St George News

Southern Parkway road construction unearths ancient ruins; what archaeologists say

ST. GEORGE — The Utah Department of Transportation discovered ancient ruins this month as they paved their way through the Southern Parkway, a 33-mile project that will soon be an eastern belt route for Washington County.

The ruins have been named one of the oldest sites investigated in Southern Utah, where more than 15 other archaeological sites have been found near Washington Dam Road. Scientists are currently stating, upon significant research, that the area was inhabited for up to 10,000 years.

The Utah native Shivwits tribe was invited to the sites to search the ruins and members are working closely with archaeologists to properly preserve them.

utah artifacts

Obsidian Lake Mojave and Bajada projectile points recovered from UDOT construction site, St. George, Utah, May 2013 | Photo courtesy of UDOT

So far, among the list of items uncovered are Anasazi pit houses, arrowheads, pottery calibrated to have been dated as far back as 400 B.C. and dinosaur fossils.

What the paleontologists are characterizing as 200 million-year-old fossils include teeth from nine species –  three of which could be newly identified species – were also found during construction and have been archived for more research.

“We are an organization that learns,” Dana Meier, project manager for UDOT, said.

UDOT will continue to carefully navigate this project as they strive to protect the species in the construction area and within the ruins.

Artifacts discovered

“At one of the sites investigated, five ancient dwellings were exposed,” Kevin Kitchen, UDOT Region Four Communications Manager said. “They were believed to have been occupied more than a thousand years ago by a culture of farmers who exploited the fertile banks of the Virgin River flood plain. Known as Ancestral Puebloans or ‘Virgin Anasazi’ they relied heavily on native cultivars for their subsistence: mainly corn, beans, squash, as well as a variety of native plants and small game.”

“Four of the five pit-houses contained attributes indicative of the Basket Maker III and early Pueblo I periods approximately 400 – 800 A.D,” Kitchen said. “They contained items such as potsherds decorated with bands of small black dots and triangles, arrowheads and stone flakes of chert and quartzite as well as burnt structural remains and other organic materials. Hearths in these former structures were constructed with smooth fired clay over a circular arrangement of cobblestones. The floors and walls were lined with clay and/or flagstone.”

The fifth pit-house was larger than the other four and contained dart points rather than arrowheads. Obsidian materials were found rather than quartzite and chert, and the hearth was composed of basalt boulders rather than sandstone cobblestones lined with clay. Due to these factors, this pit-house appears to be from the Basketmaker II period dating approximately 300 B.C. to 400 A.D. Very little is known of this period in the region.

A “Lake Mojave” type stemmed spear point from a different site is indicative of the Paleoindian occupation. Researchers used “optically stimulated luminescence” testing to date the sediments where this was deposited. A “Bajada” type point was also recovered at this site suggesting a slightly later period. Several projectile points characteristic of the Archaic period have also been found in the area.

Paleontological finds include dinosaur tracks of the early Jurassic Kayenta period along with a complete fish fossil and several plant fossils that are rare from that formation.  Fossilized dinosaur teeth were also recovered representing nine different types, including three not previously described.

The project has gained regional attention among archaeologists because it has contributed to the Basketmaker II period for this particular area and provides more possibilities and questions for researchers of this specific period.

What archaeologists say

“The materials recovered from the Southern Parkway investigation provided evidence of indigenous occupation of the region,” Eric Hansen, UDOT NEPA Specialist said, “semi-continuously from the early Holocene, perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago, through the Archaic, Formative (Puebloan 400 B.C. to A.D. 1300) and protohistoric periods (Post-Formative to Paiute) before European contact. Numic populations are theorized to have expanded into the area more than a thousand years ago, but may have arrived much earlier.”

Utah’s prehistory

Utah’s prehistory, according to the Utah State Historic Preservation Society, has led to some interesting finds over the years. The oldest findings that have been excavated point to people that thrived in Utah more than 10,000 years ago, right after the ice age ended.

The Paleoindians lived here along with camels, sloths, mammoths, giant bison and other extinct animals. Their cave remains surround the Great Salt Lake. As the climate warmed 8,000 years ago lifestyles shifted and archaeologists call the culture of this era the Archaic people. They were hunter-gatherers and basket makers who hunted with spears and other weapons they made. Their rock art is what has been discovered of them.

