To kick off the Agave Heritage Festival, Stephanie and I got to play archeologists for the morning.
After getting to the Hotel Congress late the night before, I used my front-desk-issued earplugs to get some sleep, so we could get ourselves to the Mission Garden by 8:15 am.
We met our gracious guides there: Paul and Suzie Fish, emeriti professors of archaeology from the University of Arizona and the Arizona State Museum. The plan for the day was to carpool over to some pristine desert land several miles away at the base of Tumamoc Hill, where U of A Desert Laboratory is located, hike in about a half mile, and then be guided by the archaeologists on a tour of an ancient agave horticultural/gardening site and roasting pit used by the Hohokam people of the American Southwest.
While on this tour, I was surprised to find out that the Tucson area has evidence of farming estimated to go as far back as 5,000 years! The fields we were to tour are estimated to date to the 1200-1300s.
The first stop was the roasting pit. It’s a good thing we had trained professionals to take us here. Most anyone would have walked right by the spot, which looked like any other unremarkable clearing in the desert. A closer look yielded the clues: a few potsherds here and there, a slightly more charcoal-colored soil, and pieces of “rind.” Rind is the bubbly mix of stone and organic material that forms around such pits due to the high temperature in the roasting process.
The roasting was probably done every few years as it takes years for agave to grow to the harvesting stage. During its lifetime, little “pups” or rhizomes, which are essentially agave clones, grow out from the plants. Farmers would have taken these and used them to plant new agaves, which would have helped stagger the harvesting seasons.
Our guides explained that the agave was cultivated for three reasons: food, alcoholic beverages, and fibers – Stephanie filmed a jaw-dropping demonstration on how agave fiber can be made into a rope within minutes!
Since it would take at least 24 hours to roast the agaves, apparently, the Hohokam would multitask, using the time to work on other projects like making spindles for forming the fibers into thread or ropes.
As Suzie was explaining this to us, she reached down and grabbed a few bits of pottery sherds to show us. So I stooped down to glance at the dirt around my feet.
All of the sudden, the desert seemed to bloom with evidence of past humans. I found some pieces of the rind that our guides had described and some pottery pieces. Most interestingly, I found a rounded piece of pottery that Suzie told us was likely the beginnings of a spindle for making thread. Therein lies one of the most amazing aspect of archaeology – to touch an object that had been made with such intentional effort by another human centuries removed from me.
From the pit, we moved on to the remains of the gardens.
While there are no original agave plants left, our guides pointed out rocks arranged along the sloping hillsides to guide water to various miniature terraces where the agave would have been. Farther along, we started seeing evidence of experiments being done by the University of Arizona to replicate agricultural techniques used by the Hohokam. Since the early 1980s, scientists have been using this spot to try to replicate Hohokam techniques with agave horticulture.
My favorite example was seeing how the terraces set up to encourage agave growth would not only foster significantly better growth for agaves, but they would also have a variety of plant neighbors which would grow up alongside next to them. They also benefited from the more advantageous microclimate of the terrace.
I was in awe of how observant and creative the Hohokam were to create a space where they could cultivate agave on a larger scale. Indeed, our guides say that agaves are seldom naturally found below the 3,000 foot elevation mark. With a few ingenious adaptations, the Hohokam were able to make it work!
– More Archaelogy Info –
The Southwestern United States and Arizona are hotspots for archaeology.
If you’re interested in getting involved in local AZ archaeological preservation efforts, one place to look is the Southwest Archaeology Team. It’s a great opportunity to get involved with archaeology on an amateur basis. They’re based in Mesa, Arizona and affiliated with the Arizona Museum of Natural History. I joined the organization for a time during high school and used the opportunity to take a class they offered in archaeological field surveying. In addition to educational opportunities, they provide volunteering opportunities in archaeology.
You can also check with local community colleges. As a high school student, I was able to take a class at Mesa Community College on archaeological field methods to learn the tools, techniques and terms of the profession.
Next Agave Heritage Festival events in Downtown Tucson:
- May 5, 6 + 7, 10am + 1pm: Fibers, Tequila and Fun at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Included with admission.
- May 5, 6 + 7, 10am: Agave Garden Tours at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Included with admission.
- May 5, 6 + 7, 10am: Rare + Collectible Agave Sale at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Included with admission.
- May 5, 1:30pm: Talk on Cryptic Gardens and Pre-Columbian Agave Clones at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Included with admission.
- May 5, 5pm: Cinco De Mayo Party at Club Congress. Free until 9pm, then $3
- May 5, 6:30pm: Agave Heritage Dinner at Maynards Plaza Patio. Proceeds from this dinner help benefit Native Seed Search. $110
- May 6, 6pm: Agave Fest tequila party at Hotel Congress. $35
- May 7, 11am: Agave Heritage Brunch at Carriage House. Proceeds from this brunch help benefit Mission Garden. $55
We were guests of Hotel Congress.