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.
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from nine species – three of which could be newly identified species – were also found during construction and have been archived for more research.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.
“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, 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.
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