Ancient Chambers Span Across Beneath Northern Arizona
Saturday, April 27, 1991
ARIZONA DAILY SUN, Flagstaff, Arizona
New Orleans (AP) -- Three young archaelogists came to Northern Arizona and crept through sacred rooms, over rocky precipes and by dangerous rattlesnakes to discover a huge complex of catagombs that could rewrite theories about the Indians of the southwestern United States.
"It's absolutely mind-numbing. We would have never believed it could have existed," John W. Hohman, one of the three archaeologists, said Friday during the meeting of the 2,000 member Society of American Archaeology. "It will change a lot of what we believed about Indians in the Southwest. They may have been far more advanced than we believed."
Hohman admitted to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, the archaeologists-adventurer from the movies. Armed with a flashlight and a pistol, it was Hohman who rapelled down the steep fissures, frequently dotted with rattlesnakes sunning themselves on rocky outcrops, into the catacombs.
The catacombs his expedition found are the first reported in the United States, officials at the conference said. "It's very exciting to have it announced at this conference. It's one of the few times we can say this is a first. Anytime you have a first in our business, it's exciting," said Dr.James Schoenwetter, professor of anthropology at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. "The idea of a very elaborate form of ceremonial chamber being built underground hundreds of years ago is surprising."
Indians of the southwest United States were not believed to have built underground, Hohman said. For many of the cultures the underground held special connotations, both good and bad, he said. Burials were also done much as they are done now, he said, in graves dug into the earth. The catacombs, which Hohman and colleagues say are about 700 to 800 years old, were discovered at a known prehistoric Indian settlement about two miles west of Springerville.
The Mongollon Indians occupied the site sometime between A.D. 1250 and 1400, Hohman said. "There had been some suspicion that there was something underground there," Adams said, "When we actually entered the catacombs though, it just blew us away."
Getting there wasn't easy. "Everytime I'd get halfway down one of the others would find the entry way, Hohman said. The carefully hidden entrances to the catacombs varied from the size of doorways to small crawl spaces. Once inside, Hohman and his colleagues found three to four acres of catacombs, ranging from small chambers to huge rooms 50 feet high and 100 feet long. "It's obvious that they were to protect the cattacombs," said White. ""The average person living at the site would not have had access to the area. It was probably entered only by certain people."
Hohman, Diane E. White and Christopher D. Adams were investigating the area for the town with an eye toward developing it as a recreation area. Hohman expects the site to produce at least one more major find. "We think there is something else underground there. We're working in an area that we think will produce another major surprise," he said.
The area, but not the catacombs, is open to the public, and will be developed into a recreational area, Hohman said. The park is expected to be opened within two years, he said. Called Casa Malpais, the site represents one of the largest and most complex ancient Mongollon communities in the nation, Hohman said.
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September 2, 1993
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