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Tue, Nov. 12

Dig unearths clues about ancient culture <br>

Eric Albright from the NPS Science Center and Neomie Tsosie from NAU work on defining the borders of a Cohonino dwelling being excavated in Grand Canyon Village.

“When you think of ancient settlements here, the Anasazi leap to the imagination,” said University of Cincinnati archeologist Alan Sullivan, who has studied other Cohonino and Anasazi sites in the region. “This group (the Cohonino) hasn’t been as studied for some interesting reasons. They need to be investigated to the same extent. That’s why this little site is so important.”

The excavation is a cooperative project between the National Park Service and Northern Arizona University, led by park archeologist Amy Horn and Sullivan, who is co-principal investigator. While park officials have known about the site for at least 30 years, they opted not to excavate it until it was threatened by the nearby development. The cost – about $40,000 – is being assumed by the developer as part of the environmental compliance.

“This find is fairly important ,” Horn said. “We don’t have a lot of these structural sites in the village area. This is one of the first to be excavated in 25 years in this general area.”

The excavation is nearing its end after about three weeks of work. After all artifacts are removed, the holes will be filled in and original materials will be scattered to restore its appearance.

“The Park Service likes to protect and preserve these sites in place, but when they’re impacted by development as this one is, we’ll go in and excavate,” Horn said.

The dig itself served as a learning tool for residents. As the project progressed, Horn led small groups through the site to share what researchers have learned.

During a recent tour, she said that the Cohonino have been overlooked because “they weren’t as sexy as the ancestral puebloans or Anasazi.”

Their structures were less enduring and their craftwork wasn’t as advanced, she said.

While the Cohonino culture differs from that of ancestral puebloans, they shared some of the same migration patterns.

“They’re a little less studied but are a little similar to Anasazi,” said Horn. “They have the same strategies to cope with water issues.”

Researchers believe the sites were occupied between 1050 and 1150 A.D. and were used during wet parts of the year, either during the winter or monsoon season.

“We see these land use patterns on the South Rim,” Sullivan said. “They go where the water is. They were generally gone from here this time of year. Principally they would have called the South Rim home and gone to the inner Canyon in the summer to farm.”

Few Cohonino sites have been excavated; this one will add to the body of knowledge and confirm some theories they’ve already developed.

“This is similar to sites excavated south of Desert View,” Horn said. “We’ve discovered people took advantage of the slopes.”

Cohonino structures were beehive shaped and built on the high end of slopes using materials at hand. First, pits were dug into bedrock, then covered with gathered stone supported by wood poles. The irregularly-shaped stones made for structures that needed continual upkeep. Horn said they weren’t expected to last more than 15 years.

This site yielded evidence of a main enclosed structure, an open covered ramada and various outdoor work areas littered with pieces of pottery, tools and projectile points. Researchers found a shell that isn’t indigenous to the area They also found non-indigenous materials – shell, basalt and ochre – that could shed light on migration and trade patterns.

Sullivan said that the site could have been home to anywhere from five to 15 people.

“It was someone’s personal settlement, probably at the household or kin group,” he said.

Like other unearthed Cohonino structures , this one had collapsed in on itself. Early in the excavation, Sullivan said they had found indications that it had burned. While catastrophic for the inhabitants, an unexpected fire generally preserves a treasure trove of clues for archaeologists. Sullivan said discoveries like vessels containing food provide a wealth of information on when the site was occupied and how its inhabitants lived.

“It’s good for us because it preserves a lot of material,” added Horn.

The more material left behind, the more researchers have to work with to determine the age of the structure, when it was used and how its occupants migrated. Tree ring dating from wood found on the site can yield information about its age, and pollen and food samples can indicate what time of year the site was occupied.

One thing they don’t hope to find is bodies, said Sullivan.

“We’re not in search of human remains,” he said. “It’s uncommon to find people and we’re not looking for them. If we inadvertently run across them, there are all kinds of procedures we have to follow involving the appropriate tribes.”

As it turned out, the main structure had been burned but large rocks placed on the hearth circle indicated that the building had been ritually abandoned and destroyed. Also, the site had been cleared of all usable materials, including some of the structure’s support posts.

One surprise was the discovery that the enclosed structure was nearly twice as big as the researchers expected. Because the representative sample is so small, Sullivan said it’s hard to know if this site is unique in that regard.

“There’s a lot more work to do here because we have such a small sample,” he said. “There’s a range of cultural behavior with these people that’s not documented."

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