Bill Doelle groans every time he reads a newspaper headline that says “Archeology Find Halts Construction Project.” As the president of Tucson-based Desert Archaeology Inc.—consultant to Pima County on the cultural preservation efforts during the Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department’s $720-million Regional Optimization Plan—Doelle and his team were just as attentive to the present day needs of construction crews as they were to investigating the past.

“The county has been developing for 25 years a pretty standardized procedure of assessing what’s in the ground and taking care of the big issues before construction gets underway,” Doelle says.

History is literally underfoot everywhere in Tucson, so it’s no wonder that the county and its residents have been so active in protecting and preserving cultural resources since the 1970’s. To date, more than 8,500 archeological and historical sites have been discovered, shedding light on the history of humans that have lived in the area continuously for 12,000 years, according to the Pima County Cultural Resources & Historic Preservation Office.

But it was during the optimization plan’s expansion of the Ina Rd. Wastewater Treatment Facility that one of the most extraordinary discoveries was made. Dubbed Las Capas, the discovery is “the earliest, most complicated and sophisticated agricultural irrigation system discovered in North America so far,” says Loy Neff, program manager for the county’s historic preservation office. The extensive fields and irrigation trenches date back to the San Pedro Period, 1250 B.C. to 750 B.C. 

The system was uncovered during archeological excavation begun in 2008, and was rated one of the 10 top discoveries of 2009 worldwide by Archaeology Magazine. Work will continue off and on through 2013 as construction progresses. 

Neff says the findings are significant to archeologists and historians because the ultimate question of how prehistoric populations developed and what technologies they used to produce food–along with the resulting changes in social organization—are critically important in understanding the whole prehistory of North America. 

Cultural Excavation

Working long before the planned start date of the plant’s expansion, archeologists began the investigation by digging a series of trenches up to 10 ft deep using a standard 2-ft-wide backhoe bucket. The trenches allowed archeologists to view the various soil layers laid down over millennia by the region’s seasonal flood cycle and choose areas for further investigation. 

Next, an excavation subcontractor stripped away the top layer of dirt, including up to 5 ft of fill placed during previous construction at the site. 

Desert Archaeology then brought in their own skilled backhoe operators, who used specialized 7-ft-wide blades, referred to as “giant trowels.” The operators could pull off as little as a half-centimeter of dirt at a time. “If you work with a backhoe long enough, you get an almost fingertip-like sensitivity in what that metal blade scraping over the ground surface is telling you,” Doelle says.

It was during this time that the team noticed differences in the dirt coloration and pattern, indicating berms surrounding planting fields. 

Hand excavation was then performed in select areas, such as at housing pits where workers likely lived while tending the fields or maintaining the irrigation system. 

All told, the team removed 155,865 cubic meters of dirt and conducted intensive excavations in several areas totaling about 7 acres to a depth of 9 ft, says Jim Vint, Desert Archaeology’s project director. 

Four separate irrigation systems were found, rebuilt one on top of the other like a layer cake, separated by major flood events that had covered the previous system with alluvial material up to a foot thick. The fields extend for an estimated 80 to 100 acres, though this may change as more areas open up for investigation. 

The primary crop was maize, or corn. Incredibly, archeologists are able to pinpoint individual planting holes for each corn stalk within the fields, due to slight variations in soil color. 

The ancient irrigation system met its end with a cataclysmic flood which sealed the system beneath a massive amount of sediment. Bad for the farmers in 750 B.C., but good for archeologists today since the site has been preserved in a way similar to Pompeii’s preservation from a volcanic eruption in Italy, Doelle says. 

Keeping a Low Profile

To minimize the impact to construction schedules, Neff gets involved with all county public works projects from the start of planning, working closely to educate on cultural resource compliance rules. 

“The earlier we get involved in their planning, the better we can assist them and the less chance we can cause them any delays,” Neff says. “My goal is to get in, get the info we need, do the archeology, meet the compliance requirements, and then get out, while not impacting the construction schedule. We’ve been able to do that out at Ina Road so far.” 

The archeologists were fully integrated into the construction team at Ina Road, even attending weekly meetings starting with the early stages of pre-planning, Doelle says. 

Workers at the existing plant had no idea there was a virtual archeological goldmine underneath their feet. “I gave weekly tours for employees out at the plant, which opened their eyes as to what we were doing,” Vint says. “A lot of them were really surprised that they were working right on top of this 3,000 year old site. It changed their perspective on where they were working and the importance of history.”