Utah History Encyclopedia


By Joel C. Janetski

Desert Archaic split-twig figurines

Utah's rich archaeological heritage has lured scientists and antiquarians from around the world to excavate in the deep caves of the western deserts, explore the well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and study the enigmatic and unique Fremont culture. Some of the most respected scholars in North American archaeology have spent time unraveling the prehistory of this highly varied region: the Wetherills, Neil Judd, A.V. Kidder, John Brew, Julian Steward, and Jesse D. Jennings, to name a few. Surprisingly, however, the history of Utah archaeology has been largely ignored since Elmer Smith published a short overview of Utah anthropology in 1950. Smith traced the history of the discipline by describing the research activities and publications of the faculty at the University of Utah, since much of the archaeological research to that time had been done by that institution. Today all the major universities in the state, the Utah Historical Society, various federal agencies, and several private archaeological contracting firms employ archaeologists to teach, do research, and manage cultural remains. As a consequence of this increased activity, the number of professionals has increased exponentially, as has the amount of archaeological data generated and reported.

Archaeology in Utah can be divided into five chronological periods characterized by particular interests and activities:

1776-1875: Early Explorations and Observations;

1875-1910: Institution- and University-sponsored, Exploring and Collecting Expeditions

1910-1947: Beginnings of Professional Archaeology

1947-1980: The Jennings Era

1980-1992: Hunter-Gatherers and Ethnoarchaeology, Public and Cultural Resource Management, (CRM) Archaeology.


The earliest written description of archaeological sites in the state was made by the renowned Spanish explorers and Catholic fathers Dominguez and Escalante, who traveled north from New Mexico into western Colorado and then west into the Uinta Basin of northern Utah in 1776. Their detailed journal contains priceless descriptions of the countryside and its inhabitants and mentions ruins in the Uinta Basin near the confluence of the Uinta and Duchesne rivers. Little archaeological information was recorded during the succeeding seventy-five years.

After the arrival of the Mormons in 1847, settlers who encountered archaeological ruins occasionally described them in journals and letters. Intriguing observations were made, for example, by members of the 1849-50 southern exploring expedition who traveled south to the Virgin River area and back to Salt Lake City under the direction of Parley P. Pratt. Journal entries from members of the expedition include references to rock art and "ancient potter" in the vicinities of modern Manti, St. George, and Parowan. Brigham Young in an 1851 letter described ruins that he saw at Paragonah in Parowan Valley: "We visited the ruins of an ancient Indian village on Red Creek, where we found quantities of broken, burnt, painted earthenware, arrow points, adobes, burnt brick, a crucible, some corn grains, charred cobs, animal bones, and flint stones of various colors. The ruins were scattered over a space about two miles long and one wide. The buildings were about 120 in number, and were composed apparently of dirt lodges, the earthen roofs having been supported by timbers, which had decayed or been burned, and had fallen in, the remains thus forming mounds of an oval shape and sunken at the tip. One of the structures appeared to have been a temple or council hall, and covered about an acre of ground."

Government exploration of the Four Corners region in southeastern Utah commenced at about the same time as Mormon settlement in the north. Between 1849 and the late 1870s individuals such as J.H. Simpson, J.N. Macomb, J.S. Newberry, W.H. Jackson, F.V. Hayden, W.H. Holmes, and others traveled the Four Corners area discovering and documenting many Anasazi sites in the Mesa Verde Region of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. In the 1870s members of the United State Geographical Survey expedition led by Lt. George Wheeler excavated sites at Beaver and Provo and wrote provocative descriptions of mounds in Parowan Valley. At the latter location (described earlier by Brigham Young above), they estimated that there were 400 to 500 structures.

The initial explorations and observations identified the locations of some of the rich archaeological sites or regions in the state. This knowledge was used to direct the numerous intensive artifact-collecting expeditions that characterized archaeological interests over the next few decades.


In the late 1800s large museums such as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, both in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, and others sponsored expeditions specifically to gather collections for display and study. The Smithsonian and the Peabody, for example, provided support for Edward Palmer, a medical practitioner and professional collector, who visited Utah in the 1870s gathering up archaeological and ethnographic artifacts. Palmer excavated in "mounds" at Santa Clara near St. George, and at Kanab, Paragonah, and Payson, and made ethnographic collections from artifacts of the Southern Paiute Indians. The driving force behind his collecting activity was the preparation of exhibits for the 1876 United States centennial celebration to be held in Philadelphia.

