A Visit to Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, AZ
Long before the city of Phoenix existed even as a tiny settlement, the Hohokam figured out how to live in this arid desert. They didn't have air conditioning, they didn't have running water or electricity. Still, they found a way to not only survive, but thrive, and even build a civilization.
Civilizations come and go. People move on, and the Hohokam did as well. Their name, Hohokam, means "those who have vanished". Yet, they left behind their homes, their canals, their community buildings.
Interior of a Hohokam Pithouse
Early Settlers Find the Ruins
Thousands of years after they had moved on, some settlers arrived in the area. They noticed the ruins of this ancient civilization. They dug out the canals and used them to bring water to their homes. Their settlement started to grow and it needed a name. Darrell Duppa, one of the settlers, who was a well-educated traveler as well, was part of the committee. He predicted the rise of another great civilization on the site of the ancient one. He proposed to name their young town Phoenix, after the mythical bird reborn from its own ashes.
The First City in the Nation With an Archaeologist
Today, Phoenix is one of the largest city in the nation, home to millions of people. The old Hohokam canals, reconstructed, are still in use today. Some of the modern buildings sit on top of the ruins of ancient homes. But the city needed a place where people could learn about the ancient civilization that once flourished here.
They got a chance for this in 1924, when the area that is the archaeological site today, was donated to the city. A few years later, in 1929, they opened the museum and hired a city archaeologist, who also acted as the museum director. With this measure, Phoenix became the first city in the nation to have an archaeologist.
With little money, the actual museum building took years to complete. It was finally finished in 1935, using adobe bricks manufactured on site. Over the years, they added more buildings, more facilities to the original. Today, it houses three modern galleries, featuring up-to-date exhibits.
Visiting the Indoor Gallery
My visit to Pueblo Grande Museum starts in the main gallery. It is a great place to learn about the Hohokam and their relationship with the environment. I am beginning to understand how they were able to live in this harsh environment.
I look at the map of their canals and marvel at the distances they covered. I realize that most of the canals that bring water to our homes today follow the route of the ancient ones. The name "canal makers" used to refer to the Hohokam makes perfect sense now. It is hard to fathom that they built these elaborate waterways with their bare hands and sticks.
One of the highlights of the exhibit is a diorama of a miniature ancient city. Everything looks realistic. Men are hunting, or building homes and canals. Women are gathering or cooking by the fires inside the homes. Children are playing between the buildings.
I walk on to marvel at the elaborate designs on their pottery, their tools, shells, and stone jewelry. The children’s hands-on gallery is a great place to stop. When I am with the kids, I have a hard time leaving it, they have so much fun making “ancient artifacts”.
The best part of my visit is the walk through the outdoor part of the museum. The interpretive trail is about 3/4 miles long and takes me around the archaeological site.
My first stop is the Hohokam garden. Set up as in ancient times, the museum staff is still growing crops here. They use the traditional methods of the Hohokam, methods that work in the desert. The crops grow in raised beds surrounded by mini-canals. The water that flows through the canals keeps the ground moist for the corn, beans, and squash that grow here. These three crops, nicknamed the tree sisters, were the staple diet of the Hohokam. A live ocotillo fence surrounds the garden.
Ancient Uses for the Yucca Plant
Across from the garden I walk by a yucca plant, where I stop to think about all the uses the ancients found for it. They made soap and shampoo from the roots by making a pulp, then mixing it with water. They used the leaves to make rope, baskets and sandals. They did this by hitting them repeatedly until only the fibers remained of them. They left some of the fibers attached to the sharp end of the leaf, creating needle and thread, and used it for sewing. They ate the fruit and the sweet flower. They even used the heart of the yucca, the part that remains after all the leaves and the root are removed. By baking it underground for a few days, they made a sweet-candy-like treat from it.
Ball Court in the American Southwest
Not far from the yucca plant I stop by the ball court. It is built by digging the large hole in the desert soil and piling up the ground on its sides. Archaeologists think that the ball courts of the Hohokam were mainly associated with market days, and served to bring together different communities. I imagine the ancient city during market days. They might have used the ball court to play the game, but also to gather multiple communities for feasts, dances and trade.
Ball Court in Pueblo Grande Museum
The biggest attractions on the trail are the pit houses. I walk into the older, reconstructed one. It is a stand-alone, one-room pit house. As I enter, I notice pots on the ground and cotton-filled baskets hanging. The house is built partially underground, keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Seems to me that the Hohokam invented air conditioning. The house faces a court yard, where I notice the remains of community fire and cooking area.
The other pit house is different. In fact, I can't really call it a pit house, it is more of a compound. It includes several rooms, enclosed within a wall. They used some of the rooms for storage. The fire pit and coking area was inside the walls as well. This compound dates from about 1100 AD, later than the other one I first visited.
I realize that I am witnessing the signs of building of a civilization. The newer are more elaborate, but also more closed in. A plausible explanation is fear from outsiders. Higher walls, as well as enclosing the homes, seems plausible for this reason.
Pit House at Pueblo Grande Museum
The Old Canal Is Still In Use Today
The trail goes farther up and comes to a platform mound, built between 1150-1450 AD. This was about the same time that Hohokam stopped building ball courts. Archaeologists think that they might have replaced the ball courts as gathering places.
On the far side of the trail, I stop to catch a glimpse of the modern-day canal that runs not far from the site. It is still in use today by the city of Phoenix. It was an important part of the canal system thousands of years ago, even more important than today. It was the site of a major gate that controlled the flow of water not only for this community, but for others as well.
It is the end of the trail and I am ready to leave. I have a better appreciation of this ancient people. I understand how they were able to make the desert their home thousands of years ago.
The museum is located in the very heart of Phoenix, less then five miles from the airport, easily accessible not only by car, but by public transportation as well. It makes a great stop even if you're just passing through the city and your plane is delayed.
If walking through the trail, remember that you are in the desert. Even though it is a short walk, make sure you wear sunscreen and a hat, and bring water.
Help preserve the site by making sure that you don't take any artifacts or rocks, don't sit on walls or lean against them, and stay on the designated trail.
Address: 4619 E. Washington St; Phoenix AZ, 85034
Open: Mon-Sat: 9 am - 4:45 pm; Sunday: 1 pm - 4:45 pm. Outdoor trail closes at 4:30 pm
Admission: Adults: $6.00; Seniors: $5.00; Children 6-17: $3.00; under 6: free
For more information, visit the park's official home page at:
Pueblo Grande Archaeological Site
Pueblo Grande Museum