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Arizona Archaeology

“This land of Arizona has had an exciting history, so dramatic and inspiring that it needs no exaggeration or fictional embellishment.” ~Barry Goldwater

March is “Arizona Archaeology Heritage Awareness Month.” This year is also the centennial of the Antiquities Act, the first law established to safeguard the nation’s archaeological resources. We are privileged to live in one of the most archaeological-rich states. I would like to encourage everyone to visit some archaeological sites and learn about Arizona’s earliest inhabitants.

Parks and monuments that feature ruins or cliff dwellings, artifacts and exhibits include: Canyon de Chelly, Casa Grande, Montezuma Castle, Tonto National Monument, Tuzigoot, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki National Monument. Petroglyph sites include Painted Rocks State Park and Deer Valley Rock Art Center.

If you live in New River, Cave Creek, or Black Canyon City, there are probably Indian ruins and archaeological sites within walking distance of your home. Some local residents have even found arrowheads and potsherds in their own backyards. This transition zone between the lower and upper deserts was the northern periphery of Hohokam culture. The settlements in this region were mostly small, widely diverse, and informally organized. The inhabitants were probably in contact with the larger Hohokam villages in the Salt and Gila River Valleys.

Hohokam Indians began settling this area around 600-800 AD (the time of the Vikings). The major occupation of the region took place between 1000-1250 AD (the beginning of the Middle Ages). Hohokams lived along the Agua Fria River until approximately 1450 AD (the end of the Middle Ages). By around 1450 AD, this entire area along with the rest of central Arizona had been abandoned.

The Agua Fria River had agricultural sites where the Indians grew agave and corn on terraces. Along the New River, corn and cotton were grown in large flooded fields. Farming fields were also located along Skunk Creek. Smaller fields were scattered throughout the region. Additional water sources consisted of springs, and deep pools that held water when the rivers weren’t running. These Hohokams did not dig canals like those down in the valley, but built extensive dam and terrace systems to utilize rainwater. Diets were supplemented with wild animals and plants: saguaro, prickly pear, and cholla cacti; mesquite, palo verde, and ironwood trees; deer, rabbit, and bighorn sheep.

Outcroppings of basalt, rhyolite, and slate/shale were used for tools and building materials. Stone was the most common building material due to its abundant supply. Were hilltop rock structures forts, retreats, or habitations? There is not enough evidence left to tell much about them. Most appear to have been constructed for defensive purposes, while some were occupied at least temporarily as well. They provided views of drainages, agricultural fields, roaming animal herds, settlements, and other hilltop sites.

Prescott College began locating and surveying archaeological sites at the southwest corner of the Tonto National Forest by helicopter in the late 1960’s, followed by extensive ground surveys and excavations from 1971-1976. These sites consist of the remains of walls that formed rooms, plazas spread over several acres, water control/field systems, terraces, rock borders, artifact scatter, and petroglyphs.

Searching for Archaeological Clues

To survey an area for archaeological evidence, get a group of people together, then spread out and walk single file. Look at the ground for unusual rock formations, rocks that appear different from surrounding rocks, potsherds, arrowheads, clay spindles, stone tools, hollowed out stones, depressions, petroglyphs, cleared areas surrounded by rock borders, and patches of agave plants. Murpheyi agave is not native to this area, but the local Indians imported and cultivated it. Some of these agave plants continue to grow.

America’s Archaeological Heritage 1906-2006

Archaeological sites and artifacts are fragile treasures that should not be disturbed, so they can remain for future generations to study and enjoy. In the last quarter of the 19th century, there was concern that archaeological sites and artifacts were being endangered by haphazard digging and commercial artifact looting. On June 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act which laid the foundation for prohibiting digging, removing artifacts, damaging, and/or defacing archaeological resources. Federal and state laws provide for both felony and misdemeanor prosecution with imprisonment and fines. Witnesses to pot hunting or vandalism should note the location of the activity, record descriptions of persons and vehicles seen, and report it as soon as possible by calling 1-800-VANDALS.

By following some simple guidelines, you can minimize impacts on archaeological sites and help preserve the scientific and historical value of these unique and irreplaceable remnants from the past. Proceed with caution and stay on trails. Pets should not be brought onto archaeological sites. Avoid horseback riding, biking, or driving through archaeological sites. Don’t camp, light fires, or smoke at archaeological sites. Don’t climb, sit on, stand on, or knock down rock walls. Please refrain from touching petroglyphs, as oils from even the cleanest hands will hasten the deterioration of rock art. Graffiti (drawing, painting, scratching, or carving) is destructive, disrespectful, and spoils the setting for others. It is illegal to remove artifacts, including pottery pieces.

