Explaining The Ancient Dead To The Living

Archaeologist Scott Wood wins award after 35 years spent protecting Rim Country ruins


Tonto National Forest archaeologist Scott Wood has spent 35 years working to protect and interpret the remains of ancient civilizations in the Southwest. His efforts recently won recognition from the Arizona Archaeological Society.

Tonto National Forest archaeologist Scott Wood has spent 35 years working to protect and interpret the remains of ancient civilizations in the Southwest. His efforts recently won recognition from the Arizona Archaeological Society.

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Scott Wood has spent the last 35 years trying to explain the long dead to the still living — and in the process shedding light on one of history’s great missing persons cases.

Now, the Tonto National Forest archaeologist’s long quest to protect and understand a complex, mysteriously vanished ancient civilization has earned him the Arizona Archaeological Society’s “Professional Archaeologist of the Year” award.

But the laconic, bearded archaeologist in his trademark Indiana Jones hat said that in his job he’s “mostly putting out fires,” trying to save sites endangered by mines, off-road vehicles, highways and other development.

So he hurtles from project to project, often just ahead of the bulldozers. At the moment, that includes an effort to inventory a rich network of archaeological sites on 2,400 at Oak Flats near Globe menaced by the efforts to approve one of the world’s largest copper mines, an effort to raise money to protect and excavate Goat Camp Ruins in Payson and even work with two ranchers to put back into service irrigation and flood control systems built 600 years ago by the people who lived on Perry Mesa.

“We’ve got a long road on a lot of these projects. You want to protect the sites, but what really excites me is the ability to see the larger picture — and to apply the lessons of the past to modern land use,” said Wood, who showed up last weekend in Payson for a lesson on people who lived in the Grand Canyon 1,000 years ago offered to the Rim Country Archaeological Society.

Wood has spent decades doggedly protecting thousands of archaeological sites in Rim Country and beyond, in the process using his intricate knowledge of pottery to shed light on the enduring mystery of the collapse of many interconnecting cultures in the 1400s.

“Scott has shared his knowledge and expertise through teaching and mentoring hundreds of volunteers and by serving as the adviser to the Desert Foothills and Rim Country chapters of the American Archaeological Society,” according to the citation.

“Scott’s legendary hikes and field trips have motivated countless citizens to sustain their passionate efforts on behalf of Arizona’s archaeological heritage.”

Wood has spent hundreds of hours applying for grants, meeting with citizen’s groups, explaining the region’s ancient history and organizing groups to protect fragile sites, like Goat Camp Ruins and Shoofly Ruins near Payson.

He has done some of his most important scientific work sorting through and analyzing thousands of pottery shards found on Perry Mesa, a long-overlooked site that has now offered a glimpse of vast changes on the brink of the sudden abandonment of sites across the Southwest in the 1400s.

In addition, every time the now brimming levels of Roosevelt Lake drop, he has raced to the shores of that once thickly settled river valley to continue mapping the rise and fall of a resourceful, enigmatic ancient civilization.

Between those groundbreaking scientific studies, he has wandered throughout the sprawling Tonto National Forest, which stretches from Phoenix to the edge of the Mogollon Rim to Superior and from Interstate 17 over to the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Author of a dozen scientific research papers and the book “Checklist of Pottery Types for the Tonto National Forest,” the bearded, genial Arizona State University graduate worked at Pueblo Grande Museum and ASU’s Office of Cultural Resource Management before taking on the task of protecting and studying the ruins of overlapping civilizations scattered across the 3-million-acre national forest — the fifth largest in the nation.

He previously received an award from the Arizona State Parks System for years of work training people to act as stewards protecting archaeological sites. He’s also working with the Town of Payson to develop a plan to turn the Goat Camp Ruins into a protected interpretative site, similar to the Shoofly Ruins.

Rim Country Archaeological Chapter President Evelyn Christian said “without Scott, this site would not have gotten the attention and protection it merits. He is leading Payson’s efforts to prepare the site for future public education and enjoyment.”

