A taste of seasons past at the Camp Verde Salt Mine
Part 3: Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month
CAMP VERDE - At its best, archaeology is an inexact science. And in places like the American Southwest, where there was no written language, its level of certainty only gets worse.
Nevertheless, given enough evidence, conclusions can be made.
One conclusion that professional archaeologists have made regarding the prehistoric people of the Verde Valley is that they traded extensively with other cultures throughout the area.
Shell jewelry from the Sea of Cortez, turquoise from New Mexico and pottery from hundreds of miles in every direction have been unearthed up and down the Verde River and its tributaries.
But the Sinagua people who lived here were not known for producing obviously desirable trade goods. Their ceramics were plain, their baskets unremarkable and their fabrics few.
So what was it that brought others here to do business?
The answer may lie in a stark white hillside within the modern day corporate limits of Camp Verde, the remnant of a lake that flooded and receded within the valley floor, numerous times between 10 million and 2 million years ago.
Geologists classify the deposits imbedded in the hillside as evaporites -- concentrated minerals that fell out of suspension as the lake receded and eventually dried up at its lowest point.
Among the evaporite minerals, which include gypsum, mirabilite, thenardite, aragonite, calcite and glauberite, is a layer of halite, a mineral form of sodium chloride, commonly known as rock salt.
Once listed by the Arizona Department of Mineral Resources as the Graham-Wingfield sulfate grounds, valley residents and rock hounds the world over know it as the Verde Salt Mine.
We don’t know what the Sinagua called the place, but we can be sure from the scarcity of naturally occurring salt deposits in the Southwest, that it offered a commodity others would seek.
Valley settlers were aware of the salt deposit. It has been reported that the military as well as local ranchers used it for their livestock. But because of its remoteness, it was 50 years before anyone tapped its commercial value.
In 1921, Western Chemical Company began exploring the site, and within a few years was producing 100 tons of thenadite, which was used in the manufacture of paper and glass, a day.
Along with the salt cake, as thenadite was also known, miners unearthed stone tools and other artifacts. The quantity of stone tools, according to one newspaper report, was so great that men were stationed along the conveyor belt, to remove them so they did not damage equipment further down the line.
Then one day in April 1926, the steam shovel unearthed a headless human body, and operations came to a halt. Mine Superintendent George Campbell speculated it was the remains of an ancient hunter.
“We hope to find some other relics near by. It is allowable to suppose that the man was drowned, possibly from a boat or canoe and that his weapons, etc. should not be far off,” Campbell reported to the Verde Copper News.
At the invitation of the company, the National Museum in Washington, D.C., sent Earl Morris, a prominent Southwest archaeologist, to investigate.
Word also got out to the University of Arizona and Byron Cummins, director of the newly formed Arizona State Museum, also came.
Arriving in September, Morris spent a week in Camp Verde looking over artifacts, mapping the tunnels and, because there was no pottery to be found at the mine, visiting two other sites around Camp Verde in an attempt to date when the mine was active.
Morris found four tunnels, the deepest 100 feet below the crest and the longest 200 feet -- all undiscovered until the steam shovel arrived.
He concluded the mummified body was not that of an ancient hunter drowned in the ancient lake, but that of an ancient miner trapped when the soft rock in which he was tunneling collapsed.
“They chose a stratum where the salt was relatively plentiful and followed it inward, beating to pieces the breast ahead of them, casting the predominance of waste behind them and garnering the precious bits of salt.
“There is no evidence that they worked with any degree of system, but instead burrowed about as chance, or as a particular lump of salt, directed them,” wrote Morris in his report, “An Aboriginal Salt Mine at Camp Verde, Arizona.”
From pottery discovered in cavates at the Clear Creek Ruin and at another location up Beaver Creek, Morris determined the mine had been worked in the 1300s and 1400s, at a time when “the pueblo culture had reached its full development.”
Cummins came to the site twice, or at least oversaw two visits, once in 1926 and again the next year. His team returned with 34 artifacts including two mummified bodies, picks, pick handles, digging sticks, sandals, charcoal, corn and cane.
In addition to the items brought back by Cummins’ teams, the Arizona State Museum obtained several dozen other items, including a third body, donated by the company or purchased from individuals.
Unfortunately, Cummins made no report of either expedition.
In the 1980s, Nancy Jo Chabot, a graduate student from the State University of New York at Binghamton, took a second look at both collections of artifacts, for her master’s thesis.
Chabot saw something others may have overlooked.
She concluded that some of the artifacts were not necessarily part of a “salt miner’s tool kit,” but instead pointed to the “spiritually powerful nature of salt sources.”
Chabot considered evidence from the four other prehistoric Southwestern salt sources -- Zuni Salt Lake in New Mexico, Salt Canyon in the Grand Canyon, the Sea of Cortez and salt caves near St. Thomas, Nev.
All four sites have archaeological and/or ethnographic evidence showing that the collecting of salt had a spiritual side, in addition to a practical side.
Chabot concluded that items Morris and others saw as “digging sticks” were similar to prayer sticks used by other Southwestern cultures when gathering salt.
She also believed that the bodies might have been intentionally placed in the tunnels, arguing that fancy cloth wrapped about the heads of the bodies (at least the two found with heads) and nearby weaving tools were not part of a miner’s kit.
And that the carefully formed bundles of twigs surrounding the bodies are typically associated with burials, not mining.
What really happened deep within the Verde Salt Mine, and why, we will likely never know. By the time the commercial mining operations that uncovered it had ceased in the mid-1930s, those same operations had destroyed it.
Nevertheless, those who ply the inexact science of archaeology today believe the mine was significant, spiritually and/or economically, and would have brought others from around the Southwest here to seek its bounty.
Back From the Salt Mines; Reinterpreting the Verde Salt Mine Site, by Mary Jo Chabot, master’s thesis 1984
Mineral Journey’s in Arizona, by Arthur Leonard Flagg, 1958
Prehistoric Mining in the Southwest, by Kathrine Bartlett, Museum Notes; Museum of Northern Arizona May 1935
The Camp Verde Salt Mine Draft Interpretive Plan, by Charlotte J. Sasonkin, Prescott National Forest
National Register of Historic Places application, Department of the Interior National Park Service, Form 10-900A, date unknown
Camp Verde Evaporites by J. Robert Thompson, the Mineralogical Record, march-April 1983
An Aboriginal Salt Mine near Camp Verde Arizona, by Earl Morris, Anthropological papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 1928
Mining for the Truth, by Steve Ayers, Verde Independent, Aug. 30, 2006
Today’s Verde Salt Mine, by Claudette Simpson, Westward, August 1975
Mountain of Salt, Weekly Arizona Miner, Feb. 17, 1872
Discovery proves Indians Mined Sodium deposit, Verde Copper News, June 24, 1930
New Mill Operating at Sodium Sulphate Plant, Verde Copper News, May 3, 1927
Stone Picks are Dug Up, New York Times, June 19, 1925
Sulphate of Soda Deposits at Camp Verde are Unique in their Practical Purity, Verde Copper News, Jan. 15, 1921
Local Interest in Sodium Sulphte Deposit, Verde Copper News, date unknown