The average person driving through the Indian Ridge Estates neighborhood on the east side of Tucson probably doesn't give much thought to the people who lived there thousands of years before.
But on a plot of land just beyond the roofs of the neighborhood's modern homes, that's exactly what's on the minds of students and researchers from the University of Arizona.
Wielding buckets, shovels and brushes, they work meticulously, unearthing ancient architecture, pottery shirds, animal bones and other artifacts at the University Indian Ruins, a 13-acre Hohokam village site.
Donated to the UA in the 1930s by the family of a UA archaeology student whose ranch included the 13-acre plot, the property is one of the last remaining Hohokam Classic Period platform mound sites in the Tucson basin. Researchers estimate the village was inhabited by the Hohokam people between A.D. 1200 and A.D. 1450 or later.
Normally closed to the public, the ruins opened for community tours on March 2 in celebration of Arizona Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month. Additional free tours will be held on March 16 at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
The ruins have gone through several evolutions since first acquired by the UA. Throughout much of the 1930s, Byron Cummings, then-head of the University's archaeology department, led field schools at the site, attracting a number of high-profile archaeologists. The property then was developed into a public park with a small museum. However, it was only open briefly; lack of funding forced it to close during World War II.
In the ensuing years, a neighborhood grew up around the ruins, and while the University continued to maintain the site as an archaeological preserve, there was not a lot of activity there – until recently.
In 2005, the UA School of Anthropology received an $8 million gift from A. Richard Diebold, Jr. and his Salus Mundi Foundation, a portion of which was used to stabilize and renovate the University Indian Ruins and its facilities, including an archaeology laboratory and two residential buildings.
Upon completion of the renovations in 2010, UA husband-and-wife archaeologists Paul and Suzanne Fish held their first archaeology field school there. The six-credit program is now offered to undergraduate and graduate students every spring.
Students in the field school spend eight hours a day, two days a week working hands-on in the field, practicing a variety of mapping, excavation and record-keeping techniques. They also hear regularly from speakers in the archeology community.
"It's really different coming out here and digging up walls than sitting in an archaeology class," said field school student Julie Fagg, a UA senior majoring in anthropology. "Rather than instructors just telling us about things, we can find them ourselves."
And there's nothing quite like the feeling you get when you unearth something thousands of years old, says freshman anthropology major Tessa Branyan, the field school's youngest member.
"It's awesome. I love coming out here every week. You learn so much and you get to find cool stuff," she said.
Since the field schools started in 2010, more than 150,000 pieces of pottery have been uncovered, among other artifacts.
Students clean and process what they find in an on-site laboratory then bring the artifacts back to the main UA campus for storage at theArizona State Museum, the state's official archaeological repository.
"It's very hands-on, very intensive training," said Suzanne Fish, curator of archaeology at the Arizona State Museum.
Besides being a place for students to get real experience working in the field, the ruins also are an important resource for researchers to learn more about some of the Southwest's earliest inhabitants.
"We've made major discoveries and increases in knowledge as a result of doing this," said Paul Fish, also a curator of archaeology at the Arizona State Museum.
For example, discoveries of buffalo bones, shell jewelry and certain ceramic and obsidian artifacts at the site provide insights into trade networks during that time.
The University Indian Ruins, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, represent only the "downtown" portion of a larger Hohokam settlement, which was probably close to a square-mile in size, the Fishes say. Today, neighbors in the surrounding Indian Ridge Estates neighborhood frequently bring in artifacts found in their yards.
In addition to an archaeology lab, the ruin site also includes an abode residence for visiting faculty in the School of Anthropology and a guest house, currently inhabited by an anthropology graduate student who serves as the site's unofficial caretaker.
This month's public tours of University Indian Ruins were organized by anthropology graduate student Lauren Kingston as part of her internship with Desert Archaeology, with funding support from the Arizona Humanities Council.
While tours of the ruins have been offered to the surrounding neighborhood and members of the archaeology community in the past, this is the first time in years that the general public has been invited to visit.
"So many Tucsonans don't know this is here," Kingston said. "For people who live in Tucson, it's important to see the history of their home, and it has a long history of occupation."