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Peering through history 

If you head to Papago Park on any fine spring day, you’re sure to see a crowd at Hole in the Rock, a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

The perfect spot for a quick hike and a beautiful view, Hole in the Rock is a sandstone rock formation that got its hollowed-out shape from natural erosion. And long before it was a backdrop for selfies and Instagram posts, this window on the world played a special role in the lives of the prehistoric Sonoran Desert dwellers called the Hohokam.

The Hohokam, known for their role in developing a network of irrigation canals, were farmers in the Salt River Valley and used the canals to water their crops. They were also astrologists, marking the movements of the heavenly bodies. By charting the sun’s rays through a small hole in the ceiling, they created a calendar on the floor of the rock shelter that told them the year’s solstices and equinoxes, and when to plant crops and mark traditional ceremonies. According to the sign at the trailhead, nearby boulders also played a role in marking these important events.

This historically significant spot was preserved as a designated archeological site, in part thanks to old postcards. 

In 1913, Arizona’s first congressman, Carl Hayden, had been getting nothing but rejection letters from the federal government in his quest to designate Papago as a national monument. Then he broke through by attaching five dime-store postcards to his correspondence with the land commissioner.

“It is believed that under the National Monument Act, the extraordinary forms of cacti shown in the postcards enclosed with your letter are of sufficient scientific interest to warrant their segregation and protection by the Government,” the commissioner responded.

Over the years, many of the Hohokam petroglyphs were painted over with graffiti. In his history of Hole in the Rock, author Jason Gart shares the National Park Service’s concerns about the desecration of the monument: Hand-painted on the monument by a host of local business firms, the writing disfigured the monument with endorsements of Goldberg’s Men’s Furnishers, Go to Hartwells for Photos, and White and Wesley Reliable Jewelers.

The next time you take out-of-town guests or a picnic lunch up to Hole in the Rock, take a moment to remember the special role this sandstone rock formation played in the lives of the Hohokam civilization. And if you’ve never been, go check it out. The smooth path around the back makes it an easy trip up to this unique geological formation.