The Archaeology of Southeast Utah- Ruins, Rock Art, Museums, and Looters

28 June 2009

On our recent trip to southeast Utah my son and I visited many ruins and even more rock art panels.  We saw everything from archaic anthropomorphic petroglyphs to Barrier Canyon pictographs to mud handprints to cowboy graffiti from early last century. We spent a long afternoon at the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding. If you visit the area make it a point to stop at the museum for at least a couple of hours. It is built adjacent to a pueblo that has been extensively excavated and reconstructed.  There is even a kiva that you can enter. They have an amazing collection of artifacts including four Cottonwood plates that appear to have been made yesterday and four hafted stone knives, from the same cache, that are as well preserved as the plates. I have never seen wooden plates before, nor knives in this condition, from anywhere in the southwest.

Rock Art

Nicolai and I visited some of the more well-known panels close to Moab including Courthouse Wash panel, Moonflower panel and others along Kane Springs road, and one lesser-known panel north of town. The most impressive rock art on our trip was during our backpack on Cedar Mesa.


Rock art on boulder in Cedar Mesa canyon.

The panel at left was one of about 6 panels located on some very large boulders at the base of a ruin.  The ruin had about 15 rooms and a number of associated granaries, with other dwellings located nearby.  In all, within about a 300 meter radius, there were likely 25 or so rooms that could have been used as living quarters.  There were about 10 granaries in total associated with them.

The boulder in the photo has light patination. Most of the others are much darker.  The petroglyphs on the boulders and ruin walls include a few different human forms including horned anthropomorphs, kokopelli figures, and the Abajo-La Sal Style human form in this photo (see Sally Cole’s Legacy on Stone, page 159).  There were also bighorn sheep, spirals and concentric circles, zigzag lines or snakes, birds- turkey and quail, mazes or maps, a staff, and atlatls. This gives a short list of the elements visible on the panels at this ruin.  One could spend days or weeks exploring all the elements, their time spans, and meanings.


Initial and date graffiti on a rock used for grinding by the ancient inhabitants of this rock shelter.The rock shelter has the remnants of at least two granaries, as well as debris from years of use by cowboys.

Besides the petroglyphs the same location had mud handprints and initials and dates of cowboys that likely spent some time tending cattle in the canyon bottom. The photo above shows one of the initial and date sets.  It reads “EH”, with a date of 1914. I gather that EH was not entirely literate based on the backwards “9”. There are two other sets at this location, one dated 1914 and the other 1940.


Mud hand prints in Step Canyon.

A Few Words About Ruins


Nicolai peeks into one of the rooms.

The ruins in Grand Gulch in general are some of the best preserved that can be found.  Those we visited are well-preserved for the most part, with what might be described as medium-quality masonry, having solid walls with the fingerprints of the builders still visible.  Many doorways are still intact, with their pine lintels as if they were installed yesterday. I have stressed the importance of helping to preserve ruins and rock art to Nicolai since his first visit. When we visit I remind him about not climbing or leaning on, or even touching any of the ruin walls, and especially the rock art. He has already developed an appreciation for these irreplaceable cultural treasures, and an understanding of the importance of preserving the ruins, rock art, and artifacts in their original context for scientific purposes. He also understands that we are respectful of the old people and their descendants when we visit these places.


The big news during our trip came from the towns of Blanding and Monticello. On Wednesday, June 10th, the Feds arrested 24 people, mostly in Blanding and Monticello, for artifact theft.  There had been an undercover operation going on there for the last couple of years.  See the Salt Lake Tribune or LA Times article for the complete story. The names on the list included a teacher, David Lacy (who apparently had the same troubles in the past), James Redd, the local physician (who committed suicide the next day), and one of the more respected people in Blanding, the man in part respponsible for putting Blanding on the map- Harold Lyman. Lyman also helped protect the ruins and found the Edge of Cedars Museum. The locals were very upset, both in Blanding and Monticello, as many people in these small communities were impacted in some way by the arrests.  Some are claiming that the Feds used undue force when making the arrests, the same claim that was made after the last raid of the area 15 years back or so for the same reason.

There is never a less-than exciting moment when we visit southeast Utah.  I will watch as the story of the looters unfolds and include any news in future posts.


Final shot- Barrier Canyon pictographs at Courthouse Wash panel.

Another Illegal Growing Operation Found in SE Utah- Some Thoughts on Drugs and Guns

20 June 2009

I typically avoid discussing political or otherwise loaded subjects in my blog posts. However, as this one could directly impact me or anyone else who enjoys exploring our wilderness areas, I decided to address the topic with a quick post. My goal here is to provide information, and to convey my thoughts on the subject. It is up to the reader to decide their own course of action.

In recent months I have read a number of news articles online and heard a couple of reports on NPR regarding marijuana growing operations on public lands, and specifically in national parks. The phenomenon is nothing new- I recall news stories from even 30 years back about locals and their growing operations in Hawaii and California.  I had not thought much about it till recently, when one turned up in southeast Utah.  One person was arrested there, a Mexican national illegally in this country. Now another operation has been found- see the 17 June Salt Lake Tribune article. This one was abandoned, apparently due to lack of water.  Who was responsible for it was not mentioned in the story.

When I first heard about Mexican drug gangs using public lands in the United States for growing operations I could not believe that they had infiltrated our national parks.  Once I read how they operate, the damage they do, and the threat they pose, I felt angry. These are sophisticated operations, with full time gardeners, or “tenders” on hand.  They bring in food, supplies for the workers, equipment for irrigation, and fertilizer.  The tenders remain with their crops until the pot is harvested. Then when they are finished all the waste from their months of living on-site and debris from the operation is left in place.

