Prescott Culture Migration in Prehistory

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Arizona is home to an elaborate and lengthy prehistory which archaeology can study and analyze. In order to achieve the collective goal of forming and testing different scientific hypothesis, the archaeologist must examine data using an objective methodology. In comparison to the early archaeological interpretations from the 1800s and early 1900s, objective practices are more common in an age where technological revolutions and modern scientific understandings are conducted more frequently. Personal bias at one time was far too common and eventually led to scientific malpractices and even hoaxes in order to prove a hypothesis or specific belief system. In more recent years professional, and to some extent amateur archaeologists have gained stupendous insight on how indigenous peoples of the past conducted their lives and viewed their natural environment. Indeed, our technological, anthropological, and research advancements have allowed us to collect ambiguous data through material remains in order to formulate proven theories which have been accepted by the scientific community whom work in the field of anthropology. In this article I examine ceramic data in relation to the prehistoric Prescott Culture and offer a new hypothesis regarding a northern migration.

Who Were The Prescott Culture?

Located in the mountains of Central Arizona, specifically the Prescott area, a post Paleo and Archaic civilization known for their distinctive practices including decorated black-on-gray ceramic production, exquisitely crafted argillite jewelry, and unique burial practices appears in the archaeological record around AD. 200 – 1300. We know Prescott people interacted with Hohokam, Puebloan, and Sinagua people where groups would trade items such as decorated ceramics, diverse foods, and exotic items such as copper bells, mineral pigments, shell jewelry, and likely animal hides (Barnett 62-64; Barth et al. 87-88, 93-96; Spall 98-99). Prescott people cremated and buried their dead through formal funeral practices. Important or high status individuals were likely born into power through stratification and upon death were buried with exotic and elaborate items. Prescott groups were also well versed in agricultural practices. They strategically grew corn and planted crops in order to capture flood waters during monsoon rains. Many mid sized and large Prescott sites are built on hill-tops where two topographic features including Thumb Butte and Granite Mountain are usually within view. Unfortunately, compared to other cultural groups such as the Hohokam and Pueblo/Anasazi, we don’t have an explicit and fully formulated understanding of the Prescott people. This limitation in full understanding is indeed due to a lack of data recovery, and the destructive nature of modern housing development at many sites.

Prescott Culture Timeline and Site Comparisons

Understanding the Prescott Culture timeline and phases of occupation has allowed archaeology to piece together information much more efficiently. Early pit house sites are defined and recognizable during the Prescott phase which dates from AD 800 – 1100 (Neily et al. 12). Following the Prescott phase, most of the prehistoric inhabitants make a shift away from pit house dwellings and towards pueblo architecture located on hilltops. This occupation is labeled as the Chino phase dating from AD 1100 – 1300 (Neily et al. 13). This drastic change in social dynamics and architecture might be explained by the manifestation of unrest or conflict with competing groups of people both internally or externally. A misconception when establishing timelines amongst Prescott groups is how rapid Pueblo dwellings appear. When investigating the two Prescott Culture phases, we do not see a sudden transition to Pueblo architecture. Rather, a slower shift occurred where we find stone lined pit homes during the late Prescott phase which eventually transitioned towards hill top pueblos.

When examining paths of migration my goal was to gather and document as much data as I could using a noninvasive approach from Prescott sites located across the expansive landscape which was inhabited in prehistory. All data examined and recorded derives from a total of eighteen excavated and non-excavated Prescott and Chino phase site locations. Although excavated sites contain some left over surface features and material remains, it was critical to review all site reports and attributes pertaining to features located in the vicinity of the project areas. One internal and external attribute that I studied heavily was ceramic data. Due to the diagnostic nature of decorated ceramics we know how different communities interacted with each other across established territorial boundaries (“Mimbres and Paquime Relationships”). In Prescott dominant trade is displayed in ceramic data involving the Sinagua, Puebloan, and Hohokam cultural traditions from the North and South. Beyond localized trade systems across Arizona, ancient trade routes lead far south into Central Mexico where monumental civilizations were governed by the force of power and hierarchy. Shifting back into localized trade networks, I have argued that ceramic vessel trade amongst prehistoric people in the American Southwest was not governed based on the vessel style and iconography alone. Rather, cultural groups desired the items that were inside the vessel. Items of interest inside the vessel could have included corn, agave beer, shell, argillite, hides, and minerals, salts, and much more.

