Snaketown

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ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
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Culture(s) Hohokam
Temporal Period(s) Pioneer Period-Sedentary Period

Summary Details

Significance

  • Snaketown is a large Hohokam village site (Hohokam (500-1450 CE) with pre-Hohokam components) (Gladwin 1937). Archaeologists believe that Snaketown located in the Gila and Salt Rivers basin in Arizona was the cultural ‘capital’ of the Hohokam world. The Hohokam at Snaketown built over 600 kilometers of canals for irrigation, with some canals extending over thirty kilometers away from the river source; truly an architectural feat given that they used stone tool technology (Pauketat 2012). The monumentality of this feat was only surpassed by peoples in the Andes region who built even more extensive canals, but still stands as the largest pre-Columbian canal-irrigated area in North America. These canals altered the ecology of the region and allowed for the growth of river-based plants throughout the area near Phoenix, Arizona (Bohrer 1971).


  • Snaketown is also significant because it provided evidence of Mesoamerican influence in the region. Evidence of maize and squash cultivation, the use of ballcourts to play the Mesoamerican ‘Ballgame’, presence of copper bells and the trade of pyrite mirrors as an elite item, all suggest trade with Mesoamerica(Gladwin 1937; Sigleo 1975). Some archaeologists even believe that the Hohokam (and other Southwestern groups) may have originated in Mesoamerica and migrated northward into Arizona and the American Southwest (Hayden 1970).



  • Lastly, Snaketown is significant in that it provides further evidence a more interconnected pre-Columbian world than was previously thought.

Research History

Hohokam corner-notched arrowhead in situ in the Tucson Basin

Site Description and Initial Work

The Snaketown site spans over three hundred acres and is situated on the Gila River Indian Reserve, specifically on a terrace north of the Gila River approximately thirteen miles southwest of Chandler, Arizona (Gladwin 1937). The site consists of sixty mounds, that were mostly trash and single-dwelling residential structures (Sigleo 1975) but two large ballcourts were also uncovered (Sigleo 1975). Archaeological work at Snaketown officially began on Sept 27, 1934 under the direction of Dr. Emil Haury (Gladwin 1937). Due to the expansive size of Snaketown, intial exploratory trenches were dug by machine in order to quickly determine the areas of the village (Haury 1965). The spread of artifacts was so ubiquitous, however, that the rest of the archaeological work was painstakingly done by hand. Dr. Emil Haury established a monopoly regarding archaeology of this corner of the world, specifically the Hohokam, for many years (Pauketat 2012).

Major Finds/Insights

Through extensive man-made irrigation networks, the Hohokam people changed the environment of the region which allowed plants regularly adapted for life along rivers to thrive and expand deep into the desert. Furthermore, with regularly irrigated and newly fertile land, it allowed the Hohokam to cultivate maize (300 BCE), cotton and beans (300 CE) at Snaketown (Bohrer 1971).


The Hohokam at Snaketown developed an on-site central water administration center, a practice that was adopted at other Hohokam sites. Some archaeologists believe that political power in the Hohokam world stemmed from the control of water (Craig 2004).


There was clear evidence of Mesoamerican influence at Snaketown with the discovery of copper bells, pyrite mirrors, ballcourts, and platform mounds. Whether 1) the relationship between the two entities was purely economic and these artifacts are the result of trade, 2) the Hohokam originated from Mesoamerica and shared common artistic styles and technologies, or 3) a combination of 1 and 2, is responsible for this Mesoamerican influence on Hohokam culture is unclear. The archaeologists who believe that the Hohokam may have originated in Mesoamerica reference the fact that dug wells, canals, cremations, new types of houses, and new types of polished pottery appear out of nowhere at 300 BCE (Gallaga 2014). The lack of developmental stages in these cultural traits lead some to believe that this indicated a migration of people from Mesoamerica (Hayden 1970).


Lastly, archaeologists determined that Snaketown was a major production center. Over 1.5 million potsherds were collected at the site (Haury 1965). Roads were built and used roads to transport artisan goods made at Snaketown to surrounding consumer communities and beyond (Motsinger 1998).

