Phoenix Falling?

Will Phoenix continue to boom … or bust entirely? The answer may lie in the ancient Hohokam city buried beneath.

  • Phoenix now and then

  • A Hohokam dwelling from Neolithic times, now preserved in the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument outside Phoenix

  • Phoenix today

  • A map shows how modern canals follow the contours of ancient ones

  • Archaeologist Emil Haury stands in an excavated Hohokam canal at the Snaketown site near Phoenix, circa 1964

  • An archaeologist unearths the remains of an ancient Hohokam structure that was discovered when the old Phoenix Civic Plaza was demolished

  • Charlie Ester, a hydrologist with the Salt River Project, on one of the canals that carries Phoenix’s lifeblood

  • Cory Breternitz, president of Soil Systems Inc., on a dig near Phoenix

  • Archaeologist Tom Wright looks at Hohokam drawings on rocks above what’s now Tempe, Arizona


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I came out to the edge of the sprawl, the west end of Phoenix, to watch history repeating itself. New subdivisions are pressing through the towns of Goodyear and Avondale. Their brown-roofed homes will cost from $200,000 to $1 million or so. Field by field, archaeologists are working the front line of this advance. I caught up with them at 107th Street, on their way to 108th.

In a dusty lot, I shook the firm hands of four dirt workers. Their leader was Cory Breternitz, president of Soil Systems Incorporated, one of the leading archaeological firms in the city.

We wandered about this eleventh-hour site, looking into holes and trenches, stepping over stone tools and shattered ceramic vessels not yet collected. We stopped at a collection of blackened ovals scooped from the ground behind what had been a cluster of dwellings. Breternitz told me these ashen pits once served as crematoriums.

“This was a cotton field in historic times,” Breternitz said, explaining layers of occupation since the Hohokam. “You can actually see plow scars cutting through Hohokam features. And then it was an operating dairy with 1,500 cows up until a year ago. People living on a rural family homestead never saw this coming. They thought they would be here forever.” He peered east, beyond the dig, where huge American flags loomed over marching rows of new houses.

“The brown roofs are coming,” Breternitz said.

As we stood around the cremation pits, I asked these four archaeologists what will happen to Phoenix. As if playing a parlor game, they bantered about the different ways civilization could fall. One spoke of a hypothetical economic downturn, a depression enfeebling the vulnerable infrastructure of Phoenix.

Another archaeologist mentioned that Phoenix has always been a transient city, that many people live here for only three or four years before moving on. Populations may simply diminish if this becomes an unattractive place to live, sapping the city of vitality.

Human viruses and hormones are being unintentionally pumped back into the city’s groundwater, steadily poisoning deep, ancient aquifers. Global warming promises deeper droughts, which could short Phoenix on the water that makes it so appealing to begin with. You name it, these men had answers. With every excavation, they had been honing their imaginations, fitting us into the doomed shoes of the Hohokam.

“And who will live here after the fall?” I asked.

A man in a worn work shirt said, “Cockroaches,” and then he laughed, but in a nervous way.


In the frail light of dusk, I walked up the stump of a butte in the middle of Tempe. An archaeologist showed me the way to the top, the city rumbling below. We were beneath the final approach to Sky Harbor International Airport, passenger jets coming in low, streetlights reflected in their silver underbellies.

The archaeologist was Tom Wright, a middle-aged man who has lived in Phoenix for 50 years. He is an old-fashioned digger, working for a small company, keeping his excavation tools ready in a bucket. He took me from one fractured rock face to another, pointing out bits of rock art that had not been gouged by graffiti or blown clean off the butte by dynamite. There were spirals, circles, and some rudimentary animal figures, typical Hohokam work.

Soon it was too dark to see any more petroglyphs. Wright and I found a place to sit beside each other on a bouldery summit, looking down on the oval roofs of modern sports arenas belonging to Arizona State University. The city was just beginning to blossom into horizons of electric light.

Wright told me that he has been fascinated with growth here. He first lived in Tempe when it was a lone town, 24,000 people at the outskirts of Phoenix. Now it is approaching a quarter million, and it is folded deep inside the greater metropolis.

“Is it going to last?” I asked him, the question I must ask of every archaeologist.

“How long, is the question,” Wright replied.

“The Hohokam were a hydraulic society, and so are we,” he explained. “We depend on the presence of water, the storage of water, the transport of water, and as long as the water is there and can serve our needs, we’re fine. But if the water is not falling on the watershed, or if our needs start to outstrip what is available, that’s a problem.”

It does not take an archaeologist to make such a deduction. However, it does take an archaeologist to see what that deduction might mean in the deep time of this city.

“With the Hohokam, you can see the change,” he said. “They went from a large number of small villages to a small number of large villages. You have growing social complexity, but you also have greater and greater dependence on resources that are existing in smaller and smaller areas. They lost their diversity of resources. They lost flexibility.”

“How long do we have?” I pressed.

Wright laughed, but did not answer my question. He could not. There is not yet an answer, just speculation.

“When it does finally happen, whenever that is, what do you think the end will look like?” I asked.

Peering across dazzling fields of light, Wright said, “Like this.”

I looked out to what he was seeing, freeways streaming like arteries, and it looked like the city was on fire, the great bird of Phoenix burning once again. I thought he must be right. At a certain point, the rise must be indistinguishable from the fall, cycles of death and rebirth too tightly interwoven to pick apart.

It was the same so many centuries ago, one arc skyrocketing while the other plummeted; populations mounting while water dwindled. Some archaeologists look at the 14th century, right before the ancient city was deserted, as a time of Hohokam fragmentation and decay. Others look at the same data and see rejuvenation, the building of corporate centers more impressive than anything the Hohokam ever made before.

We now appear to be at a similar juncture. The balancing act may continue for centuries, or the city may topple tomorrow. Archaeologists are not foolish enough to give an exact date, but they are lifting warning flags. They are looking to the future and into the past, and they see the story of Phoenix repeating itself.


Craig Childs is author of several books including The Secret Knowledge of Water, The Desert Cries, and, most recently, House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest.