Major Archaeological Discovery in Sierra Vista (of all places)


I’m doing a quick c/p from the Sierra Vista Herald.  The information is way too fascinating and has enormous implications for ancient archaeology in southern Arizona. It makes a heck of a lot of sense, thought.  There was a major source of water and excellent pasture land.  Evidently the same thing has been attracting settlers to the Cochise County region for a good 3000 years.


“SIERRA VISTA — A mysterious “circle stone” is puzzling archaeologists who unearthed it with an ancient village in the West End.

“You don’t find little pieces of rock art like that very often,” archaeologist Avi Buckles said Wednesday.

The stone has caused a buzz of amazement and speculation among his peers.

One archaeologist calls it “the circle stone,” but it is a rare object. Its purpose is not yet known. Roughly the size of a grapefruit but more spherical, the stone contains carved concentric rings covering one hemisphere. It was possibly a ritual device and may have served an astronomical function, according to archaeologists from WestLand Resources in Tucson.

Buckles works for WestLand Resources Inc., an Arizona engineering and environmental consultancy that has been studying the site for more than a year. The company has offices in Tucson and Phoenix.

Bill Deaver, a senior archaeologist and principal investigator with WestLand, walked among the still-exposed ruins on Dec. 10 and described what is believed to be a desert Mogollon community that preliminary analysis indicates existed about the time of Christ until A.D. 600. Deaver estimated 200 people may have occupied the tiny village during those centuries. At any point in time, no more than one or two families lived there, with a family of four or five people dwelling in a “prehistoric frame-and-stucco” house built partially below the ground level.

“What we found are mostly pieces of broken plain brown ware and plain red pottery,” Deaver said. “We didn’t find any painted pottery here. The material culture here is quite basic. There’s not a lot of elaboration with it.”

The archaeologists also found a lot of broken chipping debris from tool-making but found few tools. They found grinding implements, which were “pretty rudimentary,” Deaver said, noting the Mogollon are known for having a longer reliance than other cultures on hunting and gathering. They subsisted on grass and native plants: acorns, walnuts, grass seeds and cactus fruits. Arm bracelets made from seashells pointed to known trade corridors.

The archaeologists are not ruling out the possibility that these villagers were growing and grinding corn. In the Tucson area, from 1200 B.C. until the time of Christ, there was significant reliance on corn as part of the diet of the indigenous culture, Deaver said.

But, he added, “up here,” in the chaparral grasslands, “I would put this under the rubric of the Mogollon culture.”

Exactly what the people in this village ate, as well as other specific information, remains to be precisely known. There is much analysis and study to be done by WestLand in the months and years ahead. Mark Chenault, Ph.D., WestLand’s archaeology program manager, said of the pre-decorated ceramics, “Because this is plain ware, it indicates it’s early, but it doesn’t tell us a precise date yet, so we’re waiting to run our archaeo-magnetic dating samples and our radio-carbon dating samples to get a better calendar date for the occupation.”

Archaeology is like solving a puzzle with more pieces missing than there are pieces in the hand.

One tantalizing piece that you can hold in your hand is “the circle stone,” as WestLand archaeologist Christine Jerla calls it. Roughly the size of a slow-pitch softball, one hemisphere has concentric circles carved in relief. The motif is reminiscent of the relatively common spiral petroglyphs found etched on immovable rock faces in Arizona.

“Portable rock art” is how Buckles describes the odd artifact found in Sierra Vista.

“Very rare,” he said Wednesday. “Very rare.”

Jerla added, “We were awed by that one.”

Buckles has been searching for clues to the meaning and purpose of the rock, which archaeologists acknowledge may have been designed as merely a piece of art for aesthetic pleasure. In one book he has found “an interesting stone vessel, which on (the) other side had that same symbol on it.” The stone tray was found in what is today Chihuahua, Mexico.

Was this a metate, a type of grinding tool?

“No. It’s something that’s unique unto itself,” said Deaver, who defers to Buckles on the study of the stone. He does not believe the object was “utilitarian.”

Was it possibly a stamp or seal?

“We’ve had that,” Deaver said.

Buckles noted that there was no pigment found on the stone to indicate that.

Deaver raised another possibility that Buckles is investigating and that the Huachuca Astronomy Club might appreciate. Deaver said there are rock art glyphs that are “related to tracking the sun and moon,” and the circle stone might be linked to such an astronomic purpose.

