Science / Medicine : Time Vaults : Archeology: Newly discovered Indian catacombs in Arizona will give scientists their first detailed look at life in the prehistoric Southwest.


John Hohmann was just looking for a garbage pit.

As the young archeologist slowly rappelled down into a basalt fissure here on a muggy day last July, he expected to find broken pottery, animal bones and perhaps a few corncobs--detritus from the 600-year-old Mogollon Indian village, now known as Casa Malpais, on the terrace above it.

What he found instead surprised him and shocked the southwestern archeological community. The fissure opened into an intricate series of passages and rooms that had been modified by the Mogollon into underground tombs for the interment of their dead.

Hohmann had stumbled across a catacomb, an underground burial site composed of chambers and vaults. “We don’t expect to see such things in this region,” said archeologist James Schoenwetter of Arizona State University in Tucson. “To my knowledge, this is the only site north of Mexico that has catacombs.”


The discovery is significant because information about how primitive cultures regard their dead sheds light on the groups’ religious, social and cultural lives. In the case of the Mogollon and other prehistoric peoples of the Southwest, such information is virtually nonexistent, Hohmann said.

The fact that the Mogollon (pronounced MUG-gy-own) took such pains to bury their dead suggests a complex culture with a rich spiritual life, he added.

Although Hohmann calls the burial area a catacomb, and dictionary definitions support his terminology, some researchers are less comfortable with the title. “What it conjures up in my mind is something on the order of the Christian tombs under Rome,” said archeologist Bruce Donaldson of the U.S. Forestry Service in Springerville. The Christian catacombs required extensive excavations and feature masonry burial vaults, carved niches and elaborate stonework.

The Mogollon burial ground is nowhere near as complex, Donaldson argued, and calling it a catacomb will evoke a strongly distorted image.

To a certain extent, Hohmann agrees. The Mogollon made only minor modifications inside the catacombs--far less than the early Christians did. But the Mogollon invested a great deal of effort in constructing vaulted ceilings over many of the fissures and building entryways that restrict access.

“That’s always been our focus,” Hohmann said, “the amount of architectural work and energy that went into creating the man-made components over this fissure system, and not what was inside the chambers. Just how these chambers were created was an amazing fact to us (along with) the impressive amount of stonework and society effort that went into that creation.”

The catacombs lie below a surface area of two to three acres. Some of the rooms are as much as 20 feet high and 30 feet long, while others are substantially smaller. Hohmann said that they contain hundreds of skeletons, but much of the contents have been removed by vandals and pot-hunters.

Hohmann has neither photographed nor mapped the catacombs, and they are not open to the public--or, for that matter, anyone else. He is doing his best to keep the locations of the entrances secret. “We need to remember Native American religious concerns,” he said. “We’re not going to disturb those remains or anything that is in them in any way, shape or form,” he emphasized.

The discovery of the catacombs has brought new attention to the little-explored Casa Malpais, which now appears to have been a major trading or religious center built at the height of the Mogollon civilization. It is the largest and most recently occupied village constructed by the Mogollon, hunters and farmers who mysteriously disappeared around AD 1400, perhaps as the result of a catastrophic drought.

The site, at an altitude of 7,000 feet in the White Mountains near the New Mexico border, also features one of the largest kivas--a religious structure--in the Southwest and three different types of American Indian architecture that are not normally found contemporaneously. “Casa Malpais might be unique in that all these elements are here in one place,” Donaldson said.

Although Hohmann’s excavations at Casa Malpais have so far barely scraped the surface, they are expected to provide new insight into the Mogollons’ cultural sophistication and daily life.

“This is one of the most significant archeological sites in the Southwest,” said archeologist Charles A. Hoffman of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “It’s going to make a major contribution to our knowledge about the Mogollon and this time period.”

