Back to the 70s—I am talking temperatures, desert temperatures. Last weekend, daytime temperatures around Tucson kept to the high 70s for much of the day. For me, that means that hiking in the desert is once again possible. My time is always limited, so I don’t even need to think about where to go: Catalina State Park. Located in Oro Valley just north of Tucson, the park is a place of incredible natural beauty, and it is packed with archaeological sites.
On Saturday, I loaded my faithful dog companion, Snoop, into the car, and we were able to visit a site that I have been monitoring in recent years for impacts by horses and hikers. Things looked good. Unfortunately, Snoop likes to eat grass whenever it is available—not often in the desert—and recent rains had produced abundant grasses. Instead of being dragged along the trail by an enthusiastic, panting beagle, I had to pull him. An OK hike, but it could have been better.
On Sunday, Snoop got a giant bone, and I snuck out on my own. The result was excellent. I spent five hours literally wandering around the desert. I checked out sites that I hadn’t visited in a decade or more and a couple that I had never seen.
The potential to visit, revisit, and someday visit yet again the same archaeological site is at the heart of preserves such as Catalina State Park. When Archaeology Southwest carried out the survey of the core area of the park in 1986, we knew a lot less about the archaeology of the Tucson Basin than we do now. One of the sites I visited Sunday for the very first time struck me as likely to date to the Early Ceramic period, a temporal concept that didn’t even exist when we did our original work.
Going back to the actual ‘70s (yes, the 1970s), when I arrived in Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, the area that is now Catalina State Park was threatened by a major residential development. If that development had gone forward and today’s park had never been established, there might have been a modicum of archaeological fieldwork conducted prior to construction. But even with the best of intentions and methods, archaeologists simply weren’t ready to effectively address the diversity and density of all that is there. In retrospect, the magnitude of the loss would have been tremendous. Instead, we now have a state park where dozens of important places of the past are protected in a larger landscape.
In following up on my new insight that one of the sites recorded in 1973 and again in 1986 may date to the 700s or even earlier, I found that the previous recorders observed no decorated sherds there. And they noted a high frequency of flaked stone artifacts relative to pottery sherds. That’s what I expect for an Early Ceramic period site, but I’ll soon bring some ceramic experts to observe the surface artifacts and assess what they mean for the age of the site. A preserve is there for the long term. New ideas can be evaluated and re-evaluated from now into the distant future. That makes me very happy—and not just because of the information value here. I am grateful, too, for the mountain, flowers, and wildlife I encountered in this landscape with remarkable archaeology.