Archaeologists unearth ancient treasures in Range Creek
Renee Barlow was born in New Jersey, but her heart is in Range Creek.
The College of Eastern Utah curator of archaeology jumped at the chance to work at the prehistoric museum last year because she knew she would be doing exactly what she was doing when talked about the 2009 summer dig.
The site where Barlow, students and volunteers have been putting in a lot of hard work in the last two months may have initially looked like a pile of rocks and branches.
But when archaeologists started to survey the canyon for signs of ancient habitation, the site popped up due to what had ended up on the bottom of the hill on which it is located.
"I was working here with a team and other teams to locate all the sites we could find," said Barlow as she hunched over the work going on in the pit that has been uncovered since the beginning of June. "We found some artifacts at the bottom of the hill, kind of washed down there. Once we were able to really look at where they came from and dug a test pit, I knew I wanted to excavate this site some day."
The test pit happened to end up right in the hearth of the dwelling, which was long since unidentifiable except to the trained eye.
Ashes at the bottom of the pit showed there had been habitation on the site so that's the reason work has begun on unearthing it.
"So far, we have uncovered two levels of habitation. The first is about 1000 years old," said Barlow as she pointed to an upper dirt shelf in the dig. "The second, down here, is 1,200 years old. And we have found over 500 artifacts already and we aren't even close to being done with it."
Barlow indicated that there could be older levels below, but the team members won't know until they dig deeper. So far, the workers have only uncovered what she thinks is about the front third of the site.
"It looks like to me, the way the debris field is set as we have dug, there is more to this," said Barlow as she pointed about 20 feet behind where the present excavation pit is located, "It appears there was a large wall of some sort at the back of this and it got pushed down over the years and collapsed toward the front where we are working now."
That means plenty more work for the team since the overburden covering the top layer was about 18 to 24 inches under rock and dirt that has been molded together like cement.
"Who knows what we might find back there," commented Barlow.
Digs can prove a lot of things and, when logic and supposition are applied to supposition are applied to the facts, researchers get an idea of how the people who lived in an ancient structure survived.
"Look at these projectile points," she said as she held up some specimens they had collected. "This type of material only exists on Skyline Drive, in Wasatch Plateau. It migrated here in some way."
Then she held out a piece of fine turquoise jewelry and said they had found that at the 1200 year old level. A very small piece, but worked turquoise it was nonetheless.
"This came from New Mexico," she said. Pottery shards found prove that the vessels used by the people living there did not all just come from the canyon in which they dwelled.
"This one is interesting because there are two different pottery types sitting on the same floor (level)," said Barlow as she held two shards in her hands. "This is applique which is typically Fremont, and a very pretty one is emery gray pottery type. This suggests, like most of our artifacts, that these people were linked to the people out on the San Rafael Swell. This jar (referring to the other shard) which was just over this way sitting on the floor is Uintah gray which suggest trader exchange or some kind of social link to the people up in the Vernal area. Those are two different Fremont groups (trading)." The people who live in Range Creek were obviously not isolated, but in contact with people possibly clear out to the Pacific Coast.
"This appears to be a family dwelling we are digging in," she said. "This just wasn't a hunting post." Barlow then held out a round stone, so round it was probably used as a toy ball or in some kind of game.
Based on what the team is finding the people that lived here were not nomadic but fairly fixed in where they lived. They grew corn, but also hunted and the fished. When asked about how the team knew these things the whole group laughed.
"We were just discussing that this morning," she said as she held up what would look like a rock to most people. "This was found down there at the bottom of the hill on the flat. It is an ancient hoe."
Barlow also said that they have sunk a test pit in the middle of the flat and found layer after layer of ashes with soils separating them. "Obviously they would harvest, then burn to reconstitute the soil," she said.
She has submitted the charcoal found in the valley along with some pollen tests that are used to check on the age of the substances, which she is trying to tie to the habitation sites dates.
The hunting part was also known because they found dear bones in the debris.
"As for fishing we actually found some fine fish bones in here as well," she said proudly. "Fish bones seldom hold up during the time since a structure like this was abandoned. The are small and fine, but obviously they are fish bones. But we don't know what kind of fish yet."
Barlow says there are many ways including of course carbon dating (which has been done on the lower level), soil levels based on weather, and tree rings in old trees used in the structure building process. In recent years other processes have also been developed.
In 2003 when it was announced to the world that an almost completely unspoiled canyon with ancient Indian ruins existed in the Bookcliffs east and south of Price, the media of the planet descended on the town and eventually got a trip up the canyon. Many were disappointed that the place didn't look like a 17th century Mesa Verde, with huge structures under cliffs and complete pottery laying right on the ground. Instead they found sites they were told held treasures, but many of those treasures weren't obvious. Some went away grumbling, and since then the canyon gets an article here and a television special there, but for the most part the spotlight has moved onto other things.
But for the archaeologists working in the canyon today, that's okay. They can do their work quietly and succinctly, as they learn about the ancient people who once lived in a canyon the modern world calls Range Creek.
Editors note: This is the first of three articles on Range Creek and the archaeological work that is being done by the CEU Prehistoric Museum.