Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix Offers a Glimpse Into the Ancient World of Canal Makers
How Did Ancient People Live in the Desert?
A visit to Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, answers this question.
The city of Phoenix of today is huge, with a population of over 1.5 million, sprawled in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. They live here comfortably year round, even when temperatures hover around 110F (over 43C) for weeks on end. We have air conditioning, water, food and other goods brought in from faraway places.
But people lived here thousands of years before air conditioning.
Long before the city of Phoenix existed even as a tiny settlement, the Hohokam figured out how to do it. 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. They lived here from as early as 200 BC till about 1450 AD. How did they do it?
They lived in pit houses, which they built partially underground. This made them cooler in the summer, as well as warmer in the cooler days of winter.
They learned to use the yucca plant, which grows in abundance in the desert. They made soap, shampoo, sewing needle and thread, rope and even candy from it.
They grew cotton, and made their clothing from it.
But their most important skill was canal building. As such, they were some of the best engineers of the ancient world. They built an elaborate canal system with bare hands and sticks. Some of these canals brought water to the settlement far from its source, even from lower ground. Their handiwork was so good, it lasted through centuries and we still use some of them today.
But 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 and Phoenix Is Born (or Reborn)
Thousands of years after the Hohokam left, some settlers arrived in the area. They noticed the ruins of this ancient civilization, and decided to use what they could from it. Of course, what they most needed and found usable with some work were the canals. They dug them out 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. We use the name for the city to this day.
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.
The city didn't want to forget its roots. It wanted to remember the ancient civilization that flourished here in earlier times. For that, it needed a place where people could learn about it.
They got a chance for this in 1924, when the former owner donated the area with the most ruins to the city. A few years later, in 1929, the city opened the museum. In the same time, they 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.
Start the Visit With the Indoor Gallery
Our 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”.
Stop at the Hohokam Garden and Learn About the Three Sisters
The sisters are not actually people. The three sisters are the main crops the Hohokam and other ancient people of the desert lived on. They are squash, beans and corn.
We find out about them on the first stop on the interpretive trail.
Set up as in ancient times, the garden is still in use. The museum staff is still growing crops here, using the ancient methods of the Hohokam. The crops grow in raised beds surrounded by mini-canals. The water that flows through the canals keeps the ground moist.
The three sisters, the staple diet of the Hohokam, still grow there.
A live ocotillo fence surrounds the garden.
Learn About the Ancient Uses for the Yucca Plant
Across from the garden we stop in front of a yucca plant, where we learn about all the uses the ancients found for it.
I realized how versatile this plant is and how the ancients could use every bit of it.
Making a pulp from the roots, and mixing it with water they made soap and shampoo.
They stripped the leaves by hitting them until only the string-like fibers remained. They used these fibers to weave them into rope, baskets or sandals. By leaving some one of them attached to the sharp end of the leaf, they had both string and needle.
The fruit of the yucca was a big part of their diet. They ate it raw or cooked. They also ate the sweet flowers, raw.
The ancients liked sweets like the rest of us. The heart of the yucca plant offered a way for them to make a sweet, candy-like treat. The heart is what remained after they chopped off all the leaves and removed the root. It would have looked somewhat like a pineapple. They cooked this heart underground for about four days. When they dug it out, they had a candy-like, sweet, gooey treat.
Ball Court in the American Southwest
Not far from the yucca plant we stop by the ball court. It is a large hole in the desert soil with the ground piled up on its sides. It is a far cry from the ball courts we see in Mesoamerca built by the Maya.
Still, it is a ball court, and was used as such. At least some of the time.
Archaeologists think that the ball courts of the Hohokam were mostly used on market days. Those days served to bring together not only the local community, but many others from far away. They might have used the ball court to play the game between two different comunities. They also used it for feasts, dances and trade.
Ball Court in Pueblo Grande Museum
Pit Houses on the Trail
The biggest attractions on the interpretive 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 wouldn't call it a pit house, it is more of a compound. It includes several rooms, enclosed within a wall. The Hohokam 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, might be an answer to it.
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