Driving along Interstate 10, we would always pass by the signs leading to “Casa Grande Ruins National Monument” but we never had the chance to actually stop and see what’s it all about. However, finally, on one of our trips to Texas, my Dad decided to take the turn and followed the signs to the National Monument. My Dad, Mom, and niece Sam were traveling down to Texas to visit my sister, Deelow’s graduation.
It was a few days before the 4th of July so the weather was hot, especially in Arizona. The site wasn’t hard to find; it was located on the side of the main highway and the area it covered was pretty big. After parking the car, we headed to the entrance and because there was less than an hour before it closes, there wasn’t a lot of visitors. The entrance for adults are $5 while 15 or younger are free. It was not only a good deal but the funds will go to the maintenance of this important site.
We first walked around inside the museum trying to learn more about this site and its previous inhabitants.
“Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is evidence of the Hohokam culture that once thrived in this arid region. Hohokam is an O’odham word meaning “all used up.” The Hohokam were “Masters of the Desert” – living in delicate balance with the desert from approximately AD 300 to 1450. They built extensive irrigation canals that are the foundation of the modern canals used to irrigate crops in the valleys along the Salt and Gila rivers. At this location, they also built a casa grande, or ” Great House.”
Recent archeological research suggests that the Hohokam developed in southeastern Arizona from indigenous Archaic groups who were primarily hunters and gathers. These Archaic groups possessed cultivated plants, such as corn and squash, and lived in base or sedentary camps, which contained small pithouses, storage pits, and trash deposits, but lacked ceramics. The introduction of pottery and development of agriculture marks the beginning of the Hohokam culture.”
Its interesting to know that another culture thrived in the deserts of the Southwest, and they were innovators of bringing in new techniques for agriculture. However, they suddenly disappeared, without a trace of whether they ever joined another tribe or not. According to info from the museum, there are some theories regarding their abandonment of the settlement.
“Some believe that extreme drought ended the Hohokam culture; others claim that floods were the cause. Disease and a general breakdown of the Hohokam society are two other theories. While it may seem like a mystery, archaelogists use multiple lines of evidence to examine various theories. Studies of prehistoric water discharge on the Salt and Gila rivers, studies of climate change, increasing soil salinity, disease, including malnutrition, are some of the evidence being examined along with O’odham folklore.
A possible answer is that Hohokam farming relied on adequate water supply and organized canal management. Between AD 1200 and 1350, the Hohokam experienced severe flooding and extreme drought. Flooding deepened he Gila River channel, making it harder for canals to carry water to fields when water levels were low. Part of the canal system was abandoned, and remaining canals were extended miles upstream to maintain proper water flows.
Around AD 1350, the time of the Great House, a combination of factors may have triggered a breakdown of Hohokam society and undermined the leadership. During the next 100 years, the Hohokam survivors abandoned large settlements like Casa Grande Ruins. Hohokam society returned to a previous rancheria lifestyle with people spreading out along the Gila River corridor to form small villages. Today’s O’odham believe they are descendants of the Hohokam.
In this scenario, the Hohokam never really vanished, but rather reverted to a lifestyle better adapted to the changing conditions of the desert.”
There were also remnants of platform mounds and ballcourt. The ballcourt was first identified in 1846 and is described as a large, oval-shaped earthen depression. The appearance of ballcourts coincided with the population growth during the Colonial period. According to the museum, it was first investigated by Frank Pinkley.
“The Casa Grande Ruins’ ballcourt was the first to be professionally investigated in 1918 by Frank Pinkley. He identified caliche-mud plaster floors and sloped banks of the packed earth. In 1935, Emil W. Haury concluded that these features were ballcourts, based on his excavation of the largest known court and identification of stone markers in the floor. Others disagreed until the 1970s, when the exhaustive work of David R. Wilcox convincingly demonstrated their use as ballcourts.”
Maintaining and preserving this site is very important; there is but few remaining monuments left by this culture. As of today, the rise and fall during the first civilization in Arizona still remains a mystery. But answers will not be found among the settlements they left behind due to the increasing and fast development in the state, vandalism of individuals and treasure hunting. Ever since, its discovery efforts were made to preserve it as written in their history.
“In 1694, Father Eusebio Kuno, a Jesuit missionary, was the first European to visit and document these ruins. He gave the Casa Grande its name. The building became a famous landmark of the desert, but this early famed proved to be a mixed blessing.
Before federal protection of the Casa Grande, visitors took potsherds, other artifacts and even pieces of the walls as souvenirs. By the late 1880s it was a commonplace to scratch names, initials and designs into the fragile, ancient plaster on the interior of the Casa Grande.
In 1889, Congress took action to protect the Casa Grande. Funds were appropriated to cleat away debris from inside and around the Casa Grande, repair the badly eroded wall foundations and brace some walls with wooden beams and metal rods. In 1892, the Casa Grande was designated as a federal preserve and a custodian was hired to safeguard the ruins.
In 1903, a small roof was places over the Casa Grande. It was replaced in 1932 with the current rood. These efforts have proven successful so far; no noticeable deterioration of the Casa Grande has occurred since the first repairs were made in 1891.”
Frank “Boss” Pinkley
One of Casa Grande’s famous custodian is Frank Pinkley who made the efforts in preserving the site and doing his own archaeological investigations in the Great House and other regional sites. He was the Arizona state legislator for a brief period, then resumed his position in the Casa Grande National Monument in 1918.
“For years, he lobbied for preservation, maintenance and program funds. He was tireless in his efforts to interpret the ruins to the public. His take-charge attitude, organizational skills and efficiency did not go unnoticed. He was named superintendent of Southwest Monuments, in charge of 12 cultural sites. Nicknamed the “Boss,” he served 27 years as steward of the Southwest’s national treasures.“
The weather was unforgiving during that July as the air was hot while the sun was teasing us with its brightness. After exploring outside and looking at the remnants of the Hohokam culture, we marveled but at the same time, felt disappointed. The legacy of the Hohokam is a new knowledge to be appreciated so we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of their way of life. It was disappointing because we knew that a lot was lost from the time of its discovery, and until now, very few appreciate the value of a site such as this one.
Going back inside to enjoy the cold AC of the museum, we read more information about the Hohokam such as their rituals and everyday living. We left the Casa Grande National Monument with new knowledge and also becoming more appreciative of the monuments left by the past.
Photos courtesy of this site: