Archaeologists are conducting a series of excavations to uncover and save Grand Canyon artifacts before some wash away.
Forty years after the last major digs, archaeologists with the National Park Service and the Museum of Northern Arizona are in the process of uncovering the last of nine archaeological sites along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, with most about 1,000 years old. While the Park Service typically prefers to leave such artifacts in place, there are about 60 sites — out of a known 4,150 throughout the park — where artifacts are being undercut by water, or otherwise unearthed by wind, topography and a lack of protective sand, which is largely held back from Glen Canyon Dam, said Lisa Leap, an archeologist at the park.
“In general, you can say the lack of sediment is causing increased erosion,” Leap said, because it typically acts to cover the artifacts.
At one site, photographs show food-grinding stones that had fallen into the shallow areas of the Colorado River, and this is not unheard of, Leap said.
Along with the excavation of gaming pieces, pottery, a kiva and even a bone from a bison, sediment is also being mapped, leading to the most complete picture of flooding in the Grand Canyon since the last ice age, said Jan Balsom, a deputy chief of science at the park.
The digs began in 2006 and have employed as many as 80, sometimes in high wind, sandstorms, and 90-degree temperatures. The workers wear goggles as they screen the floors and former trash piles of ruins for pottery sherds and other artifacts.
Archaeologists have found evidence that the so-called Puebloan (preferred over the sometimes objectionable term “Anasazi”) people inhabiting the banks of the Colorado grew cotton, might have played games, harvested pinyon nuts, and grew squash and corn.
Some regional tribes, including Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai and Southern Paiute, claim ancestral ties to the prehistoric people of the Grand Canyon, Leap said.
The cotton was a new and exciting find, said Museum of Northern Arizona archeologist Ted Neff, because this would be one of the few locations in northern Arizona where it might survive, though farming other crops was quite the norm here.
“One of the things we’re learning is that the folks that lived along the river corridor were very similar to farmers that were living elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau,” Neff said.
The peak years, when the most humans inhabited the Grand Canyon, occurred from about A.D. 1000 to about A.D. 1250, though population estimates are difficult to calculate, Neff said.
Archaeologists have found that settlements were occupied steadily for years, sometimes abandoned, then re-occupied.
Artifacts in the Grand Canyon date back about 10,000 to 12,000 years, to what’s called the Paleoindian period, when mobile bands of people hunted such animals as mountain goats, ground sloths and bison and gathered wild plants, according to National Park Service research.
Only two sites this old have been found in the Grand Canyon, and they are rare in the Southwest.
By about A.D. 500, the canyon’s inhabitants became more sedentary, thanks to farming, and began building granaries and pottery.
Subsequently, subterranean homes and caves became more developed dwellings, with food storage and more rooms, in the style of small villages.
By A.D. 1300, semi-nomadic Pai and Paiute hunters, gatherers and traders were also occupying the river corridor.
A member of the Pueblo Zuni tribe was on site when archaeologists unexpectedly unearthed a kiva — a round, ceremonial room that is not a common find around the Grand Canyon.
“He was thrilled to death about it,” said Leap. “He said finding these and learning what we’re learning is just solidifying their traditional oral histories.”
Excavation of the nine archaeological sites cost about $1.2 million, and it was funded with fees visitors pay to enter the park, which recently averaged $12.7 million retained at the park.
After the digs, the ruins of homes and granaries are being reburied by hand just as they were dug: one bucket of sand at a time.
A large, intact pot was flown out of the canyon via helicopter.
Most of the rest of the artifacts were transported to the Museum of Northern Arizona by boat and vehicle.
Ultimately, the artifacts will end up on display at the South Rim, and be loaned to various tribal museums before returning to the museum at the South Rim.
Most of the Grand Canyon’s known archaeological sites are along the north and south rims.
Of the Grand Canyon’s 1.2 million acres, 50,000 acres (or less than 5 percent) have been surveyed for artifacts.
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