Mining for the truth
Is Camp Verde Salt Mine the oldest underground mine in America?
The object at Theodore Wingfield's feet must have seemed alien
It was flat. It was crystallized. It had what appeared to be limbs. But it had no head.
The object had come from above, falling at the foot of his machine amidst a cloud of rock and dust.
It was just the latest, yet perhaps the most unusual object among several that had found their way down the hillside in the last few months.
What Wingfield and his co-workers had blasted out of the side of a rock ledge that spring day in 1926 was a human body.
Wingfield was the operator of a steam shovel for the American Chemical Company, the most recent owners of a mining claim on the outskirts of Camp Verde.
They were not digging for the rich metallic minerals that permeated the mountains above.
They were mining salt an ancient deposit of evaportites left after the repeated flooding and draining of a Miocene lake that covered the lower end of the Verde Valley around five million years ago.
When that lake drained for the last time, it left behind calcium, sulfur and sodium-rich sediments, crystallized in the form of various salts and gypsum, known collectively as evaporites.
The body that lay before Wingfield was preserved in those same rich salts. It had also become "mashed quite flat," in the words of an anthropologist who came out months later to investigate.
As the men stared at the apparition, they no doubt gave some thought as to how this person had become entombed deep within this mountain, and how he had become as compacted as the evaporites that encased him.
The men were well aware of the dangers inherent in their profession. They may have taken note that little but their gas-powered shovel and high explosives separated their work from that of this ancient miner.
They may also have felt both empathy and a certain kinship. They had to know that the figure that lay before them was once one of their own.
What they probably did not realize was the full extent of what they were uncovering as they blasted their way through the brush covered hill that spring and summer.
What the workers of the American Chemical Company had unearthed was, arguably, the oldest, most extensive underground mine in the United States.
And at their feet that day lay, arguably, America's earliest victim of their profession.
The anthropologist who came out a few months later to examine the findings was Earl Morris, sent by the American Museum of Natural History and invited by the owners of the mine.
Morris had been diverted from another dig in Canyon de Chelly, after the museum heard of the unusual discoveries in the Verde Valley.
For some time prior to the finding of the mummified miner, Wingfield and the crew had been unearthing other artifacts buried within the hill. Woven yucca sandals, cedar torches, stone picks, axe handles and sheets of matting had been showing up for some time among the rubble blasted each day from the hill.
Workers had also identified ancient mine shafts exposed as the layers of hillside surrendered to the force of their dynamite. The longest shaft measured 200 feet and went completely through the hillside. The deepest measured some 100 feet below the crest of the hill.
Before Morris left a few weeks later, at least four separate levels of tunnels had been identifiedsome with connecting shafts.
As Morris and the workers picked their way through the exposed shafts they discovered the source of all the artifacts a vein of cemented, compacted breccia, impregnated with ash and vegetable matter.
The ancient miners, they soon discovered, did not waste time removing the non-salt bearing rock from the tunnels. The detritus left behind was a conglomerate of tools, torches and "tailings."
In time, Morris and others determined that the ancient salt mine was being worked during the height of the Sinagua culture. The mine was being operated contemporaneous to the occupancy of both Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castlefrom approximately 1300 to 1450.
Morris speculated that the deposits were known of for as long as man had inhabited the valley and may have been worked for the last 2000 years.
He also estimated that the ancient miner, his predecessors and descendants, had worked "at least a few thousand cubic yards of rock."
"To have mined such a quantity of a modestly hard substance by the arduous method of abrasion with what were, at best, blunt-pointed tools certainly would have required a lapse of time, long in comparison to the span of an individual," wrote Morris in his report to the museum.
The length of time the mine was worked, when, as Morris noted, you consider that "digging salt was probably not an occupation followed consecutively, but occasionally, as demand would dictate," had to have been substantial.
Morris is believed to have been the first, but certainly not the last, archeologist to sift through the site. At about the same time that Morris arrived, or shortly thereafter, a team of archeologists under Byron Cummings of the newly formed Arizona State Museum also came to the site.
The two men's studies, both done in 1926 and 1927, constitute the bulk of known archeological work done before commercial operations destroyed the ancient shafts and unearthed the bulk of the artifacts.
Once the two realized what they had discovered, the question became what was the real significance of the find. Could the site have been the oldest underground mine in America? It is a question that begs an answer.
There are older mines in America.
Surface deposits of native copper have been mined on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and areas of Wisconsin for almost 4000 years. Deposits of coal, flint and salt have also been mined at other locations in the eastern United States.
As for the Southwest, turquoise was the prevalent rock mined by prehistoric cultures, although there are known deposits of both coal and salt that were mined before Columbus.
Perhaps the most extensive pre-Colombian mining works in the United Sates are the turquoise mines in the Cerillos Mountains of New Mexico.
But according to a paper published in 1935 by the Museum of Northern Arizona, by archeologist Katharine Bartlett, almost all of the ancient mines were surface deposits.
"At most of these places the mines were little more than quarriesŠwhile in others extensive pits and tunnels were worked through solid rock," states Bartlett.
She goes on to note that there are only two other locations where tunnels existed. Some as long as 20 feet were found at a turquoise mine in Mineral Park, Arizona and some following a horizontal strata of coal below Shungopovi on the Hopi mesas.
All of the ancient tunneling was shallow according to Bartlett, with the exception of the Camp Verde deposits.
The assertion that the Camp Verde deposits constitute the oldest underground mining site in the United States is a legitimate claim deserving of further research.
Whether that claim is substantiated at some point in the future or not, it is clear the site has significant cultural and historical value worth preserving.
The first Europeans to see the salt deposits were likely the Spanish explorers Juan De Espejo (1583) and Maros Farfan de los Godas (1598). They do not appear to have seen the same value in salt as they saw in the promise of gold and copper in the surrounding hills.
From the mid 1920's to 1933 the site did find value as a source of revenue, providing jobs for about 100 locals during some of the toughest economic times in the area's history.
Today, it is a valuable resource for rock hounds and mineral collectors around the world.
Sometime in the future, hopefully, it will take its rightful place, and become recognized for its real significance as a historic landmarkprehistoric America's first attempt to farm the earth from beneath.