Digging Up Hohokam History

Photo by Lee Allen /University of Denver anthropology professor Larry Conyers offers technical tracking tips to Tessa Branyan, a University of Arizona Archaeological Field School student.

Lee Allen

University Indian Ridge Ruins: Digging Up Hohokam History

The Pima Indian word for the Hohokam peoples translates to “all used up” or “the finished ones,” but archaeologists digging in Arizona’s University Indian Ridge Ruins continue to find evidence of a once vibrant population. And they’re making their work known during March, which is Arizona Archaeology & Heritage Month.

Once as large as a square mile, the former indigenous settlement in Tucson is now concentrated on 13 acres of desert scrub surrounded by urbanity. “We’re been digging here since the early 1930s, finding numerous artifacts and wall structures that confirm this as a Classic period [AD 1150-1450] Hohokam site,” says Dr. Paul Fish. “Now that this spot is on the National Register of Historic Places, it has taken on a national level of significance.” Fish and his wife, Suzanne, are anthropology professors at the University of Arizona, which owns the land where the ruins are and uses it for student training purposes.

Native leaders chose their ultimate destination wisely, at the crux of two washes, building villages close to the streams in order to farm the rich soil in the flat low-lying area while hunting and gathering in the surrounding desert and nearby mountains. “The village served as a public focal point for a much larger community of inter-related and dispersed populations living in surrounding hamlets and small villages,” according to area guide Paul Heydt.

At the center of the property is a large earthen platform mound with a smaller adjacent platform where excavation of two adobe structures that are perhaps a thousand years old has offered an opportunity to investigate intentionally-enclosed rooms.

“Once the mound was created, elevated buildings were constructed on top of it perhaps for use as a sacred location to hold religious ceremonies or a lookout point for intruders,” Heydt tells visitors. This was a departure from subterranean pit houses into large groups of adobe rooms with shared walls.

“From all we can tell based on the architecture we’re finding, this was a viable functioning community of upwards to a thousand inhabitants,” Dr. Fish notes. “We’re learning about the people who lived here by discovering artifacts—everything from bison bones to arrowheads, pottery shards, ceramics—the bread and butter of archaeology—exotic chert [rock resembling flint], and obsidian [volcanic glass rock] that came from long-distance sources. These people had far-ranging contacts and engaged in trade with other tribes.”

“We’re using ground penetrating radar that allows a computer to create a three-dimensional image for us, like a CAT scan of the ground, that will help us map the layout of building walls,” Larry Conyers, a Colorado anthropology professor from the University of Denver, who has been meticulously working the site for several years, said. “While a quick glance shows nothing more than alluvial high terrace, there’s a lot of houses out here used by a ton of people for a long time.”

“I’ve been here for four years getting a suntan and digging holes in desert hardpan,” site supervisor Matt Pailes said. “Those who lived here were full-time sedentary people committed to living in one spot for hundreds of years. As we map and dig, we expect further discoveries. Archaeology is a slow-moving science, but we’re definitely fitting together some pieces of the giant jigsaw puzzle.”

Why the Hohokam ultimately left is still a matter of conjecture. While the National Parks Service notes, “Towards the end, changing climate conditions including repeated flooding destroyed much of their irrigation system and necessitated the abandonment of the land,” Pailes says: “Most people look for one big singular force that ended things here, but essentially they decide there is no great explanation of why the Hohokam disappeared the way they did.”