Aaron’s manuscript titled “Religion on the Rocks: Rock Art, Ritual Practice, and Transformation of the Hohokam World” (forthcoming, University of Utah Press) has won the prestigious Don D. and Catherine S. Fowler Prize. The Fowlers made the award announcement on Friday, October 19, 2012, at the Great Basin Anthropology Conference in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The volume will present the Archaeology Southwest Preservation Fellow research discussed below.
In 2006, as a new Ph.D. student at Washington State University (WSU), I was awarded one of Archaeology Southwest’s preservation fellowships. This led me to collaborate on the South Mountain Rock Art Project (SMRAP), a joint research and preservation initiative of the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department and the Archaeological Research Institute at Arizona State University, with assistance from the Arizona Archaeological Society. This collaboration ultimately led to my doctoral project, which I completed in 2011. In my dissertation, Hohokam Rock Art, Ritual Practice, and Social Transformation in the Phoenix Basin, I tackled some difficult methodological, theoretical, and interpretive aspects of Hohokam rock art. Here is a summary of my findings.
MUCH MORE THAN A PARK
The South Mountains are a distinctive landform nestled between Phoenix and the Gila River Indian Community. Most of the landform is managed as a municipal park, one of the largest worldwide. Researchers had known about the many petroglyphs within the mountains’ recesses for more than a century, but surprisingly little research had actually been conducted. What we did know was that there are a lot of petroglyphs, they are found throughout the mountains in an array of settings, and the imagery details a range of themes with enough similarity to Hohokam pottery designs to establish a rudimentary cultural connection. There were, however, many unknowns. Why did the Hohokam make petroglyphs? Did the rock art designs vary through time like the pottery designs? And surely, more had to have been going on than just petroglyph-making, but what, exactly? And how was all of this tied in to the fabric of Hohokam life?
To address these questions, we relied on non-invasive and non-destructive archaeological methods to investigate several target locations. We discovered that a variety of practices were carried out within the mountains. One surprise was the extent of farming along the northern and eastern piedmont, often in very close proximity to dense petroglyph clusters. We also found evidence for a range of practices that logistically targeted floral and geological resources, also commonly associated with petroglyphs. Interestingly, we found little indication for hunting in the mountains. Perhaps this is one reason common game animals found in the Hohokam diet and adorning their pottery, such as quail, rabbits, and fish, were not depicted as petroglyphs.
We also found an assortment of settings that had undeniable religious importance. These locations include built “stages” and natural features, both with extremely dense petroglyph concentrations. There is a clear emphasis on hilltops and springs, places revered in contemporary indigenous religions, and undoubtedly among the Hohokam, as well. Even more telling, these stages are usually open and easily accessible, and often situated near or intertwined with agricultural fields. In all, we learned that the petroglyphs were an integral dimension of the ritual system which bridged—indeed, blurred—the religious and economic worlds of the Hohokam. But was this always the case?
RELIGIOUS CHANGE AND RITUAL CONTROL
It was evident that the petroglyphs revealed a participatory and highly visual ritual system, but we weren’t sure if this was the norm through the 1,000 years that the Hohokam lived in the nearby villages. Chronology was critical. I used a multi-layered approach to refine the South Mountains petroglyph chronology, relying on, among other indicators, likenesses to designs on datable pottery, quantities of nearby diagnostic artifacts, and robust statistical analyses of petroglyph repatination (weathering and darkness). Each application yielded the same result—a general transition from curvilinear and abstract imagery to the increasing incorporation of lifeforms into the design repertoire. This iconographic evolution mirrors what happened in the pottery design lexicon, further revealing the pervasiveness of Hohokam religious symbolism. The ultimate surprise, however, came with the lack of any considerable Classic period (post-A.D. 1100) petroglyphs!
These results, though surprising, make sense with what we know from the nearby villages. The onset of the Classic period involved a major shift in the ritual system. The Hohokam discarded ballcourt ritualism (and all that entailed) in favor of mound-top ceremonialism. I argue that this was due to restrictions on access to and control of religious knowledge within communities. New village leaders, who came to control the mound-top complexes and even reside on some of these monuments, positioned themselves as intermediaries between the community and the cosmos, thus usurping the existing ritual system. They must have been successful, because villagers stopped using the South Mountains, a landscape with a long tradition of religious importance, for ritual purposes. By making this connection across landscapes, we provided a new perspective on this major transformation in Hohokam society—from outside the village, looking in.
PRESERVING THE SOUTH MOUNTAINS
South Mountain Park was created in the 1920s as a nature preserve for Phoenix’s growing population. This was a movement of momentous civic resolve and conservation insight; unlike the rest of the metropolitan area, much of the park remains as it was long before Europeans came into southern Arizona. Nevertheless, the estimated millions of visitors each year, coupled with encroaching urban development along the park’s boundaries, take their toll on this fragile desert landscape. One of my objectives through the fellowship was to contribute to a renewed preservation effort for the South Mountains’ petroglyphs. The SMRAP aims to nominate the mountains to the National Register of Historic Places. We also intend to develop a management plan that will maximize visitor experience, while minimizing long-term impacts. We have gathered enough information to start this process, but continued community support and involvement are critical to our goals. Please join us on our mission.