Archaeology Above Ground – Bears Ears, Utah, USA

Recently, I spent several days in at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, close to the Colorado River, exploring the survival of archaeological evidence in a dry climate. The National Monument takes its name from a pair of buttes (hills) that rise to elevations over 8,900 feet (2,700 m) and 9,000 feet (2,700 m), and originally comprised of 1,351,849 acres (547,074 ha).

Fig 1. The Bears Ears (the two ‘buttes’ in the distance).

These buttes and their surroundings have long been held as sacred or significant by a number of the region’s Native American communities. The names listed in the Presidential Proclamation that established the National Monument are from various languages that are used in the region: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe—all four mean ‘Bears Ears’. The occupation of these lands by indigenous peoples has provided a rich archaeological resource, and many of the estimated 100,000 sites protected within the monument in 2016 can be dated to more than 3,500 years, although a significant number must be older. The majority of these sites are ‘pre-Colombian’, being occupied before Columbus ‘discovered’ and reported on the ‘New World’, and is seen as the end of North American prehistory (where as that of England ends in 55BC with Julius Caesar’s book the ‘The Gallic Wars’).

Being guided by a group of professionally qualified Native American archaeologists, employed by the Navajo Nation, we were able to follow ancient tracks through the desiccated landscape, careful not to impinge on the archaeology. These broad trails have been worn over centuries, and indicate the main routes for changing dwelling sites when local resources had been exhausted. Most settlements of each period were placed on top of the buttes where vegetation grew more abundantly, and because the entrenched rivers in deep canyons were too steep to access.  The ephemeral dwelling sites of nomadic peoples leave little evidence as the scarce resources needed for every physical activity were transported from site to site. The only significant ‘gift’ to the archaeologist comes from midden deposits consisting of damaged artefacts, and food remains, thrown on a heap someway from the main inhabitation.

Fig 2. The remains of a midden.

Besides its aesthetics, pottery is a good indicator of the cultural development of a people in terms of the techniques of firing, the form of the vessels reflecting increasing diversity ways of eating and storage, the complexity of decoration, and its subject matter. The vessels found in the region around Bears Hills are typical in the development of pottery in the south-western United States. Up until 500AD the region was aceramic (no pottery was made), with containers largely of basketwork. Many pottery sherds of different dates from ancient middens are found in the same location may be years, decades or centuries apart, suggesting groups returning to the site depending on how much time was needed to let the natural resources recover from occupation of a settlement.  The whole effect was a palimpsest of features that had been formed during three thousand years or longer. The lack of pottery could be dated after c.1350AD indicates that all settlements in the area were abandoned.

The other artefacts found on the weathered surface were largely of stone, but no metals, as there was no tradition of metal working. Flint was rare, being traded from locations far away, and hoarded for its important uses in the skinning and cutting up of animals, as well as the production of weapons for hunting.

Fig 3. A basket decorated just with 16 cm mouth

An abiding memory will be following the narrow tracks which radiated out from these settlement sites, sometimes to a view point, often of the Bears Hills, or a prominent strangely shaped rock. However, some non-descript boulders seemed to have a great significance to the previous inhabitants over a long time as seen in the heavily worn, embedded trails.  Our guides gave these features great respect as tradition related them as important sacred places, and a focus for rituals. One rock was connected to a tribal origin myth which had elements of the Adam and Eve fable. Instead of a tree and an apple, it was this rock that was the focus of the loss of innocence.

Protecting the archaeology

The American Antiquities Act of 1906 made the taking of artefacts from public land a felony. The Archaeological Act of 1979 redefined the removal of archaeological resources from public and Indian lands. The resources protected include pottery, basketry, weapons, tools, structures, rock paintings and carvings, graves, and human skeletal remains. Criminal penalties, upon conviction, start at no more than $10,000 and imprisonment for not more than a year, or both, but can escalate to $100,000 and five years if damage and subsequent violation are involved.

There is still looting and damage, both deliberate and accidental, taking place, as such a wide area is difficult to police. To prevent inadvertent injury to artefacts, sites and the landscape as a whole, there is a campaign run by the, now voluntary, guardians of the region. The free ‘Visit with Respect: Tips to Enjoy and Preserve Archaeological Sites’ pamphlet from the simple information centre sums up the nature of, and the threats to, the Bears Hill historic environment.

The politics

Cultural and natural resources carry special meaning to Native Americans and are integral to the shared American ‘story’. On December 28, 2016, President Obama used his powers under the Act of 1906 to designate 1,351,849 acres (547,074 ha) the Bears Ears National Monument, Heritage has always been a contested concept, and the proclamation polarised the Navajo Nation, and environmentalists, against and the mainly Republican voting ‘white settlers’, who were concerned about the Monument’s effect on future mining opportunities. On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump ordered an 85 percent reduction in the size of the Monument, reversing the perceived cultural and natural value in favour of economic priorities. Presidents Trump’s actions have been seen as illegal by a number preservation groups as well as the peoples who make up the Navajo Nation, and are being challenged. With the reduction of funding, the information centre is maintained on a voluntary basis, rather than as a permanent fully-professionally staffed Visitor Centre, but hopefully, whatever the outcome, the ethnology and archaeology of the indigenous peoples respected and professionally investigated.

Tim Copeland

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