With its movie theater, chain restaurants, new car dealerships and retail stores, Mesa Riverview is about the last place you’d expect to find evidence of an ancient culture.
But buried beneath the parking lots and big-box stores, a system of irrigation ditches built hundreds of years ago cuts through the earth. A few miles away, a ceremonial mound larger than a football field juts from the ground near a hospital, and relics of an impressive canal system anchor a neighborhood park.
They’re examples of ancient Hohokam ruins surrounded, or buried, by modern development. The valley is full of such remains, built by farming people who lived in the area from approximately A.D. 1 to 1450. You can learn more about them, and ruins across Arizona, at the Archaeology Expo, going on this weekend at the Valley’s premier ruin site, Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeology Park in Phoenix.
At the free event, visitors can participate in a simulated excavation, tour prehistoric ruins, get a behind-the-scenes look at archaeology labs and artifact collections and make crafts that illustrate how the state’s early inhabitants survived. There are also living history re-enactments with costumed characters, storytellers, entertainers, educational booths and food vendors.
The more people care about archaeology, the better chance ancient sites have of being studied, says Jerry Howard, curator of anthropology at Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa and member of local citizen-based preservation group Southwest Archaeology Team.
Mesa Grande, the 27-foot-high temple mound in the heart of Mesa, wasn’t protected by so much as a fence until 1979, he says.
“It was super for bikes. Kids liked to ride their bikes over the top, and cars and Jeeps would drive on it,” says Howard.
The Southwest Archaelogy Team is working to excavate the site and open it for public tours.
“It’s pretty unique to have a huge piece of the past in the middle of a city, and it’s truly remarkable what (the Hohokam) did here. Our job when we go out to excavate these sites is to learn something new about the past that we didn’t know before, and as we lose sites, we lose the ability to learn,” says Howard.
Pueblo Grande Museum is at a 1,500-year-old Hohokam village surrounded by Phoenix. The grounds cover 102 acres of ruins, including an 800-year-old platform mound, an excavated ballcourt, full-scale reproductions of prehistoric Hohokam homes and some of the last remaining intact Hohokam irrigation canals.
Admission to the museum is free this weekend.