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Digging Beneath Superior

Driving on US 60 for the first time between Florence Junction and Superior is a memorable experience. It’s a white-knuckle kind-of-ride when there is nothing more than a bright yellow line separating you and the cars driving in the opposite direction.

Recently, however, ADOT began a $45 million roadway improvement project to widen that five-mile portion between mileposts 222 to 227 and convert it into a modern, four-lane divided highway, for the sake of both traffic flow and safety. The department hopes to complete the project by 2017.

Prior to construction, ADOT performed a standard review identifying any potential environmental impacts or impacts on sensitive cultural resources.

“It’s the right and respectful thing to do and part of our commitment to the environment,” explains Dustin Krugel, ADOT’s Statewide Public Information Officer.

As it turns out, there were archaeological remains at the site. So, beginning in February 2014, ADOT consultants began unearthing a collection of what, based on evidence, are believed to be Salado remains from that area.

They led controlled excavations of the site, which would have certainly been impacted by the project’s construction. The site extends from Highway 60 to Main Street in Superior. At the time this article was written, the excavations were expected to be complete by the end of March.

Dig Site
This dig site was uncovered when ADOT began work on improving US 60 last spring Photo by Linda Gross

The Salado were a people believed to have inhabited the Southwest between 1100 to 1400 A.D., roughly 100 years before the Spanish came along. The renowned Southwest-based archaeologist Harold Gladwin was the first to identify the Salado as a distinct culture in the 1920s. Gladwin supposedly believed that the Salado evolved around the Little Colorado region, and began to migrate into the Tonto Basin from there.

Arleyn Simon, who has been a research professor at ASU for more than 20 years, and also manages the curation facility for archaeological collections at the Center for Archaeology and Society Repository, says that poor climate and drought led early pueblo people in the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners regions to move to middle and southern Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico. From the late 1200s to the early 1300s, influences were also traveling upward from prehistoric cultures in Northern Mexico, she says, and trade networks were established.

“This was a classical period,” she adds. “We might think of it as the great melting pot of the Southwest.”

It is around this time that the Salado culture developed. There might have been several thousands of people living in Southern Arizona, according to Simon, and they used religious and social structures to allow them to integrate — big social and religious changes were the result.

Evidence suggests that the Salado dwelled in heavy concentrations around the Gila and Salt Rivers.

Several Salado ruin sites have been uncovered locally near Globe-Miami, including the Tonto Cliff Dwellings, Besh Ba Gowah and the Gila Pueblo Community College just outside downtown Globe.

And, of course, ADOT’s recent excavation suggests that the Salado were also around Superior. Krugel was able to share some information on this latest excavation with GMT.

Animal bones and arrowheads were among the remains found at the ADOT excavation site. This collection was also photographed at Gila Historical Museum.
Animal bones and arrowheads were among the remains found at the excavation site. Photographs of the actual remains from the Superior dig site are not available at this time through ADOT. This collection was photographed at Gila Historical Museum. Photo by Jenn Walker

According to Krugel, a crew of 15 to 25 ADOT consultants found more than 50,000 artifacts and samples at depths ranging between eight inches to almost five feet beneath the ground. They are believed to date somewhere between 1325 to 1450 A.D., although ADOT consultants hope to eventually get more specific dates from tree-ring, radiocarbon and archaeomagnetic dating.

The most common artifacts that the team unearthed were ceramics and flaked stone, like projectile points and arrowheads, and the debris from making such tools. They also uncovered numerous manos and metates, which are stones used for grinding things like corn, as well as animal remains. The crew also found pigments and minerals, roof beams, axe heads and a bone rasp.

“We would expect to find those things in any Salado site,” Simon says.

Simon was part of one of the largest excavation projects in Arizona herself — a 10-year excavation conducted by ASU around Roosevelt Lake — in the ‘90s. The team spent four years excavating more than 120 sites around the lake, and spent another six writing reports.

“There are two things in particular that mark Salado culture,” she says. “Pottery and architecture.”

The Salado are known for their polychrome pottery, she continues. In other words, it has more than two colors on it. Those colors included red from ochre, white from volcanic ash deposits, and black from paint made of cooked-down mesquite beans.

They made plenty of utility pottery, too, she adds. Their pottery was not always decorated.

The Salado are known for their pottery, such as this example, which is part of the collection at the Gila Historical Museum. Photographs of the actual remains from the Superior dig site are not available at this time through ADOT. Photo by Jenn Walker
The Salado are known for their pottery, such as this example, which is part of the collection at the Gila Historical Museum. Photo by Jenn Walker

“Decorated pottery always gets a lot of attention because it’s beautiful,” she says. “But just like if you went into your own home, you might have your best pieces displayed, but you also have a lot of everyday cooking and storing pieces.”

The animal remains found at the site make sense, she says, because the Salado hunted animals such as deer and rabbits. They grew a lot of food, such as corn, different kinds of beans, and squash, too. They also harvested wild food in desert, like agave. The heart of plant can be roasted.

The Salado built unique platform mound structures, Simon says, which consisted of rectangular, level rooms filled in to make a platform, with an elevated room built on top.

There might have been several dozen people living near these platforms, but since they were also ceremonial areas, other suburbs would have been within half an hour to an hour walk away. So, in fact, an actual community might have been spread over a two-plus mile radius, and could support 200 to 400 people in that area. And, of course, if there was access to a river, the population density might have been higher.

While the artifacts uncovered at the Superior site were generally in good condition, Krugel said that the team detected some evidence of disturbance from looting, animal burrows and tree roots.

What ever happened to the Salado is uncertain. By 1450 A.D., nearly all evidence of their existence disappeared from the areas they had inhabited.

“These are some of the mysteries of the past,” Simon says. “What may have happened is that the conditions of Northern Arizona may have improved, and people may have moved north.”

“Also, as we see in our modern politics and world news, sometimes religious and social movements are successful for several hundred years, and then a change happens.”

According to Simon, after some time, the people remaining in the Southwest seem to abandon the platform structure and ceramics, returning to a lifestyle consisting of small agricultural villages and the courtyards previously used for ceremonies and social interactions, as opposed to the platform structures.

“It’s not like everyone just left, but the social and cultural organization changed again,” she adds.

At the time this article was written, Krugel stated that the artifacts were being washed and labeled in preparation for analysis. A technical report describing the results of the work is expected to follow, after which the artifacts will be curated in perpetuity at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. Meanwhile, the project’s construction is expected to happen later this year.

About Jenn Walker

Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.

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