MESA, AZ - A new archaeological park has been built for a 6-acre site that represents the remains of one of the largest and most complex ancient Hohokam platform mound communities.
The Mesa Grande Ruins cultural center, which had its groundbreaking in September and its grand opening Saturday, explores what archaeologists believe was the religious and cultural center of a large Hohokam settlement that was abandoned in the 1400s.
The Hohokam people were skilled potters and farmers who developed a sophisticated irrigation system for their crops. They built and used the temple mound site -- once covering about 600 acres overlooking the Salt River -- between approximately 1100 and 1450, when the community perished, according to the Mesa Grande Ruins Community Alliance.
The cultural center is considered a valuable tool in teaching future generations and residents of the surrounding bustling neighborhood about the historical significance of the site and the people who once settled it.
The $750,000 project was made possible mostly through a number of grants from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community and other sources for a 1,000-square-foot visitors center and a walking trail.
Other historically significant sites containing prehistoric remains in Arizona include the Casa Grande Ruins in Coolidge and the Pueblo Grande Ruins in Phoenix.
The archaeological park falls under auspices of the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which has collated the research of scientists over the past 150-plus years into interpretive material both at the mound and online.
Mesa City Councilman Dave Richins was involved in efforts to create an archaeological park at the Mesa Grande ruins for the past 13 years.
"I remember sitting in a neighborhood meeting back in 1999, putting this on our `top-five list' of west Mesa projects," Richins told The Arizona Republic. "We called it our points of pride."
Even before the Civil War, explorers knew they had stumbled across something special when they encountered the mound atop the low tableland that later gave Mesa its name.
John Russell Bartlett, an appointee of the United States-Mexican Boundary Study Committee, arrived at the desolate site on July 4, 1852, and knew it had once been the center of a vanished civilization.
"From the summit of the principal heap, which is elevated from 20 to 25 feet above the plain, there may be seen in all directions similar heaps," Bartlett wrote. "About a mile to the east of them I noticed a long range of them running north and south. ... In every direction the plain was strewn with broken pottery."
Time and development swallowed up those other remnants of Hohokam habitation until only Mesa Grande remained.
An early owner, Ann Madora Barker, kept the place safe from encroachment. Frank Midvale, an archaeologist who bought it from Barker, protected it for 35 years, and with his wife, Grace, in the 1950s organized the Mesa Grande Archaeological Society. That group was a precursor to many of Mesa's historical preservation efforts.
Midvale passed Mesa Grande on to car dealer Jack Ross and his wife, Acquanetta, a former movie actress. Her stewardship lasted a quarter-century. Mesa paid $1.1 million for the land in 1987, with perpetual preservation in mind.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said the ruins themselves reflect what people can do in the face of a hostile environment.
"When our predecessors came here in the 1870s, they came to a place (where) no one wanted to live," he said. "We are living testament that great things do happen."