In documenting ceramic sherds located on the surface and collected remains over the past six years at eighteen total Prescott Culture sites, I noticed a pattern of possible migration that could explain where the prehistoric people of the Prescott area went. After observing and recording ceramic types within our selected sites, there seems to be a low frequency of decorated Prescott black-on-gray pottery at a few dwellings located in and around Williamson Valley. However, at these sites decorated red-on-buff and black-on-white sherds are common throughout the cultural landscape. One can argue the observation of cultural limitation in local material technologies and distribution. However, it becomes far less complex when examining adjacent sites which sit 90 meters or less away. An example that comes to mind involves Indian Peak Pueblo and Walnut Creek Pit houses. The Indian Peak site contains a heavy concentration of black-on-gray and black-on-white pottery, while completely absent of red-on-buff ceramics. Roughly 80 meters away, the Walnut Creek site carries a very low frequency of black-on-gray pottery but heavier concentrated with imported red-on-buff and black-on-white typologies. The Walnut Creek site consists of stone lined pit homes which date back to the late Prescott phase, whereas Indian Peak is constructed of pueblo architecture and towering walls dating into the Chino phase. The Walnut Creek site had earlier occupation with Hohokam and Puebloan trade influences, whereas Indian Peak is void of Hohokam trade but consistent with Puebloan trade through time and space. Moreover, it appears that locally produced black-on-gray decorated ceramics completely replaced red-on-buff ceramics at Indian Peak.

Moving farther southeast in the Prescott area, sites are quite scattered throughout the landscape and archaeological variation displayed in decorated ceramics are no different than Williamson Valley. Two large occupations labeled Wilkinson Mound and Stancil Pueblo carried a long range of human occupation and as a result left many material remains behind for archaeological investigations. The western edge of Stancil Pueblo is a hilltop site that dates back to the later Chino Phase, whereas Wilkinson Mound has multiple occupations beginning in the Prescott Phase and ending in the Chino Phase. Due to the amount of land at both sites, it took me four years to fully document both sites including their features and material remains left behind. After considerable surface analysis, both sites carry a heavy concentration of black-on-gray and a moderate amount of black-on-white ceramics. While Stancil Pueblo does not carry any red-on-buff assemblages, Wilkinson Mound carries many pieces of Hohokam imported ceramics which appears to belong to different vessels. When studying the occupational phases of Wilkinson Mound we find that this site is a very unique compared to all other Prescott Culture dwellings. Most sites have limited occupational phases whereby the individuals whom lived at each location abandoned it by breaking their items, burning the structures, and moving onto a new location. However, Wilkinson Mound seems to be quite the opposite. The decorated red-on-buff ceramics suggest this site was first occupied during the Hohokam Colonial period around AD 750 – 950 (Haury 210-214) . Instead of abandoning the site, occupants continued to live there and constructed a pueblo mound during the Chino Phase. Additionally, there is a presence of imported Hohokam Sacaton Phase ceramics dating from 950 – 1050, thus suggesting a continual occupation as mentioned above (Haury 205-209). The question now becomes, Can we compare these two sites to other cultural sites in the Prescott area but excluding Williamson Valley?

Two additional sites worth examining are the Willow Lake pit houses and Quartz Mountain Pueblo. Located in the Bradshaw Mountains, Quartz Mountain Pueblo is a later occupation which was constructed during the Chino Phase after AD 1100. Due to its location around popular logging and hiking trails, this site has more looting than all Williamson Valley and Prescott habitations. Fortunately, looters tend to miss heavy concentrations of pottery on the sloped end of hilltop dwellings–this is likely due to the rugged nature of all hilltop habitations–thus ceramic data is still available to record throughout the immediate cultural landscape. Although this multi room hilltop pueblo is not excavated by professionals, the surface assemblage of ceramic wares suggests limited to no contact with the Hohokam cultural tradition. Consistent with all other Prescott sites, there is a moderate concentration of black-on-white pottery, suggesting steady contact with Pueblo people in Northern Arizona. Indeed, this commonality of limitations to the south is not only present at Quartz Mountain, but seems to be present at many other Chino Phase hilltop occupations where locally made black-on-gray and imported black-on-white ceramics replace red-on-buff wares. However, data recovery from the Willow Lake pit houses explains a completely different story while also helping archaeology elucidate the Prescott Phase in a much more detailed manner than previously known. Hohokam influences at Willow Lake are very recognizable in architectural construction, funerary practices, and imported red-on-buff pottery types (Neily et al. 203-205, 382-386). During the excavations at Willow Lake black-on-gray ceramics were recovered which could suggest a returning later occupation at the site (Neily et al. 391-398).


