Geocacher Finds Ancient Yavapai Indian Jar

By Joanna Dodder Nellans, The Daily Courier, 4/18/11

When Dave Kurr was a kid exploring the hills north of Prescott with his friends, he was bummed out when they would find arrowheads and he never did.

It took him until he was 43 years old to find an Indian artifact, but he’s made up for it by finding an amazingly rare ceramic jar on the Prescott National Forest.

And instead of keeping it to show his friends, he chose to do the right thing by leaving it where it was and reporting it to archaeologists, so everyone could learn more about the people who created it.

Yavapai Indian Jar

Dave Kurr and his family admire a rare Yavapai Indian jar Kurr found on the Prescott National Forest. Courtesy of Joanna Dodder/The Daily Courier

“It’s not going to do me any good in my house,” Kurr said. “I thought it would be more beneficial to them.”

Kurr found an intact clay jar used by the Yavapai people long ago. Realizing that the location of an artifact is important to understanding it, he photographed it, marked its coordinates on his GPS and left it in place.

Then he looked around on the Internet to find an archaeologist he could tell about his find. He located Kelley Ann Hays-Gilpin, an expert on Northern Arizona pottery who teaches archaeology at Northern Arizona University and is chair of anthropology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

“He’s an angel, because he did the right thing,” Hays-Gilpin said. “He’s just been so generous.

“He just knew that was for everybody, and for the Yavapai descendants.”

But Kurr had no idea just how rare the jar is.

It’s called a Tizon Wiped jar, and only a handful are known to exist.

“It doesn’t get much rarer than that,” Hays-Gilpin said.

It’s probably the first time someone has found something like this on the Prescott National Forest and turned it in.

“To find one pretty much whole is phenomenal,” said Elaine Zamora, an archaeologist on the Prescott National Forest who helped relocate the jar and bring it to the forest offices in Prescott. “It’s a thrill to see it.”

Kurr, now a resident of Scottsdale, was geocaching near the Pine Mountain Wilderness Area when he found the jar. Geocaching is like a treasure hunt in which one person hides a container in a remote area and puts the GPS coordinates online, then others try to find it.

So Kurr was walking off-trail where few people travel, looking in places that few people look. He had hiked 11 miles when he thought he might have found the geocache he was seeking, under a rock overhang.

Instead, he found an earthen jar that a Yavapai Indian had left there perhaps centuries ago.

“I just knew it was clay, and it was old,” Kurr said. “And I couldn’t believe how thin it was.

“If I would not have been looking for a geocache, I never would have found it.”

It was in the perfect spot to weather the ages, archaeologists said.

“It was well protected from the elements, or we would have found a bunch of pieces,” Zamora said. “Someone stashed it there. They probably intended to come back to get it.” Hays-Gilpin agreed.

“Somebody protected it by putting it in those rocks… but they didn’t come back,” she said.

When Kurr recently brought his children and other family members to see the jar at the Prescott National Forest office, they pondered who might have left the jar in the rocks so many years ago.

“I’d just love to know the story behind it,” Kurr’s wife, Jennifer, said.

“I think it’s the coolest thing ever,” said Kurr’s sister Carolyn, who still lives in Prescott. “It just has such presence.”

A bedrock food-grinding site is not far away from the spot where the jar was sitting, so it’s possible that someone was storing food they had ground up nearby. Or, they might have been storing berries or water they collected.

Judging by all the soot on it, someone might have been using it for cooking, too, Zamora said. The context of the site might eventually help experts narrow the possibilities.

No good dating methods exist for the jar itself, Hays-Gilpin said. It could date anywhere from about 1400 to 1890.

“This was everyday pottery for the Yavapai people,” Hays-Gilpin said. “Every Yavapai family had a couple of those.

“We know the Yavapai made and used that kind of pottery for hundreds of years, but there are not very many intact.”

That’s because the jars are so fragile, and the Yavapai people were hunter-gatherers who moved around a lot.

It’s called a “wiped” jar because its maker wiped or scraped it with something like coarse grass or a corncob while it was still wet, Hays-Gilpin explained. That would help thin the walls evenly, provide a texture for easy gripping, and protect it against abrasion and thermal shock from repeated heating during cooking.

It’s the first Tizon Wiped jar Hays-Gilpin has ever seen, and she is highly impressed at how skilled its maker was at shaping and firing it.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s just beautiful. It’s plain, but it has a very elegant shape.

“To me, it’s a marvel of engineering.”