Gambling at the Water Table
Gambling at the Water Table
Of all the livelihoods made possible by land development, Cory Breternitz’s job was one of the more peculiar. He was paid to do archaeological excavations by people who hoped he would find nothing of interest. His Phoenix-based firm was one of many private archaeology firms that sprang up in response to legislation (the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970) designed to protect cultural resources such as prehistoric artifacts or remains. These laws require government agencies and private developers to hire historians and archaeologists to survey sites and inventory the results before they start building. At the height of the Arizona housing boom, Breternitz, who had previously worked for the Navajo Nation for more than twenty years, spent much of his time on the urban fringe, sifting through desert soil, looking for evidence of Hohokam settlement before the bulldozers “scraped the desert clean” and the construction crews moved in with chipboard, two-by-fours, and stucco to throw up a brown-tiled subdivision. If Breternitz uncovered a prehistoric structure, even a hamlet, it was still the developer’s prerogative to plough it under. “The United States,” he explained, “is different than most countries in the world in that private property is sacred, and the government cannot tell you what to do with it. In places like England, historic properties on your land belong to the Crown, and whatever you find—like a hoard of medieval coins—belongs to the government. In the U.S. if you find a ruin on your land, it belongs to you and you can bulldoze it or sell the artifacts.” Some of the developers he worked for might decide to preserve his discoveries and have them curated on-site by the state so that they could be promoted as an attractive sales feature to add value to the development. But ultimately, he reported, most of them simply “want their clearance, or their permits, to move forward with their projects and make money.” Human remains are the exception to this rule, since private ownership of these is prohibited by federal and Arizona law.
Keywords: acequias, anti-immigrant sentiment, ball courts, burial sites, camaraderie, catastrophes, droughts, great houses, irrigation agriculture, mineral prospectors, prior appropriation, railroad speculation, riparian code, semiarid farming, tumbleweed
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