In March, archaeologists under contract with the Arizona Department of Transportation, inching along with trowels and brushes, exhumed 57 skeletons alongside a lonesome two-lane road in the Tonto National Forest.
The bodies dated to the 13th or 14th century, the earthly remains of prehistoric Native Americans, laid to rest with heads facing Tonto Creek and the rising sun to the east. As is often the case with Native American burials, the graves yielded a treasure trove of decorated and undecorated ceramics, shell and turquoise jewelry, and even some wooden artifacts that appeared to be jewel-encrusted walking sticks.
There were no press releases announcing the discovery.
"It takes a good while to conduct a search like this," says Dr. William Doelle, the president of Desert Archaeology, the Tucson firm hired by ADOT to excavate the site. "So if word gets out that there's a big cemetery, that means we have to hire guards for after hours and perhaps stand off pothunters left and right."
Archaeological artifacts found on federal lands, by law, belong to the federal government. Since 1990, with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, the remains of any Indians exhumed on federal lands, and any artifacts found with the remains, belong to the tribes that claim to be descendants of the deceased.
"NAGPRA, above all things, is civil rights legislation," says one former U.S. attorney who used to prosecute NAGPRA violations. "It was meant to right past wrongs."
Starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the present, pothunters of the Indiana Jones variety rummaged through burial sites, tossing bones every which way, looking for prize pottery to sell to museums and collectors. Archaeologists gathered bones and all and measured and photographed and catalogued them for their scholarly musings, then threw everything in a box on a shelf in case anyone wanted to look at it later. Christians may be so cavalier about human remains that they keep the bones of their saints as relics, but in many Native American religions, human remains are taboo.
NAGPRA and the corresponding Arizona Burial Protection Act of 1990 ruled that Native Americans had to be consulted on what to do with the remains of their ancestors stored in museums or dug up during construction projects. Though they could choose to leave them in the museums or take possession of them, Native American tribes in Arizona mostly want them reinterred. And they want all the art and artifacts that came out of the ground with them reburied also, much to the consternation of the museums and collectors who believe that art has a right to exist on its own terms.
"We are from different cultures," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi nation. "You have a dominant culture that places significant commercial value on these funerary objects. We don't."
The State of Arizona has been relatively efficient in carrying out its law, having completed 129 repatriations since the law took effect in 1990.
The federal law, however well-intentioned, has proved difficult to carry out and the bodies have stacked up. The Tonto National Forest alone is in possession of 700-some sets of remains and thousands of related funerary objects that Arizona tribes want the government to rebury. Five years after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed Congress, the U.S. Forest Service is still trying to figure out how to give up the dead.
In a sense, NAGPRA implies that an ethnic culture holds copyright and exclusive ownership of its history. Using the law as a club, Native Americans can refuse archaeologists permission to conduct anything more than a cursory examination of the remains they exhume. The Arizona tribes often will not allow modern testing methods if they damage even the tiniest pieces of bone. They can deny nonintrusive testing, as well, if they choose.
And so the science of archaeology is being squeezed by political correctness and ethnic politics because the law places Native American religious beliefs over scientific research. Native Americans in the 1990s have a political clout that no bureaucrat in his right mind wants to tangle with.
Consequently, state and federal officials, archaeologists and the Native Americans charged with the disposition of such items generally meet inquiries into archaeological digs with a none-of-your-business stoniness--even if they take place on public lands funded by tax dollars. Because everyone is walking on ethnic eggshells, science takes a back seat to emotion and politics.
Bill Doelle, the head archaeologist on the Tonto Basin project, looks as if he came from Central Casting--khakied and bespectacled, tousle-haired and slender--as he stands over the foundation of a house that his people are excavating. A big stone metate, or stone basin used to grind corn into flour, sits on the floor where it was left centuries ago, likely too heavy to carry when the homeowners abandoned this dwelling. Next to it are the shattered remains of two earthenware urns and a notched stone that was likely used to straighten arrow shafts.
