Ancient mound in the midst of modernity - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Ancient mound in the midst of modernity

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Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009 5:28 pm | Updated: 1:56 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

In the middle of downtown Mesa's rows of businesses, homes and public buildings, a massive prehistoric structure stretches back in time to handiwork nearly a millennium old.

Few know of the Mesa Grande temple mound because the fence around it blends in with nearby construction.

It's been that way for decades, surrounded by modernity but never changing.

COMING TO LIGHT

Dr. Jerry Howard, anthropology curator at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, said the project recently came into some money and there are plans to open the long-studied site to the public.

Mesa has secured more than $250,000 to open the ancient temple grounds of the Hohokam tribe within two years, Howard said. The Mesa Grande Interpretive Project would make something previously open to visitors only once a year available every week.

Howard said the new interpretive program will create a self-guided trail around the mound. The entrance to the site is nestled behind Country Club Drive where Brown Road hugs in around the old Mesa hospital.

But it's not open now. The money was only received several weeks ago.

"Just in time for the holidays," Howard said. "By Christmas, the funds were in the bank for the most part."

For now, the only way to see the site is from the air.

From high above, the massive structure almost looks like it was shaped by earth and time, but up close the mound is longer and wider than a modern football field and is 27 feet high at points.

DIGGING DEEP

Howard said the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community funded the first phases of the project.

The Arizona Heritage Fund also came in handy by matching support for the project, he said. The museum is seeking further funding for future plans.

It would be relatively inexpensive to pay for a no-impact trail with interpretive signs and shade features, so Howard said he's hopeful that once started it would continue for years.

Howard attributed to colleagues across the state the success he's experienced working on the mound site. It is, after all, no small feat to raise enough money to plan and fund pedestrian access.

Howard pointed to colleague Susan Fish, a paleontologist who teaches at the University of Arizona, and David Abbott, a professor of archaeology at Arizona State, among other scholars who include cultural experts from local Native American communities.

Abbott, who specializes in Hohokam artifacts, said his work with the Mesa Grande Interpretive Project was only just beginning.

"We're meeting next month to bring together various folks from around the Valley," he said.

Abbott said his role would be in designing the interpretive path that will take pedestrian visitors to the various points of interest on the mound.

Once more funding is secured, project officials said the next distant hurdle would be to build a visitors center on the site - but something like that is years out.

GENUINE ARTIFACT

Once there was a village surrounding the mound for more than one-half square mile, and perhaps home to 2,000 Hohokams, according to the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Construction on the mound is estimated to have been started in 1100.

The mound, situated on a six-acre island surrounded by streets, homes and businesses, looks every bit the aged ruin that was discovered a century ago.

An immense adobe wall surrounds the mound and a large plaza stands before it. According to the museum, in one corner of the site, a replica is constructed of an open-air arena where Hohokams played games with a ball.

The site is the genuine artifact, according to Dr. Tom Wilson, director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

Wilson said the site has been studied and preserved since the 1980s, when it was purchased by the city. It's high time the public gain access, he said.

"We'll certainly finish this phase in 18 months," Wilson said. A more accessible schedule will replace the annual open house in which the public gains access for a couple hours on one day.

"The last one (open house), we had 500 people, so we know that there is a lot of interest in the site," Wilson said. "It's a way to educate the public about the first people who inhabited this area."

For visitors, standing near the mound was like time travel, Wilson said.

"To be in a real place where these things really happened in the past," he said. "You get a real sense of the past when you're actually on the place itself.

"That's the advantage of having it opened to the public."

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