Sabino Canyon: Our Desert Oasis


Old Pueblo Archaeology
Issue Number 7, December 1996

The article appears with the permission of The Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, (520) 798-1201

An Archaeological Survey of the Sabino Canyon Ruin Area
by Robin H. Rutherfoord

Old Pueblo Archaeology Center has recently offered a variety of courses for certification credit through the Arizona Archaeology Society. These classes provide basic knowledge and field skills in archaeology allowing the student to become a valuable member of an archaeological research team. Currently Allen Dart, Old Pueblo's Director, is teaching AAS's Survey Techniques course.

Until the 1980's very few Hohokam sites in the Tucson Basin had been excavated and analyzed. Why then have hundreds of sites been unearthed in the 1990s? How have these sites been discovered? Fortunately for archaeologists, Pima County enacted an ordinance stating that in order to change the zoning status or start construction on private lands in the county, the land must be surveyed by a state-approved archaeologist before development or rezoning can occur.

SURVEY? What is an archaeological survey and how are sites found? Jeanne Neal, Susan Eastman and I, Robin Rutherfoord, have been attempting to master the skills of archaeological surveying these last three months. So far, we have explored three various sized parcels of land, and in doing so improved our ability to use compasses and maps. We marched back and forth along a metered line to determine our own measurable pace, and we were determined to engrave into our minds the concept of 10-meter spacing while developing the skill of walking in a precise North-South direction.

Say What? A class on how to walk in a straight line? Easy to do on a 1.99 acre parcel of land located at Columbia Street and Contractors's Way that has been previously leveled (our second day of field class). Try walking precise lines 10 meters (33 feet) apart back and forth over about 200 acres of desert terrain, cliffs, loose rock, cholla cactus, and heavy vegetation during snake and gnat season. A true test of skill!

Our last few field classes have been spent with compasses in hand, eyes peeled to the ground, walking transect lines North-South and South-North directions in 10 meter widths, the land between Sabino and Bear creeks. We knew that this area contains archaeological materials since it encompasses the Sabino Canyon Ruin where Old Pueblo conducts its field school (located approximately in the middle of the survey sit). As students, we did not know in what directions the Sabino Canyon Ruin site extended. Therefore, it was our job to systematically patrol the area, to plot on an aerial map where surface artifacts are archaeological site features were found,to keep a journal of our day's activities, and, hopefully, to evaluate our findings. Learning how to read a compass and taking bearings is important since archaeological features need to be plotted accurately on our aerial photograph that forms the basis for our survey. Our findings-surface cultural material can be located throughout most of the surveyed land. Rock bed mortars were discovered on both creek slopes; two areas in the southern portion of survey were terraced, cleared and possibly farmed. We also came across an old mortared fire ring possibly used by the old Southern Arizona School for Boys or dude ranch wranglers to recite their favorite tales.

image of archeological site
Survey Techniques Arizona Archaeological Society class members Jeanne Neal (left), Susan Eastman, Allen Dart (instructor), and Robin Rutherfoord walking transects to identify archaeological features of the Sabino Canyon Ruin in November 1996. Photo by Bill Carr.

A CLASS EXPERIENCE. Jeanne, Susan, and I have only completed two-thirds of our field class work. We have, however, as part of our Survey Techniques course experience, explored the Arizona State Museum Site Survey File room which contains records and descriptions of every numbered archaeological site in Southern Arizona.

The importance of the Records Room? you ask. Anyone conducting a survey needs to fill out an Arizona State Museum Archaeological Site card and submit it to the museum at the completion of the survey. You wanted to know what the Survey Techniques classroom work entails? Try filling out a site card.

Knowledge of how to read a Universal Transverse Mercator Grid and topographical maps is a must. How to take compass bearings and map plotting is also a must. In addition to our two hours spent at the State Museum, the three of us spent another 18 hours reviewing research perspectives of various archaeological studies world-wide and of the Tucson Basin. We were learning how to look at aerial maps and stereo photographs, and, most of all, trying to figure out the site numeric designations systems and calculating where the survey site is located within the governmental land survey grids. We also talked about what defines an archaeology site and if it needs to be recorded, and, also, the different methods of taking artifact samples in a survey.

OUR FINDINGS. Precolumbian surface cultural material can be located throughout most of the surveyed land Bedrock or boulder mortars were discovered on both creek slopes; two areas in the southern portion of the survey were once terraced, cleared and possibly farmed. We also came across a Historic period outdoor fireplace and gathering area possibly used by The Southern Arizona School for Boys (the institute that preceded Fenster School) or dude ranch wranglers to recite their favorite frontier yarns to their urban "cow hands".

image of archeological site
The hole in this boulder is an ancient mortar in which a stone pestle was used, probably to grind mesquite bean pods into a mealy flour. It was found in the Bear Creek floodplain east of the Sabino Canyon Ruin's main Hohokam habitation area during the AAS archaeological survey. Photo by Allen Dart.

NEIGHBORS COOPERATING. The most impressive archaeological features at the Sabino Canyon Ruin are five large prehistoric housing compounds and many smaller outlying Hohokam house ruins that we identified during our AAS archaeological survey. These spread-out structures suggest that the Sabino-Bear Creek area was a location where several separate Hohokam Indian households lived and interacted with each other between AD 1100 and 1350. That ancient pattern of settlement and neighborhood cooperation is still alive and well in the Sabino Canyon Ruin vicinity today.

We thank the owners of all the private properties that contain portions of the Sabino Canyon Ruin for giving Old Pueblo Archaeology Center permission to inspect and record archaeological features on their lands during the AAS Sabino Canyon Ruin survey. They include Bob Brei, Terry and Peggy Dewald, Jon and Barbara Evans, Jack McGettigan, Jim Weaver, the Pima County Flood Control District, and the Fenster School of Southern Arizona.

The Fenster School is also acknowledged for inviting Old Pueblo Archaeology Center to conduct its educational and research programs at the Sabino Canyon Ruin, and for its continuing support of that endeavor.

SO WHAT'S NEXT? Finding out if Susan, Jeanne, and I are ready to conduct our own systematic survey. Our backpacks are loaded with notebooks, rulers and protractors, compasses, maps, clipboards, cameras, tape measures, and pencils. The water bottles are filled; our eyes have been fine-tuned. The weather has cooled and, hopefully, the snakes have retired to their dens for the season. We are ready to seek and search; all observable data will be recorded.

Excavators, ready your shovels and trowels! A new Snaketown is ready to be discovered!

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