Desert Archaeology Archaeology Southwest

A Passion for Institution Building: Desert Archaeology and Archaeology Southwest

This week’s blog is by Desert Archaeology and Archaeology Southwest founder Bill Doelle. 

Since 1989, when I incorporated the for-profit Desert Archaeology, Inc. and the nonprofit Center for Desert Archaeology (now Archaeology Southwest) within a week of each another, I have served as president of both organizations. On January 17th of this year that changed—Sarah Herr is now majority owner and president of Desert Archaeology.

But what am I doing now, and why did I have those dual roles for over a quarter-century?

I pose that question because there has always been some confusion over the “who, what, where, why” of these two organizations, their evolving names, and that Doelle guy associated with “all of the above.”

The short answer is that these two companies began as one. When they split, the for-profit took on the lead role and the nonprofit performed special functions. Over time, both institutions grew (and I aged a few years). Those are the key reasons why I am shifting my work life toward Archaeology Southwest while remaining engaged with Desert Archaeology, Inc., during its transition to a second generation.

Bill Doelle and Linda Mayro shortly after opening the Arizona division of the Institute for American Research

Bill Doelle, Linda Mayro, and their daughter Sarah at the Valencia site in 1983. Linda Mayro served as Projects Manager for the Arizona Division of the Institute for American Research until 1988, when she became the Archaeologist for Pima County.

Let’s roll back to 1982 for context. That’s when I arrived in Tucson to open the Arizona Division of the California-based nonprofit called the Institute for American Research (IAR). Established in 1968, IAR was a very early contract-funded organization, and its founders chose a nonprofit business framework. By 1982, private firms were increasingly common in contract-funded cultural resources management (CRM) archaeology. Most were for-profit businesses, but until a 1983 change in Arizona law, a nonprofit firm had an easier time obtaining an Arizona antiquities permit, which was (and still is) required for many projects. Fortunately, we found initial success, completing major contract-funded projects in Tucson and multiple grant-funded surveys.

1983 fieldwork at the Valencia site in Tucson

Fieldwork in 1983 in a roadbed that damaged the Valencia site, a Hohokam ballcourt village, was the first local project by the Arizona Division of the Institute for American Research. A site map and a National Register nomination were tasks done on a volunteer basis. The site was listed on the National Register in 1985, and 25 years later, Pima County purchased 67 acres of the Valencia site to permanently protect it.


By 1989, the focus of the Arizona Division of IAR and that of our parent organization in California had diverged. Following a bit of turmoil, several rounds of negotiations, and the incorporation of two new firms—one for-profit and one nonprofit—the for-profit Desert Archaeology, Inc. purchased the assets of IAR’s Arizona Division. Desert Archaeology took on the implementation of existing contracts and continued to grow by bringing in new CRM projects, building a reputation of conducting innovative and well-respected research in tandem with compliance-related work.

Desert Archaeology excavated and contributed to the preservation plan for the Julian Wash site in Tucson

The Julian Wash site is a large, pre-Classic Hohokam village located directly west (and beneath) the modern I-10/I-19 interchange. Desert Archaeology excavated the portion of the site that was affected when ADOT rebuilt the interchange in the mid-1990s. We pushed to maximize preservation within the right-of-way, providing ADOT a considerable cost savings, and worked with ADOT and the City of Tucson to procure the Transportation Enhancement Grant that resulted in the preservation of 17 acres of the site, an interpretive trail, and a multimodal path connecting to an earlier interpretive trail along Julian Wash itself.


The nonprofit Center for Desert Archaeology took on both grant and volunteer projects, and published an Anthropological Papers series—based on its own research as well as Desert Archaeology’s major CRM excavation projects—which continues to be published under the Archaeology Southwest imprint. Today, the series numbers over 50 volumes. The Center also published the quarterly Archaeology in Tucson Newsletter, which provided an effective way to share the results of contract-funded work with the public.

The Center for Desert Archaeology hired its first employee in 1995. Truly transformative for the Center was the 1997 donation of $1.8 million that established a sustainable base for the nonprofit. In 1999, the name of the quarterly publication was changed to Archaeology Southwest Magazine, reflecting the broader regional focus of the growing nonprofit. In 2000, the Center for Desert Archaeology moved into its own rented office space, and ten years later it moved again, into a space in downtown Tucson that it co-owns. In 2012, the Center for Desert Archaeology underwent yet another transition, changing its corporate name to Archaeology Southwest. Today it has a dozen permanent employees.

As I looked back at the history of these two organizations, I re-read volume 1, number 1 of the Archaeology in Tucson Newsletter, the ancestor of today’s Archaeology Southwest Magazine. The lead paragraph of that initial newsletter stated the goals of the new membership program: active research, public involvement, a focus on the value of archaeology to the local community, and preservation of archaeological sites. Those are the core elements of Preservation Archaeology, which is the approach that Archaeology Southwest both practices and promotes today. They were present back in the ancestor organization that brought forth Desert Archaeology and Archaeology Southwest.

I feel pride and satisfaction in a career devoted to building two distinct, but complementary, institutions. Despite differences in funding and focus, these two organizations have supported each other in creative ways due to their shared values. Both organizations are motivated by the core belief that the archaeology and deep history of a community contribute directly to the sense of place that is felt by its residents.

I am confident that Desert Archaeology will continue to honor these long-held values, guided by the energy and inspiring leadership of Sarah Herr. Now, I turn my still-burning passion for Preservation Archaeology toward ensuring that Archaeology Southwest will also continue beyond my tenure at its helm.

Gallery: Institute for American Research excavations at the Tanque Verde Wash site

The Tanque Verde Wash project, in the eastern Tucson Basin, was an early IAR project that attracted great attention through educational and general public outreach, with daily tours and positive media coverage. Desert Archaeology continues to offer tours of our worksites when conditions permit. Of course, the internet makes sharing what we learn with the public quite a bit easier these days, so be sure to visit us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay current with what we’re up to.

Tanque Verde Wash site overview

Aerial photograph of the Tanque Verde Wash site. In late 1984 and early 1985, excavations at the Tanque Verde Wash site were directed by Mark Elson. New insights into Hohokam household organization, ceramic typology and chronology, and the settlement patterns of the eastern Tucson Basin were research outcomes. The project featured an extensive public outreach program. School tours reached over 2,500 students, public tours brought another 2,000 persons to visit, and there was strong media coverage.


Desert Archaeology public tour at the Tanque Verde Wash site

Tucsonans were quite enthusiastic about visiting the site to learn about the prehistory of their community. Craig Montgomery conducts a tour at Tanque Verde Wash in 1984. Three days each week were devoted to school group tours, with the general public invited on the other two days.


Emil Haury at Tanque Verde Wash

The excavations drew intense academic interest as well. Here, legendary University of Arizona archaeologist Emil Haury examines a Hohokam bowl at the site in 1984.


Public outreach at the Tanque Verde Wash site

In 2006, Desert Archaeology returned to the northwestern portion of the Tanque Verde Wash site. Public outreach was again part of the fieldwork. Here, a television crew interviews an archaeologist who is excavating a Hohokam pithouse, while Project Director Mark Elson (far right) leads a public tour through the excavation.