Undoubtedly putting together a timeline for the prehistoric Prescott cultural tradition has helped in archaeological research and development. One question that has not been fully answered is, Where did the Prescott Culture go around AD 1250 – 1300? Some in archaeology have presented and argued in favor of Scott Woods’s proposal that the Prescott people made a southern migration into the Agua Fria National Monument, specifically the Perry Mesa complex. Due to the prodigious preservation of most sites within Perry Mesa, there are many artifacts and architectural features available for the professional archaeologist to study–and after studying the material technologies from four large sites, this argument seems to hold partial validity. Examples supporting a southern migration includes the use of Del Rio argillite, granitic temper in locally produced plain ware ceramics using paddle and anvil manufacturing technologies, funerary practices, and room features including thick walls in pueblo built architecture with stone lined pit houses. On the contrary, I have argued that migratory people bring their technologies and practices with them. If a large population of Prescott people migrated into Perry Mesa, material data would likely include black-on-gray wares which defined the Prescott people and the decorated ceramics they produced. Larger sites such as La Plata, Pato, and Rattlesnake seem to be absent of decorated black-on-gray but replaced by Salado Polychrome, Jeddito, and in rare cases Sikyatki Polychrome wares (Spall 199-200). These new imported wares could suggest a change in Prescott religious practices and ideology.

The earliest habitation sites with a larger concentrations of red-on-buff ceramics appear to be most predominant in the Prescott and Prescott Valley areas. However, sometime during the early Chino phase, a population shift occurs and more sites with monumental architecture appears northwest. This shift towards pueblo architecture might not have been sudden–rather, a gradual change starting in the late Prescott phase could have occurred due to the result of social competition. After observing ceramic data and social patterns, it’s my hypothesis that sometime in the 12th century there was a major shift in economic resources and social competition, which could have been attributed to environmental pressures (Spall 193). As a result a portion of Prescott people migrated into the Perry Mesa and Mayer areas where they integrated with other cultural groups who could have been in competition over aggregated resources such as cotton (“Peter Pilles – The Tuzigoot Phase”). After examining ceramic data and pueblos in Williamson Valley there seems to be an even larger group of people continuing to migrate farther northwest deeper into the Williamson Valley area around Walnut Creek. Evidence of such a claim includes the following: a high concentration of pueblo dwellings located on hilltops which carry a later Chino phase occupation, a very high density of Prescott black-on-gray ceramic types which were manufactured around 1050 – 1300, a high density of Flagstaff black-on-white sherds dating from 1150 – 1225, and a later Tusayan black-on-white ceramic type dating from 1225 – 1275.

Although this hypothesis is based on material evidence from excavated and non-excavated sites, there is much work that must be completed to answer the questions which archaeology proposes. Another important piece of information that must not be ignored are the manifestation of Chino phase sites outside of the Williamson Valley stronghold. Occupations such as Fitzmaurice Ruin does suggest a significant portion of people stayed in Prescott and Prescott Valley. Around 1300 the picture becomes less clear and defining characteristics of Prescott people are not as preeminent in Williamson Valley and Perry Mesa. In anthropology a lack of cultural patterns and traits does suggest a major change in social functions that previously defined a community. I have never bought into the idea that people just disappeared and vanished from the landscape. This idea, which was previously used in archaeology, has given ammo to conspiracy theorists whom believe catastrophic events led to complete cultural demise of earlier prehistoric and historic cultural groups. As I research the anthropological and archaeological record, there are natural and logical reasons which explains why a lack of continuity amongst Prescott people exists. One hypothesis might suggest due to social competition, environmental changes, or other significant occurrences, some Prescott people could have went back to an earlier hunter/gatherer lifestyle where ceramics were not manufactured with such great density and seasonal habitations were established throughout the landscape. Indeed, Prescott people might have become Yavapai.


Barnett, F. (1978). Las Vegas Ranch Ruin-East and Las Vegas Ranch ruin-west: Two small prehistoric Prescott Indian culture ruins in West Central arizona. Museum of Northern Arizona.

‌Barnett, Franklin, and Kathleen E Gratz. Excavation of a Lower Room at Fitzmaurice Ruin : A Prehistoric Prescott Culture Ruin in Yavapai County, Arizona. Prescott, Az, Yavapai College, 1975.

C Arthur Barth, et al. The Sundown Site, NA 16385 : A Prescott Area Community. Tucson, Az, Arizona Archaeological Society, 1999.

Haury, Emil W. The Hohokam, Desert Farmers & Craftsmen : Excavations at Snaketown, 1964-1965. University Of Arizona Press, 2016.

‌“July 20, 2020 Mimbres and Paquimé Relationships by Dr. Paul Minnis.”, Accessed 7 Dec. 2021.

‌Neily, Robert B, et al. The Willow Lake Site : Archaeological Investigations in Willow & Watson Lakes Park, Prescott, Arizona. Tempe, Ariz., Logan Simpson Design, 2006.

“Peter Pilles – the Tuzigoot Phase.”, Accessed 7 Dec. 2021.

Spall, Mary, et al. Coyote Ruin, NA 6654 : A Prescott-Area Community. Phoenix, Az, Arizona Archaeological Society, 2013.

By, Jeff Martin

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