Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance

protecting the past for the future

Southern Utah road project has unearthed Native American sites

rock art swell fremont petroglyphy-500

Construction of the Southern Parkway in Utah has unearthed the oldest Native American site ever investigated in the southwestern part of the state.

Read more (and see a video detailing the project) here.


Filed under: Uncategorized

UPDATE: How is hunting for Fenn’s treasure illegal?

tumblr_lvyz59YsYD1r0frkbo1_1280We’ve received a few comments and questions about a story we posted earlier this week. In it, we reported on an unfortunate lady who went looking for hidden treasure at Bandelier National Monument, near Santa Fe. Prominent local archaeology buff/millionaire/owner-of-San Lazaro Pueblo Forrest Fenn has apparently left $2 million worth of goodies. It’s helped promote his book, Thrill of the Chase, and has skyrocketed Fenn to a level of public interest that would make any archaeologist jealous.

But is what he did illegal?

Martin McAllister is a friend and mentor who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about archaeological site protection. He’s a retired archaeologist with the National Forest Service who is best known for his training programs in archaeological crime scene investigations. He’s also served as an expert witness on numerous ARPA cases. Check out his company, Archaeological Damage Investigation & Assessment, here.

Here’s what McAllister says:

“It likely would be a violation of the theft of government property (18 USC 641) and injury of government property (18 USC 1361) statutes, both of which are felonies if the value of the property stolen or injured is greater than $1,000.00.  These statutes would apply because the property Fenn buried would now be abandoned on federal land and would, therefore, have become federal property.  Digging it up at Bandelier, clearly government property, would constitute injury and removing it would constitute theft.  This would be my non-attorney take on the situation.  There was a similar case in Georgia or Florida several years back in which a guy buried property in one of the parks there.”

Buried or unburied — there have been conflicting accounts in the media regarding whether the treasure was put in the ground or simply hidden away — may not matter in this case, since the feds consider the loot abandoned property. Theft of it is a felony, as is bringing along a shovel to help. Of course, if Fenn’s treasure is on private land, as stated in the previous post, none of this applies.

So there you have it. Any questions/comments/disagreements/axes to grind? Leave a comment below.

Filed under: Ancestral Puebloans, CPAA in the News, Federal Lands, Legal, Looting, New Mexico

Don’t go looking for Fenn’s treasure. It’s illegal. And you may end up like this woman.

Ceremonial_Kiva,_Frijoles_Canyon_--_Bandelier_National_MonumentFiled under the “Weird News” section in the Huffington Post this weekend was a story about an unfortunate woman who got lost while looking for treasure in New Mexico.

No, seriously. A 34-year-old Texas woman was reported missing by her boyfriend last week, after she had gone hunting for $2 million worth of gold and jewels in Bandelier National Park. Famed (or infamous, depending on your persuasion) Santa Fe antiquities dealer Forrest Fenn had hidden it. And in his bestselling book, The Thrill of the Chase, he included a map to the treasure. A rough sketch of a map, but still.

Thankfully the woman is fine — she was rescued without incident and presumably is back in Texas — but the whole incident raises a whole host of questions and concerns.

Anyone who has done fieldwork in the Four Corners or is an archaeology buff of any sort has likely heard of Fenn. He’s the charismatic millionaire who bought half of a pueblo — San Lazaro — and has been both praised and criticized for allowing folks to dig it up. David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, called him “a rascal” in a recent interview, while quickly adding that Fenn has done a lot of good as well. He’s brought disadvantaged kids out to his ranch, and has hosted numerous researchers to do good, solid archaeological fieldwork.

And what Fenn’s doing on his own land is perfectly legal. Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, it is illegal to hunt for artifacts on public land. Same goes for site damage — you push over a rock wall, and you’re committing a felony.

However, the law does not apply to private lands. If you want to buy an Indian pueblo and excavate it, that’s well within your right. Of course, if you find Native American remains or associated grave goods, that’s another crime entirely.

15417959-bandelier-national-monumentFenn owns half of San Lazaro, while the Bureau of Land Management owns the other half. In an interview I did with former New Mexico state archaeologist Glenna Dean in 2008, she reported that rangers could see over the fence at all the excavation Fenn was doing. As a side note, this story is what initially set me on the path of doing preservation archaeology, which is what CPAA is all about.

