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Planet Earth

In Praise of Archaeologists

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJune 27, 2011 5:26 PM

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Five years ago this September I was fortunate to spend a week with a team of archaeologists who were surveying remote stretches of Utah's Desolation Canyon. Half the crew set off on the Green River and the other half on horseback, working their way down the Tavaputs Plateau. (I'll get back to those horse guys in another post--quite a story in of itself.) I was part of the river flotilla. Here's me at the helm of one raft, pretending to be an experienced river runner. (The guy in the middle did much of the rowing.)

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Kevin Jones, Utah's state archaeologist until last week, was on this trip. On Friday, I wrote about how he got fired and probably why it happened. I had already gotten to know Jones briefly while writing this story for Smithsonian magazine. Over the years, I've had many instructive discussions with him about evolutionary archaeology and the prehistoric cultures of Utah, among other things. That week in Desolation canyon, Jones, who is a skilled musician, played a terrific mandolin at night around the campfire. Here he is investigating a cliff ledge granary (a food stuff, where seeds and corn would be stored). We spent a lot of time scrambling up steep cliff sides in search of ancient granaries.

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Check out that Smithsonian story if you want to learn about the people who put these granaries in such precarious places. Then read this story I wrote in Archaeology magazine, to learn about what I was doing in Desolation canyon and about the archaeologist (and former journalist) who has spearheaded some amazing work in this part of Utah. His name is Jerry Spangler. I also tagged along with him for this piece in Backpacker magazine. All these stories have been written since the mid 2000s (here's another one in Science magazine, which includes quotes from both Jones and Spangler), and are set in the same spectacular region of Utah. I mention these articles because they show just a part of what Jones has been involved in as Utah's state archaeologist. For another side of Jones, check out this 2009 story in the Salt Lake Tribune, which I wrote about here in a profile of him. During that week I spent in Desolation Canyon five years ago, Jones said something to me that I'll never forget, while we were sharing the same raft one day on the river, talking about the creep of recent oil and gas development at the top of the Tavaputs plateau:

I think your grandkids ought to be able to take this same trip and see this beautiful scenery and prehistoric rock art, because to visit here and see it in this context is very enriching. It gives us a sense of our place in history.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Jones (and Spangler), many of Utah's archaeological treasures will be safeguarded for future generations. If only Utah pols felt the same way about their state's rich heritage.

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