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.
Not everyone died before the age of 30 in cultures like the Hohokam, even though infant mortality was higher than in modern industrial nations, young men tended to die from violence or accidents, and young women faced risks from childbirth. But those who managed to survive their first three decades had a good chance of living to 70 or so. Archaeologist Christine Cave has an insightful explanation of how this could be so, based on her research into what she calls the "invisible elderly."
Those who did survive may have been treasured for their wisdom. In any case, that's how I prefer to think my Watermasters treated their elderly. Older people play important roles in all my books, as repositories of history and myth.
I rely on a lot of archaeological research in writing my books. I'll take something like the following bit of information about the Hohokam:
"[T]he command area group—that is, farmers along a distribution canal who must coordinate and cooperate to irrigate using the same canal . . . was the primary level of organization and one that dealt directly with farmers. It was the task group that worked cooperatively to construct, maintain, and repair the common distribution canal. Ethnographic case studies also suggest that a task group maintained the section of the main canal in its area and, in situations such as repairing a headgate, the group worked as a unit. This was also the level in which water was allocated to individual farmers and required labor contributions were tracked."
[Source: Archaeology Southwest ASW 21(4), "Hohokam Archaeology of the Phoenix Basin."]
Then I imagine how these task groups would actually work with real people, and I let various characters play in my head for a while until scenes and plots start to coalesce.
There were hundreds of miles of these canals in the Phoenix area long before the first Europeans stepped foot in the valley. Many of them were so well engineered that modern canals follow the same course.
A few weeks ago, I had a marvelous experience: a photo shoot with a professional photographer, Kara Hudgens, with the assistance of makeup artist Wendy Warren. My resident IT guru is helping me build a new website. I'm doing everything I need to be a successful author ... except putting the finishing touches on Swallowing the Sun and getting it out to the general public.
A few years ago, I came across research analyzing the 13th century "grave of a young disabled woman afflicted with scoliosis, rickets and tuberculosis" in Tempe, Arizona. To survive to age twenty, the girl had likely needed special treatment while she was alive, and the assemblage of grave goods indicated that she received special treatment after her death as well.
I am always intrigued by distinctive burials. Indeed, one of the three details that inspired me to begin writing fiction about the Hohokam was a burial in which the torsos of two young men were placed, facing in opposite cardinal directions and with arms linked. Archaeologists can speculate about why those two men were buried in such a way: Why only their torsos? Why facing away from each other? Why were they arm-in-arm? Were they brothers, friends, enemies? How did they die? But as a writer of fiction, I can craft a reality in which this unique burial is the climax of a plot, explained by the characterization and narrative elements that lead up to it.
The first draft is done!
It took me two weeks to outline and two months to write this initial 80,000 words, the fastest any book has ever come together for me.
Now I'll put it away for a few months and go back to "Swallowing the Sun."
Here we are at the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. It's a solemn occasion for some, a time of joy for others, meaningful in almost every culture around the world. In some places it coincides with famine, in others it marks the birth of a savior. The People of Two Rivers, as I have named the Hohokam in my series of prehistoric novels, definitely observed the solstices and equinoxes . . . but how?
For my "Tales of the Watermasters" series, a group of specialists named the Skywatchers follow the sun as it shifts through its seasonal round. The Skywatchers tell the people when they can safely plant their first crops in the spring (although the Valley of Two Rivers becomes fiercely hot in the summer and has a long growing season, frost occurs frequently enough in early spring that too-early planting can be disastrous); when to call down the summer rains that enable a second planting; when to offer thanks to the mother-goddess for providing the preservable foods that will carry them through the lean winter; and when to turn back the sun from the darkness of winter to bring the warmer days of spring.
The Skywatchers relied on astronomical observatories such as the one at Mother Sleeping (AKA Hole-in-the-Rock), the Temple of the Mist (AKA Casa Grande Ruins), Spirit Mountain at Serpent Gate (AKA the Pueblo Grande platform mound), rock art at River Shield Butte (AKA Tempe/Hayden Butte) and in the Greasy Mountains (AKA South Mountain Park), and a structure along with rock art north of Serpent Gate (in the Phoenix Mountains).
These ancient observatories suggest that the spring sun-festival of the People of Two Rivers began a few days earlier than the actual equinox, perhaps March 18, and the fall sun-festival began a few days later, perhaps September 25. The sun's position along the horizon may also have given ordinary people a rough idea of when to expect the sun-festivals to occur, as the sun would rise or set in a specific "notch" in the mountains that surround the valley for approximately four days. According to the calculations of avocational archaeologist Ben Mixon, there would be 189 days during the summer period, between the equinoxes, or seven months of 27 days each. During the winter, there would be 174 days, or six months of 29 days each. (See my earlier post about the calendar.)
The historic O'odham people, the inheritors of the Hohokam world, had a twelve- or thirteen-month lunar calendar that began in the summer, whereas I have written the People of Two Rivers as starting their year with a four-day New Fire ceremony at the winter solstice, when the sun is "turned back" along the horizon, marking the lengthening of days. The thirteen moons observed by the O'odham appear to have consisted of seasonal markers important to these agricultural people: hot, rainy, short planting, dry grass, light cold, low cold, backbone (midwinter), rutting/heat (animals), lean (animals), leafless, green (leafing-out or sprouting), yellow (flowering), flowers fading (fruiting).
The O'odham used to celebrate the winter solstice with a four-day ceremony focused on their creation myth, with deities who lived at the solstice points on the horizon. Archaeologist Todd Bostwick, in his Landscape of the Spirits, on the rock art of the Hohokam, has a fascinating discussion of the Hohokam calendar systems.
Spadefoot obediently chanted his lines within the liturgy in counterpoint to the Rainsinger’s. Three of his brethren stood with him, all four together wearing identical headdresses: turkey feathers surmounting a mask of cottonwood painted black above and white below, and long hanks of gray old-woman hair hanging down from the bottom half as rain. Each wore a shell net hanging from a hip-belt, with only a thin cotton breechcloth to shield his flute and rattles from the surprisingly sharp-edged shells. Their voices were tuned with his as the quartet alternated among themselves in the responses. He did not much care about the words, repetitive as they were and having much to do with obedience to the will of the Ta’atchul; as he had told Morning Green, he really could have said them in his sleep. Obedience was his theme—though he was having trouble feeling it—while good heart, the courage to accept change, and the sustenance of life were the messages spoken by each of the others.
Morning Green’s descant tied together all the contrapuntal motifs around one crucial element: blood.
The beat of it. The ebb and flow. The heat of absolute belief.
Cholla Blossom gets a lot of grief: betrayed by everyone in her life, foiled at every turn, and foreseeing her own death in visions. Plus, several of my beta readers say her name is too hard to pronounce (CHOY-a), and they don't see why I'm unwilling to return to her original name, White Dove the bland. No, just kidding—the name I gave her initially as a placeholder isn't bland, just stereotypical. Here are some of the reasons I chose this difficult name for this angsty teen.
The segmented jointed stems of these species of "jumping cholla" have barbed spines that embed themselves in your skin if you're not careful moving through the desert. Experienced hikers often carry a comb to flick away any joints that hitch a ride. Grabbing onto a stem with your fingers is a mistake you're unlikely to repeat.
So this plant is lovely but prickly and hard to get rid of, just like Cholla Blossom. And it is literally picked in the bud, just as she fears will happen to her; the mature fruits of most species of cholla are not eaten, except in times of starvation.
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.