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.
In a land where cholla (fondly known as "jumping cactus") abounds, experienced hikers advise newcomers to carry a comb to safely flick away the spiny segments, which can penetrate even sturdy boots. Feet also suffer the insults of sharp rocks and blast-furnace heat. But how did the Hohokam and other early desert dwellers protect their feet? Archaeologist Stephen E. Nash has been looking into the matter of shoes.
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.
... Archaeologists have found human tools dated to 20,000 years ago at a site northwest of Austin. This is one of the earliest artifacts in North America.
The Hohokam, Mimbres, and Ancestral Puebloans once occupied the present-day American Southwest. What happened to these three peoples, and should their fate serve as an object lesson for us today?
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 Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a large scale to ensure the continuation of their world. Early Spanish chroniclers wrote of thousands of skulls displayed on a rack, named the tzompantli, in front of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital. The existence of the tzompantli has been called into dispute over the past few decades, but recent excavations have yielded the remains of the skull rack and one of the towers of skulls that accompanied it.
"All premodern societies make some kind of offering," says Vera Tiesler, a bioarchaeologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico. "And in many societies, if not all, the most valuable sacrifice is human life."
The Hohokam that I write about appear to have restricted their offerings to food and drink and crafted goods, as well as activities such as dancing and singing. But they may, at various times in their history, have kept the bones of significant ancestors in the house or buried them under the floor to have those friendly spirits look after and protect the family.
Bones and blood can have great symbolic power. That makes them interesting to write about: what might certain burial practices have meant to the people who performed them?
Personal issues have kept me away from the blog and interfered with my writing for several months, but I'm back now. Look for more about archaeology, the Hohokam and O'odham, the desert of central Arizona, and my research and writing endeavors.
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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