When Phoenix Coughs Up Its 2,000-Year-Old Past

Phoenix archaeologists say this ancient Hohokam pit home could be 2,000 years old. It was unearthed as part of the downtown development of a Fry's Food Stores supermarket.EXPAND
Phoenix archaeologists say this ancient Hohokam pit home could be 2,000 years old. It was unearthed as part of the downtown development of a Fry's Food Stores supermarket.
Mark Hackbarth of Logan Simpson via City of Phoenix

When archaeologists dig in the dirt in a downtown Phoenix development site, they know that chances are, they will find something. But they don’t always know exactly what the earth will yield.

So it was when a team of archaeologists told the developers of a Fry’s Food Store and high-rise across the street from CityScape last week that they had unearthed the remnants of a half-dozen prehistoric homes.

It’s not yet certain, but archaeologists think the pit houses likely date from the time of Christ. Teams found the packed dirt floors of these simple dwellings, which featured hearths and clay-and-wood walls, sometimes coated with chalky material.

Their discovery resurrects a scholarly debate about who first settled the Salt River basin, when, and what were they up to. The discovery also renews old misunderstandings about urban archaeology.

“People think it was discovered in construction. It wasn’t. This was something the city and developers planned. We had reason to believe a site was there,” said Laurene Montero, the city archaeologist for Phoenix.

RED Development, the company building on the surface parking lot across the street from Talking Stick Resort Arena, brought in specialists two years ago to assess the site and come up with a plan. Montero’s team reviewed that plan, which included exploratory trenching months ago.

Montero said there was nothing remarkable in the find. Work on CityScape, the sports venues and other downtown sites turned up similar artifacts. When news broke, some were surprised there was anything that had been left undisturbed by a century of building in what is now the sixth-largest city in the country.

“We know there is archaeology in the area, but not every area has been investigated,” Montero explained. “In areas between those developments, there is still archaeology.”

This area, surrounded by tall buildings, is known to city planners as Block 23. And even it wasn’t immune. Crews also found remnants of an old fire station, a J.C. Penney’s, and a Cold War bomb shelter.

Prehistoric goodies were more sparse. Beyond the basic floor structure, a few shards of pottery and stone came forth, and not much else.

All of it will be photographed, calibrated, charted, recorded, and packed off for review. The old Hohokam homes will be destroyed when the supermarket, offices and apartments rise.

Scientists will radiocarbon-date the shards, and after about two years of inquiry, archaeologists will prepare a report for the city.

It may or may not answer some key questions about Arizona’s early inhabitants. Experts call this phase of settlement the Red Mountain period which they place between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., and there early indications that the pit homes come from that period.

Our knowledge of that era is much like the shards that came up from Block 23. It’s fragmented.

“We don’t have much information on it,” Montero said. “What were they doing at the time? Were they growing corn? There is evidence of that elsewhere in Arizona.”

What is known is that somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people called the region home, and that some of the early homes were lived in for 800 years.

What is also known is that this won’t be the last “discovery.” Every month, Montero’s team processes 10 to 20 development plans. Most are routine, involving minor construction, unlikely to disturb ruins. But in “10 to 20 percent” of the cases, “some kind of archaeology” comes into play, Montero said.


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