May 15, 2015—Long-term preservation of archaeological sites is a core element of Preservation Archaeology. Ensuring that important places are available to inform scientific inquiry well into the future is essential to understanding and sharing the past, in order to revisit older ideas and take advantage of new advances in research technology. Some of the most important sites are those that led archaeologists to posit formative ideas in Southwestern archaeology. Such sites often offer the best opportunity to make substantial new contributions to our knowledge of people’s lives in the Southwest in the distant past.
Most recently, Archaeology Southwest received the gift of a conservation easement over an important site along Cave Creek, outside of Portal, Arizona, on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains. The story of how and why we acquired this easement began when the Arizona Archaeology and Historical Society (AAHS), in partnership with Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, the University of Arizona, Argonaut Archaeological Fund, and archaeologists from the Coronado National Forest, undertook new excavations at a site previously excavated by Gila Pueblo in 1936. At that time, geologist Ernst Antevs and archaeologist E. B. Sayles explored the archaeological sequence at a site they called Cave Creek Midden (Sayles and Antevs 1941). Their findings there and at few other sites played a formative role in their definition of the Middle Archaic Chiricahua Stage of the Cochise Culture in the American Southwest.
High-Resolution Digital Model of Test Excavation at Desperation Ranch. Click in the frame to launch the model, then use your mouse/cursor to rotate the model or change perspective. Model by Douglas W. Gann, Archaeology Southwest.
This interval is among the least understood yet most important time periods of the ancient American Southwest. It encompasses the apparent human recolonization of the desert borderlands, underway by 4000 B.C., and is followed by the introduction of agriculture no later than about 2100 B.C. (Merrill et al. 2009). Archaeological, radiocarbon, and stratigraphic information from the new excavations will provide important new details about the cultural, technological, and paleoenvironmental conditions that accompanied those developments, which set the stage for the rich traditions of village farming life across the Southwest.
With the blessing and strong support of the landowner, Jonathan Mabry, Jesse Ballenger, Mike Brack, Allen Denoyer, Bill Gillespie, Dan Arnit, and several other volunteers spent many weekends excavating and recording surface archaeology on a property known as the Desperation Ranch. This is where most of the original Gila Pueblo Cave Creek Midden excavations occurred. A portion of the Desperation Ranch includes spring-fed wetland soil deposits (what we call a cienega here in the Southwest), which first attracted Gila Pueblo to the site.
Today, the area around the cienega area is rich with artifacts dating to the Late Archaic and Early Agricultural periods—and, as noted on the 1936 Gila Pueblo site map, an intact masonry room block with about eight or ten rooms. Pottery sherds indicate that the rooms are probably associated with people who participated in the Salado phenomenon (A.D. 1300–1450).
Clearly, this is a site with long-term research potential extending beyond the recent research effort, which began when the property was for sale. The intent was to finish before a new landowner came into the picture. Some discussions about long-term preservation strategies following the completion of the research had occurred with the landowner and his broker. But tragically, a short time later, the property owner passed away from a long illness. His heirs expressed strong support for the research efforts and graciously allowed the work to continue unabated.
Jonathan Mabry (Tucson Historic Preservation Officer, former Archaeology Southwest staff member, and one of the lead researchers at the site) astutely engaged the new owner and trustee of the estate regarding their interest in contributing to the long-term preservation of the site. Working with the listing real estate broker, we proposed the creation of two parcels: a 4- to 5-acre property that included the home and associated improvements, and a second, vacant parcel that included the remainder of the property. The larger parcel could then be sold to Archaeology Southwest at a discounted price.
But, even at a discounted price, we were challenged to raise the funds. Then, one of the volunteer research participants expressed interest in acquiring the larger parcel on our behalf, as long as there would be an area where this person could build a home. In turn, the volunteer would donate a conservation easement over the remainder of the parcel to protect the archaeology. At first, this seemed viable, but on closer examination, we realized that the part of the parcel with archaeological remains included a well and pipeline that provided water to the smaller parcel with the existing home.
This suggested that it made more sense to include more land with the existing home, but by doing that, part of the important archaeology would be included with the parcel with the house. That fact raised questions about how to protect this portion of the archaeology site along with the remainder on the larger parcel. This, in turn, prompted us to do a more complete surface survey of the archaeology—which ultimately informed our development of a new proposal.
We identified 15 acres without any cultural resources; this was sold to the volunteer who had initially agreed to buy the larger parcel. The 15 acres did not include any archaeology and could be sold outright without the need for a conservation easement. Selling the parcel quickly was key, as it allowed the heirs to the property to immediately realize some financial gain from it, which was one of their objectives.
The sale gave them the confidence to move forward with donating a conservation easement over the remaining part of the property. The easement protects all the land with important cultural resources. Thus, the land with archaeological remains is protected, and the existing home can be sold with a larger parcel of land, including the water and power supplies.
Although it was not without its challenges, this story ends as another great example of how we work with landowners to develop flexible site protection strategies. This approach is at the core of our site protection work. And once again, we have been privileged to work with people who value what we are doing and who can act on their values to everyone’s benefit—including the archaeological record’s.
Merrill, William L., Robert J. Hard, Jonathan B. Mabry, Gayle J. Fritz, Karen R. Adams, John R. Roney, and A. C. MacWilliams
2009 The Diffusion of Maize into the Southwestern United States and Its Impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 106:21019–21026.