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  • Three Months among the Ghosts of Tinajas Altas
  • Gayle Harrison Hartmann (bio)

When I was invited to participate in the Tinajas Altas Archaeological Survey, I spent some time considering the offer. It would mean three months working out of doors and sleeping in a tent, with a few days off from time to time so that I could drive four hours home to Tucson, do laundry, pay bills, and take care of other household chores. January to early April—not a bad time of year in the southern Southwest—although definitely below my comfort zone during some early mornings, with pre-dawn temperatures ranging from the high 30s to the low 40s. Food came from a camp kitchen (although we were to be the cooks), and a portable toilet was located downwind at the edge of camp. Water was available from a "water buffalo," a large metal tank supported by a small trailer. Heat in the evenings came from the time-honored source—a large campfire, using wood trucked from Tucson. Thus, the heat came with a clear conscience—no desert trees were being sacrificed. Not a bad prospect, I thought. And I was right.

Along with five to six colleagues, I spent the late winter and early spring of 1998 camped near Tinajas Altas, working on an archaeological survey sponsored and funded by the U.S. Air Force with the cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps. The goal was to document the remains of human activities, from prehistoric through modern times, on 5,456 acres of the driest and hottest desert in the Southwest. The area, near the southwest corner of Arizona (about four miles north of the international border with Mexico), receives between three and five inches of rain per year, most of which falls in the winter. [End Page 263] Some years, it doesn't rain at all. The summers are long and hot, with temperatures commonly exceeding 110 degrees F, making archaeological work difficult, but not impossible. Often, it seems that archaeological projects in southern Arizona end up being scheduled during the hottest months of the year. I felt very fortunate that this project was to be at a cooler time of year.

Tinajas Altas, generally translated as "high tanks," are a series of natural, granite basins, one above the other, located in a steep defile in the east face of the Tinajas Altas Mountains (figure 1). Because they are located in this extremely arid part of the Sonoran Desert, the tanks— which collect water from rainfall and are nearly perennial—are a water source for the animals of the region. In the past, they were also a critical water source for humans.

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Figure 1.

Archaeologist Mary Charlotte Thurtle contemplating the lowest tank.

For millennia, humans and wildlife have taken advantage of the water in these basins. Bits of evidence ranging from stone arrow points to pieces of pottery to tin cans tell us that people from different cultures and different eras have passed by. Native Americans, travelers to and from Mexico, and forty-niners on their way to the goldfields of California, for example, trekked along the infamous sandy track called the Camino del [End Page 264] Diablo that runs close to Tinajas Altas. A burial ground, more visible thirty years ago than today, at one time marked the graves or memorials of about sixty unfortunate travelers who arrived, mostly during the gold rush, only to find the water supply exhausted by previous travelers. Or, some of them may have died along the Camino, and their remains have been brought to the cemetery for burial. In recent years the area east of the tanks that used to be the cemetery has become the de facto parking lot for visitors to the tanks and has suffered considerable damage.

From the time of statehood in 1912 until World War II these water-holes and millions of surrounding desert acres were property of the federal government. The large stand of organ pipe cactus in the eastern part of the region led it to become Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Another large section became the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, with...


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