Over the last decade, new information regarding early forest occupation in Southeast Utah, has slowly started to emerge. The Hisatsinom Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society hosted guest speaker Don Irwin, Forest Service Archaeological District Heritage Manager in the Moab-Monticello Ranger Districts of Utah, last month to discuss the findings of this site.
Irwin presented a slew of data that represents what could be the second largest collection of archaeological remains in the Southwestern part of the United States. The information on these sites began 40 years ago as impressions formed of possible early Puebloan remains. These historical sites scattered across 90,000 acres of forest land.
Today, specifically in the last 10 years, 35 percent of that area has been surveyed. About 2,236 archaeological sites have been discovered and confirmed in that time. Of those sites, 2,027 are Ancestral Puebloan with more than 1,000 belonging to the Pueblo 1 era.
"The most exciting thing to me (about these findings) is it has never been studied in an intensive way," Irwin explained. "A lot of work has been done in Southwest Colorado to understand this period of Pueblo. Here, (Southeast Utah) we have blank spots that open up our understanding of this history, and has not been studied yet."
Essentially, these archaeological remains are deemed open-air sites because they were formed on the forest surface, where there is no protection from the elements and long-term effects. The remains are not intact and have assumed mass deterioration over the years. But, Irwin and his team have found large amounts of evidence including; artifacts, wall alignments, granaries, room blocks, post holes and pit structures.
The differences and unique qualities of these particular sites, are bringing new information regarding the culture of the Pueblo 1 people. The architecture, site placements and the structures themselves, indicate complex changes within their society. Irwin said their studies are finding what appears to be a reorganization of life.
"There are increases in population, differences in organizing settlements and people were integrating more in the community," Irwin explained. "These social integrations could signal changes in political and religious organizations which is a significant shift for any society."
Irwin and his team found that the innovative changes within the Pueblo 1 era in the forest points toward life at Mesa Verde. Giving way to the idea that the people of Southeast Utah, may have carved the way of life for people in Mesa Verde.
The remains are not open to the public and are still in an undisclosed location. Irwin said that revealing too much information to the public could prove detrimental to the site and cease all other archaeological findings.
"We want to let people know that we have all of this new knowledge but we don't want these sites to be visited just yet," Irwin said. "It could increase vandalizing because people leave with artifacts ultimately removing pieces of that puzzle."
Low visibility is one factor that has led these sites to be unknown for so long. Tourists are driving through these forests to get to other sites like Mesa Verde or Grand Gulch. Also, the forest is not widely publicized. People who do visit are standing amidst collections that are virtually unrecognizable. As surface ruins, unless you know what you are looking for, the average visitor will stroll on by.
Putting the information out to the public should not harm the sites. Irwin figures that 90,000 acres is a rather large stretch of land for normal people to be surveying.
Irwin's team will continue to collect data from the land. Revisiting past documented sites, analyzing artifact collections and using GPS to better locate these sites, are the next steps in procuring more information on their findings.