picture of cover

Hohokam Indians of the
Tucson Basin

By Linda M. Gregonis & Karl J. Reinhard

Chapter 3

The Archaeological Record

The Hardy Site
Archaeological Survey
Archaeological Excavation
Archaeological Interpretation
Interpretation of the Hardy Site

The Hardy Site

Map of the Hardy Site (17K)

One of the villages established by the Hohokam in the Tucson Basin lies southwest of the confluence of Pantano Wash and Rillito Creek. Known as the Hardy Site, the village today is beneath Fort Lowell Park and the surrounding neighborhood.

Hohokam people lived at the Hardy Site for almost a thousand years, from A.D. 300 to 1250. The earliest settlers at the village were probably colonists from the Gila-Salt River heartland. The Hardy Site is one of several early villages strategically located in the basin at points where farmland was abundant and natural resources were easily obtained.

The Hohokam at the Hardy Site farmed the rich bottomlands south of the Rillito and west of the Pantano. They crossed the Rillito to collect saguaro and other desert plants on the lower slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains and ventured into the Catalinas to find pine and fir posts suitable for house and ramada buildings.

The Hardy Site villagers lived like their neighbors in the basin, changing gradually through time, but retaining their basic style of life. Then, around A.D. 1250, people began to abandon the Hardy Site village. The abandonment was not sudden. We imagine that a few families left at a time, moving to other villages near the Rillito River. As they left, the villagers scavenged valuable items from their houses. They pulled the large roof and wall supports from their homes and carried portable objects to the new villages. Over a period of years, the settlement was emptied.

Climate change at this time may have affected the subsistence patterns of the Indians, forcing them to concentrate on native plant foods or to find new areas for farming. Undoubtedly, a combination of cultural and natural factors caused the abandonment of the Hardy Site and others in the basin, followed by the establishment of new villages.

Since the Hohokam abandoned the Hardy village, natural and human forces have changed its appearance. Houses and ramadas that were not dismantled collapsed shortly after the villagers left. Dust and dirt, carried in by wind and rain, gradually covered the houses, work areas, cemeteries, and trash mounds. Rabbits and ground squirrels burrowed into the soft powdery soil that blanketed the site. Bushes and weeds encroached on fields and living areas. A hundred years after its abandonment, only low mounds, patches of gray, ashy soil, and scattered debris marked the site.

The next human occupation of the site occurred in 1873, when the United States Army built Fort Lowell in the center of the prehistoric village. No known record details what Hohokam artifacts or features the builders of the fort found during construction. However, prehistoric debris must have been plentiful, since many of the fort adobes contain stone tools and pottery sherds. With the abandonment of the fort in 1891 came more construction and disturbance of the site. Houses, apartments, and other facilities built since that time have disturbed over seventy percent of the prehistoric village. The remaining, undamaged parts of the site are indicated by the presence of such cultural debris as sherds, pieces of bone and shell, and discarded stone tools.

Archaeological Survey

Many Hohokam sites in the Tucson Basin resemble the Hardy Site village. Amidst the modern buildings and debris of Tucson, low mounds and ancient trash are all that is left to indicate a Hohokam village, but even the most disturbed sites can yield a certain amount of information. For instance, one can tell the general age of a site by the types of pottery found. The type of site (for example, village or campsite) can also be determined sometimes. Campsites are small, often less than five acres, and contain very little decorated pottery. Villages, on the other hand, are larger, ranging in size from 5 to 200 acres, and there is decorated pottery in abundance. Low mounds covered with cultural debris are also often present at village sites.

Once an archaeologist determines the size and age of the sites in a given area, he can study the settlement pattern apparent from those sites. A settlement pattern study shows how a people used the topographic features of the region where they lived. For example, the Tucson Basin Hohokam built large villages on or just above the floodplain along the major streams in the basin. The large villages were situated near extensive tracts of arable land. Small, outlying villages, probably related to the larger villages, occurred on ridges at the junctions of mountain slopes and river terraces. The smaller villages were apparently located in areas suitable for hill-slope dry farming and collection of desert resources. The Hohokam also established campsites on lower mountain slopes, for the collection of foothill and mountain foods. Finally, the Indians used large exposures of rock in the foothills to carve pictures (petroglyphs); they created shrines in the higher mountains. Thus the Hohokam made use of almost every feature of the Tucson Basin.

