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Roosevelt Dam

Cultural Resource Program


Pottery - Found at Roosevelt Lake before dam modification

The Bureau of Reclamation sponsored archaeological studies at the construction sites occupied during the building of Theodore Roosevelt Dam (1904-1911). These studies traced the camp and work lives of the laborers who built the dam. Research and excavation data showed that Apache workers contributed greatly to the success of the project. The book Raising Arizona's Dams (1995 University of Arizona Press) is an excellent chronicle of the dam's construction, the workers' struggles, and family life in the construction camps.

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Reclamation also sponsored prehistoric archaeological research into the Hohokam and Salado cultures that lived in the Tonto Basin from about A.D. 700 to A.D. 1400. This research showed strong connections between the Phoenix Valley and the Tonto Basin because of the presence of extensive Hohokam cultural remains; research also demonstrated ties between Tonto Basin Salado and groups from the northern Arizona plateau country. Prehistoric groups were well aware of the bounty produced in Tonto Basin and they generally lived in peaceful coexistence.

Archaeologists were able to reject earlier theories that argued for Tonto Basin as the "heartland" of the Salado, from which they migrated and dominated the Southwest.

The extensive archaeological collections generated by these projects are curated at the Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology. They are used by researchers and are available for exhibit and interpretation by museums.

Theodore Roosevelt Dam is the central exhibit at the newly opened Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe, at Papago Buttes. Indoor and terrace exhibits interpret the dam's construction technology and some of the people who made it happen. The exhibits provide a tangible and compelling backdrop for the museum's main theme, the importance of water to the development of central Arizona -- how it shapes our history, our ability to generate wealth, our political scene.

The cover story in the March 1992 Arizona Highways magazine, written by Peter Aleshire, describes some of the archaeologists' findings. The following comes from that article.

"This is a natural laboratory," said Scott Wood, Tonto National Forest archeologist. "For many, many years it was hard to get people interested in the Tonto Basin. All of sudden, it's the site of the largest archeological project in the country. It's the most ambitious attempt to look at all aspects of a society over a long period of time that has ever been done in North America."

The eight-year project, which began in 1989, unearthed some startling discoveries. One of the biggest surprises was the discovery of Schoolhouse mound, a large, bustling 300-yard-long complex of 115 rooms that served as the Tonto Basin's economic center up to the 1400s. Like other sites, Schoolhouse evolved over time. Year by year, its builders added rooms.

Archeologists estimate there was room for 200 people at the village. Discovered at Schoolhouse were rooms filled with giant pots and built-in granaries, made of woven branches and plastered with mud. These held great quantities of surplus food, primarily corn.

"We found these incredible storage rooms, one after another, that have all this evidence of huge storage capacity: large vessels , granaries, baskets, just amazing," said Dr. Owen Lindauer, the archeologist who headed the Arizona State University field crew that excavated Schoolhouse.

Lindauer estimates that the storage rooms of Schoolhouse could have held enough corn, beans, and other food to carry the people living on the mound through years of crop failures.

Some of the pottery storage vessels uncovered at Schoolhouse had a capacity of 55 to 60 gallons. Numerous tiny stone animal effigies were likewise discovered. Though about as small as a fingernail, the stylized effigies show remarkable variety, including; a ceramic dog, an argillite dog, and an argillite duck.

Computer data bases linking the width of growth rings taken from thousands of trees enable scientist to reconstruct stream flow, year by year. Clearly, Salado society became increasingly complex, farming the 44 miles of irrigatable streambed.

Of course, gathering the evidence and artifacts needed to conduct all these tests remains tedious and time-consuming, a matter of whisk brooms, screens through which sweaty workers sift tons of dirt, dental tools for work around delicate artifacts, and inexhaustible patience. An archeological dig in progress simmers with slow-motion excitement.

The people who do the dirty work are a varied bunch of scientific vagabonds. Most have degrees in archeology and constantly move from dig to dig.

They are drawn by the thrill of ancient mysteries and the rush of insight. They treasure moments of contact with that vanished culture. ASU archeologist Dr. Glen Rice, the senior principal investigator, directed what was at one time, the biggest archeological dig in the United States.

He describes one of those rare moments when modern man meets ancient history. Rice, recalls the day he found a perfect palm print on a pillar. "There was a Salado hand print from 900 years ago. That's the thing that's quasi-mystical. We aren't just studying pots and mud."

Already, they've unearthed ample evidence of a vibrant creative culture. The Salado made beautiful pots which they traded across the Southwest. They labored over bits of shell to make wonderful necklaces, witnesses to far-flung trade networks.

They fashioned doll figurines, marked sun-bronzed rocks with pictures of great artistry. One cannot stand in this thorned, sun-seared desert valley without being sobered by the ingenuity of a people without wheels or metal who nonetheless filled great storehouses with food.

They shrewdly reaped the bounty of a frost-free climate that offered wild plant resources plus three plantings a year and the dependable drainage of 13,000 square miles.

It would be unfair to let the riddle of their disappearance overshadow the accomplishments of a people who thrived for a thousand years in an environment so rigorous, it would probably kill a modern urbanite in a very short time.

Tom Lincoln, Senior Archeologist, served as Reclamation's project manager during the excavation.

Editor's Note: 
This special edition is published for the rededication ceremony of Theodore Roosevelt Dam April 12, 1996, and as a memorial to all those who have made this historic work possible. Reclamation likewise commemorates this special edition to the memory of two outstanding employees who passed away in early 1996.

Joseph "Jack" Adams, spent many days around Theodore Roosevelt Dam as a Reclamation photographer. Jack passed away March 24, 1996.

John C. Jones, professional land surveyor, faithfully served Reclamation for 36 years. John passed away February 8, 1996.

Last Updated: 6/25/15