Marvel at ancient petroglyphs, miles of canals, stately ruins and exquisite craftsmanship — no passport required
Arizona has a rich historical legacy, and there’s no better time to appreciate it than in March, when temperate weather combines with opportunity for adventure during Arizona Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month.
To help you navigate our state’s incredible past this month, four Southwest archaeologists from Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change share their insights on what to see, which mysteries keep them up at night and how you can get involved in protecting the past.
Question: What, to you, is the most amazing aspect of Arizona’s ancient past?
Associate Research Professor Arleyn Simon: The diversity of cultural traditions and environmental zones, as well as the movements and regional interactions among prehistoric settlements that can be determined based on artifacts, architecture, and agricultural and hunting activities. Arizona has always been a dynamic cultural and natural landscape, subject to change and adaptation.
Associate Professor David Abbott: I love studying the amazing and sometimes puzzling accomplishments of the Hohokam. They built and managed the largest and most extensive irrigation infrastructure in prehistoric North America. They continuously occupied the same villages and towns for 1,000 years, and they organized a regional economy that stretched over an area the size of South Carolina. And yet, they did these things apparently without marked social differentiation or hierarchical, institutionalized leadership. Archaeologists refer to this disconnect as the “Hohokam Enigma,” which, so far, defies explanation.
Assistant Professor Matthew Peeples: One recent discovery that has me excited is the surprisingly early arrival and spread of agriculture in southern Arizona. We now have evidence at multiple sites of cultivated maize from over 4,100 years ago. One of the most incredible sites was located at the Tucson Wastewater Facility, where agricultural fields were so well preserved you could actually see the holes where individual corn plants were last planted probably well over 2,500 years ago.
Q: What Arizona archaeological site or museum would you recommend people visit this March?
Peeples: There are so many great places, it’s hard to pick just one. I would suggest people head over to the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve and Museum in Glendale, which is operated by our school and its Center for Archaeology and Society. The museum sits at the edge of the Hedgepeth Hills and protects 47 acres with over 1,500 petroglyphs, the densest concentration of rock art in the Phoenix Basin. We’re having an event for Archaeology Month there on March 17 with lots of demonstrations and talks.
Professor Michelle Hegmon: I recommend people visit Mesa Grande, a mound larger than a football field that the Hohokam built between A.D. 1100-1450. Once a hub of activity, the mound was located near large irrigation canals and surrounded by a village that may have been home to as many as 2,000 people. Today, visitors can explore the site and see a reconstruction of a Hohokam ball court.
Abbott: Pueblo Grande was the largest and most politically prominent town of its time in the Phoenix Basin. Pueblo Grande Museum is a Phoenix city park that preserves and interprets the eastern third of the ancient ruins, including a massive platform mound, ceremonial ball court and architectural reconstructions of Hohokam households.
Q: What are you researching in Arizona or the greater Southwest?
Abbott: I designed and run a long-term research program aimed at ancient Hohokam household pottery. Through this work, I’m able to model regional exchange and social networks, investigate the impact of large-scale irrigation on sociocultural evolution, and develop the unique contribution that ceramic research can make to the study of prehistoric communities.
Peeples: Most recently, I’m working with a large team of archaeologists, sociologists and computer scientists to explore the role of ancient social networks in some of the Southwest’s dramatic social changes in the centuries leading up to the arrival of Europeans.
Hegmon: I’m researching the Mimbres region of New Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. I have studied social transformation and the lived human experience in these areas, and I led a team in creating the Mimbres Pottery Image Digital Database, which contains photos and data on almost all known Mimbres black-on-white pottery — the distinctive style of that region.
Simon: I’m working on a project for the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument with archaeology doctoral student Christopher Caseldine. He and team members recorded the decorated pottery sherds they saw on the ground in order to provide better time period dates for parts of the site. Much can be learned from in-field observations without even collecting artifacts.
Q: How can non-professionals engage in archaeology?
Hegmon: Archaeology Southwest is a wonderful organization that works with volunteers, experts and communities to research the ancient peoples of our region, while keeping conservation and protection of archaeological sites a top priority.
Abbott: The ancient past is a source of wonder and enjoyment to many enthusiasts across Arizona. The Arizona Archaeological Society boasts of numerous, well-organized and active chapters all around the state. Their members receive training, participate in fieldwork and organize fieldtrips.
Simon: Visit the many federal and state parks and monuments as well as museums around the state. You can also ask about volunteer opportunities at your favorite local museum or a “friends” group related to a forest or monument. There are many opportunities to learn more and be involved in preservation.
Peeples: Arizona has a vibrant site steward program. This program consists of volunteers who are trained in archaeological methods and recording procedures so they can work with professional archaeologists and land agencies to combat vandalism and damage to archaeological sites on state public lands. It’s a great way to get involved and help protect our priceless archaeological resources.