The World's Columbian Exposition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair also demanded antiquities exhibits, and the Utah Territorial World's Fair Commission appointed Don Maguire of Ogden as chief of the Department of Archaeology and Ethnology with the mandate to acquire collections. Maguire proceeded with great energy to excavate at numerous locales in the state, including the massive Paragonah site described earlier, at mounds in the Virgin River drainage near St. George, and in San Juan County, where he also purchased collections from locals. Henry Montgomery, professor of natural history at the University of Utah, worked side by side with Maguire at Paragonah and explored numerous other sites around the state. Montgomery's essay "Prehistoric Man in Utah," published in 1894, provides the first overview of Utah archaeology.

Southeastern Utah was the focus of intense archaeological collecting in the 1890s by several expeditions - first by Charles McCloyd and Charles Graham, and later by the Wetherill brothers, all from southwestern Colorado. Importantly, the Wetherills recognized and documented the presence of an aceramic, atlatl-wielding farming people whose remains lay under, and therefore predated, the "Cliff Dwellers" ruins in many of the dry alcoves of Grand Gulch and other spectacular canyons of the area.

The massive collections made by McCloyd and Graham and the Wetherills eventually went to eastern museums such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Chicago Field Museum. The success of these professional collectors inspired Byron Cummings, a professor of classical languages at the University of Utah, to make several trips to the Four Corners area to make collections for the university. Accompanying him were students Neil Judd, A.V. Kidder, and Jesse Nusbaum, whose interests in Utah archaeology continued during their professional careers. In 1914 Cummings founded the Department of Archaeology at the University of Utah.

The museum-sponsored collecting activities in Utah during the late nineteenth century established the state as one of the rich archaeological regions of the West. Although little attention was given to documentation or the publication of findings during this period, the various explorations verified the importance of previously known regions and identified new areas for research. This knowledge influenced the research emphasis of the new professionals of the twentieth century.


Neil Judd was the first trained, professional archaeologist to work in the state and was an important figure in early Utah archaeology. Between 1915 and 1920 Judd surveyed and excavated at numerous mounds in several Wasatch Front valleys and at Anasazi sites in northwestern Arizona and near Kanab, Utah. Based on this research, Judd concluded that the ruins along the Wasatch Front were related to the Puebloan cultures of the Southwest. Judd's findings influenced subsequent researchers, who continued to refer to the mound sites along the Wasatch as Puebloan until the 1950s.

In the late 1920s the Peabody Museum at Harvard University renewed its interest in Utah archaeology with the Claflin-Emerson Expedition. At the suggestion of A. V. Kidder, Boston businessmen William H. Claflin, Jr., and Raymond Emerson took a pack trip to Utah west and north of the Colorado River to scout for rich archaeological areas. Encouraged by their finds, they financed four years (1928-31) of archaeological research in eastern Utah, focusing on regions such as the Green River north of the Colorado, Nine Mile Canyon, and the Fremont River. Ads part of the Claflin-Emerson research, Noel Morss excavated a number of sites at the latter locale in 1928 and 1929. He reported his work in The Ancient Culture of the Fremont River in Utah and defined a new archaeological group which he called the Fremont after the river where he worked. The Fremont Culture, he maintained, was clearly influenced by the Southwest but was "not an integral pat of the main stream of Southwestern development." The Claflin-Emerson Expedition also introduced John O. Brew to Utah archaeology. Brew returned in 1931 to excavate at Alkali Ridge east of Blanding and, based on that field work, wrote Archaeology of Alkali Ridge, Southeastern Utah, which stands as the definitive work on the early Puebloan period in the Four Corners area.

Julian H. Steward came to the University of Utah as chair of the department of anthropology in 1930 and remained on the faculty until 1933. Steward's contributions to the anthropology of the Great Basin and Utah cannot be overstated. His archaeological work is overshadowed by the ethnographic research presented in his classic monograph, Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Socio-political Groups, which focused on the Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada. These studies were central to the development of Steward's ideas about cultural ecology, a perspective that continues to be highly influential in archaeology. Steward excavated at various mounds along the Wasatch Range and, like Judd and Morss, noted artifactual and architectural similarities to those artifacts and ruins of the Southwest; he used the phrase "Northern Periphery" to characterize farming cultures in Utah north of the range of the Anasazi. Steward also excavated several caves around the Great Salt Lake and reported on his efforts in his Ancient Caves of the Great Salt Lake Region.

