Native peoples have inhabited the Grand Canyon
for 12,000 years. Adjusting to the seasons, to the availability
of food, and to the demands of the rugged corridors they chose as their home. Architecture from the pueblo period, over
1000 years ago, is still visible. Partial clues to their way of life remain
hidden under layers of sand along the banks of the Colorado River. The Park as a preserve, protects these vestiges
of the past. Considering the size of Grand Canyon National
Park and the arc of time that people have inhabited
the landscape here, the canyon’s prehistory is rich with human
culture. There have only been a handful of large archaeological
excavations in the park, starting with sites at Unkar Delta in 1967, Bright Angel Pueblo in 1968, and Walhalla Glades in 1969 and 70. These earlier archaeology projects tended
toward general research. More recent archaeology in the park is geared
toward preservation. And one of the first steps in preservation
is finding out exactly what you’re trying to protect. Toward that end, in 1990 and 1991 the Park
launched an intensive inventory along the river. Archaeologists walked the entire corridor
on both sides of the river to find evidence of cultural resources. They identified over 400 sites. Due to their mandate to preserve and protect
the resources, information was only collected from the surface. Archaeologist monitored the sites to detect
changes for the next 15 years. Meanwhile, Glen Canyon Dam was changing the natural cycle of water flow in the Colorado River, reducing the sedimentation that had taken
place seasonly for thousands of years. Prior to the dam’s construction, seasonal
flooding would replenish the sediment along the contours
of the river corridor, and many of the archaeological sites were
preserved under the silt that the river deposited and
the wind redistributed. Since the closing of the dam gates in 1963, the reduction of water flow and sediment has
led to increased erosion on beaches and terraces throughout the canyon. Some of the cultural sites that had been safely
buried for eons were exposed, resulting in accelerated
erosion. The erosion was also being accelerated by
human visitation to the sites. In 2006, nine sites were identified by the
National Park Service as the most threatened by these combined forces. If no action was taken, these sites would
potentially crumble and flow down river, and with them, valuable
information would be lost. To protect the cultural information in the
sites that were threatened, they needed to excavate. …You know, for the carbon dating, with this
OSL dating we can actually date the last time… Park archaeologists met with a eleven Native
American tribes, who claim cultural ties to the canyon, to
get input on how they felt about examinating. The sites and excavating the artifacts for
study and preservation. Their input helped design the approach that
would be taken on the project. This would be the first extensive excavation
in the park in over 40 years. It would provide a rare opportunity to learn
more of the cultural history of the river corridor. Grand Canyon archaeologists teamed up with
the Museum of Northern Arizona. Team leadership was provided by park archaeologist
Lisa Leap and MNA archaeologist, Ted Neff. The crew traveled by raft on nine trips down
the river over a four year period to access the sites. Due to their fragility and remote location,
all the excavation was done by hand, requiring immense amounts of manual labor
to move tons of sand by bucket and wheelbarrow. The visiting public was invited to observe
the ongoing process. This project, is a cooperative project between
the National Park Service and the Museum of Northen Arizona. Over 2000 people, on private and commercial
raft trips were given the opportunity to see the process firsthand. They could also have the opportunity to enjoy
the traveling exhibit, including artifacts and professional photos
acquired during the digs. This is what we’re calling “feature 5” it’s
a 2 room masonry structure Good question. He said, “Well, how do your
know it’s ceremonial? And that is, through oral histories, we worked with 11 different tribes in the park. This project, we’ve been able to run these
commercial and these private trips through, and more people have been able to see these
archaeology sites. To see the archaeologist working and see what
that really do and the conditions they work in, then I think any other project I’ve ever been
on. There’s different excavations that go on all
around the Southwest, and it’s really neat, for other parks, perhaps, when they have something like this going on, to actually do a similar thing. Have an interpretor
there. Have people watch what archeologists do and
what you uncover. And, we’ve seen this with the river trips that
are coming through by the dozens each day, I think arts and sciences have the ability
to change the mental eye of the people down here who are looking at the canyon, and if they
can perceive things in a different way then it’s more likely that they would want
to care for it and protect it, and to help others protect that resource. I think that by helping them see what’s here,
it gives them, not only a sense of wonder, but it makes them invested in trying to help
protect this place, because they see that there is more here than
just rock and water, which is beautiful, but the human story at
Grand Canyon begins in the Paleo-Indian period 12,000 years ago,
and continues today with the modern tribes, and we want people
to be interested, and care about that, so that they help preserve it. Yes, what they’re discovering, the artifacts
that are being found, the history of some of the people that may
have lived here, and they’re are still unanswered questions,
you know. And that’s the exciting part of it. We need to fund these projects and keep it
going. We really punched through it, right here. This has been a natural break here. This room is standing on top of it. Critical data on location of the artifacts
within structures, the design elements of the structures themselves, and dating of any wood found within them,
help with the understanding of chronology. This project is also only the second one I’ve
been on where I feel like we’re adding a huge amount of information
to a relatively thin database. The other one was the Kapirowitz project,
where you can actually come away with, with new ways of thinking, and with new
information that people can get their hands on a big, big way. I think this project is a great collaboration
between people who know the canyon intimately and, professionals who know the canyon very
well, and archaeologists who have worked here a little bit, but have also worked in a lot of other areas.
