4. Ekholm Archaeological Project in Sonora, Mexico

Authors: Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta, M.A., Ph.D.-candidate, University of Arizona

This catalogue features a portion of the archaeological material of the Sonora-Sinaloa Archaeological Survey Project directed by Gordon F. Ekholm (1937-1940), which today is located at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The catalogue originated in a desire to have an image database for the identification of archaeological material while in the field and during material analysis for the first field season of the archaeological project of the Onavas Valley in the Middle Yaqui River Valley, Sonora, Mexico. The lack of research in the area, the absence of published catalogue material in and around the research area, and the opportunity to gain access to the Ekholm collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in the summer of 2003, provided the impetus to create a photographic record of Ekholm's material and develop this catalogue. This work does not show all the material collected by Ekholm; only a selected portion is depicted because the catalogue's original focus lay on the Middle Yaqui River and its surrounding areas. The creation of this catalogue and its publication on the museum's web page begins to show the richness of the museum collections. More importantly, it underscores the importance of and reveals the opportunity in undertaking further analysis and re-analysis of existing, already collected, and stored data and material collections. Consulting archaeological material from previous projects in or around one's area of research facilitates the creation, design, and undertaking of a better research project.


The archaeological material from the Ekholm collection originated from the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa. These states are part of a larger study region, which includes the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and sometimes the peninsula of Baja California, and the American states of Arizona, New Mexico, the southern portions of Utah and Colorado, and the western portion of Texas. This large region has been given several different names: Oasis America (Armillas 1969; Kirchhoff 1943), La Gran Chichimeca (Di Peso 1974), Aridoamerica (Kirchhoff 1954), the Greater Southwest (Beals 1932), El Noroeste Mexicano, and the International Four Corners (Minnis 1989), depending largely upon which side of the international border one resides. None of these terms are without problematic connotations and for the purposes of this catalogue, I have chosen to employ the modern political divisions of Sonora, Chihuahua, Northwest Mexico, and American Southwest instead (Gallaga and Newell 2004).

History of research

The first reports or descriptions of Northwest Mexico are found in colonial documents, mostly descriptions of the Spanish entradas, such as those by Diego de Guzmán (Heredia 1969), Vasquez de Coronado (Hammond and Rey 1940), Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1993), and Francisco de Ibarra (Hopkins 1988). The lack of complex societies and riches, like gold or silver, which the European explorers did encounter in central Mexico, resulted in a diminished push to penetrate the region and comparatively general and limited descriptions of the native population. Nonetheless, the colonial descriptions provide data useful to the archaeologist. On the whole, the cultural and material descriptions of the native communities European missionaries provided are more informative than military reports and early chronicles. Regarding the Yaqui River populations, the documents describe high numbers of natives in the region, the colonization potential of the area, and the interaction between the coastal and the mainland peoples.

During the 19th century, early travelers (Lumholtz 1902), geographers (Bartlett 1965; Brand 1933, 1935, 1943; Sauer and Brand 1930, 1931), and archaeological explorers (Amsden 1928; Bandelier 1890, 1892; Ekholm 1939, 1942; Lister 1958; Noguera 1926, 1930, 1958; Sayles 1936) were among the most important archaeological pioneers who created points of departure for future research in Northwest Mexico. For many years, however, only a handful of archaeologists ventured down this path. Most archaeologists preferred the great temples of Mesoamerica to the south or the ubiquitous and attractive architecture of the cliff dwellings and pueblos of the American Southwest to the north. In fact, many of the early archaeologists who visited the area did so only to study how the past of Northwest Mexico fit with the areas of their primary research interest and never made careers in the Northwest. This is the case of the Gordon Ekholm's research in Northwest Mexico. Regardless, his influence over and contribution to the archaeological knowledge of Northwest Mexico's was considerable and remains highly recognized.

The Sonora-Sinaloa Archaeological Survey Project

At the end of the 1930s, George Vaillant researcher from the American Museum of Natural History in New York conceived, designed, and directed the Sonora-Sinaloa Archaeological Survey Project. Although Vaillant was the director of the project, Gordon F. Ekholm, a former student from Harvard University, was appointed field director of the project and he acquired the collections in the field. The project's main objective was to fill the archaeological gap between the American Southwest and the northern Mesoamerican frontier covering the area from the international border to the Río Culiacan (Ekholm 1942:33). While the researchers achieved their objective, unfortunately, the results of the project remained largely unpublished, with the exception of some general articles about the project (Ekholm 1939) and results about the excavation performed at the Guasave site in Sinaloa (Ekholm 1942). Over the course of three field seasons of six months each between 1937 and 1940, Ekholm registered a total of 175 sites between the Mexican states of Sonora and northern Sinaloa, from which 100 lay in Sonora and the remainder in Sinaloa.