Often, spirals are seen on pottery, he said, and sometimes there are concentric circles. The motif is seen in different media, “but we’ve not seen it before on a portable stone object … which makes it real unusual.”

Unable to answer definitively, Deaver shrugged and said, “To me, it’s a ritual item.”

The circle stone is just one of more than 700 features found at the site, Deaver said.

About 20 boxes of artifacts were found at the site, which is known to archaeologists by the name given to it by developers Karol George and Dick Pino. The name is Summit Heights. It is a pending new-homes development on 40 acres near the southeast corner of Buffalo Soldier Trail and Golf Links Road.

Because the developers sought to re-channel a drainage way, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to become involved as a permit-issuing regulatory authority, based on Section 404 of the U.S. Clean Water Act as it relates to navigable rivers in Arizona. As of Dec. 10, the Corps was expected to issue a permit to the developers within 30 days, Deaver said.

The Corps relies on archaeologists’ reports, which WestLand has submitted.

“We have to make sure that there are no adverse effects on cultural resources,” said Sallie McGuire, of the Corps’ Regulatory Division/Arizona Branch based in Phoenix. She said those resources can be prehistoric sites or historic ones.

George said he and Pino have spent about $240,000 to comply with the regulations. These archaeological costs have included payment for the repatriation of ancient burials found on the site to their presumed descendants, the Tohono O’odham people, under established patrimonial agreements between the federal government and Native Americans.

Several calls were made to the executive office of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation last week, but the Herald/Review was not able to receive an official comment from the tribe in time for this article.

The Tohono O’odham handles burials from a large portion of Southern Arizona, and remains that are found and removed from sites in the past have been reburied by the tribe.

The archaeological diversion also will cost the developers a curation fee of $600 per box of artifacts, unless the developers are established customers billed under a grandfathered rate that is just under $600, Jerla said. As WestLand’s lab director, she is responsible for curating the artifacts — organizing, cataloguing and looking after them in accordance with a contract with the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, which will become the ultimate repository for the artifacts. She noted that artifacts can be shared — for free, to places that could include the Hauser Museum at the Ethel Berger Center or another, yet-to-be-established local facility — under a sort of inter-museum loan program.

When the Corps of Army Engineers permit is issued, George said he hoped construction would begin during the first quarter of 2009. Models of the new homes could be ready as early as July, he added.

Those homes will be quite a bit bigger than the adobe structures that once stood here.

Deaver showed the reporters the remains of one excavated pit house. To the untrained eye, there isn’t much there.

“You’re standing just outside the doorway,” Deaver said, retracing the footsteps of an ancient dweller who would have stepped down several inches into their earth-hugging, energy-efficient home. A horizontal piece of wood was once lodged across the threshold, providing a tread to step on. One can see where the builder’s hand pressed a type of gunite layering against the earthen walls where those met the sunken floor.

Most of the homes’ entrances faced east. One faces north. Deaver does not know why and speculates that somebody “had a different idea about what was appropriate for building a house than everybody else.”

The homes are very close together. George quipped that the setback requirements were less strict than they are today.

The total area in the houses in ancient village ranged from 4 to 9 square meters, Deaver said. “They vary.”

A total of 30 to 40 houses came and went during the village’s existence.

Posts cut from small trees, believed to be juniper, were spaced 12 to 15 inches apart. A screen of smaller branches were lashed to the posts to make a complete wall covering, and then the builders put “their mud on top of that,” Deaver said. “It’s a pretty common practice for the way people built, using the wood and mud out here.”

One of the artifacts found on the site — a three-quarter groove ax — was likely used in the construction of homes. The ax was slightly cracked by a backhoe during the excavations.

“Obviously, this is real important to have when you’re making structures out of wood … to be able to cut down the tree to get your central supports and to get all your structure made out of wood.” Buckles said.

The ax was made from hard stone, probably from the Sierra Vista area, he added.

Deaver pointed out a feature just inside the entrance to the home.

“That’s the fire pit itself.”

Directly behind it was an ash pit.

“They would scoop the hot ash out of the ash pit, but the main fire would be in that fire pit,” he said.

This particular fire pit was no more than 8 inches deep and 10 inches in diameter. It provided enough heat to get a family through a high-desert winter.

These ancient dwellers were known to have woven fabrics. So, they probably dressed for the cold.

“Human intelligence hasn’t really changed for … 100,000 years, or depending on what you believe in terms of when people came around,” Deaver said, “but at least for the last 10,000 years our capacity for knowledge is the same … our intelligence … what has changed is our technology.”


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