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Valley of the Hohokam Part I – Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects probably the most-famous ruins of the Hohokam Culture in Arizona.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects probably the most-famous ruins of the Hohokam Culture, just south of Phoenix, Arizona.  The National Park Service added the roof to protect the “Great House” from further erosion and decay.


Many people think of the Phoenix, Arizona metopolitan area as a place that only became habitable to human beings after the invention of air conditioning in the early 20th Century.   In truth, however, there is a story of human habitation in the valley of the Salt and Gila Rivers that stretches back more than 2,000 years.

The National Park Service manages two National Monuments in this area that preserves the legacy of the first settlers here, a people that archeologists call the Hohokam.   Other than that, however, that is where the similarities end, as the two national monuments could not be more different.  Casa Grande Ruins National Monument showcases excavated ruins from the period just before European contact that have been attracting visitors for hundreds of years.  By contrast, the ruins at Hohokam Pima National Monument  ruins date from a much earlier period of settlement, have been reburied for their own protection,  and the whole area remains completely closed to the public – but more on that in Part II.

The word Hohokom is actually a mistransliteration of the O’odham word  Huhugam, which is generally translated as “those who are gone” or “those who have come before.”  In the bookstore of Casa Grande Ruins, they helpfully sell copies of the Fall 2009 special issue of Archeology Southwest, which was dedicated to topics relating to Casa Grande Ruins.   This issue contained a helpful essay by Barnaby V. Lewis, one of the tribal elders of the Gila River Indian Community.  He describes the word Huhugam as more accurately meaning “those who have perished,” specifically in reference to those from whom one is descended.  This speaks to the connection that the O’odhom people, of which the Gila River Indian Community is one of four Federally-recognized tribal governments, feel to the people archeologists call the Hohokam, and who lived in the prehistoric communities that are now Hohokam Pima and Casa Grande Ruins National Monuments.

In many respects, the Hohokam are part of a much broader group of American Indians called the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi. The legacy of the Ancestral Puebloans are preserved in prehistoric pueblos all around the southwestern United States, most famously at Mesa Verde National Park.  The word Anasazi comes from the Navajo language, and is a word which can be translated as “ancestors of our enemies.”  Thus, the National Park Service prefers to use the more-cumbersome phrase Ancestral Puebloans to refer to these people, although many archeologists still use the term Anasazi.

Its worth remembering that the American Indians did not live in nation-states as we know them today, but rather in individual communities connected to other communities by things like a shared language, religious beliefs, cultural traditions, trading relationships, and ways of life.  Archeologists thus choose words like Hohokam or Mogollon (used for certain pueblo-dwelling prehistoric peoples in New Mexico) or Anasazi to try and describe some of the meaningful differences between peoples in different places, even though there were rarely bright-line differences separating one from the other.  Thus, archeologists will often disagree about where and how to draw the lines.  In fact, some scholars use the term oasisamerica to be inclusive of all of the pueblo-dwelling peoples of the arid southwestern United States, including the  Ancestral Puebloans of the Four Corners area, the Hohokam of Arizona, and the Mogollon of New Mexico, among others.  Although I must admit that I rarely see the term oasisamerica used by the National Park Service, it certainly is one that makes sense.  As one travels through the national park sites of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah the similarities are unmistakable.  These were clearly all peoples who had some sort of contact with each other, and who shared similarities in their way of life with each other, and in how they adapted to pre-European Contact life in the deserts of the American Southwest.


The "Great House" at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just part of a larger pueblo complex.  Photo from 2008.
The “Great House” at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just part of a larger pueblo complex. Photo from 2008.

The pueblo at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just one of numerous American Indian pubelos located in the valleys of the Salt and Gila Rivers in Central Arizona.   The Hohokom people who lived here constructed an extensive network of canals to grow crops in the desert, and they thrived in these valleys for hundreds of years.  No doubt these canals surely also helped link together their communities with one another, and those linkages may have been what made the settlement at Casa Grande Ruins so important.

Archeologists date the “Great House” at Casa Grande Ruins to around the year 1350.  The structure is four stories high, and contains 11 total rooms.  According to archeologists, there may well have been other “great houses” at other pueblos in central Arizona, although this has not been proven.  If so, its possible that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins survived because it was built a little sturdier or a little more robustly than the others. On the other hand, it just may have been lucky.   Or indeed, it is possible that it was unique.  Whatever the reason, the helpful guidebook to Casa Grande Ruins from the Western National Parks Association contains this description of the Great House from archeologist Cosmos Mindeleff, who surveyed the well-known site for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1890: “it is found easily by anyone looking for it.”   Indeed, there is no question that it rises startlingly above the nearly-flat desert landscape that surrounds it.

