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Casa Grande Ruins

Yes, we live in a desert — at least those of us who live in the Phoenix area. And it is only because of our modern infrastructure and technology that we can survive here — or would want to live here. Rivers have been dammed to provide us a reliable, year-round source of water. Electricity is generated and distributed to run our air conditioning. Roads, railroads and airlines provide us the necessary food and clothing. Yet there were people who lived here without all these modern amenities. A sort distance south of Phoenix are the ruins of a great house (Casa Grande) built by the Hohokam people.

Casa Grande Ruins

Mud Walls As you can see, the ruins have deteriorated and thus the National Park Service built a roof (circa 1939) to minimize further damage by the sun and rain. This main house is three stories high and fashioned of dried mud. The walls are about four feet thick at the base, providing both building integrity but also insulation from the heat of summer and cold of winter (yes, it can get cold in the wintertime, albeit not as cold as, say Minnesota).

Window So that accounts for shelter. What about water? The Hohokam were very good engineers of canals and irrigation ditches. They were able to tap into the rivers that, at that time, ran freely in the area. The aforementioned dams have dried up those same rivers except in times of exceptional precipitation. With water for crops they were able to grow corn, beans, squash, tobacco, cotton and agave.

They supplemented their crops with hunting and gathering. Game included rabbits, mule deer, bighorn sheep, fish, waterfowl and turtles. Wild plants included paloverde, mesquite, ironwood, ocotillo, creosote, bursage, saltbrush, saguaro, chola, hedgehog and prickly pear.

Interior The photo to the right shows a bit about the construction of Casa Grande. No, the metal supports were not original but added by the National Parks Service to brace the walls. However, note the deep groove in the wall to the left (about mid-photo) and the shallow groove in the far wall. The deep groove contains holes (similar to those in the photo below) for wooden poles that supported the second story floor. Saguaro ribs were laid at a 90 degree angle to the floor poles then covered with reeds and a coat of mud. As was typical for many of the southwestern Indian dwellings, access was also via openings in the floor/ceiling with a ladder leading between the stories.Holes for Roof/Floor

Mud Wall Closeup This wall shows a bit more about the construction. You can actually see the layers of mud that were laid down — and which have now eroded at the seams. You can also spot the tiny pebbles embedded in the mud — look toward the bottom.

Pidgeon Keyhold Although the Hohokam have vanished, there are still residents of Casa Grande — here a pigeon. The ranger was giving an interpretive talk about the ruins and mentioned that next week there will be a special event with trained birds of prey. He went on to mention that a Peregrine Falcon is one of the performers and when it is around all the wild birds evacuate until the coast is clear.

You may have noticed a number of windows and other cutouts in the exterior walls of the ruins. This has led to speculation that Casa Grande also served as an observatory of sorts. First, the walls are laid out on north-south and east-west axes (off by only four degrees). Second, there is a small circular window in the west wall that aligns with the setting sun on the summer solstice. Third, there is a square hole also in the west wall that aligns with the setting moon at the extreme end of its 18 1/2 year cycle. Other windows and doors align with the sun or moon at other significant times of the year. These people were so in tune with their environment — but they had to be. We moderns do not even come close (except for professional astronomers, of course).



Graffiti The ruins are now well protected but they did fall prey to antique graffiti. Here is a very readable inscription — I make it out as "A. J. Garrett, 1 Co., Nov 3, 1870". I suspect the "1 Co." refers to a military unit and the backward "N" in November probably speaks to the level of public education in the mid- to late-1800s.

Other ruins Casa Grande was the central building in what is now called Compound A which was originally surrounded by a wall (of which only remnants remain). There were other smaller buildings in the same compound — and their ruins can also be visited. Here is one of the larger buildings in the compound as seen from the surrounding desert.

Other compounds have been found and excavated by archeologists. These experts suggest that each compound would compare to our concept of a neighborhood and the sum of the compounds formed a village. The other compounds are off-limits. From my vantage point, I suspect that they have filled them in again to preserve them for future studies and until such time as the National Park Service has sufficient funding to add them to the areas which may be visited.

Twisted Trunk Just after taking the above photo, I noticed this twisted tree trunk. I was instantly swept away to the workshop that I attended last summer in Santa Fe — where we found such interesting natural forms that develop in harsh climates. But not all the flora are stunted and twisted like this. Below are some cactus that seem to be prospering.

Prickly PearCactus Flower

Ground SquirrelLast but not least is this cute little Round tailed ground squirrel. He seemed to have no fear of humans as he approached the shaded staging area seats. A little girl seated there was absolutely delighted with her new friend. I wonder if the feeling was mutual.

 Life is good.

 B. David