Military ranges keep Ariz. artifacts untouched

By John Faherty
Phoenix, Arizona (AP) 12-09

There are places here where the desert floor is so speckled with artifacts, it is difficult to find a step that will not fracture history.

In a place called Lago Seco, pieces of pottery, many more than 800 years old, glisten in the morning sun. Stone tools and arrowheads are covered with only a thin layer of sand.

Then in the howling silence, a massive cloud of dirt and sand rises from the ground. Moments later, a concussive blast rolls out of Manned Range 4.

The bomb was dropped from a jet neither seen nor heard.

War games and live fire are expected on this military bombing range.

But there are also delicate reminders – cultural traces – of a people who lived here beginning around 10,000 B.C.

This desert, both severe and beautiful, is home to some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the Southwest.

They remain because the military – with an arsenal of overwhelming force – practices its craft with an eye on preserving history on the nearly 3,000 square miles of desert.

Archaeologists tell pilots where the bombs can land, and the pilots listen.

The Air Force controls access to visitors, which eliminates factors that have destroyed so many other archaeological sites: bandits who steal, hikers who squash and off-roaders who crush.

“Snake-eye, this is R-M-O Rankin. Request permission to cross Range 4 to the entrance of North Tac.”

Adrianne Rankin put down the two-way radio and waited.

An archaeologist, she has worked for the Range Management Office on the Goldwater range since 1996. Her office is at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, but her work is in the desert.

Today, the barren desert along the Mexican border east of Yuma is mostly a place for passing through. For years, archaeologists thought it had been the same for ancient people, who moved back and forth from the Gulf of California to the north, trading seashells and salt for pottery and blossoms.

Now they see it differently.

Rankin was a member of a team that studied a village named Kuakatch in the nearby Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

“There is a sense of awe over how the people were living in harmony with their environment,” Rankin said. “There was a rhythm.”

As they moved, they left messages for one another that remain today. The elaborate petroglyphs, carved into impossibly hard granite, loom on rock walls, stories of a lost time.

Sometime around 1450, the people who roamed the desert flats left and never came back, leaving behind gatherings of pottery and artifacts like a family that has moved out of a house abruptly.

The Tohono O’odham tribe, descendants of the earlier residents, knew the archaeological treasures were there and left them alone. Outsiders rarely visited.

As centuries passed and the land baked in the sun, the world around it changed.

Then the troops arrived. They did not start out as conservators.

In 1941, the U.S. War Department and the Army Air Corps claimed the range. The weather was perfect for flying, and the Sonoran Desert was ideal for bombing and gunnery practice.

Landing strips were built and bombs were dropped with impunity in a rush to achieve military readiness.

No one knows now how many treasures may have been destroyed.

Today, the Air Force’s Range Management Office runs the bulk of the territory, with the western-most portion under the U.S. Marines.

Archaeologists like Rankin survey known sites like Lago Seco. They use predictive modeling techniques to figure where other sites like it may be. Those are off-limits to military operations.

Staff biologists track the Sonoran pronghorn, an endangered species that lives on the range. Before explosives are fired at a target, spotters check the area. If a pronghorn is seen within 3 miles of a target, the mission is stopped.

The office is run by Jim Uken, a former fighter pilot who was initially ambivalent about the job. “I spent most of my career in a cockpit,” he said. “I wondered what I was getting into.”

But Uken, 57, already knew how seriously the Air Force took these orders.

During the Gulf War, he flew an F-4 Phantom on what were called “wild weasel” missions to suppress anti-aircraft missiles.

“You would get your daily orders. They were your rules, your do’s and don’ts,” Uken said. “Some targets were just off-limits, even in a reactionary mode. There were culturally significant places you could not hit.”

At Goldwater Range, nearly 94 percent of the land is protected.

“We closed some targets when we decided the value of the archaeological site superseded the value of the target,” said Uken, a retired colonel now working as a civilian.

Another important factor for preservation is the fact that the military’s presence has prevented farming, mining and grazing.

One of Uken’s favorite parts of the preservation effort is when a representative of the Tohono O’odham Nation talks to pilots-in-training and their instructors.

“These are very patriotic people,” Uken said of the Tohono O’odhams. “Many of them have served. They understand the importance of military preparedness. They also know why the land matters.”

“The pilots, they listen and they ask a lot of questions about how it was and where these people came from. They want to know what makes it sacred,” said Joe Joaquin, a cultural affairs officer for the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Joaquin, 76, was born and raised on the reservation. He was 8 years old when the range was created and planes started flying over his home, in an area called Big Fields, near Sells.

He was still a teenager when he joined the Marines. He served 20 years, fighting in both Korea and Vietnam.

Now, every couple of months he goes to Luke Air Force base to talk to visiting pilots in a program called “Face to the Nation.”

He sometimes invites the instructors to go to the range with him.

“We get them to walk on the earth,” Joaquin said, sitting in an office near the tribal headquarters in the town of Sells. “They see it from so high and so fast, but down on the earth you see things.”