Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mesa Grande Cultural Park

Thomas H. Wilson

Mesa Grande is a Hohokam platform mound site, a prehistoric treasure in the heart of Mesa, Arizona. The great mound is the main remaining visible feature of a village that spread along the Salt River terrace. The Hohokam built a vast civilization based upon irrigation agriculture, one of the largest and most sophisticated canal irrigation systems in the pre-industrial world. Mesa Grande was strategically positioned to control some of the larger canals that came off the river on the south side. At its apogee, about A.D. 1100-1450, Mesa Grande would have served ceremonial, religious, social and commercial functions. It was the center of community, and a trading and communications hub. At a ball-court nearby, the Hohokam played the Mesoamerican ball game, the celebration of which might have included religious, social and commercial elements as well as the athletic competition of the game itself.

Mesa Grande is one of the last surviving major Hohokam sites, and one of the few open to the public. Located in Mesa at Date and 10th from Alma School and Rio Salado), the platform mound about the size of a football field rising 27 feet above the surrounding landscape. Mesa Grande is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is an official Arizona 2012 Centennial Legacy Project.

                                                             Mesa Grande Cultural Park

 A life size statue of a Hohokam man stands guard at Mesa Grande Cultural Park Visitor's Center

Mesa Grande Cultural Park will open to the public for its second season on October 3. Features of the site include a welcoming center, gathering place and interpretive trail. The welcoming center is an architectural gem, with long rammed earth walls embracing the site and symbolically shielding it from the encroachments of the modern world. A 30-foot high mainmast secures two canopies shading the flagstone gathering place that features a life-size bronze sculpture of a Hohokam man. The welcoming center displays Hohokam red-on-buff and polychrome ceramics, artifacts such as stone effigies, carved shell and ground stone axes and arrow-shaft straighteners, and tells the remarkable story of preservation of the site.

 Inside the visitor's center

The interpretive trail presents nine kiosks, each carrying four educational themes: the Hohokam; early explorers; archaeology today; and looking closely at the natural history of the site. There is more information on the website, including the complete trail interpretation and remarkable story of the preservation of Mesa Grande: www.mesagrandeculturalpark.org.

 A kiosk explains Hohokam pit houses

                                                             Public Programs

As we begin our second season open to the public, we are working on public programs and educational facilities. This fall, we will offer:
  • Celebration of National Archaeology Day October 19
    • Demonstrations, crafts and tours
  • Fireside Stories November 16
    • Desert animal stories with craft and snack
  • Winter Solstice Event December 21
    • Speaker, crafts and seasonal festivities
A child tries her hand at the "Rabbit Throw", a Hohokam method of hunting.

                                           Group Tours: Hohokam and Archaeology Challenges

Marvelous field trip opportunities will be available for groups. Not only will persons booking group visits get to tour Mesa Grande, they will participate in the Hohokam and archaeology challenges.The Hohokam challenge will invite participants to imaging themselves in the situation in which the Hohokam found themselves: living in a place where life is a challenge. How do you get water? Where do you find food? How do you clothe yourself? How do you make tools? With what do you cook and eat? Museum educators will work with participants to find solutions to these challenges, using only the objects and skills available to the prehistoric Native peoples of the desert. Working in small groups, members of each team will learn problem solving, analytical skills, and creative solutions, and can compare their work with how the Hohokam actually solved these problems. Participants will have materials and artifacts to see, handle and use.

The archaeology challenge places the participants in the role of modern scientists trying to understand prehistoric Native American civilization. How do you investigate the peoples of the past? How do you retrieve, record and study prehistoric objects? How do you interpret what you find? Students will learn by participating about excavation, stratigraphy, artifact recovery, recording, interpretation, preservation and careers in archaeology and related disciplines.Nowhere else in Arizona does one find the confluence of major archaeological site, interpretive trail, educational resources and hands-on problem-solving. It is exciting, interesting and educational, a formula for effective learning.

 Visitors take a self guided tour of the mound

Please visit, and tell your friends about Mesa Grande Cultural Park.

Mesa Grande Cultural Park is open Thursday through Sunday beginning October 3rd. For more information including hours, directions, and entrance fees, visit our website at  www.MesaGrandeCulturalPark.org or call (480)644-3553.

Find us on Facebook: Mesa Grande Cultural Park
Follow us on Twitter: @MesaGrandeRuins

Thomas H. Wilson is Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History

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