Agua Fria National Monument

The 71,100-acre Agua Fria National Monument contains some of the most extensive prehistoric ruins in the Southwest. Extending from Black Canyon City to Cordes Junction, the monument encompasses two mesas (Perry Mesa and Black Mesa), the public land to the north of these mesas, and the Agua Fria River canyon. At least 450 archaeological sites, including rock pueblos, are known to exist in this area. Many intact petroglyph sites within the monument contain rock art symbols etched into the surfaces of boulders and cliff faces. The area also has a significant array of prehistoric agricultural features, including extensive terraces bounded by lines of rocks and other landscape modifications. In addition, the monument includes historic sites that represent early Anglo-American history through the 19th century, such as remnants of Basque sheep camps, old mining and military sites. Besides its valuable record of human history, the monument holds a rich diversity of sensitive vegetative communities and native wildlife species. Unfortunately, this unique region on the northern edge of the rapidly expanding Phoenix metropolitan area has already suffered from a considerable amount of vandalism. For Agua Fria National Monument facts & photos, go to:

Archaeology Month Events

Museums, historical societies, tribes, parks, and archaeological organizations across the state will all be hosting archeology events during the month of March. A free listing of Arizona Archaeology Month events as well as brochures on archaeological sites in the state of Arizona—complete with descriptions, hours of operation, directions, and a map—can be obtained by calling the Arizona State Parks State Historic Preservation Office at 602-542-4174, or by e-mail: Archaeology Month information can also be found on their website at Some of the more well-known archeological parks and monuments include: Canyon de Chelly, Casa Grande, Montezuma Castle, Tonto National Monument, Tuzigoot National Monument, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki National Monument. For links to these and more, go to:

Cave Creek Museum

This museum has an excellent exhibit on local Native Americans; artifacts from the Hohokam, Yavapai, and Apache Indians; and gift shop with additional resources. 6140 E. Skyline Dr., Cave Creek, 480-488-2764,

Deer Valley Rock Art Center

The mission of the Deer Valley Rock Art Center is to preserve and to provide public access to the Hedgpeth Hills petroglyph site, to interpret the cultural expressions found there, and to be a center for rock art studies. Visit their website at for petroglyph facts, photos, resources, and activities.

Arizona Archaeological Society

The Arizona Archaeological Society was founded in 1964 to foster interest and research in the archaeology of Arizona; to encourage better public understanding and concern for archaeological and cultural resources; and, to protect antiquities by discouraging exploitation of archaeological resources. They offer inexpensive classes, seminars and field schools to increase knowledge and improve the skills of members in the disciplines of archaeology. They encourage anyone, from age 12 and up, who has an interest in archaeology and the prehistory of Arizona and the Southwest to attend their monthly meetings. Admission is free to guests. They have a Desert Foothills chapter. Visit their website at:


Prehistoric Cultural Development in Central Arizona: Archaeology of the Upper New River Region, by Patricia M. Spoerl and George J. Gumerman, 1984. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Occasional Paper No. 5; 379 pp.

Hohokam Settlement and Economic Systems in the Central New River Drainage, Arizona, edited by David E. Doyel and Mark D. Elson, 1985. Soil Systems Publications in Archaeology No. 4. Phoenix. (Two-volume report on the excavation of 20 Hohokam sites in the New River Drainage. Complete analyses and interpretations, including ground stone manufacturing sites, the New River-Palo Verde Community system, Hohokam settlement and subsistence systems in the northern periphery, and exchange and interaction with other areas.)

Hohokam Prehistory in the Central New River Drainage, Arizona, by David E. Doyel, 1986. (Popular report summarizing the findings of SSPA Number 4. Places the New River project into a regional perspective and summarizes the Hohokam occupation of the Phoenix Basin.) Contact: Cory Dale Breternitz, President, Soil Systems, Inc. 1121 North Second Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85004,, (602) 253-4938, (602) 253-0107 fax.

Prehistory of Perry Mesa: The Short-Lived Settlement of a Mesa-Canyon Complex in Central Arizona, ca. A.D. 1200-1400, by Richard V.N. Ahlstrom and Heidi Roberts, 1994. SWCA Archaeological Report No. 94-48. Tucson. Contact: Richard V.N. Ahlstrom, SWCA, Inc. 343 S. Scott Ave. Tucson, AZ 85701, (520) 325-9194, (520) 325-2125 fax.

Cave Creek and Carefree, Arizona: A History of the Desert Foothills by Frances C. Carlson. (The best book for the general public on the history of this area.)

Carefree/Cave Creek Foothills: Life in the Sonoran Sun by the Foothills Community Foundation, 1990. (Provides a great deal of interesting information about the area’s flora, fauna, history, geology and lifestyle, including an informative chapter about the ancient Indians.)

Books for Kids

Archaeologists Dig for Clues, by Kate Duke. (Join an archaeological dig and make some exciting discoveries about how scientists learn about the past.)

Elena and the Coin, by Laura Orabone. (A charming and informative story for elementary school children about archaeology and the history of Tucson, Arizona.)

Websites (The Arizona Archaeological Society, with links to the Desert Foothills and other chapters.) (An interesting article about ancient Indians, from the Black Mountain Conservancy.) (The Archaeology of Ancient Arizona: a summary of Arizona’s prehistoric land and people.) (Prehistory of the Southwest: a general studies course with an excellent introduction, detailed information and pictures.) (Arizona Archaeological Council.) (Tempe, Arizona Archaeological Research Institute.) (Petroglyph facts, photos, resources, and activities presented by the Deer Valley Rock Art Center.) (Prehistoric Pottery of Arizona, an interactive web exhibit for children.) (National Park Service Archeology Program.) (March 2006 statewide listing of archeology events.)

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