Desert Archaeology Technical Report 2014-07

Broad Perspectives from a Narrow Window: The La Villa Site

The La Villa site was one of the largest pre-Classic Hohokam settlements in the Phoenix Basin, covering more than 80 acres between its founding (A.D. 500-650) and abandonment (A.D. 1000-1100). The people who lived here supported themselves through farming, and the site itself was situated within a major network of irrigation canals (known as Canal System 2) that carried water from the Salt River to the villagers’ agricultural fields. Families built pithouses in courtyard groups, with those groupings surrounding a central plaza.

This work was completed for the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County Flood Control District, in preparation for storm drain construction under several streets in downtown Phoenix. This location presented the challenge of excavating only the confined areas directly under the paved streets. Instead of being able to clear a broad expanse of the site, our investigations were limited to a few very long but very narrow exposures, and these strips of land contained a jumble of overlapping pithouses and pits representing hundreds of years of changing village life.

Aerial view of La Villa in downtown Phoenix.

An aerial view of La Villa excavations under Jackson Street in downtown Phoenix.

Fortunately, our crew, headed by project director Mike Lindeman, has considerable experience excavating and interpreting complex Hohokam sites in dense urban settings. Despite the narrow gridwork nature of the La Villa data, Lindeman was able to apply models based on previous Desert Archaeology work on Hohokam villages in order to discern groups of houses and pits that were built at different times. This allowed him to identify a central plaza that was established early in the village’s history, an inner settlement ring inhabited by long-term social groups, and an outer settlement ring with less multi-generational continuity. The plaza is the first to have been investigated within Canal System 2.

Map of pithouses and pits at La Villa.

Map showing overlapping pithouses and pits within the Inner Settlement Ring at La Villa, beneath Jackson Street.


Settled village life meant that the residents created a wide range of artifacts, ranging from everyday household goods to specialized tools to ritual items. One of the most impressive finds at the site is also one of the most prosaic: two broken ceramic pots filled with squash seeds and corn, smashed when the house they were in caught fire, burned catastrophically, and collapsed. The pile of building materials that fell on the pots destroyed them, but also snuffed out the fire before the pots’ contents were reduced to ash. In the photo below, the carbonized, preserved seeds are visible in the opening of the pot; note the burned building materials and two deer bones lying nearby to the right.

Burned squash seeds in a smashed pot on a pithouse floor, La Villa

Burned squash seeds in a smashed pot in a Snaketown-early Gila Butte phase (A.D. 700-800) pithouse at La Villa.

The La Villa project is a prime example of how we are able to maximize the knowledge obtainable from excavations within a limited area of construction impact. In this case, overlying the new information collected from the site on the cumulative dataset from  previous investigations led to enhanced understandings of the dynamics of pre-Classic Hohokam village structure in the Phoenix Basin.


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