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What the hell am I doing here?

It must have been 120 degrees—hotter, actually, since heat was also blasting upward from the volcanic rock all around me in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix. It had been a record-setting week in the city, with the kind of unforgiving heat that softens the asphalt of parking lots and runway tarmacs, canceling flights. Normally I didn’t mind. I was eighteen and indestructible. This day, however, was different. The desert, an outdoor furnace covered with moonlike fragments of black rock, was without shade except for the thin relief offered by a handful of saguaro cactuses. Needing a break, my three companions and I quickly ran to the sparse stand of those stately monarchs, squeezing our bodies into their shadows. We didn’t have a choice; we were miles from our truck and had a job to do.

It was the early Eighties, and my second summer working on an archaeological survey run by Arizona State University. Its purpose was outwardly scientific: to discover and record archaeological sites to better understand the prehistoric people who had lived there. But in reality, our work was political. Phoenix’s economy, sustained by epic amounts of air conditioning, was beginning to boom. Homes, schools and businesses were springing up like weeds after a spring rain. Raised on the edge of the expanding city, I had a front-row seat as cement flowed endlessly in all directions. However, there was one limitation to Phoenix’s heedless addiction to growth: water. For civic leaders, the solution was obvious—new dams. Taller, wider and deeper than existing ones. Previously, engineers would have been hired and bulldozers dispatched to accomplish their vision of progress. By the Eighties, however, federal law required cultural and biological surveys to be conducted before the bulldozers leveled everything, which is where ASU came in. Its job was to inventory the past before it was lost forever to the rising waters of new dams, and also to help civic leaders choose the best site for the new dam. My job was to hike, make maps, collect artifacts and camp in the desert.

Over the course of surveying the basins of five potential dam sites, ASU’s crews discovered a variety of prehistoric ruins, large and small, but none as intriguing as a little field house we found on that broiling July day. At first glance, the structure was unimpressive. A square of shaped stones, it measured two meters by two meters and stood only one rock high—hardly discernible in the rocky moonscape. Standing there, I frowned at the little house. What was it doing here? Such structures were usually associated with agricultural fields, serving as stores for harvested crops, but where were the fields? The land was sand and rock. Prehistoric food included corn, beans and squash, and archaeologists called the technique used to raise them “dry farming,” which is a literal description. Farmers relied on rainwater to grow crops, and when the rains failed, as they often did in the arid Southwest, people suffered. Yet prehistoric farmers were opportunists. They grew food wherever they could, even in places considered marginal by desert standards. My crew discovered field houses in surprising places, including on steep slopes, but none as merciless as this moonscape. It spoke of human ingenuity, and desperation for sustenance.

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