Archaeologists Say Ruins Exposed by Low Lake Levels Can Tell Much


ROOSEVELT, Ariz. -- The Salado Indians disappeared centuries ago, but the remnants of their civilization linger in central Arizona canyons.

Their villages and pots, trumpets and jewelry dot the Tonto Basin. Shelters big enough for 300 commoners and platform houses built for the elite are still there as well.

But most of the time, only the fish in Roosevelt Lake see these treasures, since the area was flooded in 1903 to create a 29-mile-long reservoir held back by the Roosevelt Dam. Until the drought came.

During the past two years, the dry spell has lowered the lake levels to the point that many of the ruins have reappeared to varying degrees, allowing archaeologists to view them and learn. They got some of their best views beginning in September.

Tonto National Forest archaeologist Scott Wood said he discovers amazing things when drought hits.

Archeologists have logged more than 8,000 sites in the Tonto Basin, but Wood said that is only about 40 percent of what is actually there "We've learned a lot from those sites, but it's the other 60 percent that's really critical."

The stone structures, decorations and weapons that archeologists have logged tell a lot about the Salado: how they lived, how many were in the basin and when they disappeared.

Warfare is a common theory for the Salado's disappearance. Climate change, disease and starvation are also suspected factors.

Clues to the disappearance of the Salado, who lived in the Tonto Basin between 1100 and 1450 A.D., are what archeologists want the most, but they only emerge when the lake drops. And even in dry times they can
only get inconsistent views of the ruins.

Many have gone under again during the past couple of weeks as the lake has again begun filling up.

Archeologists say the Salado, a group of Hohokam, brought about major social and political changes in Hohokam history.

The Salado buried their dead below ground instead of cremating them. They built stone houses, whereas the Hohokam before them dug homes into the ground and then made domes above out of sticks and mud.

The Salado had major trading routes throughout the West and into Mexico and had incredible canal systems that supported a lucrative farming industry.

What more could unearthed ruins tell archeologists?

Wood said he would love to find out. "Those ruins could tell us how the Hohokam got to central Arizona and how fast they developed there," he said. "We could find out how they got along with the people who were already there and why the whole system collapsed."

Wood said the Salado economy and political alliances fell apart when a catastrophic flood wiped away an agricultural surplus in 1383.

Researchers want to know more about that collapse.

In the 1980s, another period when the lake's level fell, an Arizona State University archaeology team spent eight years researching the Tonto Basin. It was one of the biggest research projects in America, said Charles Redman, a team leader.

His 75-member group was funded by a $10 million federal grant.

No excavations nearly that large have been mounted in the past two years, though, despite the low lake levels.

Eight U.S. Forest Service archeologists organize small search teams when the lake gets below 17 percent of its capacity, and sometimes they visit the lake on their own.

"We're plugging along and doing it cheap," Wood said. "It's not the ideal way to do this kind of research, but we're not costing anybody much. The lake goes down and we go up and check it out."

Tonto National Monument ranger Eddie Colyott said the Salado ruins can teach Westerners about their heritage.

"When people filled that lake 100 years ago there was no concept of how important the ruins were," Colyott said.