Back to the Bandelier incident, though. Digging of any sort on federal lands — and this is a national monument, mind you, which receives the highest level of protection the feds bestow on its acreage — is illegal. Anyone digging at the park, whether it’s Fenn, the wayward woman, or any of the many other treasure hunters who are presumably descending on the park right now, is committing a crime. The National Park Service’s “leave no trace” ethos is not well served by folks with shovels potholing the landscape.

Filed under: Ancestral Puebloans, Archaeology 101, Archaeology in the news, Federal Lands, Legal, Looting, New Mexico, Pop culture, Weirdness

Nine Mile Canyon (West Tavaputs Plateau): A Model for Balancing Preservation and Energy Development

Credit: Mark Sanders

Credit: Mark Sanders

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation acts as the legal arm of the federal government, responsible for enforcing provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Translation: these are the folks who federal agencies must answer to in case they fail to consider a project’s impacts on archaeology. If the Army Corps of Engineers builds a dam on top of a cemetery, the ACHP gets involved — pronto.

Definitions out of the way, let’s look at what they have to say about CPAA! They apparently like the work we’ve been doing in Nine Mile Canyon, one of the marquee rock art sites in North America (not that we’re biased). For years, CPAA has collaborated with the feds and Bill Barrett Corporation (BBC) on the construction of natural gas pipelines — and the roads needed to get equipment in to build them — in Nine Mile. This is obviously very delicate stuff, and we’ve enjoyed a healthy relationship with BBC over the course of this project.

Now that it’s wrapping up, the ACHP is touting our work with the company as a model of collaboration between private industry and archaeology.

Want to know more? Get a cup of coffee then, and read the press release I’ve copied and pasted below. Got questions? Ask us.


For thousands of years humans have lived along the vast West Tavaputs plateau. Scattered across the landscape are the remains of hundreds of residences and forts—massive walls with no apparent windows. Early inhabitants left large and small granaries that stored foodstuffs scattered across the plateau and the canyon, known as Nine Mile Canyon. An estimated 10,000 prehistoric rock art panels are etched or painted on the walls of the 45-mile-long canyon. Scenes depicted range from a single figure to several hundred. The more than 100,000 recorded individual images on the worn rock are highly significant to Indian tribes. These images include elk and bighorn sheep, humans bearing weapons, and mystical figures.


In the early 2000s, energy exploration began, using the unsurfaced roads in this area. Increasing industrial activity and number of diesel-fueled trucks caused particulate matter (a polluting mixture of fine airborne solid particles and aerosols) to speed erosion of the rock panels. In 2005, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a proposal for an 800-well natural gas development that would dramatically increase traffic. The energy development had the potential to transform West Tavaputs plateau into an industrial zone due to heavy truck traffic and markedly increase the harmful effects to historic properties in more than 149,000 acres of land.

Credit: Mark Sanders

Credit: Mark Sanders


The BLM, the federal agency permitting this project, was responsible for conducting the Section 106 process under the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 requires that federal agencies identify historic properties and assess the effects of the projects they carry out, fund, or permit on those properties. Under Section 106, agencies consult with Indian tribes, state and local governments, and organizations and individuals that have a demonstrated interest in the historic property to seek agreement on measures to address the effects.

While BLM hoped to expedite the compliance and permitting process, initially not all affected were consulted, resulting in delays. Native Americans and archaeologists voiced concern for the integrity of the cultural resources, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) listed Nine Mile Canyon as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” in 2004.

In 2008, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) became directly involved and encouraged BLM to expand the consultation. BLM agreed, and consultation with Indian tribes and other parties moved forward. This larger group met for 10 months to craft solutions to protect historic properties especially the fragile rock art. In the process, public education through interpretive materials and public access to sites was also improved.

On January 5, 2010, consulting parties, including the governor of Utah, signed the resulting Programmatic Agreement, creating a blueprint for safeguarding historic properties while allowing energy development to proceed. The agreement provides for additional archaeological surveys with the goal of nominating 100 sites to the National Register of Historic Places by 2015. Use of corrosive dust suppressant was discontinued and research conducted on the effect of airborne pollutants on rock art. Conservation treatments for rock art panels will be developed along with interpretive panels to inform the public.


The diverse consulting parties—ranging from archaeologists to the energy company—applauded the accomplishment of the Section 106 process in balancing protection of historic properties with energy development. It stands as an example of how industry and preservationists can be partners in forging an outcome that benefits all. This case also confirmed an underlying Section 106 principle that consultation must engage all interested parties at the earliest stages of project planning.