Archaeological Excavation

Although generalizations can be made about the Hohokam from studying the remains on the ground surface at archaeological sites, more detailed information can be obtained only by excavation. (Much of what archaeologists know about peoples who lived in the past has been learned through excavation.) It has become possible to determine the differences between Hohokam villages and campsites by excavating several of each type of site. Relative ages of certain types of pottery are suggested by their placement in stratigraphic levels and by changes in designs, but exact ages for pottery and other artifacts can only be determined by tree-ring dates or comparisons with trade sherds from tree-ring dated sites.

There are many different ways to excavate a site. At the Hardy village, archaeologists selected three different techniques. First, they dug trenches to determine types and extent of subsurface remains (houses, trash pits, ramadas). Then, test pits, one by two meters (three by six feet) in size, were excavated into two trash mounds, to examine the time depth of each mound and the variety of trash discarded by the Hohokam. Finally, archaeologists laid out a grid system over a previously trenched area that promised undisturbed remains. They dug in squares of two by two meters, stripping areas down in ten cenhmeter (four inch) layers. An area totaling twenty by twenty meters (sixty by sixty feet) was stripped to the caliche level underlying the site.

Archaeologists mapped and photographed features such as pit houses and trash pits. Excavators labeled all artifacts (bone, shell, stone, and pottery) according to the grid square and layer in which they were found. The location of any artifact found within a feature was specifically recorded. For example, a metate resting on an ashy layer would be measured according to the grid square in which it was found, its exact horizontal location in the square, and its precise vertical depth below the ground surface. Archaeologists recorded in notebooks all of the information regarding locations of features and artifacts and saved the data for later study.

Regardless of the excavation technique used, the most important aspect in digging is recording the relationship between features and artifacts. A jar plucked out of the ground without regard to its location is of little value except for aesthetic considerations. A jar found in place on the floor of a burned house, on the other hand, is very useful in the interpretation of past events. By noting the jar in its place on the floor, an archaeologist might be able to determine whether the jar was used for storage or cooking. Contents of the vessel can be analyzed to determine what type of food or other material was inside at the time the house burned. If the jar was decorated, the age of the house could be determined.

In order to determine which structures and which objects were used at the same time, special care must be taken to assess the exact relationship between architectural features and artifacts. This is because most Hohokam villages were used continually over a long period of time. After houses were abandoned or destroyed, others were built on top of them. The Indians also used houses as trash repositories, or dug storage and cooking pits down into old houses and work areas. Features and artifacts thus become jumbled together and present a confusing picture to the archaeologist.

Archaeological Interpretation

After finishing an excavation and making all observations possible in the field, archaeologists then examine the material recovered in the course of the excavation. Pottery sherds are sorted according to type; broken vessels are mended; and the distribution of all pottery is examined. Stone tools are classified by possible use. A study of their distribution can show where in the village stone tools were made and where they were used. Recovery of small items like shell beads or figurines might indicate where a Hohokam broke a favorite necklace or lost a special talisman.

Geologists and biologists also aid in the analysis of recovered information and materials. Geologists establish the age of features at the site, using radiocarbon and archaeomagnetic dating methods. Another important dating method in the Southwest is tree-ring dating. Biologists identify animal bone and vegetal remains to determine what plants and animals the Hohokam used.

Because the data recovered from any excavation are fragmentary, a reconstruction based on the remains from one site is incomplete.

excavated portion of Hardy Site village

An excavated portion of the Hardy Site village is shown. The Hohokam continually reused portions of their villages over hundreds of years. Six pit houses an offertory area or cemetery, and a storage pit are visible in this photograph. The most recent houses, dating between A.D. 1100 and 1200, are in the left foreground and right background. Between them is the smooth, plastered, offertory area that was used from A. D. 500 to 700. In the center foreground, under the most recent house, is the earliest house at the site, which dates between A. D. 300 and 500.

Comparisons must be made with other excavations in an area. In order to reconstruct the Hardy village, it was compared to several other village sites in the Tucson Basin, including the Hodges Site, Punta de Agua sites, and University Indian ruin. Since the Hardy village is an open site, few remains of clothing and other perishable artifacts still existed. Ventana Cave, an excavated site on the Papago Reservation west of Tucson, provided most of the information known about perishable Hohokam goods.

