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Deer Valley Rock Art Center is much more than a museum

museum entrance sign
March 09, 2010

Kim Arth never knows who will be waiting to greet her when she arrives at work. Perhaps it will be Mabel the snake, with her babies. Or one of the resident Great Horned Owls, who fly so silently you don’t even know they are there. Or maybe a tarantula.

Obviously, Arth doesn’t work at a high-rise office building in the center of town, or even a building on one of ASU’s four campuses.

She’s director of ASU’s Deer Valley Rock Art Center – which, it could be argued, is ASU’s fifth campus location.

Located just two miles west of the I-17 freeway, nestled into the foot of the Hedgpeth Hills, the Rock Art Center is home to more than 1,500 Native American petroglyphs made between 800 and 5,000 years ago.

As the Rock Art Center celebrates its 15th anniversary, Arth took a few moments to reflect on the center’s past, present and future.

Archaeologists have long had their eye on the Hedgpeth Hills site. When an extensive flood control project was planned for the area in the 1970s, in the wake of severe flooding, all interested parties came together to talk about the fate of the petroglyphs.

According to a history of the DVRAC, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office, the Flood Control District of Maricopa County and other governmental agencies signed an agreement to limit the dam’s impact on the site in 1976.

Four years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sponsored archaeological fieldwork (carried out by the Museum of Northern Arizona) to record the petroglyphs and to develop a plan for protecting the site.

The archaeologists’ report recommended the development of a small museum and controlled access to the site, and fortunately the Corps agreed, recognizing the project as an opportunity to promote archaeological research and education in one location.

The Deer Valley Rock Art Center thus became the first public education and curation facility established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Phoenix architect Will Bruder was hired to design the building, and in 1984, ASU’s School of Human and Evolution and Social Change was selected to operate and maintain the facility. Maricopa County’s Flood Control District remains the legal owner of the property.

Today, the DVRAC is much more than a rock art site or museum.

“It’s a community gathering place – a place for dialogue and celebration,” Arth said. “It’s no longer just a small university museum.”

The Rock Art Center embodies ASU President Michael Crow’s mandate that the university be “embedded in the community,” she added.

“We give tours to school kids – 4,000 students a year come here. We hope they will come back with their children.

“We’ve just added an education staff member who is devoted to adult and kids’ programming. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can earn their archaeology badges here, and we offer architecture tours too.”

Recently, DVRAC started renting its facility for wedding and corporate meetings. “We’re working with the Peoria Sports Complex and the Phoenix Coyotes and the two hotels close to us," Arth said. “We send our guests to them, and they can come here for meetings.”

Arth, who served in the Peace Corps in Niger and earned her master’s degree in anthropology with an emphasis in museum education at ASU, has been working to expand both local and international connections.

She directs an enthusiastic group of volunteers, now numbering nearly 60, who guide tours, lead the center’s storytime for children, help with lectures, summer camps and exhibits, trim trees and assist with mailings and write grant proposals.

“Some are artists, novelists or carpenters. They find projects that lend themselves to their interests and talents. I’m amazed daily at people’s hidden talents. They give so freely of their time, making this institution what it is. We have wonderful, loyal volunteers.”

The DVRAC also has formed partnerships with other museums and organizations, and with Native American tribes.

The Hualapai Tribe, for example, puts on a traditional agave roast each spring at DVRAC, and will be featured at the 2011 statewide Archaeology Expo, which DVRAC will host.

The center is also home to the American Rock Art Research Association’s library and archives, and its holdings include some of the artifacts recovered during the excavations that preceded the construction of the Adobe, New River and Cave Creek dams.

Because of the American Rock Art Research Association’s presence, there is a lot of communication with other rock art research programs internationally, Arth said.

“We exchange ideas. There is rock art in Portugal, for example. Rock art is a universal finding. It’s all over the world, with very similar symbols. There’s a similarity in the human symbols and spirals, that peck in the rocks, whatever it was.”

For Arth, the job of directing the Rock Art Center was a perfect match. “I didn’t want to teach in a classroom,” she said. “I wanted to create knowledge in different ways.”