Human side of region's prehistory comes to light with careful research
She died young, a long, long time ago.
Today her old bones repose neatly on a clean white sheet in the archaeology lab at the USU-CEU Prehistoric Museum. The skeleton is fairly complete, providing good evidence that she was of the Fremont culture. That research - the fine detail work, painstaking study and meticulous cataloging - are parts of the museum's mission the public doesn't see.
"What you see on display is only a tenth of our repository," states Renee Barlow, the museum's Curator of Archaeology. The science behind the exhibits includes about 750,000 items. The skeleton is just one of these relics.
"The bones indicate a female, 18 to 20 years old," says Barlow. Shape, arrangement and root structure of teeth tell that the girl's ancestors originated in East Asia somewhere along a broad swath running from central China into Siberia.
Although she was young, her molars had been worn down, indicating that she was chewing sand grains along with lots of ground maize. Manos and metates in this area were sandstone.
Grave artifacts further identify Fremont culture.
Barlow says regional tribal authorities have to be notified in accordance with NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. The law was written to prevent grave robbing and desecration of sacred or culturally important sites. These particular remains weren't stolen, Barlow notes. They were accidentally exposed during pipeline excavation on BLM land in Juab County.The museum is cooperating with the BLM in accordance with NAGPRA.
Aside from the law, there's also basic, common respect underlying the science. That's why Barlow asks that the skeleton not be photographed for newspaper publication. "We're European," she explains. "In our culture, the spirit leaves the body at death, so all that's left is the husk." For Native Americans, there's something spiritual left after death, she continues, adding that even for those of European descent, "You wouldn't want your own grandmother put on display."
The respect is not limited to human remains only. It extends to all the cultural remnants in the museum's archaeological collection. Gloved hands manipulate specimens. Glues and fiber bindings are chosen to last for a half century or more and won't affect the chemistry of the artifacts.
Barlow notes that the rooms holding specimens are controlled for temperature and humidity and lights have ultraviolet filters, as well. It reminds one of the measures taken to protect art masterpieces, except for the fact that many of these items predate the European Renaissance by thousands of years. More than a few are as old or older than the pyramids of Egypt.
The curator says the museum's repository includes items left by Paleoindians more than 10,000 years ago. Those were the days when this region was a zoo without cages, where big, hairy, scary things roamed about freely. A scene from that time was portrayed by artist Joe Venus 10 years ago in the big mural near the entry of the archaeological section of the museum.
As she walks down the aisles between the movable shelves of the lab, Barlow introduces the artifacts as if they were old friends. "These are split twig figurines," she says, as she holds up two small plastic bags containing tiny, woven animal figures. "They're Archaic, from the Barrier Canyon Culture, 3,000 to 5,000 years old."
Lots of pots adorn the shelves. Here's where research has revealed an interesting story. It appears that ancient Native Americans may have conducted something like wide-ranging Tupperware parties way back when.
Barlow explains that different designs, clay and coloring indicate pots originating around the Great Salt Lake or Arizona have been found in this region, which hints there was a flourishing pottery exchange going on.
Music was part of the Fremont Culture. A wooden flute found in Range Creek a few years ago has been dated back to the 1300s. Fixing the date was not easy, explains Barlow. It involved something called "optically stimulated luminescence." A researcher had to analyze about 1,000 sand grains in the flute and the site where it was found to show that the sand was deposited gradually over hundreds of years and not all at once.
There's plenty more. A weaving comb and shuttles for a hand loom, sandals and moccasins, digging sticks for prying up roots or planting maize, and arrow shafts and arrow heads - all neatly labeled. Even beads get labels.
Archaeologists are the most detail-oriented people you'll meet, declares preparator Yvonne Wilson. Wilson - whose resume includes a BS in Geology and work at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh - is familiar with detail work. She once had to reassemble an apatosaurus (formerly known as brontosaurus) thigh bone that had been broken by an outside researcher.
Her current project involves labeling pottery and fragments for a display to be shown at the Holiday Inn in Price.
She and Barlow are quick to note that it doesn't take an advanced degree to take part in scientific work. As long as a volunteer can take directions, the museum staff will train. With three-quarters of a million things to keep track of and preserve and protect, there's no shortage of work. They even gave out the phone number: 613-5765.