A “really nice picture” of the workings of early Hohokam civilization is emerging from a recent excavation that uncovered at least part of a prehistoric-era village at a planned Marana outlet mall site.

“This site is revealing, because of the scale of their excavations at one time,” said William Doelle, president of Desert Archaeology and a prominent Tucson archaeology consultant who is familiar with the excavation’s findings. “This site is very important in adding new information about the early Hohokam time.”

The excavation of 7 acres of the 40-acre Tucson Premium Outlets mall site, near Interstate 10 and Twin Peaks Road, found remains of a village where neighboring residents gathered periodically to exchange goods for economic and ritualistic reasons, said Tom Motsinger. He is president of Paleo West, the Phoenix-based archaeological firm that did the excavation for the mall site’s landowner.

The remains include 265 human burials, roasting pits, pit houses, fire pits, storage pits, a ceremonial ball court and trash middens. They date to 650 to 900 A.D. and were dug from a depth of about 4 feet, said Motsinger, whose firm was hired by landowner Vintage Partners, also of Phoenix.

By comparing this site with about 20 other Hohokam sites that his firm and others have studied, archaeologists are starting to put together a pattern showing common organizational features of early Hohokam villages, Doelle said.

The number of burials found at this site is similar to numbers found at other Hohokam sites of this size, Doelle said. It’s the 21st ball-court site found in Hohokam sites in the Tucson area, he said.

The excavation also found cooking pits buried about 8 to 9 feet deep that could date to 1,000 B.C., Motsinger said. A sampling of materials found from that time will be radiocarbon-dated to get a definitive picture of their age.

The excavation work was done from mid-April through late June under an agreement with the Tohono O’Odham Nation, the Arizona State Museum and the State Historic Preservation Office, among other parties.

The work will allow the mall development to go forward now that the remains and other archaeological features have been unearthed.

The archaeological work has the strong endorsement of the O’odham cultural resource officer, Peter Steere. He said that Paleo West “did everything we asked them to do.”

“The excavation was a good job. Very good people were working up there,” Steere said. “Two or three tribal members were working with them.”

Motsinger, in turn, said his company’s staff has spent 6,000 hours on this data recovery work.

The agreement was a long time coming, however. The site, under another developer, received federal permits and an archaeological clearance before the real-estate crash of 2007-08 put the mall project on hold. The whole issue had to be reopened and a new agreement reached earlier this year when the new developer, the Simon Property Group, revived the mall plan.

The mall will start construction this week, a Vintage Partners executive and a Marana spokesman said last week. Simon Property Group has not responded to questions about construction dates, or about prospective or likely tenants.

The excavated area, which Paleo West calls Ironwood Village, “was clearly special and important for at least 250 years in prehistoric Tucson,” Motsinger said via email.

“The village at its height in the 7th and 8th centuries covered 40 acres,” Motsinger said. “It was a primary village, meaning that residents from surrounding villages, hamlets and farmsteads gathered here periodically for economic and ritual exchange of goods.”

While the materials are still being analyzed, it’s clear these prehistoric villagers were central to a regional exchange of goods that included turquoise and pottery from the north, marine shells and coral from the south and pottery from across the region, Motsinger said.

“The burial and funerary objects laid to rest with them are the legal rightful property of the ancestral descendants of the Tucson Hohokam, the Tohono O’Odham,” Motsinger said. “They will all be reinterred according to the wishes of these living descendants.

“The story these hundreds of individuals tell is consistent with the village being a special place.”

Doelle met with Paleo West officials last week to discuss their findings.

The village was organized in the style of a doughnut, with houses in an outer ring. A central plaza and a cemetery were in the middle.

Roasting pits and a ball court were on one side of the plaza. Because the ball court had roasting pits alongside it, that suggested feasting activity occurred along with the ball games, Doelle said.

One question that’s been discussed but not resolved by archaeologists is whether it’s appropriate to call the central open area a plaza when it may well have also been used as a cemetery, he said.

“How do you think about an open space in the center of a village, when it may be used for celebrating the dead as well as a whole bunch of other purposes?” Doelle said. “There are still discussions as to how to interpret it. Not very many of those spaces have been fully excavated.”

The human remains found at the site were mostly cremation remains with one or two being skeletal remains, said Tohono cultural resource officer Steere. Some of the remains were found inside ceramic vessels. Some had been placed inside pits at the site, with vessels placed atop them as offerings, he said.

The remains will be analyzed and assessed by archaeologists at a secure facility run by Paleo West, where they’ll try to determine their ages and gender, said Todd Pitezel, the state repatriation coordinator who works at the Arizona State Museum. Once that’s done, the remains will be repatriated to the O’odham, who will hold a reburial ceremony and rebury them on tribal grounds, Steere said.

There may be more remains found during construction, all parties agree. Because of the large number of burials found during the recent excavation, another agreement was put together between the tribe, the State Historic Preservation Office, Vintage Partners, the developer and the state museum on a way to monitor the site to maximize the chances of finding more burials, Steere said.

Tribal and archaeological monitors will be present throughout mall construction, Steere and Motsinger said. Limits have been put on the kind of construction equipment that can be used. Other areas of the overall 160-acre development site that includes Simon’s 40-acre mall site may need additional excavation down the road, Steere said.

“We’d much rather see the archaeological site be preserved as a park, but we know the I-10 corridor will be developed over time,” Steere said. “This site will be very difficult to preserve. They paid millions of dollars and they will have to get a return. No developer will spend $5 million for a site and make it a park.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746. Follow him on Twitter@tonydavis987.