Some artifacts may have come from a time preceding the Hohokam culture

Archaeologists recently unearthed evidence of prehistoric people and remnants of Phoenix’s first fire station in the heart of downtown, where the area’s only grocery store is set to break ground April 13.

Until then, the dusty bricks and possible remnants of pit houses give a rare window into the history of a site that has long been at the center of city society.

Crews finished Friday a three-week dig at Block 23, named for its place in Phoenix’s original townsite. The land at First and Washington streets was most recently used for parking and has a long list of documented uses starting in the 1880s.

But archaeologists also found signs of some of Arizona’s earliest people.

The team thinks ceramics and other uncovered artifacts could be from the Red Mountain Phase, a predecessor to the Hohokam culture that settled in the area for more than a millennium until about 1450 A.D. Testing samples like pottery fragments and pollen will determine a more precise time period, said Alex Howard , archaeologist for Logan Howard, the firm contracted for the work.

PREVIOUSLY:Downtown grocery store construction site yields prehistoric artifacts

Centuries after that came Phoenix’s first city hall, its first two fire stations, the Fox Theatre and a J.C. Penney store.

Now, RED Development plans to transform the site into a high-rise development with a Fry’s grocery store, hundreds of apartments and other uses. It’s expected to open in 2018. Phoenix is providing $18.3 million in incentives for the project, including $2.5 million for the excavation and other site prep work.

“It is layers of history,” Howard said.

Archaeologists digging among downtown high-rises

Archaeologists expected to find artifacts on the land. Digs at other downtown sites, such as the neighboring CityScape, also yielded prehistoric finds.

But the team encountered “surprisingly little,” Howard said. Part of that is due to development on the site in more modern times.

Crews only excavated the west side of the three-acre parcel. The J.C. Penney opened on the other part in 1953, and the underground parking and Cold War-era bomb shelter beneath where the store was go deeper than the archaeological finds.

Removal of the Fox Theatre in the 1970s — when archaeological regulations were looser — also likely took artifacts with it, Howard said. And the small yield could be another sign the prehistoric items are from the early Red Mountain Phase and not the Hohokam, whose newer settlements would have had a better chance of surviving, she said.

The modern disturbances left one strip — estimated by one archaeologist as about 1/10 of an acre — of land full of prehistoric finds as well as another area including foundations and other pieces of fire stations built in 1894 and 1915.

The site is unique for that combination of time periods, Howard said, as well as its location in the shadow of CityScape and Talking Stick Resort Arena.

“I’ve never dug in high rises,” she said.

Finds illuminate prehistoric, modern cultures

Each downtown dig gives archaeologists a better of understanding of people who inhabited the area, said Mark Hackbarth, senior archaeologist for Logan Simpson, who has worked on numerous excavations in the urban core.

The five or six pit houses on the land, for example, might point to a site more densely occupied than what was found at an adjacent parcel. A horseshoe found in the remains of fire stations signals a time when horses pulled the fire carts.

And archaeologists can tell differences in the building materials between the fire stations built a few decades apart. Holding two bricks on the site, Hackbarth showed how one easily crumbled with his hand while the other was more durable.

“Cultures change rapidly,” Hackbarth said.

During construction, the team may also watch what they think was a well to see what other items might emerge, Howard said. People use wells and privies to toss unwanted items, Howard said, so they are usually where archaeologists “find the good stuff.”

Once archaeologists are done in the field, the team will go to the lab to clean artifacts and test samples like ceramics, pollen and charcoal, Hackbarth said. He didn’t have an immediate estimate of how many artifacts the site yielded.

Archaeologists will complete a report recording the site, and the items will go to the Pueblo Grande Museum for long-term curation.

Long-anticipated grocery store planned for site

The Block 23 groundbreaking may be the next historic moment for the site. Downtown leaders and city residents have waited years for a grocery store in an area considered a food desert for its lack of access to fresh foods.

RED Development plans 330 apartments, office space, restaurants, retail uses and parking for the project, according to a recent press release. The company also built the neighboring CityScape complex.

Phoenix will enter a long-term agreement to transfer the city-owned land to RED Development.

The Phoenix City Council will consider April 5 a request to amend a previous Block 23 agreement to “allow for additional market flexibility,” though it’s unclear which part of the proposed plans it would affect. The deal would still require a grocery store, office space, parking and streetscape improvements.

Jeff Moloznik, vice president of development for RED Development, said in a statement the project isn’t changing, and the amendment is “just a procedural step required for financing and ultimately construction commencement.”

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