Our Views: Many gray areas in protecting archeological sites

November 17, 2018

Arizona State Parks are remarkable places, offering recreation and natural experiences and also educational activities, including historic preservation.

The latter deserves more attention.

The controversies surrounding its now former state parks director Sue Black, include allegations she ignored warnings that Lake Havasu State Park development would destroy Native American archeological sites.

It’s a serious charge, and no doubt carried significant weight in Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision on Friday to fire her. Yet it’s so linked to other allegations concerning her management of the agency that it’s difficult to separate substance from politics.

The state park area isn’t listed on either the national or Arizona registry of historic places, though an archeologist says it was eligible. An untrained eye might have trouble discerning that the sites do indeed contain antiquities; the difference between a thousand-year-old quarry and a few rocks thrown about can be pretty slight.

The state Historic Preservation Office is charged with cataloging sites of significant historic and archeological properties.

Since the state was a crossroads for cultures and civilizations for centuries before it was settled by Europeans, there may be hundreds of thousands of such unrecorded sites or antiquities in Arizona.

Some are very apparent, such as petroglyphs or the remains of structures. A lot isn’t.

A lot more of it would be interesting if properly studied and its history interpreted for the public.

Yet doing so for every site that was used by early civilizations verges on impossible. The scope is too large.

The state-contracted archeologist looking into the Havasu issue says the disturbed site may contain evidence of one or more buildings. It’s not a sure thing, though, and the visible remains surely aren’t obvious.

Still, if that’s the case, it’s important the area be preserved and studied. It would become a fascinating attraction and a great educational insight into the pre-history of this area.

It’s a large “if.” There are many, many gray areas in the field of cultural anthropology so don’t expect this issue to be settled by turning a few shovels of dirt. It can take decades to examine and interpret an archeological site, assuming resources are made available to do so. New development, in this case new visitor cabins at the state park, can be valuable, too. It shouldn’t have to be halted for a lengthy study of every park site.

Agencies have access to a state-managed inventory of cultural resources. Though not available to the public, we can’t imagine it interprets the significance of each site.

The Historic Preservation Office and a governor’s committee focused on preservation plans would do well to identify not just a top list of significant sites but also those of less-obvious significance.

Otherwise, a lot of development rests with a judgement call on whether those four rocks piled together are there naturally or are the centuries-old remains of a building.

— Today’s News-Herald

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