Following Steward at the University of Utah, John Gillin spent two years (1935-37) in the department and, with Peabody sponsorship, excavated numerous Fremont sites in the state. In 1937 Elmer Smith joined the faculty at Utah and continued the tradition of reconnaissance and mound and cave excavations. Also during the 1930s, Albert Reagan initiated an archaeology program at Brigham Young University (BYU) and actively pursued research in the Uinta Basin and Utah Valley.

Professional archaeology was well established in Utah by the 1940s. The most influential practitioners were Judd and Steward, both of whom went on to brilliant, nationally prominent careers in anthropology. The 1940s also brought significant changes in archaeological methods, such as the development of radiocarbon dating, a tool that revolutionized archaeology by enabling researchers to construct absolute regional cultural chronologies. No one was more aware of the importance of these changes and the opportunities they offered than Jesse D. Jennings, who can rightly be called the father of Utah archaeology.


Jesse D. Jennings came to the University of Utah in 1948 and, over the succeeding thirty years, brought stability and a fundamental understanding of the culture history of Utah and the Great Basin. His ability to synthesize archaeological data in a readable and coherent fashion, combined with a steady focus over his long tenure, set Jennings apart as the most influential figure in Utah archaeology.

Jennings's impact on the archaeology of Utah particularly and the Great Basin generally was immediate and significant. In 1949 he organized the Utah Statewide Archaeological Survey and established the University of Utah Anthropological Papers monograph series. The following three decades were a time of intense archaeological activity at the University of Utah. The important Danger Cave work and several smaller excavations at Fremont sites occupied much of the early 1950s, while the massive Glen Canyon project, a joint effort with the Museum of Northern Arizona, was the focus of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jennings, with various graduate student assistants, directed excavations in all parts of the state, although research tended to focus on caves (for example, Hogup Cave, Swallow Shelter, Sudden Shelter, Cowboy Cave) or Fremont structural sites (for example, the Bear River sites, Injun Creek, Old Woman, the Garrison Site, Nephi Mounds, Pharo Village, Snakerock, Caldwell Village, Median Village, Evans Mound, Bull Creek, and others).

The Desert Culture concept, developed after excavations at Danger Cave and other dry caves in the western deserts, was Jennings's most significant theoretical contribution to Great Basin archaeology. Although controversial, this model stimulated research and archaeological inquiry for at least three decades. Jennings summarized his views on the Desert Culture (or Desert Archaic) model at the Leigh Lecture at the University of Utah in 1975: "From 10,000 or more years ago, until A.D. 400, the only culture represented in Utah, as well as the rest of the Great Basin, was the Desert Archaic. That culture is characterized as a hunting-gathering one, a flexible, highly adaptive lifeway that has characterized most of man's worldwide history."

The Desert Culture may be the contribution that most often comes to mind when Jennings's work is discussed, but others are equal in importance. Primary among these are the archaeological data generated at Utah during the course of his thirty years of field work, which were promptly analyzed and reported, primarily in the University of Utah Anthropological Papers. In addition, Jennings established the Utah Museum of Natural History in 1963 and directed it for ten years. In 1973 he shepherded the first state antiquities law through the legislature, establishing the Antiquities Section within the Utah State Historical Society and providing for a state archaeologist. Jennings was also instrumental in founding the Great Basin Anthropological Conference. Finally, through the Utah field school and graduate program, Jennings trained several generations of archaeologists.

Jennings dominated Utah archaeology for thirty years, but others also made important contributions during that era. Highlights include Marie Wormington's research at the Turner-Look site and her comprehensive report of "Northern Periphery" archaeology. Research by the University of Colorado in Dinosaur National Monument under the direction of Robert Lister and David Breternitz provided a basic understanding of the prehistory of northeastern Utah. During the Glen Canyon project, the Museum of Northern Arizona excavated at Sand Dune and Dust Devil caves on Navajo Mountain and defined the Desha Complex dating to the early Archaic period (7,000 to 8,000 B.P.).