Most of the artifacts found in archaeological sites were left behind as trash by the cultures they belonged to. They come out of the ground shattered by the crush of time, dissolved by the elements, buried in the litter of nature. The most beautiful, the most intact ceramics come out of graves, where, for the most part, they have weathered the centuries in hollows beneath the planking that prehistoric Indians placed above the bodies like coffin lids to keep them from being crushed by the weight of burial.
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.
ADOT has to pay for the archaeological work because it wants to widen the road. To ADOT's great relief, it can pass the human remains to the Forest Service because they came out of National Forest land. And in the forest hierarchy, the bones stop here, on Scott Wood's desk.
Wood looks like an anthropological study himself. He's got a shoulder-length red ponytail, John Lennon wire-rimmed glasses and a wardrobe that suggests he couldn't decide if he wanted to be a cowboy or a biker. His voice booms in the lower pitches of college professors, but with the exasperated expression of a government bureaucrat.
"There's probably more archaeology in this region--Arizona and New Mexico--than all the rest of the Forest Service combined," he says. It's probably not an overstatement. "And within this region, the Tonto and the Coconino probably have the highest densities in the state. We have an awful lot."
He has an awful lot of materials to repatriate, as well, 700 or so prehistoric skeletons and thousands of pots that have been pulled out of graves on the forest in the five years since Congress passed NAGPRA, not just from road projects but also from the Bureau of Reclamation's expansion of Roosevelt Dam.
The fact is, Wood doesn't really know just how much material he has. The excavations and studies are ongoing, he explains, the remains scattered among the various archaeological contractors or stored in cardboard boxes in federal repositories. Reports in progress and partial inventories are stacked higher and thicker than a Hohokam ceremonial mound on his desk in the forest headquarters on McDowell Road in Phoenix. He may soon need to call in archaeologists to excavate his own body from beneath the backlog of NAGPRA duties. And though he sincerely wants to satisfy the law and all of the Indian tribes involved, he still doesn't know how he's going to get rid of the material.
The Arizona tribes want it taken care of, but they certainly don't want it back because in many Native American cultures, the dead are bad luck--one Native American leader described handling the remains as like handling uranium.
"You may not die right away, but eventually, you will get cancer," he told ADOT officials.
In the Phoenix area, in central Arizona in general, the southern tribes--the Salt River and Gila River Pima, the Ak-Chin and the Tohono O'odham--will actually take possession of the remains, if reluctantly, and rebury them on their own lands. They interred the Pueblo Grande bodies, for example.
Remains found farther north, in the Tonto Basin, are claimed jointly by the Hopi and Zuni, but they are both very traditional peoples whose religion simply has no contingency for digging up the dead. Life on earth, in their world view, is but one of several life stages, and the rest of the journey requires that the body return to the earth.
As Scott Wood says, "Hopi consider that these people are markers for where Hopi went over the centuries. Wherever there are remains, there went Hopi. To dig them up would be like taking down the signposts on the highway."
However, neither Hopi nor Zuni will allow any funerary materials to cross into their reservations, but rather insist that they be reinterred as close as possible to where they were exhumed.
Still, both tribes are anxious to cooperate with Wood in figuring out a reburial procedure. "It has been very difficult," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi. "We have absolutely no experience with this. It's something we are learning as we go along."
Wood echoes those sentiments in government vernacular.
"We have a law but no regulations, so we make the stuff up as we go. I want these people," he says, meaning the remains, "out of the repositories and back in the ground, because that's what we told people we are going to do. And I want to get it over with. I want to get the procedures established so that the next project down the road we don't have to go through all this crap."
Arizona's first repatriation case under the burial laws proved to be a political nightmare.
In the late 1980s, ADOT signed a $3.5 million contract with Cory Breternitz and Soil Systems Inc. to investigate prehistoric sites where ADOT planned to build the Hohokam Freeway adjacent to the Pueblo Grande Museum.