Of course, another important reason that Great House at Casa Grande Ruins has also survived to the present-day is thanks to the now more than 100-years worth of efforts to preserve and protect it.  Just two years after the above quote from Cosmos Mindeleff, President Benjamin Harrison set aside the Great House and 480 surrounding acres as an archeological preserve.  This prescient act of preservation in 1892 came nearly 25 years before the establishment of the National Park Service, and nearly 15 years before the Antiquities Act of 1906 would formally give Presidents the authority to set aside national monuments as protected areas on Federal lands.  In this way, just 20 years after Yellowstone became the United States’ (and the world’s) first national park, Casa Grande Ruins became this country’ first archeological preserve.

The Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was also used to make astronomical observations.
The Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was also used to make astronomical observations, including the hole at upper left which aligned with the moon every 18.5 years!


Archeologists still debate what the ultimate purpose of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was.  Clearly, the building was important to them.  Five different kinds of wood were used in its construction, including ponderosa pine and white fir.  That sort of timber could only have been obtained from mountains at least 50 miles away!  Moreover, the building also contains openings that carry astronomical significance.    Various openings align with the sun on the summer solstice and on the equinoxes.   Perhaps most fascinating to me, however, is that there is one opening aligned with the setting moon once every 18.5 years!   Considering that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins is believed by archeologists to only have been actively used for about 50-75 years (although the surrounding pueblo was inhabited for much longer than that), such alignment strikes me as being truly remarkable.

Putting the pieces together its clear that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was important.   It was bigger than any other structure in the village, was built with imported timbers, and was constructed with great care to align with the heavens.  Its easy to imagine that it provided some sort of religious or political center, possibly connected to the system of canals that was so vital to linking together these desert communities with that most-previous of all commodoties – water.  Beyond that, with now written records left to us by these people, it is hard to say.

On our visit to Casa Grande Ruins, we first spent about 30 minutes going through the exhibits in the visitor center.   The visitor center includes exhibits on the history of the place, what life would have been like for the Hohokom people who lived here, and a few artificats from the archeological excavations here.  A door out the back of the visitor center takes you to the Great House and the surrounding pueblo ruins.

After spending another 30-or-so minutes walking around the vicinity of the Great House, however, it is important not to overlook that another section of this park is open to the public on the far side of the visitor center parking lot.  There is a very short paved trail there that takes you to what many archeologists believe was a ball court.  The American Indian ball game originated among the predecessor civilizations of the Mayas and Aztecs in southern Mexico and central America.   If the ball game was played here in Arizona, it would indicate a cultural connection spanning nearly a thousand miles!

The Great House is not the only remarkable structure at Casa Grande Ruins, this depression in the ground is believed by most archeologists to be a "ball court" - the prehistoric equivalent of a sports arena.
The Great House is not the only remarkable structure at Casa Grande Ruins, this depression in the ground is believed by most archeologists to be a “ball court” – the prehistoric equivalent of a sports arena.

Visiting the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins today requires a bit of imagination.  If it was used for the mesoamerican ball gamearcheologists calcualte that the court could have accomodated some 500 spectators.  This would be truly remarkable when you consider that the entire settlement at Casa Grande Ruins probably only had around 1,500 residents at its peak.  Its possible to imagine people coming from surrounding pueblos on the system of irrigation canals coming to what we now call Casa Grande Ruins for important ball game matches.

It should be noted, however, that not all archeologists agree with this interpretation.  Moreover, the oral tradition of the Akimei O’odoham (Pima) people, is that these places were  in fact used for ceremonial dances.  There is also evidence from the “ball courts” at nearby pueblos that they were used for ceremonial feasting, based on the large number of hornos, or clay ovens, found near the “ball courts.”

My guess is that as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.  I suspect that the construction of ball courts in the pueblos of the Hohokam people almost certainly resulted from cultural contact across the Mexican desert.   On the other hand, it seems likely to me that across such great distances the actual ball game itself really didn’t take hold.  Thus, as fun as it would be to imagine the champion of a Hohokom division playing the champion of an Aztec division in a World Series of mesoamerican ball game – that almost surely did not happen.  Nevertheless, it seems quite possible that the structure itself was imported, and was then adapted into the culture of the Hohokam people.  Perhaps for games, perhaps for dancing, or perhaps even both.

Interestingly, the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins was likely built around the year 1050.   Its actually possible that, whatever its purpose, the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins was one of the last ball courts built by the Hohokom, as by the year 1100, no more ball courts were being constructed anywhere by the Hohokom.   Something had shifted or changed in the Hohokom culture, and the use of the ball court was fading in to history.  Indeed,  it is worth noting that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins would not be constructed until some 200 years later.

Thus, even though today we visit the Great House and the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and see them almost side-by-side with each other, the two structures actually represent centuries of habitation here by the Hohokam people.

