The Hohokam built a variety of non-domestic architectural monuments and structures that required the combined labor of a multitude of people. This type of architecture is called monumental or public architecture and was created for specialized use. Hohokam monumental architecture appears to have been very important in Hohokam society and included ballcourts, platform mounds, and big houses. It was not only the structures themselves that were important to the Hohokam, but the activities associated with them and the broader ideological meaning of those activities.
One of the more interesting features of Hohokam culture is the ballcourt. More than 200 ballcourts have been recorded in the Hohokam cultural region, although only a few have been excavated. In the Salt River Valley, more than 30 ballcourts from more than 20 villages have been identified. These ballcourts were built and used for nearly 500 years, from about A.D. 750 to 1200.
Hohokam ballcourts are oval, bowl-shaped depressions that vary in size but average 80 to 115 feet (24.5 to 35 m) in length and 50 feet (15 m) in width. Berms of earth, up to 9 feet (3 m) high, encircled the depression and were constructed using the excavated dirt. During a Hohokam ball game, dozens and perhaps hundreds of people could watch from the embankments surrounding the ballcourt. The largest Hohokam ballcourt, excavated in the mid-1930s at Snaketown, 20 miles (32 km) south of Pueblo Grande, was large enough for 500 people to line its banks.
The playing surface of the ballcourts was smoothed and plastered with caliche, producing a symmetrical, concave floor surface that sloped slightly up toward the edges and then rose steeply onto the embankments. At each end of the ballcourt, constricted openings were constructed which may have been goals into which players attempted to place rubber or stone balls. In the northwestern ballcourt at Pueblo Grande, stone markers were embedded in the floor in front of these possible goals, as well as in the middle of the court, possibly denoting zones of play.
Ballcourts apparently were not restricted space, but appear to have been open to the general public. They may have served to promote market activities or ceremonial exchange systems, both within the Hohokam culture and between the Hohokam and other groups. The exact nature of the games played in these courts, however, is unknown. Some archaeologists argue that they may have been similar to games played in Mesoamerica, and ballcourts found in Hohokam sites suggest a significant connection with cultures from Mexico and further south. For Mesoamerican peoples, ballcourts were symbolic of the passageway between the upper and lower spiritual worlds. Humans could communicate with the gods through playing the ball game, which was analogous to a mythical drama, ex-pounding world creation myths and beliefs.
Ballcourts in Mesoamerica, however, are physically different from Hohokam ballcourts. Courts in Mesoamerica have flat playing surfaces, are made of stone, and have walls at right angles to the floor. In addition, some Mesoamerican ballcourts contain stone rings in the sides of their walls. It was through these rings that players attempted to place rubber balls. No evidence of similar rings has been found in Hohokam ballcourts.
Unfortunately no ethnographic accounts exist of the Hohokam playing a ball game in ballcourts since they were no longer in use when Spanish explorers arrived in Arizona in the mid-1500s. However, Hohokam ceramic figurines of individuals wearing pads on their arms and hips, similar to Mesoamerican ball players, have been found, as have petroglyphs of possible Hohokam ballplayers. In addition, stone and rubber-like balls that may have been used in ball games have been discovered at some Hohokam sites.
At Pueblo Grande, two and possibly three ballcourts were constructed. Few Hohokam sites have more than two recorded ballcourts (the village of Villa Buena had five). One of the ballcourts at Pueblo Grande, located about 650 feet (198 m) northwest of the platform mound, was excavated in the 1950s. This relatively small ballcourt measures 82 feet (25 m) long and 38 feet (11.5 m) wide and is oriented north-south. It was constructed ca. A.D. 950, late when compared with the construction of many other Hohokam ballcourts. The court was large enough to accommodate only two to four players on the floor at any one time.
A stone ball was excavated from the fill of this court, although it is not known if this ball was one that was actually used in play at the ballcourt, or if it was deposited there after the court was abandoned. This is the only stone ball thus far excavated from a Hohokam ballcourt, although similar stone balls have been recovered from other cultural features (ie., trash mounds) at Pueblo Grande and other Hohokam sites. Accounts of Mesoamerican ball games suggest the predominant use of rubber balls during play, and a prehistoric rubber-like ball has been found at a Hohokam site in southern Arizona. This rubber-like ball was made from the resin of the native Sonoran Desert guayule plant.
