Pima County. Armed with binoculars and about 10 hours of training, they've pulled some spectacular coups--including nabbing notorious developer George Johnson, who bulldozed Hohokam villages in southern Pinal County in 2003.

They've also monitored historic Canoa Ranch, near Green Valley. Settled by Hohokam and later by Mexican ranchers, Canoa was the center of controversy in the 1990s when Fairfield Homes announced plans to develop the area.

Nearly 5,000 acres of that property is still owned by Pima County. But simply holding the deed doesn't protect its history from a growing population. "Canoa has had a lot of vandalism reports," Estes says. "It looks like people are digging holes on the site," apparently scouring the old settlement for artifacts.

There will never be enough volunteers to stop all site destruction, however. "Our monitors operate all the way from the Mexican border to the Arizona Strip," says Estes. "In all, we monitor 1,700 sites. And that's a drop in the bucket when you consider that there are 60,000 to 80,000 known sites in Arizona."

At the same time, many remains on private property simply often go unrecorded--and unprotected. "That's probably something we will never have a handle on," she says, "because there's nobody there to record what people do on their own property."

While some property owners view archaeological trappings as headaches, others see them as potential cash cows. "In northeastern Arizona, real estate agents will advertise that a site has an ancient ruin on it," Estes says. "And in some areas, that has actually increased property values. Some will buy the property with no intention of digging it up. And others say, 'Hey, we've got this ruin in our back yard. If we can get a hundred pots worth $10,000 apiece, we can pay off our mortgage!'"

Thick images tumble across a computer screen in Linda Mayro's downtown Tucson office. As Pima County's cultural resources manager, she rides herd on archaeological sites throughout the area, an effort greatly enhanced by the database she's now clicking through. In colorful flashes, it pulls up a catalogue of sensitive areas in layered overlays--and provides hasty red flags when developers come knocking.

Not surprisingly, her database also shows a big outline around Los Morteros, which became something of a poster child for archaeological rescue. But that rescue is hardly over. "We now own about 120 acres, on the north end of Continental Ranch," Mayro says. "But we're having serious problems there with cars driving across, and people with ATVs."

The rest of Los Morteros is, well, history. "It's up to the developer to ensure a survey of what's on his property, as part of the rezoning process," she says. "If sites are found, they can be preserved as open space. Or we can require excavations before we approve their development plans."

That doesn't mean development can be halted, however, archaeology or not. "So the site analysis sits in multiple volumes on the shelf," she says. "The artifacts are in the state museum. And the burials have been repatriated."

She clicks off her monitor. "But there were eight or more Hohokam village sites at Los Morteros," she says. "Essentially, they are under subdivisions now. They are no more."

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