Life In The Desert: A Brief Visit To Pueblo Grande

For roughly 1000 years the site of Pueblo Grande in what is now Phoenix Arizona was occupied by a group of innovative people known as the Hohokam.

A Little Bit of Background

The Hohokam are considered to be true “masters of the desert” due to their ability to build canal systems. The master gate of these canals rested at Pueblo Grande, and it fed water to several smaller villages through channels that are still used as part of the Salt River Project (though they have of course been updated).  While this feat of surviving in the desert and controlling water sources is already impressive, the village at Pueblo Grande also shows some incredible evidence of being occupied continuously for about 1000 years! The site is a mound that covers a little over 3 acres and was at one point surrounded by masonry dwellings until about 1450 when the site was abandoned

Visiting Pueblo Grande Today

The museum dedicated to the Pueblo Grande site has been open since 1929. Phoenix was the first city in the USA to hire an archaeologist – and it was specifically because of this site.

The museum itself is a nice little centre with plenty of artifacts on display. Personally I preferred the pottery and petroglyph. I highly recommend stopping in here first to learn a bit about the Hohokam and the excavated site before heading outside to the trail.

Petroglyphs. AKA: My new favourite thing!

The trail starts out next to a pile of petroglyphs, sadly all out of context, but there are resources in the bookshop on where you can see ones in situ. The path winds around the base of the main mound complex and then up so you can see into where some of the rooms were. Much of the site had to be filled in again in order to preserve it, but many sections of wall and some rooms are still easily visible and standing.

Parts of the walls still stand from this room that’s door lines up with with the sun on summer and winter solstices.

Each room has a story,  some held trash, one lines up with the sunrise, another has a filled in doorway. Walking further, you can look down and out over a complex building that is almost maze-like. This was a series of dwellings, courtyards, cooking pits, and contained interesting artifacts from neighboring tribes which have been cited as evidence of trade.

You can still see the maze-like aspects of the later compound.

Moving down and away from the mound itself, the museum has reconstructed the two types of dwellings that were common to the Hohokam. The first is a small cluster of pithouses – which were one room dwellings typically arranged around a central courtyard. They were constructed from cottonwood or mesquite tree frames and saguaro cacti and then covered in an outer layer of adobe mud.

Pithouse reconstructions at Pueblo Grande. These were the earlier type of home the Hohokam lived in.

The other type of dwelling feature here is a small adobe compound. These were used in the later part of the sites occupancy and could contain up to 17 rooms. Adobe compound structures used less wood than pithouses, and relied more heavily on caliche and adobe mud to build and reinforce the walls. Many of the structures have stone foundations and were built up by layering the caliche and mud mixture over time.

Inside one of the adobe compound rooms.

Continuing on the path will lead you to the ball court, which was already mentioned, as well as cooking pits and a garden. Ball courts were important in Hohokam society and held special events in addition to the obvious use for games. The Hohokam ball courts fell out of use around 1200 for unknown reasons, but this one is excavated for you to see!

The ball court was a bit tricky to photograph I must admit…

In 1450 Pueblo Grande was abandoned by the Hohokam. Thus far no evidence has been found for why, and the mystery continues to intrigue archaeologists. If you’re in Phoenix and have the time to visit, it’s certainly worthwhile. The site is an incredible place that lets you walk ancient paths and learn about an amazing group of people who survived the harsh desert climate and thrived for over 1000 years.

A short 10 minute drive from Sky Harbor Airport – make time for Pueblo Grande next time you’re in Phoenix!


For more information see:
Pueblo Grande Museum
National Park Service: Pueblo Grande
National Park Service: Hohokam Culture
Arizona Museum of Natural History


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