In Part II of the Valley of the Hohokam Trip Report, I’ll delve a bit further into the history and present of the Hohokom people as I write about the experience of visiting Hohokam Pima National Monument, which preserves a settlement whose significance in many ways predates that of Casa Grande Ruins.

A parting shot of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, including the historic National Park Service sign.
A parting shot of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, including the historic National Park Service sign.



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30 for 300 – Honorable Mentions

Well, I should have figured when I first set out to do this series that it would provide to be nearly impossible to pick just 30 favorite moments from the hundreds of visits that I have made to the first 300 national parks that I have already visited.   Or even worse, that I would get to the end and realize, “how could I possibly have left out that?”   So sure enough, I have a few national park memories that got left on the figurative cutting room floor that I just couldn’t leave unmentioned.

Thus, as a postscript to my “30 for 300” series, here are five “honorable mentions” that I just couldn’t leave out.

#5) Searching for Starfish in the Tidepools at Olympic National Park – August 2003
Olympic National Park is often called “three national parks in one” for its combination of rugged alpine scenery, lush temperate rainforests, and spectacular Pacific coastline.  The day after that 20 mile hike I mentioned earlier in this series, I’m not sure which I enjoyed more – seeking out the fabulously colorful starfish like these guys:

Growing up in the Eastern United States, Parkasaurus just isn't used to seeing starfish like this.
Growing up in the Eastern United States, Parkasaurus just isn’t used to seeing starfish like this.

Or else enjoying the absolutely amazing sunset behind the rock spires of the coastline:

They don't make sunsets like this on the Atlantic Coast either...
They don’t make sunsets like this on the Atlantic Coast either…


#4) Walking Among the Ruins at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument – February 2003
This trip was memorable in large part simply because my friend and I were not supposed to be there.   We were only visiting this Park because a major snowstorm had cancelled all flights to the East Coast, giving us an unexpected extra two days in New Mexico.  Salinas Pueblo Misssions was the first national park I visited that primarily preserves the civilization of the prehistoric pueblo-dwelling peoples, so it will always be special to me for that reason.  What makes Salinas Pueblo MIssions particularly distinctive, however, is that at each of the three prehistoric pueblos preserved in the park, the Spanish had also built a large mission church right in the middle of the pueblo, which is also preserved. Thus, this park preserves the moment of contact between two cultures, and is a place where you can really feel the sweep of history beneath your feet.

#3) Special 100th Anniversary Commemorative Programs at Mesa Verde National Park – June 2006
By the time I visited Mesa Verde National Park three and a half years afte rmy visit to Salinas Pueblo Missions, I had started to become abundantly familiar with the story of the Ancestral Puebloan people, or as they are sometimes called, the Anasazi.  Since the ancient pueblos are largely permanent structures that were built in a desert environment, the U.S. National Park System includes quite a few of them.

Mesa Verde National Park, of course, preserves some of the most-spectacular abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins out of all of them.   In 2006, Mesa Verde also celebrated its 100th Anniversary with numerous special programsthroughout the summer.  One program my friends and I were particularly lucky to catch was a Ranger providing costumed interpretation as J. Walter Fewkes, one of the first archaeologists to study the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.

A ranger dressed as archaeologist Jesse Fewkes really helped bring the story of Mesa Verde to life, with the famous Cliff Palace in the background.


#2) Rafting with Au Pairs on the New River Gorge National River – June 2003
One of my former co-workers used to be, as he described, a “den mother” for au pairs working in our area.  Essentially this meant that he had some responsibility for looking out for them, helping them deal with any problems they may have, and also organizing a social activity for them each month – so that they could have some regular time together with peers while adjusting to life in a new country.

For three years, one of the biggest events he organized as a “cap” to their year in this country was a whitewater rafting trip on West Virginia’s New River Gorge, and for those years he invited me to come along as an additional chaperone and driver (since the au pairs generally did not have their own car in this country, naturally.)   It was an offer that I couldn’t refuse.  A two-day trip on the New River Gorge in late spring or early summer is perhaps the perfect river for “newbie” whitewater rafters.  The first day provides some light rapids to get used to the water, and the second has enough big rapids to provide a real adrenaline rush without requiring too much in the way of technical maneuvers from the paddlers.  Plus, the trip provided a great opportunity to make new friends with young women from far away places like Poland, Hungary, and Germany without ever leaving this country.

#1) An Evening Walk on the Beach at Assateague Island National Seashore – August 2007
There’s nothing like walking on a beach at sunset in the summer, when there is no longer a harsh sun beating down on you, and the sand is cool underfoot, and the water is still warm to the touch.  I snapped this picture by wading into the water and taking this picture of the future Mrs. Parkasaurus by looking back towards the shore, and the sunset off in the west.

This picture of the future Mrs. Parkasaurus has become one of the author's personal favorites.
This picture of the future Mrs. Parkasaurus has become one of the author’s personal favorites.


