Tonto Monument Ruins Yield Fresh Clues To Ancient Mystery

Spring flowers lure visitors to mysterious, abandoned cliff dwellings and 8,000-year-old spear points draw researchers

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Like the poppies proliferating beneath the brooding 800-year-old ruin, research into some absorbing archeological mysteries has bloomed at Tonto National Monument.

Many Payson residents looking for spring flowers, fishing on the revitalized Roosevelt Lake or diverted by the closed Beeline Highway have rediscovered the 1,100-acre, 100-year-old national monument about 50 miles from their doorstep.

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Tonto National Monument, an 800-year-old ruin, draws 60,000 to 80,000 visitors a year. Winter rain, which produced abundant wildflowers in the area, has drawn new attention to the national monument.

When they arrive, visitors browse through the small visitor's center, climb the steep trail with its panoramic views, and stand in the mud and stone ruins abandoned so mysteriously in the 1400s.

But few casual visitors realize that after dozing in the scientific shade for a century, the monument researchers now find themselves perched with a view of vital questions about human cultures stretching back 10,000 years.

After spending most of its long history curating artifacts and keeping visitors from destroying the ruins, the park now has two archeologists on staff and deep questions to explore.

3,000 to 8,000-year-old spear points found

Most surprising, researchers have discovered 3,000- to 8,000-year-old spear points and other artifacts at a site on the poppy- and brittlebush-graced slopes overlooking Roosevelt Lake. Drawn by a spring that still lurks beneath the surface, ancient hunters regularly occupied the site over the course of millennia.

Moreover, researchers have uncovered a fascinating link between this new, ancient site and the Payson area. Many of the beautifully crafted spear points and the rock chips left from the manufacturing process can be traced chemically to a type of dacite found in the Payson area -- which indicates that these game hunters 8,000 years ago either traveled through the Pine and Payson area or traded with people living there for rocks suitable for fashioning spear points.

"We're a small park and we have not had a lot of resource management staff," said Park Archeologist Duane Hubbard. "In more than 100 years of operation, the monument has had just five archeologists. What I tried to do starting in 2003, was interject more research back into the park," said the Northern Arizona University archeology graduate.

The discovery of the ancient site is just one of 75 sites now discovered in the monument, which draws between 60,000 and 80,000 visitors annually. After a bad year for attendance last year, the spring flowers and the rising lake levels have produced a bounty of visitors this year.

The discovery of campsites going back perhaps 8,000 years adds a whole new chapter to a monument created to protect several cliff dwellings laboriously built and mysteriously abandoned by a group dubbed the Salado, who occupied the Tonto Basin and the upper reaches of the Salt River between about 1100 and about 1450 A.D.

The Salt River's meandering course through the Tonto Basin formed the heartland of the Salado, who ultimately built great settlements every couple of miles along the river marked by walled compounds and giant platform mounds -- major dwellings built on top of handmade mounds.

The Salado occupied a vital crossroads and built sophisticated irrigation works to channel water from the drought and flood-prone Salt onto fields planted with corn, beans, squash -- and cotton. They created intricate textiles and a distinctive type of pottery with a vivid abstract design that spread throughout the Southwest -- causing all sorts of subsequent headaches and puzzles for archeologists.

Turquoise, bells, parrot feathers, shells discovered

The ruins yielded turquoise, bronze bells, parrot feathers, shells and other signs that the Salado participated in thriving trade networks that included the densely settled civilizations of Mexico, coastal California, New Mexico and Colorado. By the same token, the beautiful Salado pottery spread throughout the region. Usually, the pottery showed up in burials or other contexts in which it seemed to play a role in ceremonies. In one intriguing link, the massive settlement of Casas Grandes in northern Mexico included virtual warehouses of Salado pottery, suggesting that in that region the distinctive design might have become a hot trading items.

Archeologists still fiercely debate whether the Salado just occupied the Tonto Basin and the associated highlands or whether they spread out as widely as their pottery. Some archeologists argue that the Salado developed a distinct culture and religion at this crossroads between north and south, and then spawned a religious movement or cult that spread along with the distinctive pottery style.

After centuries of occupation along the river, the Salado began building impressive but remote cliff dwellings in the surrounding highlands -- including the two major sets of ruins protected by the monument.

No one knows for sure why the Salado went to the enormous effort of building these more easily defended cliff dwellings, only to abandon them after a few generations -- but similar shifts were taking place all across the Southwest at the same time.

Some archeologists argue that the Salado faced attacks from neighboring groups or invaders. The Salado were probably founded originally by people moving into the area from the Hohokam heartland in the Phoenix area -- but archeologists don't know whether the Salado eventually came into conflict with the Hohokam. They might have also clashed with the mountain people to the north, identified generally as the Mogollon.

The Mogollon generally occupied areas like Payson, taking advantage of the variety of recourses at different elevations.

Moreover, the Salado towns also incorporated many elements that link them to the complex civilizations to the north, the Ancestral Puebloean or Anasazi, who built the great stone fortresses like Mesa Verde in Colorado.

Blending of civilizations

This blending of elements for the other civilizations, the long occupation and the complex relationship between the people living along the river and the people in the uplands, make the study of the Salado vital in understanding the larger trends in the Southwest, said Hubbard.

In addition, the ongoing studies in the monument connect directly to one of the most ambitious archeological projects in history.

Most of the layered Salado ruins lay down along the river. The construction of Roosevelt Dam in 1906 to provide water and flood control for the Valley submerged most of those ruins. But a decade ago in the process of raising the height of the dam to provide flood control and additional water storage, the water uses funded an unprecedented series of studies of the ruins along the river -- exposed when SRP lowered the lake level first to work on the dam, then as a result of the drought.

Researchers gathered a massive amount of information on the settlement patterns, artifacts, farming, growth patterns and other aspects of the Salado civilization. The research raised fascinating new questions about the spread of Salado pottery and ideas and the relationship between the river people and the highlands people. For instance, a detailed analysis showed that the people living in the uplands at places like the monument were economically self-sufficient and not mere satellites of the irrigation-based towns of the core area.

Hubbard noted that the construction of the cliff dwellings in the monument coincided with a period in which people who had been living in smaller, scattered communities concentrated into a smaller number of large settlements. There, they built impressive houses and public spaces on top of giant platform mounts, suggesting either the development of an elite group that could command the labor of many people or perhaps the rise of a religion that would have the same effect.

The discovery that people were building the great towns along the river at the same time they were building virtual fortresses in the uplands remains intriguing and largely unexplained. Perhaps they were both reacting to external threats -- or perhaps drought or over use of resources required larger and larger communal efforts to survive.

In any case, researchers based at the monument now face what amounts to a new golden age of research on the Salado, with the discovery of new sites almost daily and a chance to connect the story of the upland people to the massive study of the ruins down by the river -- all of which have been submerged by runoff that has driven lake levels to a new record.

The monument will completely revamp its exhibits in the next year or two. In addition, the monument has launched new research projects -- like using lasers to create a precise, three-dimensional computerized model of every room in the two ruins complexes, excavation of the stone age site, looking for clues to culture and connections with other groups in the details of the architecture and detailed studies of the more than 70 sites scattered throughout the monument.

"The timing is great for us," said Hubbard of the rush of new discoveries and the plan to revamp the exhibits and the visitor's center. "What's great is that 100 years after preserving this area, we find ourselves able to study 10,000 years of human habitation."

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