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4:39 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

Digging into the past

Courier file photo
Archaeologist Judy Breen of Logan Simpson Design works at an archaeological site near Willow Lake in this March 2003 file photo. The dig uncovered several Native American residences and well-preserved artifacts, such as a metate, pictured in the foreground.

Courier file photo Archaeologist Judy Breen of Logan Simpson Design works at an archaeological site near Willow Lake in this March 2003 file photo. The dig uncovered several Native American residences and well-preserved artifacts, such as a metate, pictured in the foreground.

Two huge, recent excavation projects to make way for development in Prescott and Prescott Valley have made huge contributions to the limited body of knowledge about the region's ancient inhabitants from the Prescott Culture.

The City of Prescott hired Logan Simpson Design of Tempe to excavate Prescott Culture ruins and burials at its Willow Lake park to make room for recreational improvements such as parking lots and ramadas.

SunCor Development hired Soil Systems Inc. from Phoenix to excavate ruins and burials where it planned to develop the StoneRidge subdivision in Prescott Valley.

Archaeologists already have brought 160 boxes of StoneRidge artifacts to the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, and they will bring at least that many from Willow Lake once analysis is complete. The studies from those digs also are due for release sometime this year.

Both the city and SunCor had to conduct extensive archaeological research because they needed federal money or permits for their projects. Other subdivision developers don't necessarily have to save so much history.

Soil Systems archaeologists were excited and surprised to find that two pit houses at StoneRidge were the oldest that anyone has ever found in the Prescott area, lead archaeologist Banks Leonard related.

They used radiocarbon methods to conclude that people built the pit houses some time between 1700 B.C. and 2100 B.C.

Until this project, archaeologists weren't sure that people were building pit houses that long ago in the Prescott area, Leonard said.

"That's very early for pit houses, indicating that people were living in one place long enough to invest a lot of time in building them," Leonard said.

The archaeologists also found evidence that the ancient inhabitants were planting corn around a marsh in the Lynx Creek area, which also is an early date for such activity, Leonard said.

The remains are so old and limited that they couldn't make a conclusion about whether the Prescott Culture people built the pit houses, Leonard said. Prescott Culture artifacts aren't clear until about 700 A.D., he said.

The findings at StoneRidge show an extremely long history of use in the area, dating back to spear points that could be as old as 12,000 years.

Archaeologists found evidence of ancient Indian habitation at StoneRidge between 1700 B.C. and 2100 B.C.; then again around 500 A.D.; then around 850 A.D. to 1150 A.D.; then again from 1150 A.D. to 1400 A.D.

People may have been leaving when they exhausted resources, then returning as they renewed, Leonard said.

Some of the later StoneRidge findings tell historians more about the history of gold mining along Lynx Creek, which was the richest placer gold mining area in Arizona at one time, Leonard said.

The site has plenty of water and a marsh, good for crops and a variety of wild game, Leonard observed.

"That's a place that people kept going back to," Leonard said. "They picked a good spot."

The same was true for the Willow Lake site, where the creek allowed the ancient Indians to grow corn, lead archaeologist Bob Neily said. Archaeologists also found remains of exotic plants that the Prescott Culture residents got from warmer climates, such as jack beans and saguaro. They hunted rabbits, deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep.

One of the more fascinating pieces of evidence of a wide trade area was the discovery of the remains of macaw birds from what is now Mexico, Neily said.

"That gives us an impression that this was an important center," he said.

The Willow Lake site was inhabited between 800 A.D. and 1100 A.D.

Trade altered around 1100 A.D., when Prescott Culture people at Willow Lake started trading more with people to the north than the south, Neily added. Archaeologists aren't sure why this happened. About the same time, inhabitants of the Salt River Valley abandoned their settlements and moved to other parts of that valley.

A huge drought occurred from 1276 to 1299, Neily noted. Another one took place around 900 A.D. That might be why the Prescott Culture people left the Willow Lake site around 1100 A.D., but they didn't leave the area, he said.

Leonard said the StoneRidge project helped define an answer for one major archaeological question about this region: Was the Prescott Culture really distinct from other ancient Southwest cultures?

"Our work seems to say yes," Leonard said.

However, the project didn't help answer another common question: Are today's Yavapai people descendants of the Prescott Culture?

"We can't really answer that," Leonard said. Although archaeologists have found Yavapai pottery and projectile points associated with sites dating back to the 1600s, they need to find them at earlier sites, he said.

The archaeologists on both projects worked closely with the Yavapai and Hopi tribes of northern Arizona as well as the O'Odham people of southern Arizona to rebury the remains of the Prescott Culture people they found at both StoneRidge and Willow Lake. They reburied them elsewhere at sites where they hope no one will disturb them again. All the tribes claim history in this area.

Some of the Willow Lake people were buried in a fetal position, while others were cremated, a common occurrence at that time in the Salt River Valley, Neily said. After about 1100 A.D., people in the Prescott area tended to be buried in a flat position.

Archaeologists don't know the reason behind the different styles, he said. However, they add to evidence that the Prescott Culture and Hohokam people to the south were intermixing.

"We're constantly adding a little piece here and a little piece there," Neily said.

Archaeologists uncovered stone bowls, small flat stones with designs and pottery with the Willow Lake burials, Neily said.

At StoneRidge, archaeologists uncovered at least 15 burial sites from the 500 A.D. time period, Leonard said.

"That's a large number of burials from that early," he said, adding, "We do learn a lot from burials."

These remains from 500 A.D. tended to be larger than those of later Prescott Culture people, and analysis showed they had a better diet than later people who had more of a vegetarian diet, Leonard said. Later people not only were smaller, but they also had more cavities.

Archaeologists also found evidence of violence amongst the 500 A.D. burials. One young male had a projectile point buried in his ankle, and the injury healed long before he died. Others had a head injuries and broken ribs.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com