The story of Casa Malpais--the “House of the Badlands”--actually began about 5 million years ago when lava from the White Mountain Volcanic Field formed a basaltic mesa overlooking the headwaters of the Little Colorado River. Eventually, large chunks at the edge of the mesa split off and settled into the mountain soil, forming a step-like series of five distinct terraces sheltered under the mesa, a seemingly ideal location for a major village.

The Mogollon inhabited Casa Malpais for perhaps 150 years before moving on, most likely after disease and starvation had sharply reduced their numbers during a severe drought that baked the Southwest for more than a century.

Although residents of the area have known about Casa Malpais for more than two centuries, it had received little study before Hohmann became involved last year. That was when the town of Springerville hired his employer, Lewis Berger & Associates Inc. of Phoenix, an international engineering and environmental company that has its own archeology division.

The town of 2,000 people had been devastated in July, 1990, when Stone Forest Industries closed its timber mill, eliminating 480 jobs. Springerville wanted to develop Casa Malpais into an attraction that could bring in $3 million to $5 million annually in tourist revenues.

“People are fascinated by the human condition and want to share and experience an understanding about how we have developed through time,” Hohmann said. “So tourism at these sites is actually a major form of recreation in the United States. It’s also a way of educating people about why cultural resources are important, how fragile they are and what happens if we lose one. They not only learn about the site, but also what we as archeologists do. . . . And at the same time we can protect and conserve the site.”

Hohmann and his colleagues, archeologists Diane White and Chistopher Adams, found much to conserve.

The most distinctive archeological features are found on the uppermost terrace, which was completely walled in to restrict access. The Great Kiva is about 50 feet square and 10 feet high, constructed of closely fitted rocks and stones. It had a special entryway, benches along each of its walls and a large fire pit in the center, and was used for religious ceremonies.

Nearby is a large pueblo, an apartment-like building with multiple floors and conjoined rooms. A brief 1950 study suggested that it contained at least 58 rooms, but weathering and vandalism have destroyed several. The pueblo presumably provided housing, with one family in each room.

Also on the terrace is a large compound, a walled courtyard with three or four rooms within the courtyard complex. And finally there are single rooms spaced around the terrace, which are made partially of stone, but also from poles, brush and adobe. The conjunction of all these styles is very unusual, Hohmann said.

“The configurations of those units are so different, the way people are living together or not living together, and the way they’re defining space and employing that space,” he said. “A big, walled courtyard with a few rooms has a whole different spatial feel and utilization to it than a multistory apartment-like complex where they are living on top of one another. To see both being utilized at the same site and in the same time period makes you wonder who’s living in what building, what are they doing and why are they building them differently. That’s one of the things we hope to find out.”

A lower terrace also contains unusual structures, including a circular area commonly called a “dance plaza.” The plaza is enclosed by a three-foot-high wall that has five openings, one at each of the major compass points and one in the northwest. Such dance plazas have been found at other locations, and “they are usually a nice level surface where people come for different ceremonies or dances or celebrations or maybe even for just marketing,” Hohmann said.

But, he added, “We have actually no idea what it is.”

Also on this terrace are many single rooms with unusual shapes--round, oval, pentagonal and triangular. “We’ve seen circular and oval rooms before, that’s not unusual,” Hohmann said. “But to see them in conjunction with oddly shaped triangles and parallelograms and just about any little odd geometric formation that you can think of is very unusual.”

Hohmann and his colleagues hope to learn much more about the functions of all these buildings as they continue their excavations. That prospect seems highly likely, he added, because of the unusually good preservation of the structures and contents.

Other unusual aspects of the site include a series of prehistoric trails that seem designed to control the motions of visitors through the village and man-made stairways that connect the upper terrace with the mesa above it. The entire 15-acre site is also enclosed by a wall that limited access. These constructions reinforce the idea that Casa Malpais was a major trading or religious center that received many visitors.

Hohmann is concerned that the emphasis on the catacombs will detract from the more important aspects of Casa Malpais. “The site is so rich and so visually expressive that it’s almost sad that that’s something everyone has focused on,” he said. “The real magic of the site is in all of this other stuff.”