Current Investigations

There is no current fieldwork being conducted at Snaketown (Haury 1982). In 1972, the site was declared a national monument and was reburied at the request of the Piman people, thought to be descendants of the Hohokam.

Formation and Occupational History

Pre-Snaketown Phase

There was already evidence that people were living in the region before Snaketown was established (Gladwin 1937). Metates, manos, mortars, pestles, and handstones were found on the site. These artifacts, along with pottery and projectile points found during this period, are not only associated with the Hohokam culture but are thought to belong to the ancient ‘cultural toolkit’ of the region. Interestingly, houses found in this period are characteristic of this region as they have vestibule entrance (Gladwin 1937).

Pioneer Period

Vakhi Phase (300 BCE- 1 CE)

The pioneer period/formative period for the Hohokam culture began around 300 BCE with the Vahki phase (Gladwin 1937). The pottery in this phase was plain, undecorated, and was either red, brown or grey. Most bowls found dating to this phase were red, and jars were either brown or grey. Polished red ware was found at Snaketown but likely wasn’t made there (Gladwin 1937). The houses were considerably larger and squarer than later Snaketown houses. These houses are thought to have resembled the large communal huts of the Chumash (Gladwin 1937). Additionally, the inhabitants of the region participated in cremation customs (either trench or pit cremations) that began during the Vakhi phase and were unique to the Pioneer period (Reinhard and Fink 1994). Lastly, these people disposed of their rubbish in pits (Gladwin 1937).

Estrella Phase (1- 200 CE)

The next phase in the development of Snaketown was the Estrella Phase (Gladwin 1937). This phase was defined primarily by the decoration of pottery (in the form of simple straight lines), as well as, the change of pottery shape to have a coil-formation/resemblance. Interestingly, there was the new presence of shell beads at Snaketown during this time. Lastly, houses were smaller than the larger Vakhi style homes (12x12 to 7x7 meters) (Gladwin 1937).

Sweetwater Phase (200-350 CE)

The Sweetwater phase marked the beginning of the Hohokam culture in its own right, with accompanying experimentation in styles and material culture (Gladwin 1937). A change from straight line decoration to chevrons, spirals, and different other shapes were seen in the pottery of the period. The houses continued to reduce in size. Turquoise began to be used in artistic expression (Gladwin 1937). Incised bone tubes, stone vessels and cut shell pendants were also found.

Snaketown Phase (350-550 CE)

Cultural specialization continued during this phase (Gladwin 1937). In terms of pottery, zigzag lines and serrated edges became popular stylistic trends. Negative pottery painting was also introduced during this period. Houses appeared in both square (as before) and rectangular styles, and continued to become smaller (Gladwin 1937). In terms of stone projectile points, the lateral notch made its first appearance during this phase (Gladwin 1937). Handled stone dippers, bordered stone palettes, carved shell bracelets, and more detailed figurines were also found during the Snaketown phase (Gladwin 1937). Stone reamers, knives, and axes, as well as, whetstones and polishing stones were also introduced during this period.

Colonial Period

Gila Butte Phase (550-700 CE)

The Gila Butte phase is classically seen as a transitional phase for the Hohokam and the beginning of the Colonial (or Pre-Classic Hohokam) period (Gladwin 1937). Former pottery techniques such as scoring, hatching, and geometric designs declined in frequency. They were replaced with scrolls, repetition of elements, and lifeform depictions. Additionally, the stone palettes (an artifact that characterized the Hohokam) became thinner, rectangular and with raised ornamental borders during this period (Gladwin 1937). Fine mosaic plaques also made their first appearance during the Gila Butte phase (Gladwin 1937). Mortuary traditions changed, in particular, cremation burials included offerings of whole vessels placed in the grave (Reinhard and Fink 1994). People began to pile their trash in low mounds rather than pits. Lastly, as evidence of Mesoamerican influence, it is important to note that ballcourts (used to play the Mesoamerican ballgame) were first found in this period (Gladwin 1937).