And that’s a “wrap” for the series.   If you missed any part of it, you may want to go back and check out:

Part I with #’s 21-30

Part II with #’s 11-20

Part III with #’s 1-10


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Congratulations to Poverty Point National Monument

Poverty Point is an amazing site that also requires a bit of imagination.
Poverty Point is an amazing site that also requires a bit of imagination.


I’m a little late in getting to this news, but congratulations are in order for Poverty Point National Monument which was recently designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This is quite an honor.  I like to think of the list of U.S. national parks as the 400-or-so most significant natural, historical, and cultural places in the United States (although there are some notable exceptions).  To be inscribed on the list UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, a place must be judged to be of “outstanding universal value” to all of humanity.  Although Poverty Point today may not be jaw-dropping to look at it, it is nevertheless the place of a remarkable story –  the location of the largest complex of preshistoric earthworks from its era in North America.

There are currently just over one thousand  sites on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list (1,007 to be exact), although more are added  each year.  Of those, Poverty Point is just the 22nd site from the United States to be included.   Of those 22, its not surprising that 13 of them are outright national parks.  This includes two of the first twelve World Heritage Sites designated in 1978, Yellowstone National Park and Mesa Verde National Park.   Others on the list include Grand Canyon National Park, Olympic National Park in Washington State, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Five more on the list, including Poverty Point, are also part of the National Park System as a national monument or national historical park.

An unusual case is Papahanaumokuokea (try pronouncing it as Papa-hana-umo-kuo-kea) Marine National Monument in Hawaii.   This area consists of the unpopulated northwest Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding ocean areas all the way out to Midway Island in the central Pacific Ocean.  Instead of being managed by the National Park Service, it is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

That leaves three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States  that aren’t operated as Federal sites at all.    One such site is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.   Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, is operated by a non-profit foundation, and the University of Virginia, of course, is operated by the State of Virginia.   The second such site is Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, a remarkable American Indian community that has been continuously inhabited for 1,000 years.   The last such site is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois – which preserves the remains of the largest known American Indian city in the present day United States.   At its height, Cahokia covered six square miles and had between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

Although the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is by all accounts doing a good job of preserving this extraordinary site for future generations, there nevertheless just seems to be something incongruous about a site simultaneous being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also part of a state parks system, rather than the U.S. National Park System.   No question thatbeing a state historic site, rather than a national historic site in the National Park System gives Cahokia a lower national profile than you might otherwise expect, and so there is in fact a local campaign underway to try and make it a national park.

Interestingly, Cahokia’s situation  bears an uncanny similarity to Poverty Point in this respect as well.   It turns out that although Poverty Point is designated as a national monument, it is still operated as State Historic Site by the Louisiana State Park Service.  This is due to a quirk of history and legislation.  Normally, when Congress wishes to declare a site a new national park it normally first authorizes creation of the park, and then specifies that the park will be effectively created once the Federal government is able to acquire the land for the park.  In this case, however, the Poverty Point National Monument Act of 1986 first established the park, and then authorized the National Park Service to acquire the land for the park either by donation or from willing sellers.   Apparently, at the time the Louisiana Congressional Delegation thought that a deal had been worked out whereby the State of Louisiana would donate the Poverty Point Site to the National Park Service for management as a national park.   Its not clear what happened then, but somehow there was a miscommunication, and the State of Louisiana decided that  they wanted to continue to manage this important site themselves.   Thus, today Poverty Point National Monument is a real anomaly in the National Park System – a national park where you won’t find any sign of the National Park Service.

Now that Poverty Point has taken its rightful place as a World Heritage Site, there’s certainly no question that it merits the national significance to be included in the U.S. National Park System.  In fact, as part of the dedication ceremonies this month, the State of Louisiana has officially renamed it from Poverty Point State Historic Site to Poverty Point Point World Heritage Site, in a ceremony that included National Park Service director John Jarvis.   Despite the unusual status, in my mind, the National Park System is a better place with Poverty Point included than without it.  Still, it would be nice to see an agreement worked out where Poverty Point could take its place as a full-fledged national park, with the consistent management provided by the National Park Service.

In the meantime, a trip to Poverty Point is truly a trip back in time.  Its a rarity in the United States to visit a place where the story is told in thousand-year time scales.   For example, at nearly 3,000 years old, the settlements at Poverty Point predate the famous Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado by some two thousand years!   Three thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks were developing their alphabet, David and Solomon are kings in ancient Israel, the ancient Chinese are developing mathematics ink painting, and at Poverty Point in Louisiana, American Indians are building a major center – a place whose purpose remains a mystery to this day, but which still speaks to those who came before us in this place.

A walking trail has been constructed over the remains of the major mounds at Poverty Point.

A walking trail has been constructed over the remains of the major mounds at Poverty Point.

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