Fishes Coming Out of the Desert

February 5, 2015


After a Distinguished Career at ASM, Hohokam Specialists Head for Semi-retirement

By Darlene Lizarraga

After a combined 90 years of service, the majority spent at the Arizona State Museum (ASM) and the University of Arizona (UA), distinguished Hohokam archaeologists Dr. Paul R. Fish and Dr. Suzanne K. Fish are preparing to hang up their trowels and head into semi-retirement.

Symposium as Send-Off

How else would scholars and academics celebrate the careers of their colleagues? With a symposium, of course. On Saturday, March 8, the Fishes’ careers and legacies, both individually and collectively, will be celebrated at a free public symposium and reception. The symposium, from 2:00–5:30 p.m., will feature papers presented by six Hohokam scholars who, as students, worked with the Fishes and who now represent the depth and breadth of the Fishes’ impact in the field.

They will be joined by colleague Elisa Villalpando of Sonora, who will speak to the Fishes’ role in binational collaboration. A reception will follow the symposium and will feature a small exhibit of artifacts and items representative of Paul and Suzy’s work.

“Paul’s and Suzy’s combined careers represent nearly a century of dedication to survey, excavation and analysis, publication, teaching, and public service,” remarked Dr. Patrick Lyons, director of the Arizona State Museum. “They’ve loved every minute of every aspect, loved each other at every step, raised a family along the way, and all the while, made contributions and established legacies that will endure well into the next generations of Hohokam scholarship.”

ASM has been home base for the Fishes’ research and teaching since 1980 when Paul was recruited to oversee the museum’s burgeoning responsibilities under the Arizona Antiquities Act, a response to the explosion of population, urban expansion, and new development in the state in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. At this time, Paul also coordinated the joint ASM-Department of Anthropology cultural resource management MA program.

From the Haury Tradition to the CRM Effect

Most folks would think that rapid and large-scale urban expansion and new development have done more harm than good in the world of archaeology and cultural resource preservation but in fact, the opposite is true. Archaeological survey, legally required prior to disturbance or modification on Arizona lands, opened up, quite literally, new worlds in Hohokam research.

“Our enthusiasm for Hohokam archaeology rose sharply in 1979. It was an exciting time,” said Paul. “All sorts of new data and new ideas about the nature of the Hohokam were coming forward due to CRM projects. I remember David Doyel and Fred Plog had organized a symposium at which the nature of the Hohokam was discussed and new data reviewed. We came out of that wanting to be involved.”

It was a boom time in Arizona. New communities were being founded. Existing ones were growing. New civic and residential architecture was under construction. New water delivery systems were being engineered. Highway systems were being improved and expanded. Under the category of unintended consequences, all this modern-day development concurrently and fortuitously served the needs of the Hohokam researcher by revealing details about ancient community development. Hundreds of years before, our desert-dwelling predecessors were managing and serving the needs of their sprawling communities by building civic and residential architecture, engineering water canals, and improving travel systems.

“Before this time, Emil Haury and his contemporaries had focused mainly on settlements such as Snaketown, established at major water sources,” Suzy explained. “But now, the discovery of new sites revealed many new aspects of Hohokam life, unimagined by our predecessors. It had been thought that once you got away from large and constant sources of water such as the Salt and Gila rivers, large villages could not be sustained. Tucson had yet to be recognized as a populous and important center for the Hohokam because the Santa Cruz didn’t run year-round. But as we began to see newly revealed settlements, successful with smaller supplies of water, we began to see exciting things. The agricultural techniques were ingenious, enabling desert farmers to raise crops and successfully support large and thriving communities away from a river.”

Many substantial settlements far from the Salt and Gila rivers were being unearthed all over the state by, for example, the Central Arizona Project—a 336-mile-long system of aqueducts, tunnels, pumping plants, and pipelines begun in 1973. When completed, 20 years later, it would run from Lake Havasu to the southern boundary of the San Xavier Indian Reservation southwest of Tucson, bringing 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties. Such large-scale, long-term public works projects brought dramatically increased funding for legally mandated archaeological investigation.

