Archaeologists Mark 75-year Anniversary of Seminal Hohokam Excavations

The UA's Emil Haury and others defined the prehistoric desert culture largely through their work at Snaketown.
July 12, 2009
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Hohokam pottery
Hohokam pottery
Effigy vessel excavated at Snaketown
Effigy vessel excavated at Snaketown

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first excavations at Snaketown, the large ancient Hohokam settlement on the present-day Gila River Indian Community, near Chandler, Ariz.

For archaeologists, including those at The University of Arizona and the Arizona State Museum, Snaketown represents a significant key to understanding the Hohokam, who lived in the Southwest from as early as A.D 500 until about A.D. 1450. It also began a sea change in how archaeological sites are now excavated and interpreted. That includes illuminating the lives of those who lived in prehistoric communities in much greater detail than ever before.

In the 1930s, Snaketown became the focus of two key individuals who wanted to learn more about the Hohokam and their influence in the Southwest: Harold Gladwin and Emil Haury.

Gladwin came to archaeology later in life. He had made a fortune as a stock broker and sold his seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1922.

"He sold it at the right time," said Raymond Thompson, the director emeritus of the Arizona State Museum who as a graduate student had met Gladwin a number of times.

Thompson said Gladwin made his way to Arizona and the ruins at Casa Grande around 1927, and was interested in the red-on-buff colored pottery shards littering not only Casa Grande but much of the desert southwest.

Gladwin established the Gila Pueblo Foundation in Globe, Ariz., and embarked on a survey to learn more about the Hohokam. He also enlisted Haury, a young archaeologist who had graduated from the UA in 1927 and earned his master's in 1928 here as well.

Haury was a student of two seminal figures in Arizona archaeology, Byron Cummings, the head of the UA archaeology department and director of the Arizona State Museum, and Andrew Douglass, the founder of the UA Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. Haury was already emerging as one of the central figures in southwestern archaeology by the time he finished his doctorate in 1934 at Harvard.

Gladwin made Haury the assistant director of the Gila Pueblo Foundation and put him in charge of field operations of Snaketown when the excavations began there in 1934.

"Gladwin was interesting but very complex," Thompson said. "He came out of business and had a great intellect. He had ideas on how to take on big problems and solve them. And he was willing to put his money behind it all. But he was baffling to a lot of academics."

Thompson said Gladwin had a comic streak and loved to make fun of people. "He enjoyed dreaming up utterly preposterous explanations ... just to annoy the hell out of his academic colleagues. And the more they got annoyed, the more fun it was for him," Thompson said.

One example was his 1947 book, "Men out of Asia," Gladwin's explanation of how remnants of Alexander the Great's army in India, and others, migrated from the Old World to the Americas. The book was a huge best-seller with the public, but cost Gladwin some of his support in academia. 

"You never knew how much of it was tongue-in-cheek, or if he was serious or just trying to get academics out of their stodgy ways of looking at things and trying something new," Thompson said.

To his credit, Thompson said, Gladwin was never afraid of revisiting his earlier theories and ideas. "For a man with no academic training (in archaeology), he was willing to reexamine things, and even back down on some of his ideas if he came up against a wall of facts or new evidence, and would move on to something different."

At Snaketown, Gladwin and Haury helped to define the Hohokam as a society. The goal was finding a chronology that would link classic signature of the Hohokam – the distinctive red-on-buff pottery – that appeared throughout central and southern Arizona, an area roughly the size of South Carolina.

Hohokam was essentially the northern edge of Mesoamerica, which included Mexico and Central America. They were one of the great irrigation societies in the world and built one of the largest canal systems anywhere in the Americas, according to Paul Fish, a curator of archaeology at the Arizona State Museum. 

Irrigation in the Southwest predated the Hohokam by many centuries, but they developed the technology to coax water from the Gila, Salt and other river systems to grow enough corn, beans, squash and other crops to support as many as 50,000 people.

Estimates vary on how many people lived in Snaketown at any given time. Paul Fish said because the land was extremely productive under irrigation it could have supported as many as 1,000 people. Engineering, digging and maintaining an extensive system of canals would also have required an extensive labor force.

"The Hohokam also shared a lot of interaction with other cultures, particularly with western Mexico," Fish said. The Mexican iconography, or symbols, used in pottery and other designs often shared with the Hohokam. The eagle holding a snake in Mexico's national flag may have its origins here in the Southwest.

Snaketown provided the framework for much of what is now understood about Hohokam archaeology, said Arthur Vokes, a curator at ASM. "It essentially set the chronological sequence for the Hohokam."

Gladwin and Haury exposed a large swath of Snaketown, in part by using horse-drawn scrapers during the 1930s excavations. When he revisited the site from 1964 to 1965, Haury used backhoes and other heavy equipment.

Their techniques enabled them to answer questions not only about how the community was laid out with its plazas and ballcourts, but also allowed later archaeologists to understand how individual households formed, shared courtyards with other houses and were maintained across generations.

"Archaeology today feels more comfortable and goes further in reconstructing Hohokam society and the people who lived there," said Suzanne Fish, also a curator of archaeology at ASM. "Earlier there was a preoccupation with artifacts and classifying them into a system that made for a sensible chronology. Now, we look more on building on that foundation of looking at history and family traditions. It's much more alive," she said.

Snaketown has been closed to public access since 1965. No excavations of Hohokam settlements since have matched its scope.

Thompson said Snaketown opened the door to understanding the Hohokam culture.

"It's easy to look back 75 years and say ‘why didn't they do this,' or ‘why didn't they interpret something that way?'" he said. "We can do that now because they opened the door so we could get on that road."