Filed under: Archaeology in the news, CPAA in the News, Energy Development, Fremont Sites, From the Boss's Desk, Nine Mile Canyon, Tavaputs, Utah

Steven Spielberg’s archaeologist neighbor speaks out on Indiana Jones

indiana-jonesI recently heard a story about Indiana Jones — the beloved/beloathed patron saint of archaeology — and how a very young Steven Spielberg first conceived the idea of a swashbuckling, snake-hating archaeologist.

The source prefers to remain anonymous and the tale as I heard it was incomplete (to say the least), but it bears retelling nonetheless.

Teenage Spielberg, living in a Phoenix suburb, would occasionally stop by an archaeologist neighbor’s house. He became fascinated with archaeology during these visits, which would later become a factor in his creation of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Raiders appeared in theaters and became a blockbuster hit (grossing $389 million), the Society for American Archaeology took notice.

At a meeting of SAA archaeologists, someone mentioned the film in the presence of Spielberg’s neighbor, who was completely unaware that the teenage boy had become the director. She was shocked, as were the SAA folks when she told them she knew Spielberg. She was asked to immediately call Spielberg and tell him the danger this film posed to archaeology’s image, and how we might be viewed as glorified site looters (with whips, no less). She called. Spielberg, apparently unaware of his oversight, apologized. Years later, the final installment of the original Indy trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, would feature more preservation than grave robbing, as a nod to the importance of real-life archaeology. As a bonus, Harrison Ford would make a public service announcement.

Pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, it’s not exactly all true.

A young Steven Spielberg

A young Steven Spielberg

After some extensive Googling, I tracked down Spielberg’s archaeologist neighbor. Her name’s Sylvia Gaines, a retired professor who taught at Arizona State University until a few years ago. In a recent email conversation, Dr. Gaines remembered the story this way:

“Hi Mark:  Some  true – some not correct.  Steven did live across the street and I have always  kept up his work.  His family still stops to see me occasionally.  Steven is very much aware of the scientific value and methods of archaeology and much of the Indiana stuff is simply “tongue in cheek” !!  When the first Indiana film appeared I was on the SAA executive board and did contact him.  He sent a generous check to SAA in appreciation for the work archaeology did.  So never believe what you read about him – the press loves to nail him when possible!!”

Thankfully, one part of the story that was true is that Harrison Ford did make a public service announcement about the importance of preservation. Check out the video below:

Filed under: Interviews, Looting, Pop culture, Videos, Weirdness

Archaeology wins the PR award for the day

urlSo yesterday I woke up to the top newspaper headlines reading something completely unexpected. And no, it hadn’t anything to do with Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance.

The news of archaeologists finding King Richard III‘s skeleton underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, was the biggest news of the day. Archaeology, at least momentarily, was on everybody’s minds.

Thank goodness.

Granted, there was plenty of drama surrounding the find. The fact that the king’s body was found beneath a social services building’s parking lot. The project’s main cheerleader, a screenwriter who swore she felt “a chill” as she walked over the grave site four years ago, a full two years prior to excavations. The horrific wounds the king must have suffered (a sword through the head – ouch). The oath taken by researchers to keep the find secret for two years. And, of course, the near-miss installation of a 19th century toilet that would have destroyed the royal bones.


Reenactors, paying homage to the king

All of this was fodder for the PR mill yesterday. It got me thinking, though, about how this is a teachable moment for non-archaeologists who want to know what we actually do other than digging.

At least four, and likely more, non-excavation methods were used to piece the puzzle together. To those of you who think an anthropology degree is only good for teaching, take note:

Ground penetrating radar (GPR). This is perhaps the single best non-intrusive means of doing archaeology. GPR allows scientists to “see” disturbances in the soil underground, up to several feet. It is less costly (both time- and energy-wise) than digging. In many cases, when GPR is used on sites that have been previously excavated, it shows archaeological features that weren’t discovered originally.

Forensics. At the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, we learned two main aspects of forensic anthropology: osteology (the study of bones) and crime scene reconstruction. This is the stuff that TV shows are made of, but still, it is all based (to varying degrees, anyway) in reality. Both aspects were used in the case of King Richard: a firm background in osteology helped researchers learn what was both normal and abnormal about the king’s features — including his infamous crooked back — while crime scene reconstruction helped archaeologists determine the grisly way in which he died.

