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Canal, pit houses from up to 4,000 years ago found under planned Marana outlet mall site

Canal, pit houses from up to 4,000 years ago found under planned Marana outlet mall site

A major ancient human settlement — including pit houses, the likely remnants of an irrigation canal and human burials possibly dating back 4,000 years — has been discovered under the site of a planned outlet center along Interstate 10 in Marana.

Experts agree discovery is significant archaeologically — the settlement is likely from the Early Agricultural Period, which predates even the Hohokam culture that was in Southern and Central Arizona from 500 to about 1450 A.D. The find will add additional knowledge about agricultural practices that may be the oldest known in the United States, archaeologists say.

But it’s unclear if it will affect the outlet center’s progress. Its Indianapolis-based developer is already in competition with a Florida developer to build outlet centers on the northwest side.

So far, about 145 archaeological features, including six burials, have been found on the site, said a letter written last week by the State Historic Preservation Office. More investigation of the site, including some level of excavation, is almost certain.

How long that investigation will take is far from certain. While archaeological ruins don’t stop projects, they must be studied in detail.

A percentage of remains are typically excavated so they can be preserved for future study. Human burial remains typically are repatriated to the Tohono O’odham and other tribes, which has been done with those from this site.

Tribe predicts delay

The discovery of these remains over the winter comes as the Marana center developer, a subsidiary of the Simon Property Group, is in apparent competition with a second outlet center planned for two miles to the north in unincorporated Pima County to see which one can be built first.

The developers and town of Marana officials, who look forward to the jobs and tax revenue the outlet center would bring, say they don’t expect the archaeological issues to delay the project. They hope construction will begin this summer, with the center opening a year later.

“The work being performed by the owner of the property, Vintage Partners, is being done per state and federal requirements, and is proceeding exactly as contemplated,” said a statement by Danielle De Vita, senior vice president of development and acquisitions for Premium Outlets, the Simon group’s outlet division. “We do not foresee this materially impacting our development schedule and we look forward to breaking ground in the coming months.”

The town of Marana expects developers and the landowner to submit platting, engineering and traffic plans in the near future, said Ryan Mahoney, Marana planning director.

“Town staff has worked closely with these two groups to ensure that our requirements are understood and met at the outset,” Mahoney said in a statement. “The project schedule is progressing as intended, and the developer is waiting to receive approval” of plans to recover more cultural resources, he said.

But Peter Steere, the Tohono O’odham Tribe’s historic preservation officer, predicted the remains will delay construction into the fall or longer. Three hundred or more archaeological features could be found during excavation, and the tribe will want its monitors at the site, he said.

“The main thing that drives the time is how big crews are at the site,” Steere said. “Ten people takes a lot longer than 20 people. With archaeological work, once you get down to actually excavating the remains, it’s done by hand.”

Mary Ellen Walsh of the State Historic Preservation Office said she doesn’t know how long it will take to finish the archaeological investigation and other clearances needed to start construction.

“Go out and excavate”

The outlet center already has an Army Corps of Engineers-granted Clean Water Act permit. It is conditioned on the developer fully carrying out a previously approved plan to treat historic properties, Walsh said.

Walsh, an archaeological compliance specialist, wrote a letter last week to the Corps saying that “we strongly encourage” the federal agency to re-invite the Tohono Tribe and Pima County officials to be consulted on this project.

The tribe’s Steere said its officials believe the 2007 agreement needs rewriting to reflect the new test results “since we know a great deal more about the site than before. If the site can’t be avoided, which it doesn’t look like it can, they will have to go out and excavate.”

The Corps, which must sign off on a final plan to deal with the remains, didn’t respond to questions about the outlet center from the Star last week but will respond, a spokesman said.

Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said, “I have not seen the archaeology reports, but I know the developer has been working with the Corps to work through the review process. I do not have any reference for how long this should or should not take, but I do know the development of this regional shopping center will be a tremendous asset for the whole area.

“The Marana Center will create hundreds of jobs, provide shopping opportunities, and generate sales and property tax, benefiting the town, county, school district and other regional entities,” Davidson said.

Environmental groups, led by the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, want the Avra Valley Road outlet center to be finished first. Some outside observers have said there aren’t enough consumers to support both outlet centers.