Sometime after A.D. 1200, the Hohokam of Pueblo Grande discontinued their use of the northwest ballcourt and began using it as a trash deposit. The reason for its abandonment is unknown, but it coincides with a general abandonment of ballcourts throughout the Hohokam cultural region, which may represent a change in Hohokam ideology. It was during this time, the start of the Classic period, that major changes occurred within the Hohokam culture.
During the Classic period (A.D. 1150-1450), platform mounds dominated major Hohokam villages, including Pueblo Grande. In the Salt River Valley alone over 50 platform mounds at more than 30 villages have been identified by archaeologists. Today only a few of those mounds remain. Thanks to a few early preservation-minded individuals, the Pueblo Grande platform mound is one of those that was preserved. (Image at right is an 1883 watercolor by Adolf Bandelier, the first archaeologist to study the mound. It is linked to a larger version.)
Hohokam platform mounds appear to have begun as low, circular mounds during the 800s, but by the 12th century they had evolved into large rectangular mounds. Classic period platform mounds were constructed and later expanded by building adobe- and masonry-walled cells. These cells were filled with trash and soil and then capped with a layer of caliche plaster made from a natural calcium carbonate material found in desert soils. During remodeling and expansion, structures built on top of the caliche-capped cells were destroyed and the architectural remains were used as fill for the new construction.
Platform mounds were surrounded by a high compound wall, which restricted access to the mound. Structures for residential or ceremonial use were built on top of the platform mound and inside the compound wall. Some archaeologists have suggested that the elite of Hohokam society lived on top of the platform mounds, while others argue that the mounds served as ceremonial temples where important rituals were performed to insure sufficient rainfall and agricultural success.
Researchers have hypothesized that Hohokam platform mounds were tied to the organization and operation of the canal systems. The largest platform mounds occurred at the heads of major canal systems, such as at Pueblo Grande. Being in control of a vital desert resource such as water most likely enhanced the socio-political and ceremonial importance of the platform mound. The regular spacing of platform mound villages, approximately every three miles (5 km) along the irrigation canals, suggests that the leaders of these villages were involved in organizing the construction and maintenance of canals.
The Pueblo Grande platform mound was initially constructed as two separate north and south mounds around 800 years ago. On the south mound, two pithouses were constructed, each facing away from the other. These pithouses may represent two different kin or other social groups. Over time, the north and south mounds grew together and eventually became one large mound. Periodically, it was expanded and modified until it reached its present configuration and size.
The platform mound at Pueblo Grande is one of the largest the Hohokam ever constructed. Like the northwest ballcourt, it is oriented in a general north-south direction and measures 160 by 294 feet (49 by 90 m), approximately the size of a modern-day football field. At its greatest height, the mound stood 25 to 30 feet (7.5 to 9 m). Surrounding the entire mound, a 6 to 7 feet high (2 m) and 3 feet wide (1 m) compound wall restricted access to all but a selected group of individuals.
When Adolph Bandelier of the Archaeological Institute of America visited the site of Pueblo Grande in 1883, he painted a watercolor map depicting the platform mound with several mounds on top of it that were once rooms or structures. Archaeological evidence confirms that numerous rooms had been periodically built and destroyed on top of the mound. In the 1930s, the south half of the platform mound was systematically excavated by Civilian Conservation Corps crews under the direction of Julian Hayden, revealing a maze of rooms, courtyards and other interesting architectural features. On the unexcavated north half of the platform mound one still can see the same mounds Bandelier painted over a century ago.
During excavation on top of the platform mound, an astronomically oriented room was uncovered on the southeast corner of the mound. This room contains an unusual corner doorway located in the northeast corner of the room. In addition to this corner doorway, a center doorway was built in the south wall of the room.