Then, 2,000 years ago, things shifted once again when farming beans, corn and squash was discovered, from which evolved two broad cultures: Anasazi and the Fremont people. Archaeologists have discovered pit houses, moccasins and remnants of pottery, and know that by A.D. 750 both Fremont and Anasazi had created new weaponry: bows and arrows. Thereafter, 800 years ago, the Anasazi left Southern Utah and the Fremonts disappeared. There is a lot of speculation surrounding this.

The next people to pop up were Numic-speaking people that evolved into four groups: Northern Shoshone, Goshute, Southern Paiute and Utes. By A.D. 1500 Navajos also moved in. The most recent group of people to move in were the euro-Americans, explorers, trappers, traders and settlers.

State coordination with archaeologists, cultural interests

Private archaeologists working under the direction of the state arrived in the field in 2011 to investigate and mitigate any potentially significant cultural sites, Kitchen said. Prior to any excavation, UDOT archaeologists work with Native American tribes and the State Historic Preservation Office to determine the best course of action. (Tribal involvement on the Southern Parkway began over a decade ago.)

The discovery and scientific dismantling of sites typically starts with a surface survey of the area, he said, the digging of  trenches and then branching out with hand tools from there. Special survey equipment records various points of reference so items can be catalogued in context and the site data can be reproduced electronically for future reference and coordinated with artifacts in the laboratory.

Kitchen said that paleontological finds were investigated by an expert who has researched other areas in Washington County where dinosaur tracks have been found and has worked for the local museum.

Economic impacts, rerouting, fiscal and time impacts

The Southern Parkway has been realigned seven times through the environmental and design processes due to many factors, archaeology among the reasons. However, due to a proactive environmental approach, archaeological work has not posed any significant construction delay with potentially associated costs on the Southern Parkway. Kitchen said the contract specifications are also set up in a manner to keep construction active elsewhere on the project if UDOT does encounter something unexpected.

Ed. Note: The roles of archaeologists and paleontologists involved in the described project while complementary have distinct scientific roles. As concerns fossils and the like, it is the work of paleontologists. As concerns dwellings and items used by people, it is the work of archaeologists. While there is interplay between the sciences involved in the subject of this report, Andrew Milner, paleontologist on the project, said that dinosaurs and people did not live together.  Clarification added by update 11:19 p.m.

Email: sisaacson@stgnews.com

Twitter: @sarahisaacson1

Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., 2013, all rights reserved.

Archaeologists working on uncovering ancient Anasazi pit houses, St. George, Utah, May 2013 | Photo courtesy of UDOT

Archaeologists working on uncovering ancient Anasazi pit houses, St. George, Utah, May 2013 | Photo courtesy of UDOT

 

 

  29 Comments
  1. My Evil Twin May 31, 2013 at 9:51 am · Reply

    Interesting find! I’m glad they are using a bit of care in this construction. That being said, I hope that UDOT is correct in being able to work around this, and other sites, without it pushing the project back many years, and many millions of dollars.

    • Joanna May 31, 2013 at 11:11 am · Reply

      Agreed, what a neat find! Interesting photos with the story, too.

  2. Religious BS May 31, 2013 at 9:56 am · Reply

    Quick! Somebody claim them as Lamanite or Nephite civilizations!

    • Zeke May 31, 2013 at 11:09 am · Reply

      Quickly! Look at the first photo. They named it an Anasazi civilization! Sheeesh

      • My Evil Twin June 1, 2013 at 10:18 am · Reply

        So now I have to wonder, did the Anasazi occupy it before, or after they were at Mesa Verde? ;)

    • Raethry May 31, 2013 at 2:54 pm · Reply

      I believe these people to have been an Ammonite civilization.

      • Yogi May 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm · Reply

        Ammonite: Ammonites are an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals in the subclass Ammonoidea of the class Cephalopoda. These molluscs are more closely related to living coleoids than they are to shelled nautiloids such as the living Nautilus species. Hmmmm, might be wrong on that one Raethry

        • JC June 1, 2013 at 1:08 am · Reply

          The Ammonites (sons of Ammon) according to the Bible originated because of an incestuous relationship between Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his younger daughter (Gen 19:38). Archaeology reveals that the Ammonites dwelt east of the Jordan River and settled there at the beginning of the 13th century B.C.

          • Raethry June 2, 2013 at 11:32 pm ·

            The invertebrate was actually my intended meaning. Apparently my pun was too subtle.