Ekholm collected material from the surface of 106 sites, through excavations undertaken at the largest sites, like the one in Guasave, Sinaloa, and by purchasing existing collections, like the Bringas collection in Soyopa, Sonora (Carpenter 1996; Ekholm 1937-1940).

Bringas collection in Soyopa, Sonora

A black-and-white photo of five round open-neck vessels, one much smaller than the others.
A collection of about fifty small artifacts, titled "Coleccion Bringas, Soyopa, Son."
malacates (spindle whorls) and other items from prehispanic cultures in Soyopa, Sonora, Mexico.

With the exception of the material from excavations and from private collections, Ekholm mainly encountered ceramics and lithics, though a great variety existed within these artifact categories. Among the ceramic material, plain wares occurred in the greatest numbers, though decorated wares, malacates or spindle whorls, and figurines also appeared. Greater variety characterized the lithic collection with stone axes, ornaments, palettes, agave knifes, reamers, stone bowls, atlatl handles, and arrow points. In addition, some turquoise beads and mica pendants were also recovered.

Six examples of decorated ceramic spindle whorls excavated in Mexico
Malacates (spindle whorls)
Broken bits of ceramic figurines.
Clay figurines
Two green stone horse-shaped handles, and a pendant of irregular shape made from small flat piece of mica.
Turquoise beads
Several archaeological specimens: an awl, a mica pendant, two turquoise beads, and a green stone specimen.
Mica pendants

Another common and no lesser important material Ekholm collected was marine shell. Marine shell surfaced as raw material, work in progress, debris, and finished goods, like beads, pendants, tinkers, or bracelets. In general, the great variety of items and material Ekholm encountered illustrates a considerable movement of goods between the coast and the interior, although not to the degree he expected to support a Mesoamerican-American Southwest direct interaction theory (Ekholm 1942: 136).

In terms of temporal affiliation, the majority of the sites Ekholm found he identified as prehispanic, some as Spanish Colonial sites, and others as historic sites belonging to Mexican, Piman, Yaqui, or Mayo groups (Ekholm 1937-1940). Ekholm was able to assign cultural affiliation to less than half of the prehispanic sites registered: 20 to the Trincheras archaeological tradition, 40 to the Rio Sonora tradition, and 14 to the Seri or the Central Coast tradition (Ekholm 1937-1940). Later on, after his excavation at the Guasave site, more than 20 sites were defined or assigned to the Huatabampo archaeological traditions (Carpenter 1996, Ekholm 1942; Pailes 1972, 1994).

The sites Ekholm registered surfaced in different geographical areas, where the prehispanic habitants had exploited different resources and had differed in social and political developments and local and regional interactions. Some sites were located on volcanic hills, covered by stone terraces which had been used as habitation sites, agricultural fields, working areas, or defensive areas. This type of sites and associated material are commonly identified as belonging to the Trincheras tradition. Other sites located on the coast featured mounds made of sand/earth and cultural material with mostly marine shell. Depending on the cultural material found, these shell mounds could be identified as Seri (central coast archaeological tradition), Huatabampo tradition, or Yaquis. In the interior of Sonora, the sites Ekholm discovered typically laid along the river valleys in areas near water sources and agricultural lands, like those of the Rio Sonora tradition. Besides the cultural material dispersed on the surface, stone foundations for houses are often observable. River stones are the most common material for those foundations, however volcanic or slab stones were used as well. In some areas of Sonora, it is possible to assign cultural affiliation to the archaeological sites, but in other instances it is difficult to do so, due to the lack of research in many areas that remain unexplored, like the Yaqui River region. Except for a few large sites, like in Guasave, Sinaloa, or Cerro de Trincheras, Sonora, the settlement pattern of the region was mostly dispersed households identified as rancherías.