“With so many well-funded cultural resource management studies on the horizon, we asked where we might contribute most to Hohokam research and scholarship,” remembered Paul. “Our solution was the Northern Tucson Basin Survey, undertaken with our ASM colleague John Madsen, many collaborators, and more than 200 students by the time it was finished. The project was designed to provide a regional framework for the many scattered excavations and surveys so that they could be seen as part of a changing landscape of Hohokam settlements and society.”

From Hippies in Love to Power Couple in the Field

“We were sort of hippies, you know. It was the ‘60s,” joked Paul. He (Ph.D., ASU, 1976), from Michigan and Suzy (Ph.D., UA, 1993), from Texas, the two met in 1969 in Arizona at a new student orientation. Graduate assistant Paul was behind a registration table matriculating his incoming student colleagues. Newbie Suzy approached, took the initiative to invite him to lunch that day, and thus began a match made in archaeological heaven.

They married in 1971 in Ann Arbor, MI, where Suzy was practicing her specialty of analyzing archaeological pollen samples from Mexican excavations.

Next, came a teaching stint at Georgia for Paul, field projects in Mexico and Georgia for Suzy, and two children—son Marcus born in 1975 and daughter Allison born in 1976.

“I heard reports of Marcus, at a year old, happily eating spicy food in a hotel kitchen in Amecameca,” laughed Paul. “Local ladies took care of the baby there while Suzy worked in the field.”

With two kids in tow, the young family was in Tucson permanently by 1980—Paul at ASM and Suzy, finishing her Ph.D., with a consulting business in pollen analysis. “After returning to Arizona, we began to work in the field together around town so that we could get the kids to soccer practice after school.” said Suzy. Eventually, she would join Paul as a curator at ASM.

From 1980 to the present, Paul and Suzy, with many collaborators and students, have explored numerous sites in the Tucson basin and northern Sonora. Their work has examined Hohokam organization from the level of individual settlements to regional patterns, and has illuminated a diversity of ancient agricultural and water management practices in the Sonoran Desert. Their research and excavations include:

  • Los Morteros Boundary (1980-84)
  • Northern Tucson Basin Settlement Pattern Survey (1981-88)
  • Hohokam Agricultural Strategies in the Marana Community (1984-86)
  • Marana Mound Project (1989-2008)
  • Los Morteros/Linda Vista Hill Trincheras Project (1998)
  • Tumamoc Hill Mapping and Excavations (1998, 2005-2008)
  • Cerro de Trincheras Settlement Pattern Survey (1999-2000)
  • University Indian Ruin (2010-present)


“Paul and Suzy have been a central force in the museum’s research division for decades, providing a model and guidance for their colleagues on depth, breadth, and quality of archaeological investigation,” said Dr. James Watson, head of ASM’s research division. “They leave a legacy, not just of inspired research, but as models for community engagement, an admirable aspect that is completely lacking in many academic research institutions.”

The Family that Digs Together Stays Together

Paul and Suzy have brought togetherness to a whole new level, making both marriage and careers work despite being together day after day after day. When asked if there had ever been significant professional disagreements, Suzy simply joked, “Oh, I can tell you a few times Paul has been very wrong, but not many.”

“We stay very busy and since we emphasize somewhat different areas, we don’t overlap or get in each other’s way very often,” said Paul. “I tend to focus on settlement pattern aspects while Suzy tends to follow ethnobotanical research and societal organization.”

And what of the kids? “Although they grew up in the field with us, and perhaps because of that very fact, the kids never really wanted to be archaeologists themselves,” said Suzy.

“Archaeology certainly looms large in their collective memories, though,” added Paul. “Our family history is told in terms of this field season here or that field season there.”

Fondest Field Memory / Greatest Discovery

Both are interested in traditional agricultural practices and so Paul and Suzy quickly cited a favorite moment when they realized just how large the practice of agave cultivation actually was. Paul recalled, “Sitting under the shade of a mesquite tree near the Marana Mound, looking out at roasting pits in preserved Hohokam fields, we could see just how much land was involved in the cultivation of this very important, drought-resistant crop.”

