(ARIZONA REPUBLIC) -- At a conservation center in Tucson, archaeologists are studying several ancient Native American pots discovered earlier this year deep in the remote desert mountains of southern Arizona.
The archaeologists believe the pots are hundreds of years old but still haven't determined their exact age or who made them. That could take a year or more.
But what they do know is that the discovery of the pots was a rare and unusual find.
The reddish-brown pots, which likely stored water and food, were intact when they were found in mountainous alcoves of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which lies just north of the U.S.-Mexico border and west of the Tohono O'odham Reservation. Most of the ancient pottery found these days are shards.
Sitting on the surface in sandy soil, they had been undisturbed since they were carefully placed there by human hands.
What's more, the pots were discovered not by archaeologists digging through ruins, but by U.S. Border Patrol agents looking for signs of illegal immigrants hiding in the mountains.
"This is a one of a kind, for sure, these pots," said Mario Escalante, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which covers most of southern Arizona.
The discovery may have prevented the artifacts from falling into the hands of illegal pot hunters known to loot artifacts from Native American sites and sell them on the black market, said Sue Walter, chief of interpretation at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Won't reveal location
The pots were discovered as a result of Border Patrol agents increasingly trekking into remote reaches of the Arizona desert searching for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers trying to evade beefed-up border security, Escalante said.
Agents found the first vessel, a large pot 18 inches wide, in February in a mountainous area of the park.
In March, less than a month later, agents found three more clay vessels -- two pots and a bowl -- inside another alcove in the same area.
Border Patrol and National Park Service officials won't divulge any details about the area where the pots were found. They don't want to attract illegal pot hunters trying to find more artifacts.
About 95 percent of the 330,688-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated wilderness.
"These particular pots were found in a very remote area. They are areas we don't get to on a regular basis. It was a real stroke of luck," said Connie Gibson, the park's archaeologist and cultural-resources program manager.
There are "thousands and thousands of alcoves" in the park, and the pots "apparently sat there undisturbed for hundreds of years, possibly a thousand years," she said.
Archaeologists believe the first pot found by Border Patrol agents was an olla used for holding water.
It was found partially buried in the soil in a little depression, Gibson said.
The three other artifacts were found clustered together inside a second alcove. They were two pots about 12 inches wide and one small bowl, Gibson said.
The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is known for the multi-armed cactuses that resemble organ pipes, or giant hands emerging from the ground, fingers reaching for the sky.
The area was once a major cultural center and crossroads for the Hohokam, the prehistoric people who occupied the land that is now central and southern Arizona.
But the park is also a popular corridor for smuggling illegal immigrants and drugs because of its extremely remote location and desolate mountains, which provide opportunities to evade law-enforcement officials.
In August 2002, National Park Service Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed while chasing members of a drug-cartel hit squad who fled into the United States after committing a string of murders in Mexico, according to park officials. The park's visitor center was later renamed in honor of Eggle.
A 2003 National Geographic article labeled the park "the most dangerous" in the U.S.
The illegal cross-border activity forced the National Park Service to close 97 percent of the park, leaving only the visitor center and the campground open to the public, said Walter, the park's chief of interpretation.
But the addition of more Border Patrol agents, fencing, technology and other security measures has allowed the park to gradually reopen more areas, she said.
About 50 percent of the park is now open to the public, she said.
'Fine balance' displayed
Illegal immigrants often hide in caves, said Escalante, the Border Patrol spokesman.
That is what prompted agents from the Border Patrol's Ajo station to examine the area while on a foot patrol, Escalante said.
The pots' reddish-brown color made them blend in with the soil, making them difficult to detect inside the alcoves, Border Patrol officials said.
The agents recognized that the objects were some sort of Indian artifacts, Escalante said.
The agents took pictures of the pots without disturbing the area, then reported the discoveries later to supervisors, Escalante said.
The agents' foresight showed "fine balance between conducting law enforcement activities and preserving our nation's historical natural resources," Jack Jeffreys, the Ajo station's patrol agent in charge, said in a statement.
After a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, who trace their ancestors to the Hohokam, conducted a ceremony, National Park Service archaeologists removed the pots and transported them to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, which is administered by the National Park Service.
The center, which is not open to the public, contains more than 24,000 artifacts found on national parks and monuments in the western region.
Sue Wells, the center's museum curator, was reluctant to talk about the pots for fear of stirring interest from pot hunters.
Pot hunting is illegal on state and federal land, and looters face stiff penalties, she said.
"It is a bad idea to plant in people's minds," she said.
Archaeologists at the center are still trying to identity the pots, Wells said. She did not know how long that could take.
Finding intact pots is very unusual, said Patrick Lyons, associate director and head of collections at the Arizona State Museum. "It might be every 10 years."
The discovery is significant because pottery can tell us "lots and lots of things about ancient people," he said.
Through residue analysis, archaeologists can often determine what was cooked or stored in pots, revealing information about the diets of ancient people, he said.
For example, in 2009, University of New Mexico archaeology professor Patricia Crown concluded that cocoa had been brought to the American Southwest as early as about A.D. 1100 after finding traces of the ingredient for making chocolate in clay shards from drinking cups found in Chaco Canyon, ancient ruins in western New Mexico.
That discovery indicated that people living in the American Southwest 900 to 1,000 years ago had contact with people living thousands of miles away in Central America.
"Pretty amazing stuff," Lyons said.
Studying the pots' clay can also tell archaeologists important information about where they were made.
That's because pots found in one place may not have been made by the people who inhabited that area, Lyons said.
"There was a lot of exchange of pottery in the prehistoric era and that marks relationships between different groups of prehistoric people," he said.
He said the pots likely belonged to various groups of prehistoric tribes based in the area where they were found, including the Hohokam and the Tohono O'odham.
But determining who made them is difficult even if they look similar to other pots found in the same area.
Ancient people from different groups often traded pots, he said. Ancient people also copied pots from other cultures. They also carried pots with them when they migrated to new areas, Lyons said.
"We investigate all of those possibilities using different kinds of scientific techniques," Lyons said.
As for the pots found by the Border Patrol agents, archaeologists are still in the process of trying to identity them, Wells said.
That could take several more months or longer, she said. Eventually, however, the pots could go on display at a museum, she said.