DNA reconstruction. This is a hugely overlooked but important aspect of archaeology. It is also the means by which researchers determined this was, without question, the king.

Historical documentation. One of the primary questions archaeologists are asked is, “how do you know where to look?” With historical archaeology anyway, we often have maps. That was the case here, which led archaeologists to what was suspected to be the site of an ancient friary-turned-parking lot.

So now you know it’s not all shovels and trowels.

Now, about that Beyoncé performance….

Filed under: Archaeology 101, Archaeology in the news, Weirdness

The Mystery of the Migrating Boulder, part 3

This is the last in a series of three articles about a petroglyph-covered boulder that’s been traveling around the Southwest for decades. You can read the first two parts here and here.

Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef NP. Photo credit:

Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef NP. Photo credit:

Dava McGahee has been working to get the boulder back for three years. She has followed it from its original location in what is today Capitol Reef National Park, to a private ranch in Fish Creek Cove, to its present home at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California. “It’s good to keep the boulder rolling, so to speak,” she says.

A couple private individuals, one from Orem, Utah and another from Hollywood, had taken an interest in the 19,800 monolith. “It’s not like we didn’t know the boulder had been somewhere,” McGahee says. Yet prior to others calling to ask about the rock, “it was just on the backburner.”

morss 1927, taken in fruita maybe

The boulder, as pictured in Utah in 1927

After speaking with Chaffey College art history professor John Machado and college president Henry Shannon, a deal was tentatively reached on returning the boulder to Utah. Ideally, McGahee says, its return will coincide with the summer solstice in 2014. Upon its homecoming, it will sit in the proximity of its “sister,” a rock that has remained in situ at Capitol Reef since time immemorial. McGahee says, “There’s some ethnography saying that these two boulders have some connection with the solstice.”

The boulder’s inscriptions and geographic location indicate that its association with the Fremont, a cultural group whose petroglyphs have been the subject of CPAA‘s research for years.

“This is really a success story for preservation,” McGahee says. “I hope the story of the boulder will be one more positive and profound example of why we should leave things where they are and appreciate the cultures [who made them].”

Filed under: Federal Lands, Fremont Sites, History of Southwestern Archaeology, Utah

The Mystery of the Migrating Boulder, Part 2

This is the second of three articles CPAA is writing about a 19,800-pound boulder that has been moving around the Southwest for decades

WP_20130110_001On to Rancho Cucamonga.

Kaiser Steel was hired to move the massive, petroglyph-covered boulder from Utah to California using a diesel tow rig. The Fremont-era monolith was originally found in what is today Capitol Reef National Park, and in the 1950s was hauled to a private ranch at Fish Creek Cove, Utah, care of an artist named Elizabeth Sprang.

After Sprang’s home burned down, the boulder nearby was donated to Chaffey College. Dava McGahee, who retired from her position as National Park Service archaeologist last year, has been following this story. Regarding the decision to move the boulder to this little-known school on the West Coast, she says:

“Apparently [Sprang] had a friend at Chaffey College who wanted or was willing to help her move the boulder…. It was more of a donation. She’d already moved the boulder out of Capitol Reef, so I don’t want to give her preservation credit. What I do know from her nephew is her passion and obsession with these artifacts. She didn’t want to leave the boulder amid the burnt-out ruins.”

Credit: Willie Holdman

Fish Creek Cove, Utah. Photo Credit: Willie Holdman

The first half of the 20th century was a boom time for archaeologists in the Southwest. So it made sense that Sprang, who lived in the area and was interested in the history of Fremont peoples, would meet some of them. Sprang’s nephew mentioned, in an interview with McGahee, connections with archaeologists in the Glen Canyon area.

Where did the monolith end up, specifically? At the art museum outside the building. There it has sat ever since, for approximately 60 years.

Next week we’ll learn about the efforts to bring the boulder back to its original place (or as close to it as we imagine it was), and what we can expect in the future from this developing story.

Filed under: Federal Lands, Fremont Sites, History of Southwestern Archaeology, Utah

The Mystery of the Migrating Boulder, Part 1

This is the first of three articles CPAA is writing about a 19,800-pound boulder that has been moving around the Southwest for decades.


A massive petroglyph-covered basalt boulder sat for hundreds of years in a remote area of southern Utah. Pecked and marked with images that included a one-horned god, the monolith also contained historic inscriptions, perhaps by Mormon settlers. The rock was one of a pair — a matched set.