Though the area had long been an industrial park and a stockyard, just a foot or so beneath the well-beaten surface was a remarkable number of dwellings and artifacts, including nearly 800 human remains and more than 2,000 whole or restorable ceramic vessels that had been buried with the skeletons.
In 1990, SSI sent the human remains to a lab in Colorado in order to run tests, some of which were minimally destructive to the bones. From that analysis, SSI learned that the Hohokam who lived there suffered greatly from disease and malnutrition. Life in the Salt River Valley was hard, which may help explain why the Hohokam left for parts unknown.
To help determine where the tribe went, SSI planned to follow up with a dental study of the remains, which might have yielded clues as to the identity of the Hohokam's descendants. Then the state burial laws went into effect and the plug was pulled on SSI's research.
Word leaked to members of the four southern tribes--the Salt River and Gila River Pima, the Ak-Chin and the Tohono O'odham--that destructive analysis was being performed on Pueblo Grande remains. The Pima consider the Hohokam to be their ancestors, although there is some speculation that the Pima may have driven the Hohokam out of the Valley.
"The minute the law went into effect, they demanded the materials," says Breternitz, still perplexed by the demands. "They wanted everything, and that's not what the law states. It covers funerary objects, and that's what they got."
The Native Americans reiterated their demands; their spiritual adviser pronounced that all of the artifacts were sacred and needed to be returned.
"There were meetings that went nowhere for months," says Lynn Teague of the Arizona State Museum. They were attended by bureaucrats from ADOT and the State Museum, Indian activists, spiritual leaders and archaeologists. "There was a lot of mistrust, a lot of inept moves on all sides," says Teague.
Archaeologists from all over the region wrote letters to ADOT and SSI lamenting the loss to science if ADOT capitulated to the Indian demands. The Native Americans refused to budge. None of it ever got out to the press.
Finally, in July of 1991, fearing protest demonstrations, ADOT quietly reached agreement with the tribes. On three days in July, the Indians backed up trucks to the SSI offices and hauled away boxes full of remains and funerary objects under the supervision of an Ak-Chin spiritual adviser. The nonfunerary artifacts went to the State Museum. Joseph Joaquin of the Tohono O'odham signed the shipment manifests and officially took possession of his ancestors.
After several months of storing them in the spiritual adviser's garage, the tribes reburied the remains on the Ak-Chin reservation. Of the ceremony, the reservation newspaper noted: "Ironically, the ceremony was held on October 12, a day known to some as Columbus Day. This sacred ceremony serves as a reminder to the O'odham that we have been here for thousands of years. This, in essence, is a revitalization of our true heritage and a display of O'odham endurance."
As unpleasant as the process had been, the letter of the law had been satisfied, and all were convinced they had done the right thing.
Except Breternitz kept hearing rumors that some of the Pueblo Grande artifacts had found their way into the marketplace. He dismissed them as the sour-grapes speculations of rival archaeologists. But apparently some pots did escape repatriation, somewhere between Pueblo Grande and Ak-Chin.
Early in 1994, curators at the Arizona State Museum received an anonymous phone call from a couple who claimed they bought a bowl and a pitcher, both prehistoric polished red ware, from two young Native American men who were selling them door to door in Tucson. The pots had numbers on the bottom of them, the callers said; they read them to the museum staff, who then tried to arrange a meeting with the callers.
The museum never heard from the callers again, but did look up the numbers in the SSI inventories of materials turned over to the Tohono O'odham. The articles had come from Pueblo Grande. According to one Indian art dealer, the bowl would be worth about $50 in the legitimate market, the pitcher about $100.
It was an embarrassment for all concerned. No one could figure out--or admit--how and when these items might have been stolen. Museum officials were not sure anything illegal had taken place. Once the materials were turned over to the Indians, they could do with them whatever they liked.
