The turning of the sun.
The Hohokam of central Arizona had several ways of marking the sun's movement. The most amazing one that remains is Hole-in-the-Rock in Papago Park, Phoenix.
The sun shines through the hole in the top of the rock formation and into depressions in the ground below during the solstices.
In my "Tales of the Watermasters" series, I imagine the lighting of huge fires, which could be seen from all the largest villages, at the time of the winter solstice. I call this the New Fire ceremony. I'm a few days off in the final editing of "Swallowing the Sun," though: the New Fire ceremony is still about 10 chapters away! It would have been serendipitous to be working on those scenes while the solstice was actually going on. Oh, well.
The Hohokam evidently had multiple ways of tracking the movement of the sun to determine the solstices and equinoxes. For a farming people, these solar events would have been important, as they would mark changes in day length and seasonal rainfall. In buildings and rock formations, deliberate placement of holes proves the Hohokam to have been able observers of the sun, while their rock art preserves what appear to be not only the sun/moon but also stars.
But the Hohokam were latecomers among the prehistoric people who recorded what they saw in the heavens. A new analysis of Paleolithic and Neolithic cave art indicates that people watched the stars closely enough to identify constellations and represent them in animal form.
The Hohokam are known to have had macaws, but how did they acquire these tropical parrots? They certainly would have been able to trade for the feathers and live birds: shells from the Pacific Ocean, copper bells from deep in Mexico, even bison hides from the Great Plains made their way to Hohokam country in the central Arizona desert.
Long-distance trade has long been assumed to have been the means by which macaws entered the American Southwest. But Mimbres pottery found in southwestern New Mexico depicts young macaws, too young to survive the grueling hike from the fledglings' natural habitat far to the south. And indeed, recent DNA analysis of macaw bones from northwestern and southwestern New Mexico indicates that two separate cultures—Ancestral Puebloan (who used to be called Anasazi) in the north and Mogollon in the south—both acquired their macaws from a single breeding population.
Bones of several hundred macaws have been found farther south, in Paquimé, Mexico. But the ones in New Mexico date to the Chacoan era, AD 850–1150, significantly predating Paquimé, which did not become prominent until 100 years or so after Chaco culture collapsed. So where was this aviary where macaws were bred?
Its location has not yet been established. Maybe it was in one of the Hohokam communities. I would like to think my Watermasters had something to do with importing this beautiful bird into the Southwest and enshrining it in Puebloan art and culture.
The prehistoric Puebloan people to the northeast of the Hohokam area utilized turquoise, or "skystone," as a pigment. Crushed and mixed with other materials, it became a permanent paint. The Hohokam certainly had turquoise, because they made jewelry from it. They also had stone palettes for mixing pigments, as well as "paint pots" for storing either the raw minerals or the paint mixtures.
Ancient Mayans had another blue pigment material: the rare lapis lazuli, which yielded a deeper blue hue than turquoise. Did the Hohokam have access to this stone? There appear to be no sources in central Arizona, but they would have been able to trade with people in California or Colorado to attain lapis lazuli, as they did for saltwater shells.
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 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 Hohokam built many things: great mounds, vast networks of canals, huge buildings, several different kinds of dwellings, work areas, and storage structures. One of the most interesting features that existed throughout Hohokam country is ballcourts. Although the ballgame fell out of favor before the time of my "Tales of the Watermasters" novels, not all of the ballcourts wound up being filled with trash or otherwise repurposed. I use one of the relic ballcourts as a setting for a scene in the first volume, Swallowing the Sun, which should be available for sale in a few months.
Archaeology Southwest has published a summary of what is known about the Hohokam ballcourt. The illustrator, Rob Ciaccio, has taken research and produced his vision of the Hohokam world, much as I have done for my novels.
AD 1275 kicked off a period of change marked by violence and cultural shifts and large-scale movement of people in the Southwest. Archaeologist Karen Gust Schollmeyer has written an interesting summary of that era. The books in my "Tales of the Watermasters" series are set approximately a century later, when the central Arizona valley witnessed still more change.
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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