Then, some time in the 1950s — no one’s exactly sure when — it was removed.

The culprit was a well-meaning and archaeology-obsessed woman named Elizabeth Sprang. To say she was enamored with artifacts would be an understatement. Sprang lived among the remains of the Fremont culture in a landscape dense with rock art, pit houses and granaries. The petroglyph-covered monolith was of particular interest to Noel Morss, the Harvard-trained archaeologist who initially coined the term “Fremont culture” and who worked in eastern Utah in the late 1920s. Due to the strange, fascinating geological formations of the area, Sprang’s backyard was designated a national monument in 1937. Today it is part of Capitol Reef National Park.

Sprang helped orchestrate the initial move to a private ranch in Fish Creek Cove — notably, an area where CPAA has conducted field research — so that she could be closer to it. Anyone who has ever pocketed a projectile point can understand the urge to collect an artifact, regardless of the moral implications of it. This, however, was artifact hunting on an entirely different, and wholly ambitious, level. The now-orphaned rock was moved there by truck, a considerable undertaking, especially considering this was 50 years ago and the rock weighed nearly 10 tons.

And then Sprang’s house burned down, prompting her to have the boulder moved yet again.

morss 1927, taken in fruita maybe

Noel Morss and unidentified man sitting next to the boulder, 1927. Photo credit: Harvard Peabody Museum.

Why? Like many other questions in this story, the answer’s unclear.

Dava McGahee has an idea. She recently retired from her position as cultural resources program manager at Capitol Reef and has been spending her retirement in Florida researching the boulder story.

“I’m just hypothesizing that she didn’t want to leave the boulder in the midst of a burnt-down ruin,” McGahee says. “Maybe she wanted to have it in a safe place. I don’t know.”

What we do know is that the rock’s next move would be nearly 600 miles away. To California.

Over the next week, we’ll be posting the rest of the story. Stay tuned.

Filed under: Federal Lands, Fremont Sites, History of Southwestern Archaeology, Looting, Uncategorized, Utah

Southwest Colorado sites threatened by drought, off-road vehicles

2666439-extreme-off-road-the-vehicle-jumping-and-splashing-out-the-mudMcPhee Reservoir in southern Colorado sits in one of the richest prehistoric landscapes in the country, if not the world. And now, it’s being threatened by off-road vehicle enthusiasts taking advantage of receding waters.

In a Cortez Journal article last week, the scenario was described as a case of four-wheelers tearing up Ancestral Puebloan ruins. And while the reservoir is federal land that is off-limits to vehicles, law enforcement officials aren’t ticketing these weekend warriors.

“The Forest Service has not enforced the A designation [which restricts off-road vehicle travel] on the McPhee flats as of yet, preferring simply to educate locals on travel rules,” the article says.

This sounds like an example of the feds taking a hands-off approach to enforcing the law in an area where there’s long been resistance to heavy-handed government oversight. Ticketing off-road vehicle enthusiasts would make for bad PR here. So far, the feds have opted for educating the locals on the importance of preservation. It’s a delicate balance, knowing when to slap locals with fines for something many consider to be a harmless pastime.

As a side note, assessing off-road vehicle impacts is part of what CPAA does in Utah.

dap_images.Par.56733.Image.450.287.1For some perspective, consider the history of the McPhee Reservoir. Named after a lumber company town that now sits underwater, the reservoir is the second-largest artificial body of water in Colorado. When it was first conceived in the late ’70s, the project was a boon to archaeologists because of its incredible site density. It was dubbed the Dolores Archaeological Project.

Here’s what the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dolores Project website says:

Archeological investigations disclosed that although the project would not affect any properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it could disturb about 487 known archeological sites, either within proposed rights-of-way or in other areas that would be altered by project construction. An excavation program preceded each stage of construction to remove and preserve all significant findings.

Dry language (come on, it’s the feds writing this), but significant still: this was an effort to salvage some of the countless artifacts located within the project area. And while the project had many positive outcomes, including the creation of the Anasazi Heritage Center (without question, an archaeological jewel of the Four Corners), the loss of pristine sites is tough for archaeologists or any preservation advocate to stomach. The latest story of site damage from off-road vehicles doesn’t make it any easier, either.

We’ll keep you updated as we find out more.

Filed under: Ancestral Puebloans, Federal Lands, Southern Colorado

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