Wed, Nov. 13

Cosmos Mindeleff: A man ahead of his time

Cosmos Mindeleff

Cosmos Mindeleff

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

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

In the foreground are crumbled limestone walls -- the remains of a civilization that once inhabited the Verde Valley but, like the military, had long ago abounded the place.

The photographer is unknown. But because of the year it was taken and the nature of its subject, it could very well have been taken by the first trained archeologist to visit the Verde Valley -- Cosmos Mindeleff.

Most of the ruins along the Verde River are as nameless as their former inhabitants. But many, including the one in the photograph, are known to modern day archaeologists as simply "one of the Mindeleff sites."

Cosmos Mindeleff may not be a household name to the modern day inhabitants of the Verde Valley. But among latter day southwestern archaeologists, the name Mindeleff is accorded much respect,

Mindeleff and his brother Victor started their archaeological careers in 1881 when they took a job from the great western explorer John Wesley Powel.

Powell, then head of the Bureau of American Ethnology was seeking someone with expertise as both an architect and surveyor to go to the southwest and measure, map and model the great pueblos.

'Their first job was to map Zuni Pueblo. They just showed up and started surveying 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.

Victor was 21 at the time. Cosmos was 19.

From 1881 to 1890 the 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 world fairs. Some of the models still exist today.

In 1890, Victor left the bureau to pursue an architectural career.

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

But when funding for the project ceased the next year, Cosmos took off for the Verde Valley to map the ruins he had read about in a Popular Science Monthly article by Fort Verde surgeon Edgar Mearns

Cosmos began his survey at the confluence with the Salt River. Before he finished several months later, he had mapped and cataloged 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," said Pilles, "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 1960's. He was almost a century ahead of his time."

His report on the survey entitled "Aboriginal Remains in the Verde Valley, Arizona," details the stone villages, cavate lodges, agricultural fields, irrigation canals he found.

It also contains numerous photographs including one of the very same ruins that appear in the photograph now hanging 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.

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 Sinagua 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.

March is celebrated statewide as Archaeological Awareness and Heritage Month. In recognition of the occasion and the fact that the Verde Valley has long served as a laboratory for some of the earliest southwestern archaeologists, The Verde Independent is presenting a four part series featuring the lives of four of those pioneers. The four, Edward Palmer, Edgar Mearns, Cosmos Mindeleff and Jesse Walter Fewkes, through their innate curiosity of things past and their vision for preserving those things for the future, not only left their mark on the study of ancient cultures in the Verde Valley but also on the science of archaeology they helped develop.
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