In this room a very interesting event occurs on the summer solstice. At sunrise on the summer solstice a beam of light passes through the corner doorway and out the south doorway. This marks the longest day of the year. In contrast, the platform mound at Mesa Grande, a Hohokam village south of the Salt River, contains a room in which the winter solstice is marked. The Hohokam possibly used these seasonal markers to determine the planting time of crops and to establish ceremonial cycles for important rituals.
Inside the northwest quarter of the Pueblo Grande platform mound compound, a group of adobe structures were constructed adjacent to the base of the mound. One of these rooms was two stories high. This maze of rooms has few access points, (ie., doorways), suggesting that movement of people was limited among the rooms and unroofed court-yards. Artifacts recovered from this area include various minerals and pigments possibly used in ceremonial rituals, as well as tools used to make baskets and weave textiles.
The importance and prominence of the Pueblo Grande platform mound over other Hohokam platform mounds can be seen in a number of ways. It was one of two of the largest platform mounds in the Salt River Valley, (Mesa Grande being the other), and the largest platform mound along Canal System Two. Because of its location at the headwaters of the canal system, it controlled the water in the majority of the canals along the north side of the Salt River. From its top, priests or elite leaders could observe as many as ten main irrigation canals in operation. In the platform mound's construction, the Hohokam at Pueblo Grande used tons of locally quarried caliche, sandstone, and granite rocks to support the mound instead of relying exclusively on coursed-adobe, from which most other platform mounds were constructed.
A Hohokam big house was a large, multi-storied adobe tower-like structure built during the Classic period (A.D. 1150-1450). In 1887, Frank Hamilton Cushing, famous for his ethnographic work at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico and leader of the Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition, reported the existence of a big house at Pueblo Grande, although it was subsequently destroyed. Cushing's notes suggest the Pueblo Grande big house was somewhat similar to the four-story structure at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge, located on the south side of the Gila River.
A Hohokam big house was physically similar to a platform mound, and may have served similar purposes. Though they are multi-storied structures, the bottom story is a raised platform mound upon which the rest of the structure is built. Also, like platform mounds, these structures were enclosed by a compound wall.
The Hohokam built several big houses, but only the Casa Grande big house has survived to the present day. This structure is approximately 60 by 40 feet (18 by 12 m) wide and 35 feet (10.5 m) tall.
Cushing reported the big house at Pueblo Grande as being at least three and possibly four stories high. The bottom floor had been filled (a platform mound) and subsequent stories were built on top, each floored and roofed. Each floor contained multiple rooms and the walls were covered with a fine white plaster. Inside one of the rooms the walls contained etchings of a human, animals, and lightning that possibly had ceremonial significance. According to Cushing, the Pueblo Grande big house appeared to have gone through at least two remodeling phases during its use. Cushing noted that it had been abandoned by the Hohokam and left to decay for a considerable amount of time before it was again rebuilt, and then finally abandoned sometime in the 1400s.
Due to its poor preservation at the time of Cushing's excavation, and its subsequent destruction, it is not known if the big house at Pueblo Grande was used as an astronomical observatory, as was the Casa Grande big house. The big house at Casa Grande Ruins contains several circular holes in its walls aligned with certain astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes. Two holes in a third story room are aligned with the equinox and serve to mark the event with a ray of light. A hole in the west wall of a lower story room provides a view of the summer solstice sunset.
The existence of a big house at Pueblo Grande strengthens the argument that the site was very important to the Hohokam of the Salt River Valley. Only two other possible big houses have been reported in the Salt River Valley, at the sites of La Ciudad and Las Colinas, both platform mound villages located within the same canal system as Pueblo Grande. The location of the Pueblo Grande big house, about one-half mile (800 m) north of the platform mound, may indicate the existence of two distinct or separate political entities at Pueblo Grande during the latter part of the Classic period, or separate functions for these architectural structures.
The presence of numerous monumental or public structures in many Hohokam villages indicates that these desert farmers were so successful in their subsistence pursuits that they had time to build architecture beyond what was necessary for everyday living. Furthermore, this architecture probably symbolized important elements of their religion, although archaeologists are still unclear about the activities associated with these structures and which members of their society participated in the activities.