When stressing out in the security line at Sky Harbor Airport and later rolling down the runway in an ultramodern jet plane, it’s all too easy to forget the fact that you are within a mile of the epicenter of a once-mighty ancient civilization.
The people that we now call the Hohokam coalesced into a proper civilization sometime around the year 1 A.D. Their ingenious canal system – the foundation of the one we use to this day – enabled them to establish a bustling society in the desert, boasting a population in the tens of thousands at its peak.
Pueblo Grande, the ruins of the Hohokam’s largest Valley-area mound village, lies less than half a mile north of the Salt River near the intersection of 44th St. and Washington.
In the 1920s, a doctor donated this plot of land to the city in hopes that they would preserve it. Soon after acquiring it, the City of Phoenix became the first in the country to have an official city archaeologist when they hired Odd Halseth in 1929.
Halseth was working on a budget and allegedly constructed the first version of the Pueblo Grande Museum with “scavenged supplies” and natural adobe blocks for just $14.95.
Although it has undergone a number of renovations since Halseth’s initial construction job, the Pueblo Grande Museum has remained continuously open to the public for 90 years.
Phoenix continues to employ a city archaeologist who works out of the Pueblo Grande Museum. Today the title belongs to Laurene Montero.
Montero grew up in New York but became captivated with the archaeology of Arizona as a child when her father took her to sites such as Tuzigoot and Canyon de Chelly.
According to Montero, a combination of the dry climate, lack of natural obstacles to digging, prevalence of prehistoric civilizations and relatively young history of modern development makes Arizona an especially excellent place to unearth ancient artifacts.
“It’s a good place to be an archaeologist,” Montero said.
At their height, between the years 500 and 1450 A.D., the Hohokam boasted an extraordinary canal system, trade routes extending across the region and their own sport played on a clay court.
Today, the museum’s preserved ruins and informative exhibits give visitors a glimpse into what life was like for them.
The facility’s permanent exhibit features remains of cookware and explanatory graphics that reveal the staples of the Hohokam diet: mesquite flower, squash, beans, cacti, agave and corn.
“It’s amazing what you can grow in the desert if you have water,” Visitor Services Supervisor Laura Andrews said.
The inaugural Moonlight over the Mound event will celebrate the museum’s 90th anniversary on the evening of October 19. The outdoor dinner will feature small dishes by Valley chefs that will utilize the same Sonoran Desert ingredients cultivated by the Hohokam.
The museum is also celebrating its 90th anniversary with a three-part exhibit focused on its own history that will feature displays at Pueblo Grande, Sky Harbor Airport and City Hall.
Museum Administrator Nicole Armstrong-Best hopes the City Hall exhibit will be a reminder to elected officials of their innovative commitment to preservation.
“The City of Phoenix Council voted to do this in the late 20s. How forward thinking was that? They should be very proud of the support that they’ve given for 90 years,” Armstrong-Best said.
Today, the museum aims to connect Valley residents to the area’s ancient history through its exhibits, events and educational activities. It also strives to promote awareness of the cultural continuity between the Hohokam and the current-day Valley tribes who descended from them, such as the O’odham.
In addition to special offerings, the museum hosts a number of recurring events. Free monthly lectures are held on the first Wednesday of every month (from October to June) from authors, artists and scholars. Each December, they celebrate Native American Arts with an Indian Market that includes musical performances, art of all kinds and traditional foods.
Pueblo Grande Museum also works to inspire the next generation of preservationists with their Archaeology for Kids program (in January) that offers seven- to 12-year-olds the opportunity to participate in a simulated excavation of a Hohokam pit house.
They also offer regular family-friendly petroglyph tours at South Mountain, designed to bring people of all ages to the real-life sites of ancient Hohokam rock carvings. Programs for adults and kids will start back up in the spring of 2020.
Montero says that uncovering the lives of the Valley’s ancient inhabitants and conveying their story to the public has the power to create a more compassionate community.
“Learning about what was here before kind of fills a hole you never even knew was there. You’re more likely to care for not only the land but your neighbors,” Montero said. “I think for most people, when they really start learning, it can change their life.”
For more: pueblogrande.com.
Dig and Drink is an archaeological program for adults to debut in January 2020. Adults 21 and older can participate in a simulated excavation in Pueblo Grande Museum’s archaeology pit through the unique guidance of an expert archaeologist, and finish the evening with trivia and a and drink at PHX Beer Co. Brewery + Taproom in Phoenix.
Archaeology for Kids will take place on January 4, 2020. Children ages seven to 12 can become a Junior Archaeologist and discover the science of archaeology by doing a simulated excavation of a Hohokam pit house. Kids will learn how to identify artifacts in the field and discover how archaeologists use these artifacts to learn more about past cultures.