Signs in Nine Mile Canyon point to various ancient cultures inhabiting Range Creek
While the media focused on the long gone Fremont habitations in Range Creek when the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the state of Utah bought the area from rancher Waldo Wilcox many years ago, the surface of the relics, sites and even the others that may have lived there had barely been touched.
The canyon, which boasts hundreds of recorded Fremont sites, and possibly thousands of non-recorded ones, has also been a gathering place for others. The group called Archaic people lived in the canyon at one time, although much of what they did there is now gone.
"The transition between the Archaic and Fremont peoples took place 1,500 to 2,000 years ago," said Renee Barlow, the archaeological curator for the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum during a media trip to the canyon. "That's really the transition (time) into (the) Fremont (culture). You have what looks like a local transition (with ) Archaic people adopting all the traits over about a 500-700 year period that becomes what we call Fremont. However, first they took up the bow and arrow. Then pottery doesn't come until 600-700 A.D."
It appears the Fremont's culture grew out of the Archaic peoples population, but when guessing about a group with no known written history, nothing is defined for sure.
Barlow, who has been conducting a dig on a habitation site in Range Creek this summer has been working in the canyon for many years and probably knows it better than any other archaeologist, although many others from various universities and museums have worked in the canyon too.
The change from Archaic peoples, which were considered to probably be hunters and gatherers to the Fremont, a group which did those same things but also added farming skills, took some time.
"It was a slow accumulation of all those traits," said Barlow, adding that pottery also was introduced during the Fremont culture. "I don't know where each one of them actually comes in yet. We actually have many more questions than answers."
The Fremont occupied the canyon for hundreds of years, and much of their activity, which is demonstrated by various man made structures and rock art, obliterated a lot of what came before.
Tying all of the Fremont links together, while trying to sort out other peoples who came before and after (possibly Ute Indian occupations) can be difficult, although characteristics of what people leave behind can define periods of habitation fairly well.
Beyond the dig of this summer, the canyon has a myriad of man created sites, many of them very well intact, especially up on the cliffs.
"I had to learn to rappel to get to many of those granaries," said Barlow. "I was lucky I had some good guys teach me so I can get into those areas."
The granaries found in the canyon are considered to be Fremont, based on what has been found inside the structures.
"When we first started to survey the canyon in 2002 right after the purchase, we had several volunteer crews here from different places," said Barlow. "So we had a giant army of 15 to 30 people on any given day and we started surveying and recording sights. We wrote a research design and grant proposal in 2002 and I decided then that we had three main types of sights in the canyon. There were habitation sights, there were rock art sights and then there were the granaries. So that left us with three main categories of investigation and I was particularly interested in the granaries. We started a systematic inventory of those in 2003 and developed a granary recording form."
During that time, Barlow learned how to collect pollen so dating of corn and materials in granaries could be accurately conducted. During the explorations she has found several farming villages.
"I wanted to reach out to the farming communities because I had been studying maze farming for about 15 years among the Fremont and had completed my dissertation about 10 years earlier. So I wanted to link in storage activities with farming in this canyon and I got two research grants. We started to see a pattern. We recorded about 157 granaries and we've got four different kinds," she explained
Barlow said the kinds include small slab line types that are low on the hillsides, usually under the first ledge of the canyon walls. Most of those are in the lower canyon and date to the early period of the Fremont.
The other types of granaries are in the cliffs. These are usually 500 to 700 feet up, but some may extend up to 1,800 feet above the valley floor. Some are in the first cliff bend, but many are in the fifth through seventh cliff bend. The structures are larger and usually hold about 30 basket loads of grain. However, some hold as muck as 90 loads.
"These granaries are three, four, even 10 times the size of earlier granaries," explained Barlow. "These all baseline between 900 and about 1060 A.D. After 1060 A.D., it looks like they abandoned them. But during that period, they put almost all their grain in those structures."
Barlow also said that period looks like a time of expansion of habitation as well.
"It looks like during that period they went from occupying a few sights to 40 or 50 sights. There are sites from the Green River all the way up and maybe even into the Bruin Point area."
Barlow said there are sites in the canyon where the habitation was thick, especially in places around Locomotive Rock. Some visitors say the sites are almost like modern condominiums in terms of being built one after another on a hillside.
The corn been found in many of the granaries has been fascinating to Barlow.
"During the formative periods in the southwest, there were a handful of different varieties of maize," noted Barlow. "We have one that is indigenous to the Fremont area. It looks like it developed here locally, sometime between 200 B.C. and about 500 to 700 A.D. For some reason, a strain was developed here that is actually a starchier and much larger variety of corn. It looks a lot like the feed corn. That's the closest thing that we have around today like it. Zut there are some indigenous varieties grown by the Tarmahara in Northern Mexico and a couple of other places that are kind of similar to it."
As with pottery, projectile points and jewelry, Barlow believes corn was imported from other areas. In addition, there were other kinds of foodstocks.
"I found gourd and some of that gourd is green striped steel," she said. "We think there is squash and we think there are beans to, because Waldo Wilcox said he saw beans (at the sites when he owned the property). I haven't seen any yet but we think they also had beans here as well."
One questions that arises from people who visit southwest canyons with granaries is how the corn and foodstocks got to the structures after being harvested. Barlow indicated that the Fremont had more advanced technology than carrying baskets full of corn on their heads up steep cliffs.
"I found a log with a groove in it (near a granary) and when we started looking at it you could tell that the groove had come from the rubbing of some kind of rope across it," said Barlow. "It seemed obvious that people weren't carrying the corn up to the granary there, but would raise it from a lower level to the granary."
Range Creek has enough sites and ancient places to keep archaeologists busy for hundreds of years.
But these early pieces of the puzzle about who the Fremont were, where they came from and what happened to them are important building blocks that Barlow and other archaeologists are providing for future generations of explorers.
Editors note: Today's article is the final installment in a three-part series about Range Creek and the archaeological work that is being conducted in the area by the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum.