More than old junk: the archaeology of Bears Ears and the debate surrounding its national monument status

This 700-year-old granary in Mule Canyon is just one of the examples of archaeology within the proposed national monument known as Bears Ears. Source: Bureau of Land Management, flickr.

Nothing moves save a cloud of red dust whipping through the canyons and a lone archaeologist mapping the remains of long-forgotten home in what could be Bears Ears National Monument.


More than 100,000 areas of archaeological evidence, also known as sites, like this one are in a region now known as Bears Ears in Southeastern Utah that five Native American tribes are urging President Obama to protect with a national monument designation. Within this region extra archaeological preservation can go a long way. It could protect the remnants of the homes—great houses, cliff dwellings and pithouses—and other communal buildings the Ancestral Puebloans left behind throughout Bears Ears. These sites are well-preserved because they’ve been tucked away from the elements and modern development. If in the last month of his presidency President Obama does use the Antiquities Act to establish it as a national monument, Bears Ears would encompass 1.9 million acres of virtually unprotected land.

Unfortunately, this isolation led to a history of looting, but some believe making Bears Ears a national monument will reduce the region’s threat to vandalism, looting and the development of oil and gas industries. However, many locals and politicians oppose roping off Bears Ears as a national monument, especially through a presidential proclamation. Many locals believe this public landscape is their land first and foremost; therefore, the federal government’s does not have the right to interfere with how life progresses in Southeastern Utah.

“It [Bears Ears] has this incredible potential for research and helping us understand Native American cultures in the past, but then it’s also just so fragile,” said Ben Bellorado, an archaeologist getting his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.

The people who left this archaeological record Bellorado researches are called the Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi. Their society expanded across the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, and they dominated this region from 100-1600 A.D.

But in Bears Ears the population peaked in the 1200s and rapidly declined over the following generations, said Winston Hurst, an archaeologist who grew up and spent his career researching within Bears Ears. He said archaeologists have many theories as to why they abandoned this area and other important centers for the Ancestral Puebloans, like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Mesa Verde in Colorado, but some of the most common are that drought and war forced them to join other communities.

The region’s isolated and rugged landscape has deterred many archaeologists from uncovering the wealth of knowledge left between the slick rocks and steep canyons that form Bears Ears.

Catherine Cameron, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said she hopes an increase in protection will help archaeologists perform non-invasive research, like archaeological surveys. She said surveys will help identify where the sites are so that archaeologists can suggest appropriate location for roads or other modern structures.

“There’s this incredible record that’s just waiting there to be recorded and it can tell us so much without having to go through the expense and time of excavation,” Bellorado said.

He said he has driven up and down the washboard dirt roads of Bears Ears for 10 years recording different archaeological sites. He hikes into Cedar Mesa’s deep canyons, surveying and documenting illustrations painted or etched into the walls of circular ceremonial structures called kivas.

“They’re really interesting, because they’re some of the most personal expressions of identity that people used to kinda define who they were. Ya know, how you decorate your house and your church really says a lot about your values and [what your] identity is as a society.”

These images depict the artistic styles throughout time, but they also show how the whole society expressed their religious, social and political beliefs through decorations.

He said he recently submitted a grant proposal to inspect murals and rock art panels that contain drawings of luxury yucca sandals so that he and other archaeologists can better understand how this society used its clothing to separate itself into distinguishable communities.

The sandals change shape and have different textures depending on the artist. Some look like a pair of ciabatta loaves on a sandstone canyon wall or they can be rectangular with couples of geometric swirls from the toe to heel on flaky kiva plaster.

Bellorado said these sandals are the “pinnacle of Ancestral Puebloan weaving tradition.” He said he is curious about what the sandals can say about their wearer’s status and home, because with each sandal the weaver builds a distinctive location-specific pattern into the tread. With 25 different knots a weaver could make a highly stylized and recognizable geometric stamp in the dust for their community.

Currently, Bellorado is trying to discover if these different treads set travelers apart on the road or in ceremonies by comparing the sandal drawing and the contexts their drawn in against other representations throughout Bears Ears.

Bellorado also removes small portions of the wooden support beams in the structures he finds the murals in order to date the images. He sends the tree-ring samples to the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Here they use dendrochronology, the science of tree-right dating, to count the tree’s periods of growth and deduce when someone cut it down to build the kiva or room with the mural. The laboratory then inputs the tree-ring data from Bellorado’s site into a database of archaeological tree-ring samples taken all over the Western United States since the 1930s. These samples not only catalogue the date of the structure, but what type of climate that tree lived in.

“The Southwest has this incredible record because of tree-rings that goes back to, I think the oldest right now, in this area, is about 200 B.C.,” Bellorado said.

Archaeological research isn’t always so specific. Sometimes an archaeological survey simply wants to catalogue what a site looks like on the surface before humans or nature can alter it.

Maps of a site when combined with descriptions of the artifacts on the surface can tell future archaeologists what the site looked like before visitors took or rearranged the broken pottery or whole pots poking up from the sagebrush. By having drawings and photographs of many sites in a large area, archaeologists can note reacquiring construction methods, art, or objects that infer these villages were communicating.

“Not only is this such a strange and beautiful and incredible landscape, but basically it’s a different world,” said Bellorado. “If you start to get into the archaeology, people have lived here for thousands of years and they saw these exact same landscapes, but they had a totally different way of looking at them. When you start to reconstruct some of those ancient world views and those ancient social landscapes and it just adds to this grandeur.”

Hurst said he wants to understand how and why the Ancestral Puebloans organized themselves and built communities they way they did. He said this need to understand is what has driven him through is career in archaeology.

Though national monument status would give the sites more protection, Cameron said any level of federal protection would also impact how much archaeological research could be done in Bears Ears. She said Obama could give it a higher designation if he wished and if he did make it a national park, their focus on preservation, not research, would reduce opportunities for archaeological research in the area.

“I’d love to work out there, but if I knew the area was being protected to a greater degree that is also something that’s really needed,” said Bellorado. “I can’t really complain too much.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s looting became a local hobby in southeastern Utah said Cameron. In 2009 the FBI raided private homes in Blanding and neighboring towns for cultural material illegally taken from the surrounding sites.

These raids resulted in the acquisition of more than 6,000 artifacts that do not have any documentation as to which sites the objects originally came from. Now these objects reside in museums and with the modern tribes who claimed kinship with the society who created that specific artifact, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

“Hardly anyone remembers, anymore, just how bad it was,” said Hurst. “You couldn’t walk a mile out here, without finding recently pillaged archaeological sites—human bones scattered around on the surface. It was ugly.”

Fortunately, he said looting has drastically decreased since those days. He estimated that Bears Ears now undergoes the same amount of looting as other archaeological sites across the country, but it is still an issue that needs to be dissuaded.

Cameron said she hopes if Bears Ears does receive national monument status the increase in funding will also increase the presence of law enforcement officers and the level of education visitors receive about respectful behavior on archaeological sites. She said an increase in law enforcement would hopefully deter people from removing the objects from their archaeological contexts within the sites.

“There’s a real danger of those types of important sites, with the potential to answer important research questions, just going away just because the area has gotten so much exposure recently,” said Bellorado.

Hurst disagreed and said if Bears Ears becomes a national monument, he thinks looting and vandalism will spike because the locals will “pothunt as a political statement” against the federal government. He said that since there is hardly any local support to make the region a monument he does not think it would be politically wise or further archaeological preservation to impose it on the public.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, politicians and preservationists wonder what would happen if President Obama does make Bears Ears a national monument, only to have President-elect Trump revoke the region’s new found protection when he takes office in January 2017.

“If President Trump attempts to revoke a national monument designation, that effort will almost certainly be embroiled in litigation, and the revocation would likely fail,” said John Ruple, a University of Utah law professor.

However, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said he “would fight tooth and nail” to revoke the region’s status if Obama does protect it.


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