Remains of the Day

Construction snakes up and down pretty much every street in downtown Tempe, making it practically impossible to drive — let alone find a parking spot — anywhere near Mill Avenue or the Arizona State University campus. This has gone on all summer, and will continue into the fall. Blame it on the recent decision to build a light-rail system that will connect one end of the Valley to the other. And blame a group of people who lived in Tempe, Mesa and Phoenix long before such a thing as public transportation.

Just a few feet below the bulldozers and shredded asphalt lies an important — and until now, very quiet — discovery: bones. Ancient ones. It's a stretch to call any part of Tempe a graveyard. According to the experts, these are villages, not burial grounds. But hidden beneath the future light-rail line on Veterans' Way between College Avenue and Rural Road, and at the Tempe Transit Center at Veterans' Way and College Avenue, archaeologists have uncovered more than 14 graves holding the bones and ashes of the Hohokam, who lived more than 1,000 years ago.

The people running the light-rail project knew there was a chance of finding bones, but they figured they'd find some pottery shards, old house foundations, maybe a grave here and there. Instead, they've found more than 14 human cremations and graves, and even one dog burial. And while officials insist there's no delay in the overall light-rail or Transit Center construction schedule, excavation of Indian remains in Tempe is expected to take 10 weeks — and the total costs have zoomed up by millions of dollars.

Originally, the total contract given to locally owned Archaeological Consulting Services, the firm excavating light-rail sites throughout the Valley, was almost $2 million. Because of unexpected discoveries, Marty McNeil, a spokesperson for Valley Metro Rail, says that Valleywide, archaeology (and other environmental activities, like relocating utility lines) could require almost another $4 million. In addition to their findings in Tempe, archaeologists also uncovered significant remains and artifacts near the Pueblo Grande site on Washington Street in Phoenix, and some in Mesa.

According to Allan Schilz, the project coordinator for light-rail excavation, the findings include human remains, pit houses and other village features possibly as old as A.D. 600 to A.D. 800. Schilz doesn't expect to hit many more village sites along the rail line and says most discoveries have come along Line Five in Tempe and Mesa.

You won't get to see the findings. The construction sites are closely guarded — officials were reticent to admit to New Times that they even existed — and instead of a museum, they'll find their home with their ancestors, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indians.

Tempe has yielded the most discoveries. Archaeologist Gene Rogge of United Research Services Corporation, on contract to do excavations at the Tempe Transit Center site, initially did not expect to find much. In a March budget proposal, Rogge estimated that "fewer than three burials would be discovered."

The team began work in mid-May, and by the end of the month they had uncovered four human cremations, 10 human burials and one dog burial. Bonnie Richardson, the principal planner/architect for Tempe's transit division, confirms that since May 23, several more sites, including more burials and cremations, have been uncovered. She wouldn't get more specific than that.

At both sites, contractors and archaeologists are working side by side in an effort to prevent slowing of the construction projects. Officials decline to speculate how much faster construction would move without the added work of excavating the ancient village sites.

"We will move a little faster [once the archaeology is complete] but not all that much faster, because the archaeologists are not slowing us down," says McNeil. "Our schedule has not been affected that much."

Tempe officials concurred, regarding the Transit Center.

As much as 15 percent of all land in Tempe is of "archaeological significance," says the city's cultural preservation officer Joe Nucci. So ancient discoveries are hardly a shock. "If you had a shovel and put it down in Tempe, there's a one in six chance of finding something," he says. "People don't realize how extensive the occupation of Tempe was. The numbers that the Hohokam agricultural system could have sustained makes us seem like slackers."

Today there are four Native American tribes that claim Hohokam ancestry: the Salt River Pima-Maricopa, the Gila River, the Ak-Chin and the Tohono O'odham. Because the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is closest to Phoenix, Shane Anton, cultural preservation officer for the tribe, says the Salt River Pima-Maricopa community tends to take the lead when artifacts and burials are uncovered in the area.

By law, any federally funded project on culturally sensitive land — as both the transit center and the light rail are — is required to have an archaeologist monitor for and excavate any artifacts. The cities of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa have burial agreements in place requiring them to "treat and repatriate any American Indian human remains and cultural items that may be encountered during construction of the project on local government, state and private land."

The tribe is contacted every time a burial is found, and an elder from the community has been out to bless both sites. Construction stops, outsiders leave, and an intensely private, well-guarded blessing takes place. Afterward, the remains are removed, reviewed by the archaeologists, and given to the tribe for repatriation on their own land.

Anton says his community would prefer the burials not be disturbed at all, but there is some comfort in ensuring the ancestors are well taken care of, as opposed to carelessly crushed by development or put on display in a museum.

"We want to protect them. It feels better to take them and repatriate them to the community so we can put them to rest," he says. "We don't want them disrespectfully displayed."

And it's not just remains that the tribe wants to look after. During the planning of the Transit Center, a building that will act as a hub for buses, light rail, city transit operations and bicycle commuters, there was some controversy over the placement of the building. The land for the center sits directly in front of Hayden Butte — or "A" Mountain — an extremely important site to the ancient Hohokam and their ancestors, though the tribe keeps the religious history of the land private.

Richardson says the placement of the building close to the Tempe police station is a direct result of working to please the SRPMIC and its desire to preserve views of the butte.

"Sacred is subjective," Anton says. "We didn't build cathedrals or churches, but where we live and where we worship, how we pray — those things are sacred. When buildings get built, earth is disturbed, or, more specifically, burials are disturbed — that kind of sullies the sacredness."

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin