Two twelfth-century settlements a hundred kilometers apart in Arizona were apparently built by discrete cultures, but they have at least one trait in common: In each complex is a hidden, hollow compartment that once held large chunks of alien iron — fragments of a 50,000-year-old meteorite.
While it’s not clear what, if any, interaction there was between the two communities, the existence of these twin meteorite “shrines” is a connection worth investigating, says Ken Zoll.
“The sites themselves are not necessarily linked, but the practice is linked,” said Zoll, executive director of the Verde Valley Archaeological Center in Camp Verde, Arizona.
Zoll, who researches archaeoastronomy — the study of how ancient cultures tracked celestial events — discussed the little-known meteorite caches earlier this month at the 2013 Pecos Conference, an annual meeting of Southwestern archaeologists.
The first of the two sites was reportedly discovered by looters in 1927, southeast of present-day Camp Verde. And in many regards, Zoll said, it was unique among the ruins that rim central Arizona’s Verde Valley.
For one, unlike the older pithouses and small masonry structures found elsewhere, it was an arrangement of pueblo-style rooms that formed a near-perfect square, about 61 meters on each side.
For another, inside its eastern wall was a stone-lined vault, or cist, that held a bundle wrapped in an ornate blanket made of turkey feathers. Inside was a 61-kilogram mass of misshapen metal, a meteorite.
“The fact that it was wrapped in a feathered turkey blanket adds to the significance,” observed Zoll. “It takes over a year to make. So obviously it made it a very sacred location.”
The building complex, situated on Wingfield Mesa, was likely built in the 12th or 13th centuries by the southern band of the Sinagua, a culture of farmers and foragers who were contemporaries of the Ancestral Pueblo, the Salado, and the Hohokam.
But Zoll noted that while most residences were built in phases as communities grew, Wingfield’s public square seemed to have been built all at once, suggesting that it was made for a singular function.
“It’s a big square of rooms with a huge plaza in the center,” he said. “We have two others (in the Verde Valley) that are very similar, but this is the only one that seems to be built with a single purpose in mind and in a single-construction phase. … And so we think it was built as a shrine or religious center. ”
The second site, he said, was discovered just a year after the Wingfield meteorite was found, some 115 kilometers to the north, outside the city of Flagstaff.
There, a local pot-hunter named A. J. Townsend was looting the ruins of pithouses built by the Sinagua’s northern band, and found a square stone cist just below the surface.
Under the lid was a broken mass of rocky metal, 24 kilograms of iron that local scientists soon dubbed the Winona meteorite, named for the ruins, also from around the 12th century, where it was discovered.
Its fragments, now on display at Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona, remain the largest single specimen of rocky-metallic, partially melted meteorites now called winonaites.
And this distinctive chemistry would prove to be significant, Zoll said, because analyses of both the Wingfield and Winona meteorites performed decades later found them to be identical.
“The exact same structure — that meteroite — was found at the Winona ruins east of Flagstaff,” he said. “So here we have northern and southern Sinagua sites that had this meteorite embedded within them.”
Indeed, much of northern Arizona is “just strewn with all kinds of different sizes and shapes of meteorites,” Zoll added — all detritus from the giant meteorite strike that formed Meteor Crater some 50,000 years ago.
So while neither of the Sinagua settlements could have witnessed the impact, the hunks of molten metal — in cultures that pre-dated metalworking — still seemed to have held some special significance.
The question is what, and whether those communities were alone among Arizona’s ancient settlements in their apparent reverence, Zoll said.
Zoll discusses the two meteorite sites in a book to be published this fall, Ancient Astronomy of Central Arizona. But he urged more professional investigation of the topic. Winona village ruins have not been studied since the 1930s, he said, and the square encampment at Wingfield Mesa has never been excavated.
His aim, he said, is to “broaden the idea, for other archaeoastronomers to look for these things.”
“Because the significance is, here we have a pattern,” he said. “There could be a lot more [structures with meteorites in them] that we just don’t know about.”
The remains of houses, bits of charcoal, and rarely seen types of pottery are tantalizing new clues in one of the more persistent mysteries of Southwestern history: What happened to the culture known as the Hohokam?
Best known for their hulking adobe complexes, like the ruins now called Casa Grande, the Hohokam were one of the Southwest’s most complex and influential societies, constructing irrigation canals that turned parts of the Sonoran Desert into farmland, and trading with distant Mesoamerican cultures whose influence can still be seen in Hohokam ball courts.
By the late 1300s, the Hohokam were perhaps the most populous cultural group in the Southwest. But around this time, something triggered their precipitous decline.
While the cause — or, more likely, series of causes — remains poorly understood, Dr. Deni Seymour says she has turned up an important clue: Despite what most scientists have believed for decades, the Hohokam were not alone.
Years of research in southeastern Arizona, the heart of the Hohokam homeland, have turned up what Seymour calls “abundant evidence” that another tribal group — the O’odham, whose members still call Arizona home today — lived in the region perhaps as early as the 1100s.
This flies in the face of scientific convention, which has held that the region was essentially vacant between the fall of the Hohokam in the late 1300s and the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries in the mid-1500s.
“Some of the big questions scholars have been asking for a very long time are: What happened to the Hohokam? Is there a relationship between the Hohokam and the O’odham? In other words, did the Hohokam become the O’odham?” said Seymour, an archaeologist with the Jornada Research Institute in New Mexico, and a specialist in early O’odham and Apache cultures.
“Until now we have not had enough information on the O’odham — historically, the Upper Pima — to address this question from an archaeological standpoint. Now we do.”
In a paper recently published in the Old Pueblo Archaeology Bulletin, Seymour describes her investigations of sites inhabited by a people known as the Sobaípuri, a branch of the O’odham whose descendants are now part of the Tohono O’odham.
Their traces are found mostly along the San Pedro, Santa Cruz, and Gila rivers in southeastern Arizona, where the Sobaípuri irrigated crops and constructed settlements in rows of elongated houses.
Some of the sites had been excavated before, in the 1950s and ’60s, revealing evidence of the Sobaípuri’s signature oblong building style and plainware pottery. But, using ethnographic accounts, historical records, and the dating technology available at the time, most experts estimated that the Sobaípuri lived in Arizona no earlier than the 1540s, around the time that the Spanish arrived.
For her research, however, Seymour turned to new methods. One of them, called thermoluminescence, can pinpoint the last time a material was heated to a certain temperature; another, optically stimulated luminescence, can isolate when particles like quartz or feldspar were last exposed to light.
Together these technologies can help date objects like cooking pits, identify when pottery was fired, and determine how long some sediments have been buried.
Using this suite of techniques and radiocarbon dating, Seymour said, the more samples she looked at, the more “unusual and unexpected” the results became.