The Guasave site

Two images of small decorative objects including pendants, and a photo of an excavation site.
Site 117, Guasave, Sinaloa
Two images of partially excavated objects. inlcuding a pair of sculpted beaked bird heads.
Site 117, Guasave, Sinaloa

Ekholm registered this site as number 117 in his survey. The site lies near the town of Guasave, Sinaloa, "on the west bank of the Sinaloa River in the center of an extremely fertile agricultural area" (Ekholm 1942:35). The site consisted of an earth mound of an oval shape 1.5 meters high and around 40 meters in diameter. Because the site was the highest point in the middle of the agricultural fields, local people know the mound as the El Ombligo (the umbilicus)(Ekholm 1942:35). At first, from the material remains, Ekholm thought that the site was a household or a trash midden. After two field excavation seasons and recovering 196 burials, the Guasave site became known as the greatest formal cemetery mound in Northwest Mexico that has been excavated, and remains unparalleled until today. John Carpenter summarizes the results of the excavation at Guasave as:

"The mortuary practices included extended inhumations with heads oriented to the north, south, and west, secondary bundle burials of disarticulated remains, and secondary interment in large plainware burial ollas. Also evident were several cases of dental mutilation represented by notches and filed incisors and canines, and fronto-lambdoidal cranial deformation. Offerings associated with these graves revealed an elaborate material culture, with several pottery types including red wares, red-on-buff, finely incised wares and several types of highly detailed polychrome pottery, alabaster vases, copper implements including bells and a probable earspool, shell, pyrite and turquoise jewelry, paint cloisonné gourd vessels, cotton textiles, ceramic masks, clay smoking pipes, modeled spindle whorls, a cylinder stamp, prismatic obsidian blades, food remains, bone daggers and human trophy skulls." Carpenter 1996:163. Although the Ekholm 1942 publication on the Guasave site provide a good description and analysis of the performed excavation, the material and data still offer several promising venues of research.

Ekholm Photo Collection

In addition to the archaeological collection recovered in this vast territory, Ekholm composed an important photographic record of his discoveries, sites, material collections, excavation pits, communities, and people he encountered on his trip. This amazing photographic archive, more of 300 photos, can be consulted as well in the AMNH collection benefiting not only archaeologies, but historians, architects, or anthropologists as well.

Stone buildings. One titled "Iglesia de Batuc" has an ornate facade. The other, captioned "Iglesia de Tetupa" is long and flat-roofed.
A mummy cave with remains, with the photo caption, "Cueva de la Momia."
Two photos. One of four women, with the caption: "Mujeres Seris, Bahia Kino, Sonora." The other of a flat dry landscape with scrubby vegetation, with the caption: "Bahia Kino, Sonora."
Rising from a flat plain area, a low mountain with terraces cut into its side. The photo caption is: "Cerro de Trincheras, Sonora."
photo of hills in Sonora, Mexico, from Gordon Ekholm's 1937-40 archeological survey

In many instances, the images captured by his lens no longer exist as such due by land development, intensive agricultural activities, or flooding from dam construction. For example, in examining Ekholm's photographs I came across the images of the churches of Tepupa and Batuc communities long before the construction of the Plutarco Elias Calles dam. They contrasted wonderfully with my own photos and memory from a survey I did with some colleagues in the area in 1999 when we visited the remains of those towns on dry land - a rare occurrence due to the severe drought in the region at the time.

Archival images of churches in Batuc and Tetupa, in Sonora, Mexico, taken in the 1930s.
Churches of Batuc and Tepupa
Two photos, each of the remains of a church in Sonora, Mexico. The ruin in the town of Batuc has a standing crumbling brick building. In the town of Tepupa, only bricks on the ground.
Remains of the Churches

The opportunity to be able to compare the images of the churches before and after the construction of the dam and the subsequent flooding was a wonderful experience and exemplifies the potential of using the Ekholm collection to aid new data collection projects as well as to re-analyze existing data collections.


I thank Dr. Charles Spencer, Dr. Christina M. Elson, and the American Museum of Natural History staff for the access to their collections and their support to make this catalogue possible. I am grateful for the comments and support of Gillian Newell as well as the economic support from CONACYT.


