Ancestors and Artifacts

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Archaeology puts eyes on powerful messages left by our ancestors, who tell us through artifacts how they experience their folklife. The staff of Archaeology Southwest ( — the Tucson-based nonprofit focused on preservation archaeology across the American southwest and Mexican northwest — helps this BorderLore edition recognize Arizona Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month, at the same time speaking to the convergence of archaeology with folk cultures.

How do archaeology processes provide a mechanism to help probe the meaning of everyday, traditional culture? Would you give us an example of your work at Archaeology Southwest (and artifacts recovered locally) that might illustrate this?

Archaeology Southwest (Doug Gann, Digital Media Specialist and Preservation Archaeologist):
Most people will read “archaeological processes” and think of digging, not 3D digital modeling. But that’s what I do, and my work is very much an extension of the archaeological process. I use new media technologies to interpret archaeological information for the public and explore such themes as cultural continuity, technological change and persistent places.

One of my favorite local projects has been developing a digital visualization that takes viewers back in time from a familiar view at Sentinel Peak — “A” Mountain — to historic and ancient views from the same vantage point. At a specific moment in the experience, viewers may enter the 1820s landscape of the Tohono O’odham village of Chuk Son, including the San Agustín Mission. The last traces of the Mission were lost in the 1950s, as the City of Tucson’s landfill overwhelmed the mission site. It was a sad fate for such an important place.

Digital Model
Digital visualization, courtesy Archaeology Southwest, Doug Gann, Digital Media Specialist and Preservation Archaeologist

I’m going to turn your question around a little bit now, because on this project, ordinary things informed about things archaeology could not, and also underscored the presence that the Mission had in the community in the past. I used multiple lines of evidence to create our digital model of the Chapel and Convento. I had archaeological data recovered by William Wasley of the Arizona State Museum in 1956 and additional data — including tiny plaster fragments that turned out to be significant — recovered by Desert Archaeology, Inc., in 2000 and 2003. But I also drew from an account by Tucson pioneer Atanacia Santa Cruz de Hughes (1850–1934) published in 1930; hand-drawn plans from 1926; an antique postcard our colleague Homer Thiel found for sale online; an 1856 watercolor by John Russell Bartlett; an oil painting that was exhibited in a private gallery in Tucson in 2008–2009, and more than fifty historic photographs! Some of these photos were loaned to us by Tucson families of long standing, who responded to our public appeals for images of the Mission.

It was rewarding to work on a project that community members with such deep roots found meaningful. And as the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace gain support and projects like the Mission Garden move forward, it’s clear that community is celebrating and finding meaning in that place again. I’m glad to have played a part by giving people a sense of what it looked like.

Rock art is a heritage so many recognize and love. What (or how) does rock art tell us about traditional culture and the everyday life of our region’s ancient communities?

Archaeology Southwest (Janine Hernbrode and Peter Boyle, Archaeology Southwest Board members, and Henry D. Wallace, our colleague at Desert Archaeology, Inc.):
Over the past few years, we’ve been documenting the Sutherland Wash Rock Art District, a complex of sites located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The complex centers around a bedrock canyon with deep tinajas (water catchment basins) that even today contain water much of the year. This was a special place for the Hohokam between about A.D. 1000 and 1300, and we think it was an important ceremonial center. Its location may have been a major entry point into the mountains, where people would have gathered a variety of resources, so it is a logical location for a communal ceremonial place.

There are more than 600 petroglyph panels in the district, including many representations of flowers, butterflies and birds. Such imagery is characteristic of a spiritual landscape known as the Flower World. In this Uto-Aztecan belief system of ancient Mesoamerican origin, believers evoked a flowery, colorful, glittering paradise through prayers, songs, and other actions. The likelihood of this connection is strengthened by the discovery of Mesoamerican copper bells at Honey Bee Village (a nearby Hohokam settlement) and in a cache of Hohokam artifacts found near the rock art district.

Through our documentation, it has become clear that some of the rock art panels at Sutherland Wash were intended—at least in part—to mark the position of the sun. Ethnographic evidence suggests that people may have done this to correctly time ceremonial gatherings. It is also possible that this was done as a celebration of the sun itself.

Can you comment on archaeology’s role in “placemaking”?

Archaeology Southwest: (Bill Doelle, President and CEO):
I think Archaeology Southwest’s mission statement puts it quite nicely: By exploring what makes a place special, sharing this knowledge in innovative ways, and enacting flexible site protection strategies, we foster meaningful connections to the past and respectfully safeguard its irreplaceable resources.

The key is not just to share what archaeology tells us makes a place special, but also to explore what diverse stakeholders have to say about why they feel a place is special, and then share that, as well. When people have or find a connection to a place, they can become engaged in preserving that place and ensuring that its story continues forward. That’s what happened with Doug’s project on the Mission.

This year’s Archaeology Expo (March 29) will be held in Catalina State Park, with plenty of activities, including rabbit-stick throwing, atlatl throwing, corn grinding, flint knapping, and pottery making, with information booths and materials focused on archaeological research in the state. According to Matt Peeples, Preservation Archaeologist (and Archaeology Southwest’s representative on the Expo’s planning committee), there will be tours and special lectures, including our board member Janine Hernbrode’s presentation on the Sutherland Wash Rock Art District and former Archaeology Southwest research associate Matt Pailes’s discussion of the Cerro Prieto site. Along with Catalina State Park staff, Archaeology Southwest staff members will offer several tours of Romero Ruin within the park. Our ancient technology expert, Allen Denoyer, will give tours of our replica Hohokam pithouse at nearby Steam Pump Ranch, and our close colleague, archaeologist Henry Wallace of Desert Archaeology, Inc., will guide two tours of Honey Bee Village, a significant Hohokam settlement in Oro Valley.

(Communications Coordinator Kate Sarther Gann):
Other upcoming events include the April 8 Archaeology Café (a monthly program co-hosted by Archaeology Southwest and Casa Vicente Restaurante Español.) At the April 8 café archaeomalacologist Arthur Vokes (Arizona State Museum) will explain what marine shell and other precious raw materials reveal about the extent and significance of trade in the ancient Southwest. Some of the routes people used to obtain these materials remain important to descendant groups today.

References (Kathleen Bader, Membership and Marketing Coordinator):
Selected readings from the Archaeology Southwest website (

Both publications will be for sale at the March 29 Expo (see:

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