Sun, Aug. 18

Cosmos Mindeleff: The Verde Valley's first archaeologist

On a wall in the front room of Fort Verde State Park museum hangs a rustically framed 20-by-30-inch black-and-white photograph.

Taken in 1890, the background shows the fort as it looked just prior to being abandoned by the military. Surrounding it are a collection of out buildings, the beginnings of a community that would some day become Camp Verde.

In the foreground of the photograph is a labyrinth of crumbled walls -- the remains of an earlier civilization.

The pile of stones is one of many such ruins that occupy the banks of the Verde River stretching from its confluence with the Salt River, east of modern day Phoenix, to the rugged Verde Canyon northeast of Clarkdale.

Some of the ruins such as Tuzigoot, Montezuma Castle and Sacred Mountain we have chosen to preserve and protect and as a consequence we have bestow upon them a given name.

Hundreds, although catalogued by scientists over the last century and assigned numerical references, remain as nameless as their former occupants.

Of this latter group, however, is a collections of ruins, among which is the one in the foreground of the photograph, known to scientists that study them today as the Mindeleff sites.

They are named for the first trained archaeologist to study, map, catalogue, and report their existence to the rest of the world.

Cosmos Mindeleff may not be a household name to the modern day inhabitants of the Verde Valley. In fact it is doubtful he was ever renowned, except among his peers.

But among latter day southwestern archaeologists, the name Mindeleff is as common as Montezuma and as respected as anyone's who has ever trodden the southwestern deserts in search of clues to its lost inhabitants.

Mindeleff first appeared on the scene in 1881.

We know he was born in 1863 in Washington, D.C., to Russian immigrant parents.

We know nothing of his schooling. One day he and his brother Victor showed up in the offices of John Wesley Powell, the great western explorer.

In 1881 Powell was the head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, a federal agency that worked cooperatively with the Smithsonian. Cosmos was 19 and Victor was 21.

Powell was seeking someone with expertise as both an architect and surveyor to go to the Southwest and measure, map and model the great pueblos. It is assumed that a neighbor, pioneer southwestern archaeologist, geologist and artist William Henry Holmes had referred the two.

"Their first job was to map Zuni Pueblo in 1881. They just showed up and started mapping. It's amazing. Victor may have had a college degree, but it is doubtful that Cosmos did," said Dennis Gilpin, a man who has studied the brothers on and off for 20 years.

From 1881 to 1890 the two brothers traveled repeatedly between the Southwest and Washington, measuring and mapping in the field and returning to the bureau's offices to create accurate models that where put on display at museums and wold fairs. Some of the models still exist today.

Their travels put them in the company of some of the nation's premier archaeologist of the time, from whom they learned their trade.

The inventory of sites they visited reads like a what's what of southwestern archaeological sites. Chaco Canyon, Acoma, Zuni, Canyon de Chelly and the Hopi villages are included among their surveys.

In 1890, Victor left the bureau to pursue what would become a successful architectural career.

In November of that year Cosmos would come west once more, this time to help with stabilization work at Casa Grande ruin.

In early 1891, Cosmos' work at Casa Grande was interrupted due to a lack of funding. He decided to check out the ruins that he had recently heard of in the Verde Valley.

The year before, an amateur archaeologist and former surgeon at Fort Verde had published a brief paper on the Verde ruins that had appeared in Popular Science Monthly.

Cosmos began his survey at the confluence with the Salt River. Before he finished several months later, he had mapped and catalogued over 50 sites, stretching from the Salt River to Beaver Creek.

His maps, drawings and photographs are indicative of someone with an eye for detail. And his surveys remain as accurate today as they were then.

But what set Mindeleff apart from his peers were his powers of observation. According to Peter Pilles, archaeologist for the Coconino National Forest, Cosmos Mindeleff was a man ahead of his time.

"He made maps under the most difficult of conditions with turn of the century equipment," Pilles said. "Then he sits back and interprets what he is looking at -- the whole land use and settlement system.

"He writes about environmental relationships and other things. It is the kind of interpretation that does not happen in American archaeology until the 1960s. He was almost a century ahead of his time."

In 1896, the Bureau of American Ethnology published Cosmos' survey of the lower and middle Verde ruins in its 13th Annual Report.

Entitled "Aboriginal Remains in the Verde Valley, Arizona," it details the stone villages, cavate lodges, agricultural fields, irrigation canals and other manmade anomalies he observed on his trip. It includes detailed plans and drawings of the ruins.

And it contains numerous photographs including one of the very same ruins that appear in the photograph at Fort Verde. The photo is entitled "Masonry ruin opposite Verde."

In the text of the report he goes on record as being the first observer to note that the southern Sinaguan culture was located at a cross roads both in time and in place, existing between the northern pueblo culture and the southern Hohokam and Gila cultures.

He is the first to observe that the inhabitants of the Verde were kin to their neighbors to the north and not to the ones in the south.

His respect for the Sinaguan culture comes through in his writing as he marvels at the accomplishments of the Sinaguans in light of the hostile environment in which they lived and prospered.

Cosmos Mindeleff's life, as it turned out, is not all that dissimilar to the lives of those he studied. He seems to have disappeared from history just as the Sinaguan people did.

Cosmos left the bureau in 1895. One researcher says he wrote for architectural journals and became affiliated with a New York publication, The Commercial Advertiser. Another says there is evidence that he "married well and moved to California."

There is no known record of when or where he died.

The caves at Beasley Flat are the only archaeological site in the Verde Valley that honors his brief but noteworthy visit. They are formally known as the Mindeleff Cavate Lodge Group.