COOLIDGE, ARIZ. — The dusty parcel of land sits across from an ancient Indian ruin, on a former cotton field.
To Wal-Mart executives, it represents a prime site for a new retail store in their inexorable march across the United States. To archaeologists, it contains ruins that will help unlock mysteries behind one of the great prehistoric cultures of North America.
The fate of the 35-acre parcel in this Arizona town points up a growing national dispute over treatment of prehistoric sites on private land. Certain archaeological sites - those that come under federal purview - are protected. But private projects on private land are far less regulated.
"Archaeological sites are being destroyed every day," says Rob Criswell of the Archaeological Conservancy.
In Coolidge, Wal-Mart put its planned store on hold last month after the neighboring Gila River Indian Community and the Society of American Archaeology raised concerns about what's under the site. They've identified 900-year-old ruins and likely burials beneath a zone churned by decades of farming. "We know for a fact there are houses there," says Keith Kintigh, an archaeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Wal-Mart public affairs director Cynthia Lin says the Arkansas-based company was unaware of the concerns until recently.
The grandest remains of the prehistoric Hohokam culture stand across the road, at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
The Wal-Mart land sits between the Casa Grande ruins and an earlier Hohokam settlement, the Grewe site, a half mile east. Archaeologists now interpret the combination as a continuous population center lasting nearly 1,000 years. But sometime in the 11th century, the Grewe moved.
"Why the village moved and why it rose to such greatness are still unexplained puzzles," says Tucson archaeologist David Abbott. The Wal-Mart land might provide answers.
Dalton Cole, the farmer who sold the parcel for the Wal-Mart store, sold an adjacent 30 acres to the Archaeological Conservancy. As part of the deal, the conservancy promised not to oppose the store construction, says Mr. Cole. Now, however, Mr. Kintigh's group is asking Wal-Mart to choose another location or provide special testing and excavation. The company is weighing its options.