urban archaeology


I had errands that took me to Mesa last week, and after a lunch of tamales de puerco from my favorite taqueria on that side of the valley, I made my way to the Mesa Grande Cultural Park.

The park is a unit of the Arizona Museum of Natural History, and preserves a platform mound constructed by the Hohokam people between 1100 and 1450 A.D. The mound was a residential and ceremonial structure at the heart of a large Hohokam community on the mesa, on the south bank of the Salt River.

On the day of my visit the mound was occupied by students from Mesa Community College. The college offers an annual class on field archaeology methods. I met Chris Caseldine, a graduate student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, who is an assistant instructor for the community college course. While scouting the site for a field exercise for the students, Chris noticed a bit of pottery protruding from the mound, and turned it over to the students for excavation. The pottery bit turned out to be a shattered but complete olla, or water jug, made of caliche clay. No one knows what treasures were taken by early artifact hunters and looters, but this is the first entire olla found at the site since it has been protected as a heritage preserve.

As Chris and I were talking I noticed a potsherd at my feet. Little treasures like this are everywhere at the site. The mound is thought to be largely intact, since most scientific excavation has focused on its periphery. There may be many more notable artifacts to discover. Even so, the modern archaeologist’s dilemma is deciding whether to dig or not to dig, in full awareness that once a hole is made it can’t be undug. The site includes a replica ball court, a feature that culturally ties the Hohokam builders of Mesa Grande to the native cultures of Central America. The actual ball court is now under the parking lot of a neighboring corporate office, where it awaits the attention of some future archaeologist. At least it can’t be gotten at in haste, and if for now it’s beyond the reach of the scientists, it’s also safe from the treasure seekers.

Although they are presented as harmless, goofy explorations of inane historical side-notes, cable TV specials such as Ancient Aliens and The Lost History of Ancient America normalise expressions of racist intellectual attitudes towards native peoples.

Their basic premise remains: ‘These primitive brown people couldn’t possibly have contributed to our cultural history! It must have been [aliens / giants / prehistorical Europeans]’. Indigenous peoples in North America, Latin America and Africa were practical metallurgists, experimental chemists, civil engineers and urban planners - restoring native peoples to their factual place in human developmental history reveals a dazzlingly beautiful archaeological narrative which throws grubby crypto-fascist conspiracy loons into the shade. 

Busting these absurd, revisionist ahistories is an anti-racist duty.


The Circus Maximus was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome. It could hold 150,000 spectators and was used for religious festivals and chariot races. The steep hills on the sides of the track were the location of the stands. Below those photos are the ruins of the Teatro Marcello, an ancient open-air theatre built in 13BC, which typically showed dramas, songs and pantomime. Don’t you wish these great structures could be restored to their former glory? There’s a sadness while walking through the ruins of such magnificent structures.


Xochitecatl, Tlaxcala

Xochitecatl [ʃot͡ʃiˈtekat͡ɬ] is a pre-Columbian archaeological site located in the Mexican State of Tlaxcala, 18 km southwest of Tlaxcala city. The major architecture dates to the Middle Preclassic Period(1000–400 BC) but occupation continued, with one major interruption, until the Late Classic, when the site was abandoned, although there is evidence of ritual activity dating to the Postclassic and Colonial Periods. The ruins cover an area of 12 hectares on top of a volcanic dome.

Xochitecatl, unlike other contemporary sites, appears to have been a purely ceremonial centre for a population dispersed through the surrounding countryside rather than the centre of an urban area.


Check out this brilliant video on urban archaeology of homelessness in Bristol! I’m especially digging the impromptu rap in the beginning.