(May 12, 2022)—This month marks five years since I had the honor to announce the addition of the Fleming Parcel to Archaeology Southwest’s portfolio of conservation properties. This important place is located along the lower Gila River about an hour’s drive east of Yuma. Acquisition of the Fleming Parcel was made possible through generous gifts from the Smith Living Trust Fund for Site Protection and the Lawrence J. and Gail Fleming Trust.
The properties in our portfolio are those for which we take direct action in preservation and management through conservation easements or fee simple arrangements. As my colleague John Welch, Director of our Landscape and Site Preservation Program, so eloquently explained in an Archaeology Café not too long ago, Archaeology Southwest stewards these properties for the Tribes whose ancestral lands encompass them.
Although the Fleming Parcel takes its moniker from its former owners, this property is perhaps better known for Texas Hill, the prominent volcanic landform situated within it. This stoic, steep-sided “hill” rises abruptly from the floodplain and towers about 450 feet over the surrounding landscape. From afar, its dark complexion gives the peculiar sense that it is simply a shadow of a cloud or a nearby butte—not a hill itself—as it stands in curious contrast to the red, gold, beige, and brown mountains and sand dunes around it. But it is indeed a physical place, a landmass, and its prominence leaves no doubt that it has always been a landmark in the surrounding cultural landscape. And numerous petroglyphs adorning it confirm that.
Regional archaeologists have long known Texas Hill to be home to a great number of petroglyphs. Pioneering desert archaeologist Malcolm Rogers, who visited while wandering the western deserts in the first half of the last century, took notes and sketched some of the glyphs. In 1955, Arizona State Museum staffers David Breternitz and Robert Komerska formally reported the hill as an “archaeological site” in the course of a survey for the Southern Pacific Pipeline. And most recently—but still 30 years ago—Ken Hedges and Diane Hamann published, in the proceedings of the 17th annual meeting of the American Rock Art Research Association, a short paper describing the trails and petroglyphs they found over the course of several outings.
Because of their generally rocky terrain and exposed nature, cultural properties with petroglyphs present particular preservation challenges. As I emphasized in my reporting on the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, effective site management and conservation plans must be based on an appropriate awareness of the property, and in the case of petroglyphs, that includes as complete an inventory as possible. By inventory, I mean a body of basic-yet-essential data about the petroglyphs. This includes, at the barest minimum, as precise a location as possible for each petroglyph and a photographic representation with scale. Ideally, an inventory should include additional data points and more sophisticated digital representations.
The major threats to petroglyphs and pictographs, in most cases, are (in no particular order): theft, vandalism, graffiti, defacement, and erosion. This is why undertaking a full inventory is best practice for the conservation and management of such properties. Location and visual documentation—photography—are essential because they provide a baseline record for subsequent studies. They let property managers and stewards know where everything is and what condition it was in at the time of documentation. This is how threats and impacts can be objectively monitored, which in turn should inform any mitigation measures and overall management and stewardship.
When I and a group of volunteers were carrying out a full inventory of the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site in early 2017, I noticed another crew of archaeologists scoping out the adjacent campground, apparently assessing its suitability as a base camp for an upcoming contract (CRM) survey somewhere in the area. I overheard one ask another: “How would you record a site like this?” The other replied, “I’d just draw a boundary around it and call it good.” Well, sure—that’s a start. And certainly, for a basic Class III archaeological survey, when all you really need to evaluate are a site’s location, size, cultural and temporal affiliation, significance, and integrity, a boundary delineation and general assessment of what is present will suffice. But to get to know a place, and to effectively manage it, a full inventory is necessary. This is especially true for well-known and heavily trafficked sites like the Painted Rocks, where there is a long and ongoing history of theft of petroglyph-covered boulders, defacement, and just all-around visitation pressure.
Back to Texas Hill. Because Archaeology Southwest stewards this place, it is incumbent upon us to ascertain what is actually there, evaluate its condition, and recognize the foreseeable threats. Although it is a known and “recorded” archaeological site, Texas Hill had never been systematically surveyed or fully inventoried. And this spring was probably the best time to do so. For the past five years, I’ve been carrying out an intensive survey of the cultural landscape of the lower Gila upstream of Texas Hill. For much of this I’ve been assisted by Charles Arrow and Zion White from the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe. Our work has been incredibly productive: To date, we’ve inventoried more than 150 archaeological sites and over 40,000 petroglyphs. Our work at Texas Hill is a logical extension of our lower Gila fieldwork program.
Anyone who has participated in a rock-imagery inventory knows that it is hard work. The terrain can be difficult to navigate, the petroglyphs hard to see, and the elements brutal. Some projects involve incredible investments of time, energy, and resources. The goal is to find and document all petroglyphs and related features, which requires you to examine each and every rock and outcrop and peek inside each and every nook and cranny. Our work at Painted Rocks, for example, stretched out over three months. My friends Evelyn Billo and Bob Mark, along with the late Don Weaver and more than 20 volunteers, invested three years in their inventory of Sears Point. The people doing this kind of work are clearly passionate, dedicated, and committed—especially considering that many do so on a voluntary basis.