Desert Foothills Chapter President Paddi Mozilo said “our success as a chapter is due to Scott’s ongoing and enthusiastic support and advice; he has given all our members a deeper appreciation and involvement in archaeology.”

Currently, he’s working with the San Carlos Apache Tribe and others on the effort to protect sacred sites that could be affected by a proposed 1.5-mile-long copper mine, dug by robots 850 feet below the Oak Flats, a popular climbing and camping spot dotted with archaeological sites and sacred to the Apache.

The company predicts the mine could one day produce a quarter of the nation’s copper supply — but excavating the vast chamber could eventually cause the surface to subside like a giant sinkhole.

“The Apache don’t want to see the land transferred out of public ownership, so I’ve started working with folks at San Carlos who define the whole area as a sacred site,” he said.

Perhaps Wood’s crowning scientific work so far stems from his dogged work using ceramic pottery shards to help figure out what happened to a rich network of communities in the highlands between Camp Verde and Rim Country, including the enigmatic Perry Mesa, near Sunset Point along Interstate 17.

Teamed up with other archaeologists like ASU Associate Professor of Archaeology David Abbott, Wood has worked to tease out the complex relationships between uplands groups like the Sinagua and Mogollon and the densely populated cities of the Hohokam, farming thousands of acres along the Salt and Verde rivers where Phoenix now sprawls.

The upland people lived along vital trade routes and their ruins and burials include pots and artifacts from all over the Southwest, including a distinctive style of pottery made locally and imported goods like parrots from Mexico, turquoise from New Mexico and shells from California.

For nearly 1,000 years, these seemingly peaceful mountain people lived in small, family-centered villages along streams they could use to irrigate crops of squash, beans and corn. They traded with the Hohokam, crowded into their bustling cities and apparently borrowed many ideas.

However, in the 1300s the Mogollon and Sinagua begin building walled fortresses in cliff faces and mesas, often a puzzling distance from water and farmland.

On Perry Mesa, they built watch towers that provided a line-of-sight link between distant settlements. They also built easily defended cliff houses, in places like Tonto National Monument overlooking the Salt River on the present-day shores of Roosevelt Lake.

Wood and other archaeologists have gathered intriguing evidence that the mountain people formed a defensive alliance archaeologists have dubbed the Verde Confederacy, perhaps to defend themselves against large scale raids from the Hohokam core area.

Evidence from archaeological digs in the Valley has lent support for the idea, finding evidence of recurrent famine in the crowded cities of the Hohokam.

Perhaps the Hohokam exhausted their natural resources in the Valley or perhaps they were bettered by a succession of droughts that withered their crops and floods that destroyed their extensive irrigation works.

Wood and others have spent thousands of hours mapping remote sites and shifting through pottery shards for clues to the fate of a civilization that flourished for 1,000 years and then vanished.

For instance, Wood and Abbott have subjected pottery shards from Perry Mesa and Seven Springs near Cave Creek to electron microprobe analysis focused on the mineral phyllite, added to the clay to improve its texture.

As it turns out, the phyllite has a chemical signature that allowed Wood to figure out exactly where the ancient potters had dug it up.

The not-yet-completed analysis will show whether the distinctive pottery left behind was made locally or traded with people in distant locations.

Those results should provide one more clue to the extent and complexity of the Verde Confederacy — and perhaps offer more insight into their relationship to the vast, dying civilization of the Hohokam to the south.

Now, Wood and other archaeologists are working to uncover the extensive network of walls and check dams those ancient farmers used to channel surface runoff in Perry Mesa to sustain their crops of corn, beans and squash despite the lack of reliable streams.

“Perry Mesa was a big-time agricultural development and we’re looking at the idea of reviving prehistoric agricultural systems. They used check dams, terraces and vegetation to keep the soil in place. So we’re looking at using an old technology to help out,” said Scott.

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