Preserving WAPA’s historical documents

Story by Leah Wilson

Photos by Natalie Ortega and Christina Rogers

On Feb. 21, Archaeologists Natalie Ortega and Christina Rogers discovered some amazing artifacts while performing field work in Desert Southwest along the Coolidge-to-Oracle transmission line in Arizona. The findings happened in the late morning and consisted of various pieces of Hohokam pottery.

Process of discovery

Part of Ortega’s and Rogers’ job is to manage the cultural resources that are within WAPA’s jurisdiction.

“When a project is about to happen, it is our job to look at that project and determine if it will have an effect on any cultural resources within its boundaries as well as outside, to an extent,” Ortega said.

They also consult various agencies about the project and get their perspectives before giving recommendations to management. Before that consultation happens, they must get a better idea of what the resources are and what the sites look like on the ground.

“The environment is constantly changing and what we thought we knew about the site two years ago might be completely different from today,” Ortega said. “This often requires Nina and me going into the field to get an in-person assessment so we can better understand the project’s effects.”

On that particular Friday, the project required just that. The archeologists’ site visit led to a remarkable find: pottery from the Hohokam society, including a Gila plainware pot.

The pot is black and white on the outside, and the inside is painted red, making it a Salado polychrome potsherd. This means it has three colors, as opposed to a black-and-white, two-color sherd. It dates to the Classic Hohokam period, between 1275 and 1450.

They also found other sherds, including a body sherd that was colored black from either fire-clouding or from being painted. This piece could date anywhere from 800 to 1450.

Classic Hohokam period

The Hohokam were prehistoric people who inhabited the Sonoran desert, including Arizona, along the Salt and Gila Rivers. The estimated timing of their existence spanned 300 to 1400. The Hohokam were one of several advanced cultures during that period.

The Hohokam inhabited a small area around what are now Phoenix and Tucson. They coexisted with other societies and cultures throughout the Southwest, with trade happening regularly between them.

Years of experience

“Nina and I have different archaeological specialties,” said Ortega, “which comes in handy because we ‘manage’ a variety of archaeological sites.”

The archeologists’ specialties stem from years of undergraduate and graduate studies as well as working with various cultural resources and experience. They have built relationships with Native American tribes and have kept a willingness to learn and remain open-minded toward different cultures.

Rogers specializes in Native American pottery while Ortega’s focus is in historical archaeology including cans, bottles and ceramics.

“When I find an artifact I always get a rush of emotions,” Ortega said. “My mind immediately tries to recreate what the complete artifact might have looked like or what the environment around me might have been like when the artifact was being made. For me, it’s a way to connect with the past and the idea that we are all in some way connected.”

Archaeology helps us comprehend how humans progressed and cultures developed.

“It is important that WAPA continues to preserve that heritage and build relationships with our consulting parties in order to meet everyone’s needs,” she emphasized.

Hands off

There are many federal laws that protect cultural resources in America as well as internationally; it is imperative that employees and their families know to leave artifacts alone if found while they are exploring.

Taking pictures and looking at them are allowed, but excessive handling is not recommended due to the fragile nature of some of the artifacts. Additionally, collecting or looting artifacts is prohibited and a violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which can include a $10,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

If archaeological or historical materials are discovered, contact WAPA’s archaeologists or the federal agency that has jurisdiction over the land you are on. 

Note: Wilson is an administrative analyst who works under the Wyandotte Services contract.

Map of tribal territories across Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico

The archaeological cultures of the Southwest traded and coexisted.

A shard of brown pottery

This Gila plainware pot can be dated between 800-1450. This view is from the outside of the pot.

A shard of black and white painted pottery in the ground

The opposite side of this black and white potsherd is red, making it a Salado polychrome potsherd. It is from the rim of a jar dating to 1275-1450.

Last modified on March 5th, 2024