A Good Day For Archaeology

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It was an unusually hot day in late May of 2019 as monsoon clouds were teasing our archaeology field crew in Prescott Arizona. That week I kept thinking about a six week excavation project I was about to start the following week near St. Louis. As the crew and I were surveying large transects of land we came across many archaeological sites, features, and isolated objects dating back to around 900 – 1250 CE. On the first two days we surveyed the south end of the project area where we documented and mapped a massive hilltop ruin which consisted of about 20 rooms with well preserved walls that surrounded the uppermost area of the hilltop. Although this pueblo was looted heavily to the point where our crew did not find a single ceramic sherd or flake of worked stone, we admired the centralized plaza where workers likely gathered for gender specific tasks in creating works of art and the deep depressions that formed individual rooms. This pueblo took an entire eleven hour day to fully document, map, and record into a database.

Hilltop Ruin located in the project area

Over the next four days our crew began surveying the northeast side of the project area where we found small features consisting of pot drops and one possible pithouse location at the top of a gradually sloped hill. I remember how humid the atmosphere became while having to remind myself this is a good physical conditioning test for when I arrived in Missouri in June. Although a separate topic for a different article, due to living in the desert my entire life, even Arizona’s most humid days are nothing compared to what I was about to face. On day six we found heavy concentrations of Aquarius Orange plain ware ceramics as the clouds finally provided rain. The final two days were set aside to tackle the easiest part of our project, the western slope where the vegetation was not as heavy.

Early in the morning on day seven our crew found numerous isolated objects of broken projectile points made from local chert and imported obsidian which likely came from the Flagstaff area. About one Kilometer away we found a small pueblo consisting of three rooms. After mapping this small dwelling and collecting the data from each isolated object, it’s my belief that this side of the mountain was an area where hunters would stay in small room blocks as they hunted game such as deer and elk. Later that day we documented an old dirt road which was previously recorded by another archaeological firm dating back to the late 1800s and used until 1954. This feature took the remainder of the day to start the process of re-recording and flagging associated historic and prehistoric artifacts on and around the immediate vicinity. Towards the end of the day our crew found concentrations of black-on-gray, aquarius orange, and gray ware ceramics which were likely located eighty meters west by the small three room structure as mentioned previously but carried down towards the road during heavy monsoon rains.

Prescott Black On Gray Pottery

When our field crew documented the historic artifacts affiliated with the road we found glass bottles and a small fragment from an early tea kettle that possibly dated back to the mid 1930s. After ten hours in the field, our day was complete and we were approaching the end of our work week. The next and final day of our work day we arrived at the project and noticed the noise from a backhoe engine close to the historic road. Our crew looked at each other and I said, “No. They cant be tearing up the features we flagged.” As we approached the historic road my fear became a reality. As the backhoe was digging up and destroying a large section of the road and prehistoric pot sherds the field director on our crew ran over while yelling, “What the fuck are you doing? Stop that fucking engine!” The driver did stop the engine and handed the field director the permits from the city to begin their work. We called the Cultural Resource Management (CRM) headquarters and they were not happy to say the least. At the same time, there was nothing we could do besides document the damage in the report.

After this destruction took place, we have observed eleven other archaeological features lost to development. During this time I approached the Prescott City Council numerous times advocating for additional city services so sites can remain preserved. In many ways I left meetings feeling hopeless and defeated. In late 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe I saw a new development was proposed by Arizona Eco Development (AED) in the Granite Dells. When looking closer at the proposed development I noticed AED wanted to add hundreds of high density homes on top of a major archaeological site labeled Wilkinson Mound. This site is by far the most unique in the Prescott area. To my knowledge there is no other site in the Quad Cities area that presents clear evidence of a priest or ruler living at one location. When examining the building plans and map, I knew this location was worth fighting hard for. I joined the Save The Dells movement and worked with the Museum of Indigenous People to come up with ideas for mitigation. Once again the best option was to approach the city council and advocate for a deal where AED included this site into an annexation deal where it’s designated as public open space. Other concerned citizens were concerned about water issues and rapid development in general.

When meeting with and approaching city leadership at numerous public meetings, I felt defeated once again. The answers that were given to me were, “The developer has to take follow laws pertaining to the archaeology. This could include excavation work.” Indeed this statement is correct. However, the truth is developers can be very cheap and many will use a limited budget towards archaeology field work. As a result we are restricted in what we can do and lose critical data pertaining to the project. My proposal was to also designate the site a monument where the city could get involved and eventually turn it into a Pueblo Grande type of tourist attraction. The site is located two hundred yards away from a paved road so parking access would be easy to accommodate. Additionally funding would include the building of a small museum and guests can tour the platform mound and pithouse features with a guide or self guided. This investment would protect and preserve the site while also generating income from guests who pay an admission price. Unfortunately this did not seem appealing to some city council leaders. Thankfully in 2021 city leadership voted to annex part of Wilkinson Mound as public open space.

Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park

During this annexation Prescott was in a critical election. Five candidates (including two who did not want to work with archaeology and didn’t listen to the citizens about development concerns) set themselves apart from three candidates who vowed to preserve our natural resources including water, archaeology, land, and wildlife. On August 3rd, 2021 Prescott citizens were asked to vote for the candidates who represent their values and issues they cared about. The choices couldn’t be more clear. In the end the three candidates who vowed to slow down rapid development, preserve our water supply, and help protect archaeology sites won in a landslide. In the mayoral race the candidate who spent only half the money as the incumbent won in a landslide–indeed, he was one of the three victors. Moving forward it is our goal we can finally work with the city of Prescott in helping with minimizing and preventing the destruction of archaeological resources by advocating for new site monitoring during any development phases.

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Primitive Lifeways