In reconstructing activities at a site, prehistorians also use ethnographic information, that is, information about living people native to the region who are related to past residents. In southern Arizona, the Pima and Papago way of life can be studied to better understand the way of life of the Hohokam. Most useful to the archaeologist is ethnographic information about behavior, such as the number of people living in one house, the reasons villages are arranged in certain ways, and the use of particular tools. The material evidence left by recorded ethnographic behavior is carefully observed. By comparing the ethnographic evidence with prehistoric remains, archaeologists can reconstruct the behavior of a prehistoric people.

Interpretation of the Hardy Site

In developing a picture of the Hardy village as it was a thousand years ago, we used both archaeological and ethnographic information. Only a hny portion of the whole village was excavated. That part of the village was used at various times as a cemetery and housing area. Many pieces of evidence helped us reconstruct the history of this small part of the village.

In some cases, fate acting in the favor of the archaeologist provides evidence that would otherwise be lost. Basketry, sandals, and other objects made of vegetal materials rarely survive in open Hohokam sites. Occasionally burning will transform such objects into a more durable substance that resists the chemical erosion of desert soils. For example, if a basket is accidentally burned, it will survive a long time. Several pieces of charred basketry have been recovered from the Tucson Basin.

At the Hardy Site, no basketry was found. However, a clay stopper from a basketry vessel had been baked when a pit house burned, and was recovered. The stopper was originally a piece of soft clay that had been pressed over the opening of a rimless basket. In the fire, the basket completely burned away, but the basket's impression was left in the clay. Consequently, we have evidence of the original basket, its stopper, and a method of ancient storage.

In another burned house, the clay lining of the walls and posts was preserved. This baked-clay lining preserved impressions of reeds that also lined the walls. As with the basket stopper, soft clay was pressed against the reeds which formed the inner part of the wall. The reeds burned away leaving their fossil-like impressions on the hardened clay. From the floor of that house, an unusual fragment of clay with corncob impressions was also found. Evidently, the corn cobs were used as packing around an upright wall support, to make the post footing more solid. The clay was pressed around the corn cobs to create a smooth finish. The corncobs were burned out in the fire, but the packed clay, acting as a mold, retained the shape of the cobs around which it had been packed.

Illustration of Adobe Impressions of Basketry (30K)

Burning preserved many vegetal remains in the form of charcoal. Charred remnants of juniper and Douglas fir posts were found in houses at the Hardy Site. The nearest source of such trees is in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The Hardy Site villagers must have trekked into the mountains to collect posts for their houses. Burned mesquite wood, saguaro ribs, and reeds found at the site provided information about Hohokam use of other parts of the basin.

Contact with other areas of the Southwest is indicated by trade goods discovered during excavation. The Hardy Site villagers apparently lost or threw away pieces of shell, turquoise, and other stones. One item, a large serpentine bead, was carefully shaped from a stone found along the Salt River, in central Arizona north of Globe (see page 14). It was found in an offertory cache and must have been highly valued by its owner.

Pottery was also traded into the village. Differences in painted design helped us to determine where the original pots were made. Most of the traded pottery came from the Hohokam heartland. This pottery is a red-on-buff ware. Its light color and porous texture show that it is from outside the basin.

The second largest group of trade pottery sherds are from bowls made in the Dragoon Mountains and the San Simon River valley in southeastern Arizona. These bowls were made by the Mogollon people and can be identified by their red exteriors and polished red-on-brown or red-on-white interiors.

Small amounts of pottery with black, polished interiors and sometimes textured exteriors were found. These sherds were from the extreme southeastern portion of Arizona and southwestern portion of New Mexico. The most obvious trade pottery found at the site were black-on-white sherds from the Mimbres Valley of New Mexico and the White Mountains of Arizona. These sherds, which came from the farthest distance, make up the smallest portion of trade pottery.