View of the Sonoran Desert. The world where the Hohokam lived.

Santa Cruz Phase (700-900 CE)

The second last phase in Hohokam occupational history is the Santa Cruz phase. Pottery in this period, chiefly characterized by the famous Red-on-Buff pottery, saw a rise of band patterns, circling, sectioned patterns, life forms, and negative designs (Gladwin 1937). There was also no exterior scoring on the pottery, but there was small repeated elements in the design, as well as, the use of fringe. This period’s pottery consisted mainly of small jars with wide flaring rims. The houses of this period were rectangular with rounded corners (Gladwin 1937). In terms of jewelry and other forms of decoration, shell artifacts featured prominently in this period (Gladwin 1937). Rings, bracelets, pendants, and beads that were used in mosaics, all appear in number. Lifeforms on figurines were depicted in this period with round, coffee-bean eyes. Stone palettes begin to be carved with effigies (Gladwin 1937). The famous Snaketown canals and the canal irrigation system appeared during this period altering the environment of the region. Projectile points became highly specialized with barbed, harpoon-like and tapering heads and stone axes shifted to a more general form (Gladwin 1937).

Sedentary Period

Sacaton Phase (900-1100CE)

The Sacaton Phase during the Sedentary Period was the last occupational phase at Snaketown before the community was abandoned (Haury,1965). Sacaton Phase pottery saw an elaboration of designs and an emphasis on woven patterns (Gladwin 1937). There was a dramatic increase in decorated vessel shapes, such as cauldrons, four-pointed rims, large missing bowls, basket shapes with handles, effigies (both human and animal), and tripod and tetrapod trays. The houses in this period were elliptical and had bulbous entrances (Gladwin 1937). The projectile points were triangular with lateral notches and wide bases. Interestingly, archaeologists found copper bells at Snaketown during this period. They also found etched shell artifacts, one hoe, and that the ballcourts had reduced in size. Furthermore, bone tools and bone tubes were also found (Gladwin 1937). The figurines of this period depicted heads only. Finally, the palettes and stone bowls declined both in number. There were no effigies found in this period (Gladwin 1937).

Material Culture

Hohokam

  • Irrigation Canals- The largest and most extensive system in North America. The canals extended over 30km away from the river sources, totaled over 600km and provided water to 20,000-40,000 hectares of land (Gladwin 1937); Pauketat 2012).
  • Hohokam roads- Roads ran north and east of the Gila River. Artisan crafting appeared to occur at Snaketown and artifacts were transported along roads to consumer villages (Motsinger 1998).
  • Ballcourts- Two of the largest ballcourts were found at Snaketown. Evidence of Mesoamerican influence (Gladwin 1937).
  • Turquoise Artifacts- Earliest turqoise artifacts in the American Southwest were found at Snaketown. Evidence for extensive trade networks (Sigleo 1975).

General Material Culture (of the region)(Gladwin 1937)

Mortuary Practices

The Hohokam practiced in-the-flesh cremation (Reinhard and Fink 1994). Additionally, in comparison with other cremation practicing cultures of the time, the Hohokam seemed to push the body further into the fire to burning it completely, and leaving essentially nothing. All of the cremations seem to be in designated burial areas (Gladwin 1937). For a more detailed account of the Hohokam cremation practices, please see the 1994 article by Reinhard and Fink.

Site Reports

1.(Gladwin,1937)

2.(Gladwin,1948)

3.(Haury,1965)

General Notes

Additional Resources

Another useful text about the Hohokam not cited in the article:

McGuire, Robert and Schiffer, Michael B. 1982 Hohakam and Patayan: Prehistory of south-western Arizona. Ed. Randall H. McGuire and Michael B. Schiffer. Academic Press, United States, June 1.


Another interesting Hohokam site: The Marana site

Fish, Suzanne K., Fish, Paul R., and Madsen, John H. (editors). 1992 The Marana community in the Hohokam world. University of Arizona Press, United States, July 15.

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