Public is invited to view pit house burn at the Steam Pump Ranch - Tucson News Now

Public is invited to view pit house burn at the Steam Pump Ranch

Steam Pump Ranch House (Source: Oro Valley Historical Society) Steam Pump Ranch House (Source: Oro Valley Historical Society)
ORO VALLEY, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Oro Valley Parks and Recreation, Oro Valley Historical Association, and Archaeology Southwest are inviting the public to Steam Pump Ranch on Sunday, April 30, for the controlled burning of a scale-model replica of an Early Agricultural period pit dwelling (circa 2000 B.C. to A.D. 50). 

The burn, which will be attended and monitored by the Golder Ranch Fire District, begins at 10 a.m. Visitors are encouraged to arrive at 9:30 a.m. in order to see the replica pithouse. Steam Pump Ranch is located at 10901 N. Oracle Road. 

Representatives from Archaeology Southwest and other sponsoring organizations will be on site to answer questions about the project and the archaeology behind it, as well as about the adjacent Heritage Garden and other programs at the Ranch.

“In terms of construction materials and methods, this pithouse is based on one that was excavated in the 1990s, at the site of Los Pozos, an ancient village near today’s Prince Road and I-10,” said Allen Denoyer, project leader for Archaeology Southwest in a recent release. “Families would have used this kind of brush-and-mud structure for shelter and storage, but they would have spent most of their days outdoors. We have archaeological evidence that villagers deliberately burned these dwellings from time to time. My volunteers and I built this half-size model with the intention of burning it, burying it, leaving it to time and the elements, and later excavating it, to compare observations with excavated examples.”

The pithouse replica is based on dates to the later centuries of the Early Agricultural period, about 2,000 years ago. At that time, people were settling in groups along the major rivers and streams in the Tucson Basin, and farming corn with sophisticated field-irrigation systems. They continued to hunt and gather plants.

“We see this building and burning project as a sort of test for possible controlled experiments in the future,” said Archaeology Southwest’s Douglas Gann, who is producing photorealistic digital models of the pithouse during construction, and before and after the burn. The digital models will be used for public education and interpretation. 

Denoyer added, “I’m going to take temperature readings in different parts of the fire and at different stages of the fire, but we’ll mainly be making a lot of qualitative observations this time around—will it burn easily? Do we need to add brush to make it burn? How long will it take? How much and what parts of the structure will burn? What will happen to the ground and flaked stone tools, basketry, and other objects we place on the floor of the house before we burn it? And how does what we will eventually excavate compare to what we’ve documented archaeologically?”

Denoyer and Gann have some hypotheses they expect will be addressed by the burn—for example, that the mud-capped roof will collapse and extinguish the fire well before the entire structure is consumed, and that the main supports will survive to be put to another use.

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