One recent story on NPR talks about the problem in Sequoia National Forest. Another story tells of how a grad student was threatened at gunpoint by drug tenders as he did research in Plumas National Forest.  Take a look at the photos of one of the camps after the tenders have left.  Not what I want to find on my public lands, not to mention the threat that may confront me out there.

And now, since I am already on a heated topic, I have to mention the recent legislation to allow the carrying of firearms in National Parks.  Read a summary of it here, with lots of comments (mine can be seen around mid-May). I didn’t think much of it at first, other than wondering why it was being brought up again- I think it was President Reagan in the 1980’s who made it illegal to carry firearms in national parks, and I don’t think it has been an issue since then. Then I started reading about Mexican drug gangs using our wilderness for their operations. I am not sure if there is any correlation between the two, but the timing suggests there is. Now that the gangs are operating in southeast Utah I plan to take a closer look at the legislation, and the exact locations where the illegal operations have been found.

Regarding carrying a weapon while hiking, if I felt threatened in a wilderness area I had chosen to visit, I would reconsider and likely choose to visit somewhere else. There was a time when I would consider carrying  protection while backpacking.  It is something I have done, mostly years ago in the east, and only recently while I searched for missing fugitives (before I established that there was absolutely no threat posed by them).

Now I am faced with that decision again- I will not stop visiting southern Utah and other wilderness areas.  I will not stop searching out and exploring the most remote places I can find.  So, do I feel threatened by Mexican drug gangs? Not really, not yet. Do I need to think about carrying a weapon for protection? Maybe. Hmm… am I worried about every other yahoo packing weapons along with them into the bush, just because they can? Probably more than I’m worried about Mexican drug gangs.

Since I have really reached no conclusion here, I think I’ll just go back to Utah, unarmed for the time being.

A Cool and Windy Trip to Southeast Utah

17 June 2009

Nicolai and I have returned from our latest adventure in the desert and we are already preparing for the next, just weeks away. We had a great time, despite winds every day, clouds, cool temperatures, and a few light rain showers now and then. Happily, we were spared from torrential downpours, and flash floods.  Overall the weather was strange for this time of year.  We expected temperatures of 90 degrees and above, especially in the canyons, but the warmest days we experienced were right around 80 degrees.


Enjoying dinner during a windstorm.

The winds were the worst part for both of us, but my resourceful and prepared four year old son made me find his ski goggles for him just before we left saying something about the wind always blowing in Moab. I grudgingly dug them out and put them in his gear box, thinking it would be another item that would be unpacked without being touched. I was wrong and he was very happy that he had them. Windstorms didn’t keep him from having fun, or eating his dinner.

We camped at a few of our favorite sites along our route, and found a few new favorites, especially in the Moab area.  One of our long-time favorite camps we call Camp 158, after the number of the BLM road leading to it. It is right on the border of Canyonlands National Park. We spent two nights there, enjoying the long views west across Canyonlands and the Abajo Mountains and south to Navajoland, the sunsets, coyotes, and the near- full moon when it managed to emerge from behind the clouds.


Nicolai at sunset at Camp 158, near Canyonlands National Park.

We had some fun hikes including one in Moab in Courthouse Wash- we did this on a hot afternoon and took advantage of the cool water running through slickrock pools. We also hiked near Canyonlands in Hatch Ranch Canyon, and on Cedar Mesa in Step Canyon. The Step Canyon hike was an overnight.  We ended up walking about 7 hours each day, a lot of walking for a four year old. But he did great and was excited throughout the entire walk. We visited many ruins and looked at even more rock art panels on our hikes and around the Moab area.  I will discuss them more in an upcoming post.


Nicolai shows off a quartzite chopper he found lying on the slickrock.

As usual Nicolai spotted lithic artifacts everywhere- cores, scrapers, choppers, and lots of flakes. On our overnight his eyes were open for potsherds. They were easy to spot in the bottom of the wash, and when their frequency increased, it told us there was a ruin close by. We studied them thoroughly- the different forms of corrugated wares, the polychromes, and the painted black on white sherds that are his favorite. He made some sketches of the linear designs to paint on his own pots at home. We have been working on learning handbuilding techniques and firing our pots in the firepit in our backyard.

Nicolai studies potsherds on the edge of a midden.

Studying potsherds on the edge of a midden.

We did lots of exploration on dirt roads.  We managed to find our way to River House ruin and the main Butler Wash petroglyph panel via Comb Wash and the Mormon Trail.It was a fun drive in the Landcruiser and felt very different from the approach we are used to- by boat floating down the San Juan River. For those interested- if you do the drive you need a four wheel drive- the rocks and sand and wash driving demand it.


Princes Plume, seen on a the rim of White Mesa.

We studied and photographed a number of plants that we plan to post on the Desert Explorer website. We have been trying to add a new plant or mammal or lizard when we have the time, with the eventual goal of covering the more common flora and fauna of the Southwest desert.  We will soon add Prince’s Plume, Golden Currant, Mountain Mahogany, and Saltbush.

After our backpack on Cedar Mesa we drove down to Mexican Hat for breakfast, as we often do.  The Olde Bridge Grille has excellent American breakfasts- eggs, potatoes, toast, pancakes, and many forms of breakfast meat.

After breakfast we headed south to Monument Valley.  We had every intention of finding some mutton stew, but were unsuccessful. Next time we’ll drive on to Kayenta to be sure we find it.  We resupplied at Gouldings Market, and sat up near the park visitor’s center watching the mesas while we ate our lunch.  We walked around the new hotel and visitor’s center there- I always find them, and the visitors we encounter, nearly as interesting as the natural features we have come to visit. Busloads of  French and Russian tourists were visiting that afternoon.


Monument Valley, The Mittens.

Finally we headed back towards Moab and on towards I-70 for the drive home over the mountains. And now we are cleaning up and repacking for the next journey.