        • Raethry June 2, 2013 at 11:31 pm · Reply

          That was actually my intended meaning, but you seem to have missed the pun.

  3. Bree May 31, 2013 at 12:38 pm · Reply

    UDOT also destroyed a huge section of the ruins and there’s no mention of this at all.

  4. JJ Slice May 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm · Reply

    For the record, these ruins were mostly all buried and not known before being discovered. UDOT hasnt just intentionally bulldozed known ruins.

    However, I see no reason for them to not slow down and take care to respect them. That Southern Parkway route is a ghost town and will be fore a decade or so. Those new smooth roads ALLEGEDLY make for some great weekend drag-races.

    • Joanna May 31, 2013 at 4:12 pm · Reply

      “UDOT hasnt just intentionally bulldozed known ruins.”

      Exactly. The claim that UDOT “destroyed” them is totally unsubstantiated. I admire the fact that they’ve now slowed down to prevent damaging them. Some construction goons wouldn’t have even thought twice.

  5. Tyler May 31, 2013 at 3:25 pm · Reply

    Nice to see the beltway getting worked on after all this time of stagnance out there.

  6. bender May 31, 2013 at 4:10 pm · Reply

    Well written and interesting article. Nice work Sarah. Are you available to tutor the mouth-breathers over at the Spectrum?

  7. Sgnative May 31, 2013 at 5:14 pm · Reply

    Yet they will still “pave paradise and put up a ‘parkinglot(in this case freeway)”

    • My Evil Twin June 1, 2013 at 10:15 am · Reply

      YES! And the sooner, the better! While the road will go through a lot of “jackrabbit country,” it will also divert a huge amount of traffic from So. Cal, going to Zion, off of the I-15 corridor through St. George. It is badly needed, whether people realize it or not.

      • Tyler June 1, 2013 at 5:28 pm · Reply

        Every metro area has a beltway, Sgnative. Nice to see work on it now before it’s too late and actually have gridlock.

      • Fu Fighter June 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm · Reply

        So you are saying they built the parkway to direct tourist traffic away from existing businesses and commercial centers? Ridiculous. Plus the parkway won’t be any quicker to east Hurricane than I15.

        The southern parkway will have a role someday but that role will not be significant for many years. It will be a useful regional route once something exists in its vicinity. For the time being it will simply be a second route for getting to the lone and dreary airport.

  8. Ruth May 31, 2013 at 10:38 pm · Reply

    Yes, very nice article Sarah. I’m glad this was a full-length detailed article as most of them are about 4 sentences long. ;-) Maybe Washington City has some hope of some kind of tourist income.. oh wait.. STG has probably already applied for ownership of that land…

  9. Moroni June 1, 2013 at 3:45 am · Reply

    Wow a Lamanite find. I wonder if general Zelph lived here once.

  10. Tyler June 1, 2013 at 5:26 pm · Reply

    Cool story. I knew Utah had much deeper and much richer history than just white mormonism.

  11. todd June 2, 2013 at 9:50 am · Reply

    Umm of course US DOT destroyed much of the ruins you think all these Mormon people in this Mormon state government want these ruins to be found and prove their whole religion wrong

    • L Scott Larsen June 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm · Reply

      Yep, US DOT is going to prove The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints wrong. They have the brains so many others, have not! Even a smart fella like yourself, couldn’t do it without them.

  12. Strang June 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm · Reply

    Terrible article. Poorly written.
    No evidence that the site is 10,000 years old. Pure speculation and seems to be written in the hopes to get web hits.
    I call bullshit on this one.

  13. Lame June 2, 2013 at 7:38 pm · Reply

    I find it so disgusting to see so many comments on here that arepositive mental and name calling. Are you people really all this unhappy with your own life that you have to constantly bag on others.

    Do something productive for once and contribute to society with positive service to a cause you believe in and stop spreading negative energy around like free candy.

  14. Lame June 2, 2013 at 7:41 pm · Reply

    *** judgemental

  15. Bender June 3, 2013 at 12:01 am · Reply

    Strang, head over to the Spectrum. You are their target audience. No big words.

  16. Steve Shaffer June 14, 2013 at 10:21 am · Reply

    The discovery is amazing! We are surrounded by many hidden treasures. Let’s do all we can to preserve them.

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