In 1945 a department of archaeology was established at BYU. Over the next two decades, Ross Christensen, Ray Matheny, and Dale Berge directed research in Utah Valley, mostly at Fremont mound sites. Dale Berge directed historic archaeological projects at Goshen and Camp Floyd in Utah Valley as well as at the Pony Express station at Simpson Springs. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Matheny investigated Anasazi sites in Montezuma Canyon of southeastern Utah as part of the BYU archaeological field school program. Also in southeastern Utah, William D. Lipe of Washington State University and R. G. Matson of the University of British Columbia have made steady contributions to our understanding of the Anasazi Basketmaker Culture through ongoing work on Cedar Mesa and in Grand Gulch. Matson's book The Origins of Southwestern Agriculture synthesizes much of the Grand Gulch research. Beginning in the late 1970s Richard Thompson at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City directed excavations at numerous Anasazi sites in the Virgin River drainage and on the Utah-Arizona border near St. George.

The nature of archaeology in Utah and in the United States generally was drastically altered in the 1970s by the passage of federal legislation requiring that archaeological sites on public land be protected from destruction by development projects such as highways, reservoirs, and power line construction. The passing of the Utah Antiquities Act in 1973 and the appointment of a state archaeologist to manage the increased archaeological activity in the state was part of this national trend. Another consequence of this legislation was the hiring of agency archaeologists to manage archaeological sites on public lands. These changes ushered in the era of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeology, resulting in a dramatic increase in both the numbers of archaeologists and in the amount of archaeological data being generated.

The 1960s and 1970s were also a time of foment and change in professional archaeology generally. The "New Archaeology" emphasizing explanation and cultural process largely supplanted the cultural historical paradigm in archaeology. Middle range theory, which focused on understanding how the archaeological record was formed, became an important interest. Some turned to studying extant peoples, especially hunters and gatherers, to document site organization and the behaviors responsible for material patterning, an interest that developed into a field of study called ethnoarchaeology. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, middle range studies, ethnoarchaeology, and especially CRM archaeology have influenced Utah archaeological research in a number of ways.


Hunter-gatherers and Ethnoarchaeology. For several reasons, not the least of which was Jennings's departure from the University of Utah in 1978 and the burgeoning field of CRM archaeology, field research in the state since the late 1970s has not been dominated by the University of Utah, although that institution continues to be highly influential in terms of theoretical direction. CRM firms, federal agencies, and especially the Antiquities Section in the Utah Division of State History became more actively involved in archaeological field work. Since 1973 the Antiquities Section has been directed by David B. Madsen, whose position and publications have made him a central figure in Utah archaeology over the past two decades. Madsen's interests in paleoenvironmental reconstruction and subsistence, especially during the first years of his appointment, resulted in a greater emphasis on those topics, especially in Fremont studies. Fremont Perspectives, published by the Antiquities Section and edited by Madsen in 1980, was an important result of Madsen's influence.

In 1978 James F. O Connell joined the faculty at the University of Utah. In the early 1980s O'Connell collaborated with Madsen in coediting Man and Environment in the Great Basin, an important synthesis of Great Basin paleoenvironments and cultural history, and in the final chapter (coauthored with Kevin Jones and Steven Simms), called for a different theoretical emphasis in Great Basin research - evolutionary ecology. This new interest was based on O'Connell's interest in hunter-gatherer studies and ethnoarchaeology resulting from his field work with Australian aborigines and, later, the Adza people of Africa. Several of O'Connell's students, Steven Simms at Utah State University, Duncan Metcalf at Utah, and Kevin Jones at the Antiquities Section, have brought this theoretical perspective and interest in middle range issues (for example, butchering practices, transport decisions, and site structure analysis) to studies of hunter-gatherer behavior generally. These interests have, since the mid-1980s, dominated academic research in the state, although some, such as Joel Janetski (at BYU), who studied under both Jennings and O'Connell at the University of Utah, bridge the interests with both culture-historical and ecological research.

The interest in hunters and gatherers and middle range studies continues in Utah to the benefit of our understanding of the past. Research by Simms and Janetski on late prehistoric hunter-gatherers along the Wasatch Front, for example, has provided important data on that heretofore undescribed period and the transition from farming to hunting and gathering at about A.D. 1300. Much of the contract archaeology being done in the state in the 1990s reflects a renewed interest in hunter-gatherers generally, a lifeway that persisted in Utah for at least 8,000 years prior to the Fremont and several centuries thereafter.