Events of daily life of the Hardy Site villagers could be assembled from data gathered during excavation. Around A.D. 1150, the people living in the excavated area made a working space adjacent to their house. The working space may have been shaded by a ramada. There, an archaeolozist discovered two hammer stones used for chipping stone tools, a pestle used for pounding seeds, a stone abrader used to smooth edges of shell, bone, or stone artifacts, a turquoise bead, and a tiny shell bead. The tools were not broken discards but had been left in place ready to be used again. The two small beads might have been lost while the Hohokam worked in the area.

Near the working space and house was a small room. Used for storage and cooking, the room burned down between A.D. 1125 and 1200. The fire must have consumed the room quickly, for several pottery vessels, manos, pestles, and a metate were left inside. Most of the pottery vessels were decorated and formed a cooking kit. Pieces included a storage jar, two small cooking jars, a bowl used for cooking, two small and one large mixing or serving bowls, one pouring bowl, a platter, and large sherds used as plates. All of the artifacts were found in one half of the house, as if the inhabitants had cleared the rest of the house for working space. That the room had been remodeled from an earlier house was shown by a second hearth underneath the plastered storeroom floor.

examples of ceramic vessels

The ceramic vessels in this Hohokam "cooking kit" were found in a small storeroom at the site. Foods used by the Hohokam, in addition to corn, are-from left to right-barrel cactus fruit, tepary beans, saguaro seeds and cholla buds. All foods shown are modern examples.

Underneath several house floors, there was a compressed layer of ash barely one centimeter thick. As the digging progressed, patches of a plastered surface and small pits filled with burned human bone were uncovered beneath the ash layer. Near the center of the plastered surface was a large pottery bowl painted with floral designs. The bowl's exterior was incised and decorated with parallel lines. The technique of decoration indicates that the bowl was made between A.D. 500 and 700. Next to the bowl there was a small pottery incense burner painted red and also incised. It once had four small legs that were broken off before the vessel was placed on the surface. Both of the pottery vessels were placed on the surface upside down.

The next find was a small, fired, female figurine, made of clay. Its body was realistically modeled from two coils of clay. The face of the figurine was mask-like, rectangular with incised slit eyes and a pinched-up nose. The find of a whole figurine is rare in the Hohokam area, because the Indians usually broke figurines before placing them with a cremation.

We were able to determine from these objects the ritual nature of the ash-covered surface. Other offerings and the small amounts of human bone indicated that the surface was an offertory area or cemetery. The artifacts on it were blessings left to commemorate the dead, when the surface was in use between A.D. 500 and 700.

As these and other fragments of evidence were assembled, the history of part of the Hardy Site village was revealed. When the village began around A. D. 300, at least one family lived in the excavated area, but, by A.D. 500, the use of the area had changed. At first, the Hohokam dug pits from which they mined caliche for use in plaster and adobe. Later, they filled the pits with trash. Adjacent to those pits, the Indians established a cemetery and plastered offertory area. The area, used from A.D. 500 to 700, was plastered and may have had a ramada-like shade over it.

Shortly thereafter, one or two families again built houses in the area, but did not remain very long. From A.D. 800 to around 1000, the Hohokam used the excavated area infrequently as a work area or path. Then, around A.D. 1000, one or two families again built houses in the area, digging through the earlier cemetery and houses in the process. In A.D. 1100, two new, adobe-walled, pit houses were built, and villagers remodeled an older pit house and used it as a storage room until it caught fire and burned.

illustration of bowl and figurine found

This bowl and figurine were found on the offertory plaza at the Hardy Site village. They date between A. D. 500 and 700 and were probably traded in to the area from the Gila and Salt River valleys. The flower design on the bowl is rare.

At around A.D. 1200, the houses in the excavated area were abandoned. They lay empty for several years but were reused briefly after the village was finally abandoned in A.D. 1250. The nature of the reuse is unknown, but may have been nothing more than the result of children at play.

The Hardy Site is only one example of an excavated Hohokam village, but by comparing the few other excavated sites with the Hardy village, a composite story of the Tucson Basin Hohokam has been developed. The story will never be complete because of natural and human factors that have changed the sites through time. However, the history of the Hohokam that has emerged is one of a people who were able to adapt to a desert environment by combining agriculture with hunting and gathering. The Hohokam developed a unique culture that lasted for over a thousand years in the Sonoran Desert.

Copyright © 1979. The Arizona Board of Regents

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