BONES OF CONTENTION

THE LAW REQUIRES THE REBURIAL OF INDIAN REMAINS. SO WHY ARE THERE STILL 700 SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET?

These are the treasures that make museum curators and collectors salivate: polychrome pots painted in browns and blacks and reds; the red-on-buff geometric plates and pots found in Hohokam ruins along the Salt and Verde rivers; the black-and-white Anasazi designs found farther north; the polished red ceramics of the Salado peoples in the Tonto Basin; turquoise jewelry, obsidian arrowheads, decorated effigies.

Doelle's job is to get them all out of harm's way; in this case, "harm" means an ADOT road-widening project. Whenever ADOT builds or rebuilds a road, staffers consult with archaeologists to decide if they need to excavate the construction site beforehand to save themselves the expense of having to stop a project in progress, should any archaeology turn up beneath the backhoes. ADOT spends an average of $1 million a year on archaeological work of the sort that Doelle is performing.

The very proximity of these Tonto Basin graves to the road probably saved them from being desecrated by pothunters. The site is so open, so close to view of the townspeople, to sheriff's officers, to forest rangers driving the road, that no one could possibly dig it up without being noticed. Clearly, there are more bodies beneath the existing road (which was built in an era when laws and construction techniques were less complex) that will have to be exhumed before the heavy roadwork can begin.

The burial ground is one piece of the prehistoric puzzle the archaeologists are trying to assemble. Within a mile or so along the road are the shadows of other dwellings from other centuries and other cultures, hints that Mogollon people from farther north and Hohokam from down in the valley had moved in among the indigenous Salado culture.

Anthropologists suspect that all these people were related in some way, but they have not been able to establish chronologies of when they split apart, and when they trickled back together.

"When we've finished in mid-July, we should have documented a continuous occupation of this site from as early as 599 B.C. up to 1300 or 1325," Doelle says.

But he won't know as much as he would like to know about the site. One of the mysteries of the Southwest is that many of its prehistoric peoples vanished in the 14th and 15th centuries. No one knows why they left or where they went, but when the Apache and Yavapai and Navajo and Spanish migrated into the region hundreds of years later, they found it largely unpopulated.

The Hopi and the Pima of Arizona and the Zuni of New Mexico claim to be descendants of the prehistoric peoples who lived in the Southwest, but they base those claims more on oral tribal histories than on conclusive archaeological evidence.

Ironically, archaeologists now have an array of modern technology that could help answer why and when the ancient ones disappeared and just who they are related to today. They can analyze the mineral content of bones and determine what prehistoric peoples ate and how healthy they were. They can chase down episodes in the history of disease. In the rare event that scientists recover actual human tissue, they can conduct DNA tests and reveal another wealth of information. But for the most part, they are forbidden by the Indians from doing these tests because they require some "destructive analysis."

Cory Breternitz of Soil Systems Inc., a Phoenix-based archaeological consulting firm, tangled with the Pima and Tohono O'odham over tests performed on skeletons exhumed near the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix.

"The destructive analysis that was done in the Pueblo Grande project used a piece of bone about the size of an aspirin," Breternitz says. "It's not like we were taking bones and crushing them up."

As a matter of principle, Breternitz was not allowed to perform a nondestructive dental study that could have shed light on the lineage of the bodies that came out of Pueblo Grande.

But principles can change as needed.
"In some cases, no analysis is allowed and the remains are buried in the same day," says Breternitz. "In other cases, the Native Americans have requested certain analyses be done so they can strengthen land claims and such."

Case in point: A few years after denying the Pueblo Grande dental study, one of those same tribes asked Breternitz's firm to do just such a study to help determine the identity of the skeletons in a modern, unmarked cemetery on its reservation.

That's the tribe's prerogative under the law. And so the skeletons and the related funerary objects that Bill Doelle exhumed will go to the Forest Service collection. The Forest Service will honor a claim staked on those remains by the Hopi and the Zuni. The Hopi and Zuni want the remains reburied as close to their original resting place as possible, and they insist that the prodigious quantities of pots and jewelry that come out of the graves be buried with them.

The Forest Service has not yet figured out how all of this will happen.

J. Scott Wood, archaeologist for the Tonto National Forest, is the government employee who has to lead the complex and emotional dance of repatriation.

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