Pima County says the Avra Mall has no major archaeological sites. Its developer, Jim Schlesinger of Coral Gables, Fla., has signed an agreement with the county committing to set aside $89 million of the center’s revenue over 30 years to buy wildlife corridors.

Marana mall developer Simon Property Group has agreed to give the town $456,000 to buy environmentally sensitive lands to preserve species that are native to the development’s surrounding desert.

Looks like a canal

The remains make the site one of a half-dozen or so from that time discovered in this region since 1993. All are along or near the Santa Cruz River.

Features found so far at the Marana site include 37 pit houses, the canal, 14 other architectural features, 87 features found outside the village’s settlement and the burials, said Walsh’s letter to the Corps, written last Monday.

During excavation, “we think it likely that significantly more than 18 burials will be identified,” Walsh wrote.

In an interview, Walsh said the site also likely includes roasting pits, trash pits and other houses.

“We’re looking at some kind of community at some level,” he said, adding that while there are no certain dates, the canal could come from the period 2500 to 1500 B.C.

Hohokam-era remains have also been found at this site, near the ground surface, officials said. The earlier remains were found about 12 to 13 feet below ground in late January and early February, said Gary Huckleberry, an independent geoarchaeological consultant working as a subcontractor for Paleo West, the developer’s archaeological consultant.

“We hit several features, mainly pit features at some depth, at the edge of the Santa Cruz River floodplain,” Huckleberry said last week. The pit features “are probably associated with what we call the Early Agricultural Period.”

He placed the period of these remains at 2000 B.C. to 200 A.D. He said the investigators only hit what appears to be the canal “in one trench.” The apparent canal had a U-shaped channel containing a layer of burnt charcoal, which he said is pretty common for these canals. Workers also recovered an aquatic bird bone from there.

“Everything seems to suggest canal, but we want to get more confidence in it,” he said.

This canal could be, but probably isn’t, older than the region’s earliest canals, dating to 1500 to 1000 B.C., said Huckleberry, who placed this canal’s age at 1000 B.C. to 1 A.D.

“The reason I say that is that the other canals that were identified just a little bit west of I-10 date to that time period,” Huckleberry said. “We’re east of I-10.”

Discovery of this and similar sites, all along the Santa Cruz River, represent an archaeological milestone for this region, said Linda Mayro, Pima County’s director of conservation and sustainability.

Archaeologists have only begun to understand in the last 15 years or so that communities lived along the river up to 4,000 or more years ago, she said. Particularly important is that these communities had irrigated agriculture, usually growing corn, she said.

“There has indeed been a revolution in archaeological perceptions of the beginnings of agriculture in the Sonoran Desert,” added Suzanne Fish, a curator of archaeology at the Arizona State Museum. “We still know a limited amount about the early years of farming, however.

“Any new research will undoubtedly add something not previously known.”

Corps asks for time

The Marana development started work under another owner in 2007, said Ann Howard, a deputy state historic preservation officer for archaeology. The Corps approved a memorandum of agreement and a historic properties treatment plan for this project, laying out how the archaeological remains would be investigated.

That agreement, which remains in effect, was approved after the Corps consulted with seven Indian tribes, including the O’odham, and the Arizona State Museum, the State Historic Preservation Office and the town of Marana, state preservation official Walsh wrote in an email.

But work on the project stopped after the 2008 real estate market collapse. Eventually, the project came under new ownership. Archaeological work resumed this year.

The work done to date represents Phase 1 of the archaeological testing. A report on it was submitted to authorities in the past few weeks. Phase II, involving excavation and other data recovery, is followed by a report on that work that the Corps approves after consulting with tribes and officials. Then construction can start, Howard said.

In a March 13 email to the state agency, Michael Langley, a Corps’ senior project manager, wrote that he will “not let the Corps get rushed into anything” with respect to the recovery of archaeological data.

“If I understand the situation correctly, the testing process has uncovered a lot more resources than originally anticipated in 2008,” he wrote, which means the approach to data recovery approved back then probably needs to be adjusted.

On March 11, the Corps’ Langley wrote Duane Hunn, of landowner Vintage Partners, that he has given three parties reviewing the preliminary archaeological report until March 31 to comment on it. That report must be approved before the next round of archaeological work — data recovery — can begin, Langley wrote.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at or 806-7746. On Twitter: @tonydavis987

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