Joseph Joaquin expressed his own embarrassment when asked about the incident. "We always say that with today's youth, it may happen," he says, lending credence to speculation that the pots had been stolen before they had even been reinterred. He claims that no information regarding the theft ever surfaced, and although he says he's not interested in prosecuting whoever took those objects--and who knows how many others?--he wants them returned to where they belong, to the ground.
"The spirits aren't going to go to the white people and say, 'I want my pot back,'" he told New Times. "They'll come to us."
Scott Wood, forest archaeologist, ponders the logistics of reburying his 700 skeletons and several thousand pots.
He was set to bury the bulk of them three years ago--until Forest Service lawyers reminded him that the Southwestern Region of the National Forest Service had a policy forbidding cemeteries on forest land.
"By definition, a lot of dead people in the ground creates a cemetery," Wood quips.
Last December, the Southwestern Region issued an interim directive that would allow the materials to be buried--even if the burial sites would be called something other than cemeteries.
Wood knows he can't bury them all at once, so he expects to rebury them in the same groups or clusters that came out of the ground, so that they would retain their afterlife associations.
He knows he can't afford to dig individual graves--initial estimates have placed the cost of reburial at $50 to $200 per body, and the Forest Service has not yet allocated any monies at all for doing so. So Wood wonders how to retain a solemn and spiritual service when the bodies will be placed in mass-grave trenches dug by backhoes. Can they remain in their current cardboard boxes? One of the tribes suggested that perhaps the bodies could be stacked two-deep.
Wood never broaches the topic of whether everything--bones, pottery--will be crushed when the earth is pushed back over the holes.
The Hopi and Zuni are happy to cooperate with the Forest Service in solving the whole repatriation project. They don't want to stand in the way of progress, of roads and dams on their ancestral lands.
"The philosophy of the Hopi tribe is that we're not in this whole process to polarize the situation any further," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi. "We want to have a very productive working relationship."
But the tribes do not want to pay the costs of repatriation. If the Forest Service dug up these people, they reason, the Forest Service needs to rebury them.
"The Hopi position is that the financial burden shouldn't be on the tribes, it should be on the federal agencies that permitted the excavations to occur," Jenkins says.
Nor do the tribes want to face the attendant security problems of reburying the related funerary objects, which could be worth millions of dollars to pothunters, dealers and collectors.
When partial inventories of those artifacts were run by a Scottsdale Indian-art dealer, his eyes opened wide and he remarked, "This would dwarf even the largest private collections."
But he also pointed out that the severe penalties for trafficking in grave-related items have dried up the market. The dealer, who asked not to be identified, practically shook when he described visits from tabloid TV shows with hidden cameras and undercover federal agents trying to fence perfect Gila polychrome pots they claimed they'd found by accident while relieving themselves behind a saguaro at Roosevelt Lake. Unless they have stellar business and personal references and complete documentation of where they got the pottery, the dealer said, he'd send them packing.
"There is no black market so far as I know," the dealer said, especially since the majority of prehistoric ceramic pieces aren't worth more than $25 to $100, anyway. Only a rare few are worth in the thousands.
Still, the Forest Service and the tribes worry that pothunters could be lured by such large caches.
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"Security is something the Forest Service and the tribes need to work on together," says Roger Anyon, an archaeologist for the Zuni. "But, ultimately, it's the responsibility of the Forest Service to ensure the security of these remains and the funerary objects."
And where will these burials take place? Obviously, the remains can't be secretly buried in remote areas of the forest. Someone is sure to notice an excavation that could contain 700 skeletons. And with $1 million or so worth of artwork buried with them, they must consider the safety of the graves.
Scott Wood figures the final resting spot will sit next to a forest administrative building somewhere, in plain view of the road, with a fence around it and locked gates. It will be equal parts Fort Apache, Fort Knox and Forest Lawn.
And if archaeologists 500 years from now stumble upon it, who knows how they'll rewrite history trying to explain what happened there? Perhaps, they'll see it as a monument to well-meaning laws that no one knew how to implement.