Nine Mile Canyon excavation group

Public archaeology project aims to find answers

By

Heather Beshears

Sometimes called the world’s longest art gallery, Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon is home to prolific rock art, structures and artifacts from historic cultures, creating a visual story of life during that time. Much of the content is from the Fremont culture, which lived in the canyon for many hundreds of years before roughly 1250 AD. Yet, there is still much that is unknown about the people of the Fremont culture.

The Bureau of Land Management has launched a unique public archaeology project to help unlock the mystery. Arizona State University’s Center for Sustainable Tourism was chosen to lead the effort bringing together stakeholders from state government agencies to the local community.

“The BLM have been stewards of this site, but are not necessarily experts in community engagement,” said Christine Vogt, director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism and professor in the School of Community Resources and Development. “This is a new way to get the community involved. And the project represents what our school is about.”

A historically and culturally significant effort

Building on a project that began in late 2016, Utah archaeologists and scholars are joined by individuals, families and professionals in a six-weekend event to excavate a pit structure consisting of a perimeter of large boulders.

The site has intrigued archaeologists and visitors alike.

“A lot of archaeologists have wanted to learn more and excavate but have not had the permits or opportunity to do so. For people who know the place, this is an exciting moment. We are not sure what we will find,” said Jada Lindblom, a doctoral student in the School of Community Resources and Development.

Scholars hope to gain insight into the Fremont people and why they began to disappear.

Lindblom is leading the volunteer initiative, focusing on regional youth. She says that public archaeology is gaining interest and teachers are eager to promote the opportunity to students, who will be working alongside professional archaeologists. So far, students from at least four high schools are scheduled to participate in a three-day weekend of volunteering, which includes camping near the site.

“This is really a hands-on, STEM education experience in a way that most students don’t get,” she said. “We hope the experience not only generates interest in the canyon, but in public lands more broadly.” 

So far, most of the students had never been to the canyon before this experience. Although, two girls from the local high school shared stories of family connections to canyon settlers or a grandfather being credited with other discoveries in the canyon.

Lindblom has been working with partners at the BLM to bring together wide-reaching stakeholders, from the Carbon County Office of Tourism to the Nine Mile Coalition and the Utah Rock Art Research Association.

Located about an hour off the road that connects Moab and Salt Lake City, Nine Mile Canyon is on a route that many people already use, offering great potential to build tourism.

At the end of the program this fall, experts from the BLM, Montgomery Archaeological Consultants and local archaeologists will evaluate progress on the excavation and stabilize the site for winter. Much will depend on what they find.

“Making this archaeology site open to the public and interpreted is a five-year project. The question mark is how long it can or should go based on the hard work of uncovering hundreds of years of soils and debris that has fallen onto the pit structure” Vogt said.

Artifacts that are recovered will be displayed at the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum for those who cannot be a part of the excavation to enjoy.

The project is part of a larger Bureau of Land Management Respect and Protect public awareness campaign and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. #respectandprotect