In my 2017 announcement, I estimated there were around 300 petroglyphs across about 50 panels at Texas Hill. This was based on several cursory visits and the fact that Malcolm Rogers had estimated there to be just 200. Believing someone would find more if they really tried, 300 seemed to be a realistic and safe approximation at that time. But I’ve come to learn—and admit openly—that I’m terrible at this type of predictive estimation. The intervening years I’ve spent inventorying petroglyphs along the lower Gila have taught me that, when you’re really looking and trying to find them all, they add up. For example, at Gillespie Narrows, another conservation property Charles, Zion, and I inventoried a year ago, I’d planned for about 2,500 glyphs. We inventoried double that figure—and it took us twice as long!
Given prior experiences and my terrible track record at petroglyph predictions, I had a strong suspicion that my earlier estimate of 300 glyphs at Texas Hill was off, and by a lot. In planning the fieldwork, I thought a fair number might be 2,000. Well, after four weeks of fieldwork, I don’t yet have a final tally—we’re not quite done—but I can report that 2,000 is also too low. To date, we’ve inventoried more than 1,400 panels (a lot more than 50!). I now suspect there are upwards of 4,000 glyphs. We’ll know soon. Along with the glyphs, though, we’ve documented trails, ground stone manufacturing locations, various rock features, and the like. It’s interesting to see how these different elements come together.
We’ve spent four long weeks at Texas Hill, and I think we need just one more to complete the survey and inventory. As I alluded to above, you really get to know a place when doing this type of fieldwork. In other words, you can—as I often do—develop a personal relationship with a place because you are seeing and experiencing it in ways you otherwise wouldn’t, and in ways the average visitor does not. You see the same rocks from different angles and the same places at different times of day and under different lighting conditions. If you camp near a site, as we always do, you get to see the place at dawn and dusk, under the stars and the blazing sun. You meet its mammalian, reptilian, and avian residents. I think I can speak for Charles and Zion when I say that, after climbing to the top, day after day, and walking (and often falling) all along its slopes, we’ve come to know Texas Hill, for better or worse.
Surveying Texas Hill has been a challenge, physically and logistically. How do you systematically survey a massive conical landform? Archaeological surveys usually employ transects to cover block-shaped regions, where surveyors space off a given distance and walk a straight line, usually in a cardinal direction or along a defined azimuth, and walk from one edge of the block to another. Although great for plains, valleys, and rolling hills, that kind of approach doesn’t work so well for landscapes with extreme relief, such as mountains and steep-sided hills. I thought about this logistical problem for a few weeks leading up to the project. Having done this a couple of times now, I’ve settled on what I call the “wedge method.”
From my experience, petroglyphs tend to be concentrated along the base and summit of these types of landforms—but you can’t skip the slopes, because you find things there, as well. Therefore, my general approach, which is what we’ve done at Texas Hill, has been to do contour-based ring transects around the base and summit and then fill the intervening slopes with wedges, or slices. With ring transects, the surveyors space out a short distance and follow a general elevation, or contour, all the way around the landform. To cover the intervening slopes, we parse them into slices defined by obvious changes in topography, such as canyons and ridges. Starting at one side, the surveyors follow a general elevation until reaching the opposite side of the slice. From there, they either bump up or down, then repeat. Of course, all these transects are tightly bound and mapped with a GPS to ensure there are no gaps in coverage. This wedge method is certainly not the only way to survey a cone, but I find it to be efficient, effective, manageable, and measurable. And by doing it this way, everyone on the crew gets to see and experience the landform in a similar way.
One of the things I’ve found curious about Texas Hill is the diversity of trash in totally random places. I’m not implying that Texas Hill has been trashed, or that there are trash dumps, as is often the case elsewhere. It’s actually the opposite—Texas Hill is relatively pristine, which makes finding weird and random pieces of debris so interesting, to me at least. Some of the stranger things include dozens of old lead batteries (apparently from defunct weather balloons), gloves, an unused roll of cantaloupe labels, a walkie-talkie, and a geoglyph (?) made of lath and planks. A fair number of cans and bottles, too, but they occur in the remotest of places that make me wonder just how they got there. We’ve found bottles and cans spanning the past 50 years, and I’ve enjoyed comparing the changes in can technology.
The abundance of cans and bottles from such a relatively short span of time stands in stark contrast with the complete absence of broken pieces of pottery. This shows that the ways contemporary people interact with Texas Hill are probably quite different than how people did so in the past. Whoever has been throwing these down the hill, their preference for Coke and Coors is clear. I certainly get thirsty out there, and while I too like soda and beer, I’ll stick with water while on obviously sacred ground such as Texas Hill.
Texas Hill is a private preserve and closed to public visitation without prior coordination with Archaeology Southwest. If interested in visiting, please coordinate with John Welch, email@example.com.