Amsden, M.
1928 Archaeological Reconnaissance in Sonora. Southwest Museum Paper No. 1. Southwest Museum, Highland Park.
Armillas, P.
1969 The Arid Frontier of Mexican Civilization. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences , Series II, 31(6):697-704.
Bandelier, A. F.
1890 The Ruins of Casas Grandes. Nation 51:185-187.
1892 Final Report of Investigations among the Indians of the Southwestern United States, Carried On Mainly in the Years from 1880 to 1885, part 2. Papers of the Archaeological Institute of America, American Series, vol. 4. Archaeological Institute of America, Cambridge.
Bartlett, J. R.
1965 Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary commission during the years 1850, 51, 52, and 53.2 vols. Río Grande Press, Chicago.
Beals, R. L.
1932 The Comparative Ethnology of Northern Mexico before 1750. Ibero-Americana 2.
Brand, D. D.
1933 The Historical Geography of Northwestern Chihuahua. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.
1935 The Distribution of Pottery Types in Northwest Mexico. American Anthropologist 37:287-305.
1937 The Natural Landscape of Northwestern Chihuahua. University of New Mexico Bulletin 316, Geological Series 5(2), Albuquerque.
1943 The Chihuahuan Culture Area. New Mexico Anthropologist 6-7:115-158.
Carpenter, John
1996 El Ombligo de la Labor: Differentiation, Interaction and Integration in Prehispanic Sinaloa, Mexico. Ph. D. dissertation for the Anthropology Department of the University of Arizona.
Di Peso, C. C.
1974 Casas Grandes: A Fallen Trading Center of the Gran Chichimeca, vols. 1-3. Amerind Foundation Series No. 9. Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Arizona, and Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona.
Ekholm, Gordon
1937-40 Sonora-Sinaloa Archaeological Project. AMNH Archives, New York.
1939 Results of an Archaeological Survey of Sonora and northern Sinaloa. Revista Mexicana de Estudios Antropologicos 3:7-11.
1942 Excavations at Guasave Sinaloa, Mexico, Anthropological Papers 38, American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Gallaga, Emiliano and Gillian E. Newell
2004 Introduction. In Surveying the Archaeology of Northwest Mexico, edited by Gillian E. Newell and Emiliano Gallaga, 1-26. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Hammond, G. P. and A. Rey
1966 (1928) The Rediscovery of New Mexico 1580-1594. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Heredia, José
1969 Relación del Capitán Diego de Guzmán. Memorias y Revista del Congreso Mexicano de Historia I:123-143.
Hopkins, Armando
1988 Imágenes Prehispánicas de Sonora: La Expedición de Don Francisco de Ibarra a Sonora en 1565, Según el Relato de Don Baltasar de Obregón. Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico.
Johnson, Alfred E.
1966 Archaeology of Sonora, Mexico. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 4, edited by Gordon F. Ekholm and Gordon R. Willey, pp. 26-37. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Kirchhoff, P.
1943 Mesoamerica: sus límites geográficos, composición étnica y sus caracteres culturales. Acta Americana 1:92:107.
1954 Gatherers and Farmers in the Greater Southwest: A Problem in Classification. American Antiquity 29:529-550.
Lister, R. H.
1958 Archaeological Excavations in the Northern Sierra Madre Occidental, Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico.University of Colorado Studies, Series in Anthropology No 7. University of Colorado Press, Boulder.
Lumholtz, C. S.
1902 Unknown Mexico. 2 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Minnis, P. E.
1989 The Casas Grandes Polity in the International Four Corners. In The Sociopolitical Structure of Prehistoric Southwestern Societies, edited by S. Upham, K. G. Lightfoot, and R. A. Jewett, pp. 269-305. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
Noguera, E.
1926 Ruinas arqueológicas de Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. Secretaría de Educación Publica, Publicaciones 11(14), Mexico City.
1930 Ruinas arqueologicas del Norte de Mexico. Direccion de monumentos prehispanicos, pp. 5-27. Publicaciones de la Secretaria de Educacion Publica, Mexico City.
1958 Reconocimiento arqueológico en Sonora. Unpublished report No. 10, Dirección de monumentos prehispánicos, Mexico City.
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar
1993 Naufragios y Comentarios. Colección Austral, No. 304, Mexico.
Pailes, Richard A.
1972 Archaeological Reconnaissance of Southern Sonora and Reconsideration of the Rio Sonora Culture. Ph. D. dissertation for the Anthropology Department for the, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
1994 Recientes investigaciones arqueológicas en el sur de Sonora. Beatriz Braniff and Richard S. Felger (editors), Sonora: Antropologia del Desierto. 20 Aniversario, Noroeste de México # 12, INAH, Sonora, Mexico: 80-88.
Pollard, Helen P.
1997 Recent Research in West Mexican Archaeology. Journal of Archeological Research 5(4): 345-384.
Sauer, C. and D. Brand
1930 Pueblo Sites in Southeastern Arizona. University of California Publications in Geography 3(7):415-458.
1931 Prehistoric Settlements of Sonora with Special Reference to Cerros de Trincheras. University of California Publications in Geography 5(3):67-148. University of California, Berkeley.
Sayles, E. B.
1936 An Archaeological Survey of Chihuahua, Mexico. Medallion Paper 22. Gila Pueblo, Globe, AZ.
Villalpando, Elisa and Paul R. Fish
1997 Prefacio. In Prehistory of the Borderlands: Recent Research in the Archaeology of the Northern Mexico and the Southern Southwest, edited by John Carpenter and Guadalupe Sanchez, pp. ix-xi. Arizona State Museum Archaeological Series 186, University of Arizona, Tucson.