Edge of the Cedars Ruin near Blanding

Crm and Agency Archaeology. Cultural Resource Management archaeology in Utah has its roots in salvage projects like Glen Canyon and initially was performed solely by university-affiliated archaeologists. The proliferation of contract work related to oil and coal exploration and federally mandated management work from the 1970s on, however, has supported many private contracting firms and university contracting offices at BYU, U of U, Southern Utah State University, and Utah State University. Beyond providing more jobs for archaeologists and vastly increasing the amount of archaeological data reported, CRM projects have, on occasion, resulted in other benefits to the public, such as the construction of visitors centers or museums to present and interpret project findings. Examples include centers at Anasazi State Park at Boulder, built following the excavations at Coombs Village during the Glen Canyon project, and Fremont Indian State Park south of Richfield, which was built to house and display the collections excavated at nearby Five Finger Ridge and other Fremont sites in Clear Creek Canyon. Visitors centers at Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding and Hovenweep National Monument east of Blanding were also constructed as a result of archaeological research at adjacent ruins.

Since the mid-1970s the number of agency archaeologists - both state and federal - has grown slowly but steadily. Initially, the primary activity of agency archaeologists was to identify and manage (protect) cultural resources on their lands. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, federal archaeologists have increasingly encouraged research through cooperative agreements with university archaeologists and have emphasized public participation on these and other projects. The emphasis on public-oriented archaeology, especially by federal agencies, has led to increased funding for publications and educational programs for schoolchildren.

The increase in the number of professionals doing archaeology in the state resulted in the establishment of the Utah Professional Archaeological Council (UPAC) in 1980 to monitor and encourage high standards of professional work and to increase preservation efforts, especially through legislation. Richard N. Holmer, then the contracting archaeologist at the University of Utah, was elected the first president. Since its inception, UPAC has played an ever-increasing role in politics by participating in writing and reviewing legislation relative to antiquities and by playing watchdog on preservation issues. One of the more important changes came in 1992 with the Antiquities Protection Act, which prohibited the sale of antiquities obtained on state land, required State Lands and Forestry departments to manage archeological sites, and contained a state reburial law for human remains.

Public and Avocational Archaeology. Archaeology has always been supported by active non-professionals or amateurs and Utah archaeology is no exception. The efforts of Don Maguire of Ogden in the 1890s have already been mentioned, but, more recently, amateurs such as Bud Peterson of Logan, Francis Hassell of Ogden, Robert and James Bee of Provo, John Hutchings of Lehi, Leo Thorne of Vernal, and Eldon "Doc" Dorman of Price, among others often collaborated with professionals in various capacities.

Amateur interests were formalized in 1962 with the founding of the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society (USAS), with support from Jennings. From the outset, USAS was a statewide organization with chapters in various communities, a structure that continues to the present. Its newsletter, Utah Archaeology, served as a means to communicate research findings to the amateur community. During the late 1960s membership lagged, but in the mid-1980s USAS was revitalized through the joint efforts of David Madsen and amateur George Tripp of Salt Lake City. Importantly, as new chapters were formed, professionals either from universities or from state or federal agencies stepped forward to act as advisors and to identify and coordinate productive group projects. As a consequence, USAS membership boomed. Membership in 1990 was over 400 in ten chapters scattered throughout the state. In 1988 Utah Archaeology was reconceptualized as an annual state journal supported by UPAC, USAS, and the Division of State History, and edited jointly by a representative from UPAC and one from USAS. The founding editors were Joel Janetski (UPAC) and Steve Manning (USAS). In its new, more formal format the journal has been widely accepted by professionals and amateurs as an important source of information about local archaeology.

Utah archeology in the 1990s is a dynamic and highly diverse field, dramatically different from what it was in the early part of this century when professional work began. At that time practitioners were few, and the literature on human prehistory in the state would barely fill a shelf. Today, archaeologists are employed by every major land managing agency and university in the state, and publications on Utah archaeology would fill rooms. A chronological framework was established by the 1950s and patterns of subsistence and settlement have been described for much of the state. Archaeologists are now building on this foundation to explore issues of economics, group interaction, and regional diversity, as well as provide explanations for the ebb and flow of cultural change over the past 10,000 years of human presence in the area. The past remains elusive, but Utah is fortunate as it continues to attract some of the best minds in the field to tell the story of its complex and intrinsically fascinating history and prehistory.

Archaeology's greatest challenge at the end of the twentieth century has not changed since the 1930s when an alarmed Elmer Smith drew attention to the incessant looting of archaeological sites around the state. Vandalism has, in fact, escalated over the past fifty years despite the efforts of many preservation-minded citizens. Without better protection of our precious and irreplaceable surviving cultural resources, much information and understanding about the history of the native peoples and early settlers of Utah will certainly be lost.