For Suzy, who spent most of her early years working in central Mexico, another major insight came when she began to see similarities between the development of Hohokam societies and the early villages and towns of ancient Mexico.

Seeing an Ever-Evolving Profession Evolve

“A very positive evolution in Southwest archaeology is the regular and common practice now, to consult with descendent communities, said Suzy. “We’ve seen archaeology improved over the years because of this—for the input, the insight, and their special sets of goals and objectives. And, most importantly, more and more Native people are directly involved in archaeological research and that can only be a good thing.”

In addition, the Fishes have collaborated with many colleagues across the border through the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in northern and central Mexico. And, over the years, they have established strong ties with Brazilian archaeologists through a series of workshops and summer projects there, along with student and scholar exchanges.

A Lasting Legacy

“Archaeology doesn’t belong to the archaeologist,” Suzy pointed out. “It’s a public pursuit, conducted in the public interest. The public wants to know about it and should know about it. I’ve loved teaching, working with volunteers, interacting with AAHS, consulting with members of Native communities, and collaborating with our colleagues across the border. And I’m proud of the fact that we’ve helped bring the archaeological communities of Arizona and Sonora closer together.”

“Working with students is a big part of a satisfying career,” added Paul. “As far as a legacy, I would hope exposing all those students to archaeology, and even to interdisciplinary studies about arid lands, will have a positive impact into the future.”

Indeed, the Fishes, over the decades, have taught innumerable students in the class room, in the laboratory, and in the field. And, in an effort to make their research and scholarship accessible to the public, the Fishes have given scores of scholarly lectures and public talks, conducted workshops, participated in panel discussions, presented at symposia, led field trips, organized travel tours, and have published many articles and books.

The Hohokam Millennium, the 2007 compilation of state-of-the-discipline essays, co-edited by the Fishes, is a supreme example of a content-rich but popularly accessible compendium.

Dr. Michael M. Brescia, ASM associate director and head of public programs, emphasizes that Paul and Suzy have made substantial contributions to public outreach, one of the three pillars of the University of Arizona’s land grant mission. Having co-led museum-sponsored learning expeditions to Mexico with the Fishes, Brescia remarked, “I recall marveling at Suzy and Paul explaining to the participants on our tour the broader significance of agave in the Mexican historical experience amidst the hustle and bustle of the Indian market in Ixmiquilpan in central Mexico; they had identified metal tools for sale that locals used to harvest agave. Despite the roar of folks trying to buy and sell merchandise, Suzy and Paul used it as a teaching moment to discuss the deeper influences of the plant on Mexican culture. When I think of their impact on ASM public outreach, I always think of that story. They are top-shelf in every way!”

Not Quite Ready for Rocking Chairs

Although they are retiring from fieldwork, they both have book projects on tap, and are intending to re-examine the Tucson Hohokam Classic Period through existing collections at ASM.

“Now is the time to go back and look at all those Hohokam discoveries of recent years,” said Paul. “We need to ask new questions, and when possible, use scientific technologies to extract new information from those existing collections.

“There are lots of things to write up,” added Suzy. “And, of course, we will continue to participate in our respective national organizations.”

The Future of Hohokam Studies at ASM

“ASM has been a seat of Hohokam studies since the 1930s,” reflected ASM Director Patrick Lyons. “The Fishes’ retiring from the field causes a potential gap in that long-standing and essential tradition. It is our vision to establish an endowed chair in Hohokam studies—a constant and well-funded source specifically in support of a Hohokam expert at ASM.”

The museum intends to announce its vision and launch its fund-raising efforts toward this goal at the March 8 symposium. In the meantime, Lyons says he expects to see Paul and Suzy at the museum on a regular basis, conducting and concluding their ongoing research projects. “As long as they wish to continue their work, ASM will continue to be their proud home.”

Images courtesy of the Fishes.