The Archaeology Today section takes you around Mesa Grande as if you were
on a tour of the site. At station one, the interpretive material
discusses mound construction. Station two presents the features and
excavations at the southeast corner of the site, and so on through nine
stations across Mesa Grande.
Aerial photograph of Mesa Grande from the southwest.
Hohokam platform mounds resemble the mounds and pyramids in Mexico and
the eastern United States. Researchers think that the mounds were either
ceremonial centers or the homes of Hohokam elites. Work at Mesa Grande and
Pueblo Grande supports the idea that they were ceremonial centers.
The Hohokam built the mounds in stages, each addition making the mound
larger or higher. The basic building blocks of the mounds are called cells.
Cells had walls made out of caliche, a hard, white material that forms
underneath the soil in our arid desert environment. Builders excavated
caliche and mixed it with water to form a cement-like material. Cells
resembled rooms, rectangular spaces with four walls but lacking doors or
windows. The Hohokam filled the cells with compacted dirt to create the
artificial mound. They then built rooms on top of and around the mound.
Earlier, smaller versions of Mesa Grande are preserved within the mound we
Postcard from the late 1950s showing excavations in the Room D area.
The area today.
Arizona State University excavated Room D and several adjacent rooms in
1955-1956 to open sections of Mesa Grande for public viewing. In this area,
the Hohokam configured the rooms very differently than the rooms in which
people lived. Room D had three doorways, unlike the typical residential unit
with only one. Two of the doorways align with the summer solstice and may
have been used as a solar observatory.
Wind and rain badly eroded Room D when excavations opened it to the elements
in 1955. While several walls are original, others have been reconstructed.
Archaeological excavations at the mound exposed fragile walls and other
features and created new cycles of erosion. Today, a strong preservation
ethic guides archaeological work conducted by the Arizona Museum of Natural
History. Archaeologists only work on those areas that previous excavations
disturbed, often causing erosion. The new work stabilizes the mound and
opens areas for public viewing.
Jim Britton of the Southwest Archaeology Team (SWAT) reconstructs a
wall in Room D.
The Lewis family, around the turn of the 20th century, excavated the area
known as the Shooting Gallery. This photograph, taken in 1904, shows the
family in front of the excavation area.
The family uncovered the doorway of a room that stood on the mound at an
earlier stage of development when the mound was smaller. One Sunday they
tunneled into the mound and, after digging all morning, they leaned the
shovel against the wall of the tunnel and went home to lunch. Upon returning
they found that the tunnel had collapsed and buried the shovel inside. Omar
Turney, who published this story in1929, said that archaeologists in the
future would be very puzzled when they found this metal shovel buried in a
Hohokam mound. The museum’s Southwest Archaeology Team recovered the shovel,
wooden handle intact but with the metal rusting and disintegrating.
After the Lewis family uncovered these massive prehistoric walls, they were
used as a backstop for a shooting range, giving rise to the name Shooting
Gallery. Hundreds of old bullets were recovered here.
Map of Mesa Grande. The Entryway is at point A.
Large ridges of soil to the right and left are the remains of the
compound wall, the large wall that surrounded the mound and the large plaza
behind you. Here – a point in the center of the eastern compound wall -- the
wall is missing. People came into the mound complex through this
One of the first tasks for the preservation program was to explore Mesa
Grande with ground penetrating radar (GPR). This allowed scientists to
identify and protect buried walls and other features. The GPR program
located two small walls, connected to this front entryway, that created a
corridor up to the mound. Archaeologists excavated a small hand-dug trench
to locate the walls found by the GPR. The walls were very narrow and
probably only 2 to 3 feet tall.
The Eastern Plaza from near the Entryway.
The great plaza is on the east side of the mound. The plaza served
as an area where people gathered to observe rituals at the mound.
Excavations suggest that the plaza was plastered with a thick layer of
caliche. As this surface weathered, the people of Mesa Grande patched and
refreshed the plaza with new coats of plaster. When the plaza required full
replacement, workers covered it with a layer of soil and laid a new
The only room known to exist in the eastern plaza is located at the
entryway. New evidence suggests that a smaller mound or feature may be
located on the north side of the plaza, a possibility that archaeologists
hope to examine in future.
The excavation of a small portion of the plaza surface revealed an area
covered with fragments of shells and a set of stone tools. These stone tools
were specialized types used in to work raw shell from the Gulf of California
into ornaments. When rituals were not being performed at Mesa Grande, the
Hohokam appear to have used the plaza for daily activities including the
production of special artifacts.
Recent excavations in the north end of the mound
near where Cushing worked revealed a doorway filled with rubble.
This is the area excavated by Frank Hamilton Cushing and the Hemenway
Southwestern Archaeological Expedition in 1887. Recent excavation work
identified the many pits that Cushing described as being dug in this area by
Here you see a massive wall, almost five feet thick, that was once the
northern wall of the mound. A doorway, whose function is still unknown, was
found in this wall. Beyond the threshold a ramped corridor may have led from
the top of the mound down into a room buried inside the mound when it was
expanded to the north. This northern most wall can be seen in the
The Back Door
The Back Door from below.
The creosote bush marks the spot between the remains of two walls.
The Back Door from above.
Archaeologist Dr. Jerry Howard points to the two wall segments.
Mesa Grande is essentially a large rectangular mound. If you look closely, a
small rectangular area is cut out of the northwest corner of the mound. The
contour map readily reveals this feature. This rectangular space is
further defined by a wall.
A door in the wall allowed access to this space, but what could this be? One
possibility is that one or more rooms existed here. Builders constructed the
rooms on a raised platform of soil and extended the room walls up so that
the roofs of the rooms were at the level of the top of the mound. This
created a room buried inside of the mound itself. We believe that this space
at Mesa Grande served a similar function.
There is a room adjacent to the doorway on the outside of the mound. Like
the room at the main eastern entryway, people entering here may have left
offerings or may have gone through purification rituals before entering the
The large ballcourt at Snaketown.
At Mesa Grande is a reproduction of the small ballcourt at the site of
Snaketown on the Gila River. The ballcourt at Mesa Grande now lies buried
beneath the lobby of the Desert Vista Hospital northeast of this location.
Hohokam ballcourts may have been used to play a version of the great
Mesoamerican ballgame. Mexican ballcourts had stone walls and stone rings
that served as goals. The game was played using a small ball made from
natural rubber. Several of these balls have been found in archaeological
sites in the Salt River Valley. The Hohokam courts had large posts at each
end, possibly serving as goal posts. Like the courts in Mexico, they had a
central pit, often covered with a stone slab and containing turquoise and
other valuable or sacred objects.
The ballgame was more than a sporting event, it embodied important ritual
aspects. The central pit was a portal to the underworld. The game symbolized
battles between the gods in the sky and the lords of the underworld.
The Great Ballcourt, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico.
Ballcourt, Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Top of Mound
Mural by artist Craig Cheply showing how Mesa Grande looked circa
From the top of the mound at Mesa Grande, if you look to the south you
can see a raised area that is seven feet higher than the main portion of the
mound. This is a secondary mound, a smaller mound on top of the larger
mound. Rooms were built on top of the secondary mounds. Data from Mesa
Grande and Pueblo Grande suggest that the secondary mounds were stepped.
This artist’s reconstruction, created in collaboration with an archaeologist
and based upon scientific research, illustrates what Mesa Grande may have
looked like in is final stage of growth.