And that’s really where you really see the growth of new ideas in interpretation. As all the minute details emerge, they provide
evidence of living habits, food choices, and general day-to-day life
activities of the people who lived in this harsh environment hundreds of years ago. These folks lived in an environment that was,
sort of stingy with giving up its resources, so they really had to know a lot about the
local environment where they lived, how they could produce crops, how they could
hunt and gather the types of plant and animal resources that they needed. And oftentimes, you know, we go into an area
like this setting here, and our minds think that the prehistoric setting was like it is
now. And so, what I am able to do is go back and
look in the Paleo record, look at the stratigraph and identify what the enviornment might have
been like, when they were living here before, because, oftentimes the environment would
change, and you’d go, ‘what the heck were they doing here?’ And my research allows us to more closely
evaluate the prehistoric folks relationship to the enviornment. There is a incredible amount of impact from
erosion, and that’s ultimately what’s going to dictate what gets excavated down here, is that, this
is an erosional environment, and, as we speak, and as we found out over
the last few sessions, it changes under your very feet from day to
day. Sand is moving in on top of you and sand is coming
up from below your feet, and these people had to deal with this same
issue. If we don’t find structure within that, that
might be a possibility. Yea, they may have flattened this out, flattened
the whole area out, and then, placed the floor down. Yea, this looks like a flood deposit to me,
though, what we have been calling a flood deposit. Pretty much. Many of the sites show signs of multiple occupations
from generations of residents coming from several different cultural backgrounds. Pottery pieces and tools are compared and
dated to add to the cultural information. A sampling of significant artifacts were carefully
packed out and taken to the lab and prepared for further analysis. Final curation will be located at the South Rim of the park. The artifacts will be sent out to different
analysts. Once the results of everybody’s work comes
back, you’ve got ceramics, lithics, pollen, flotation, soil samples of various kinds. All that comes together, all the descriptive
information about that, and interpretations from that all get kind of, combined together
into a final report, which will give you a really detailed idea of, of the past lives,
of these folks, because, you know, what archaeology does, is, it kind of provides a historical perspective
to people who otherwise have not been recorded by written history. Still, making informed judgments on the full
spectrum of life that took place here is very difficult with only small pieces of the puzzle
to work with. I think what we don’t see oftentimes when
we’re in those pits, is we don’t step back, and just think about how people were movin’
around, you know, how people were functioning, and what their
daily lives were. You know, we’re really engrosed in a metate, and getting
pollen, but, you know, we don’t step out of that box and say, you
know, ‘What did the landscape look like?’ and, ‘Was it hot? Was it cold? Were they happy? Were they constantly trying to find food?’ I mean, those things you don’t see on a metate,
or a mano, or a point. You don’t see the story behind it. The human story behind it. The archaeologist at Grand Canyon National
Park are keenly aware that the river corridor is sacred ground for many tribes and holds
cultural value that needs to be respected. This river, to the tribes that we work with,
is very sacred to them. This whole Grand Canyon area is extremely
sacred and important to them, and I’m sure that, that has gone on from generation
to generation. The third big component of this project is
tribal participation, and we’ve really tried to stress that from
the get-go, even from when we were writing that first draft, of the implementation plan,
we sent that draft out to the tribes. and we encouraged them to say, “Give us some
questions that you’re interested in.” you know, we want your participation in every
fashion that we can get it. I think that over the last 20 years, the interaction
between the Native American groups who have a vested interest in the Grand Canyon,
and the archaeological community, has dramatically changed, and for the better. And, that’s come about, in part, because there
have been a few people in both organizations, in the tribal organizations, and in the Park
Service who have really made the best possible effort to do that. You get these very specific things that people
tell you, and again, working on the Navajo Reservation
for so long, we would excavate and we would find features,
that would be questionable, or that we thought we knew how to interpret,
and, someone on the crew, just, you know, not a
trained archaeologist, but local folks who were working with us would say,
“Oh, that’s a… My grandmother had one of those in her house.” or whatever. And that’s
really important ! For an archaeologist like me, its an absolute
privledge. You know, we are archaeologists, we haven’t
been around, we’re Euro-Americans. This isn’t our history here. These people have been here for a very long
time and, they’re still practicing these traditions, and they are the experts. At first we opposed any archaeology digs,
but with the floods and everything that’s happening, if it’s not done, we’re losing our history. And there’s not a recorded history, we don’t have any books, and the only information that we have that
our people were down here, is sites like this. And if they’re not excavated, and if the information is not acquired through
digs like this, then if it’s lost, at some time, then, our
history, the proof that our people were down here would
all be lost. At Grand Canyon National Park it becomes self-evident, that even over the large sweep of human occupation, we’re all just visitors to this land of extremes
and contradictions, where rock, water and wind slowly erase the
past. The challenge for archaeologist is to sift
through time, to understand the living dance between culture
and the elements, and to protect the resources in the process. After the excavation, the sites were backfilled
to provide the greatest protection and preservation. The areas were recontoured and revegetated
to minimize erosion and remove all evidence of the activity. The landscape is left much as it was, but the new data acquired helps ensure that
another link to people from the past has been preserved for the future.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Thanks. An exhibit is currently being finalized and assembled to open sometime this spring or summer. It will first open in the park at Kolb Studio in the South Rim Village. The show may travel later in the year. The exhibit dates will be announced on the park's website.

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