Tempe wants to compile a more complete story of its past to better identify and protect significant archaeological sites harboring vestiges of the ancient Hohokam culture and the Valley’s early American pioneer period.
It’s an urgent task because valuable historical evidence could be lost as ground is moved for development and redevelopment projects on the horizon, said historic preservation officer Joe Nucci.
Research indicates that "between 12 (percent) and 15 percent of Tempe is archaeologically sensitive. Chances are that one out every six times developers dig up ground, they’re digging in a significant site," he said.
Nucci and Tempe Historical Museum administrator Amy Douglass hope to assemble a full collection of archaeological studies of the Tempe area that have been done since the late 19th century, many of which are in numerous places.
The data "will show us where we need to do more protection" of sensitive sites, Nucci said.
The Tempe City Council recently approved the use of a $250,000 grant for several projects to search for old archaeological records and gather data on local history.
The grant comes from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. It’s funded through Proposition 202, approved in a statewide election two years ago.
It requires Arizona’s American Indian tribes to distribute 12 percent of proceeds from their gaming operations to local municipalities for public service projects.
Besides compiling archaeological studies, Tempe officials want to record oral histories from the local Indian communities, particularly for what such personal histories can reveal about places in Tempe that have been culturally significant to local tribes.
Some tribal members are able to relate stories carried down through their ancestry about sites that were important for ceremonial rites or religious rituals, or stories about tribes’ interactions with early American settlers, Douglass said.
Another project will involve interviews with archaeologists who did early studies in Tempe when many sites were more intact.
The Salt River area in Tempe — today including the downtown core, Arizona State University’s main campus, Tempe Town Lake and Papago Park — is of special interest because it was a center of Hohokam activity in the Valley for centuries, possibly dating back to about 1200.
Archaeological digs were first done in the vicinity in the late 1800s. Since then, a slew of federal and state agencies, ASU researchers and private companies have carried out studies, but there’s no complete record of the projects or where all the data ended up.
It’s going to require painstaking detective work to track it all down, Nucci said.
The data may point to places where additional analysis will uncover new information, said Mayor Hugh Hallman, who served on city committees that helped set policy for protecting Tempe’s archaeological sites.
He would like to see the latest research techniques be used to re-examine key sites.
"I think there are more discoveries to be made,’’ he said.