Pueblo Grande Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
I can take a virtual tour of Pueblo Grande when I want to remind myself about the Hohokam village that is the setting for volume 2 (and one of the settings for volume 3) in my upcoming Tales of the Watermasters series.
During the fourteenth century AD, when this platform mound was at its greatest, it stood about 12 feet high (up to 21 feet once the structures built on top of it are factored in!) and measured about 170 feet east-west by 320 feet north-south—just a little smaller than an NFL football field. The bases of some of these structures at Pueblo Grande Cultural Park have been stabilized and show the outlines of the rooms, though unfortunately they don't give a sense of the imposing height of the original edifice.
At the foot of the platform mound was a compound surrounded by an adobe-and-rock wall more than 3 feet thick and nearly 9 feet high. What remains even now dwarfs visitors to the site. The walls of the compound were coated with caliche plaster, which would have functioned like whitewash, not only protecting the adobe but also smoothing the wall surface so that it likely shone under the desert sun.
Archaeologists have determined that the platform mound had a long history of ritual use, as indicated by horns from desert bighorn deposited by the Hohokam circa AD 900 and a smaller circular mound built before AD 1175. Several periods of abandonment, restoration, and expansion occurred before the final major construction, which might have coincided with the drought that struck the entire Southwest circa AD 1275.
During the same general period, polychrome ceramics and other new material goods appeared, suggesting either trade with new groups or evidence of large-scale population movements, and the Hohokam began to wall off their food storehouses, family and household areas, and public and ritual zones. They seem to have gone from a people comfortable and confident in their homeland to being suspicious of others but at the same time reliant on outsiders.
What caused these major cultural shifts? Archaeologists, Euro-American explorers, and others amazed by what the Hohokam built and created have speculated about the possible causes of the changes and, indeed, the eventual downfall of this magnificent and long-lived civilization. My own speculations take the form of a series of novels ... fictionalized archaeology or prehistoric fiction, as some call it.
The events and characters found in my Watermasters series may never have existed, but the essential truths of the Watermasters' existence in the Arizona desert surely would have. Who must those people have been? What would their lives have been like? How do their experiences—and their eventual disappearance—relate to our modern culture wars?
To find out, look for Swallowing the Sun, coming out soon in installments as an e-book and later this year in print.
Where do I draw inspiration from? Occasionally from photos like this, of a cloud at sunrise.
Such coincidences spark connections in my imagination, as myth and history and possibility become ideas, and ideas become narratives. What would other people have thought or felt or done upon seeing such a sight? What effect would their responses produce? What would happen then?
It's like the butterfly effect. Or, for you Star Trek fans, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" (about a language based entirely on allegories).
This one single image makes me think first of the mythological phoenix, but then I wonder how others would have viewed it. To an agricultural people knowing that the winter solstice drew near, would the position of the sunrise along the horizon be more significant? Or would the bird shape in the clouds be read as a waterbird, a sign of oncoming rain, or perhaps a crane, signifying migration? Or would someone trapped in a miserable life see the bird-cloud moving overhead and wish she could fly as freely?
I sit and I wonder about these things, and sometimes I include them in scenes, and sometimes those scenes make it into the finished book.
People often ask me this question once I tell them what I write about. I give them two answers.
The first comes from an experience I had many years ago. When I first went to Hole-in-the-Rock (in Papago Park, Phoenix), as I rubbed my hand over the polished rock wall beside the trail, I felt the presence of the countless people who had walked that way before and touched that same rock face. That prompted me to learn all I could about the prehistoric people who lived there: the Hohokam.
The second comes from something I read. I've edited many books about the Southwest and Southwestern archaeology, including several archaeological site reports in the Phoenix area. One of these site reports discusses a fascinating burial at a village called Pueblo Salado (excavated by SWCA).
In a context late in the Hohokam sequence, investigators discovered the skeletal remains of two young men. Both were missing their leg bones, and they had been positioned facing in opposite directions, with their right arms linked.
I started wondering why this burial was so different: were the men brothers? friends? lovers? enemies? That wondering led to writing. And that writing led to more research and more writing, and here I am, three novels and 20 years later.
I still haven't found the right place for this anomalous burial in any of my Hohokam novels, but I'm still working on "Blows a Bitter Wind" . . . maybe the third time will indeed prove to be the charm.
I had my mother teach me to read when I was four, and I've never stopped. Now I can play with words all day long... it's the best job in the world.
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