U archaeologists lobby to continue groundbreaking project

By By Jay Logan Rogers

By Jay Logan Rogers

Duncan Metcalfe, associate professor of archaeology, would like to continue doing what he considers “the coolest archaeology in the world.”

Metcalfe coordinates research activities at Range Creek Canyon, an isolated location 40 miles southeast of Price that houses several important archaeological sites associated with the Fremont people, an American Indian culture that thrived in Northern and Central Utah between approximately 200 and 1300 AD.

Sarah George, executive director of the Utah Museum of Natural History, testified with Metcalfe at the state Legislature on Jan. 30. They asked the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee to grant $55,000 in on-going funds for research, management and maintenance of facilities in Range Creek Canyon.

They also asked for $30,000 in one-time funds toward the purchase of a field vehicle. The project requires an automobile that is able to transport a number of students over rough terrain to reach the remote canyon.

Metcalfe called the canyon “the most isolated spot in Utah” and said it is precisely its secluded location that makes the site so valuable.

For decades, a significant portion of Range Creek Canyon was occupied by a ranch run by the Wilcox family.

“The Wilcox family kept people out, and they didn’t dig up the sites. They had respect for them,” George said.

In 2001, the Wilcoxes sold their ranch to the Bureau of Land Management. Soon afterward, archaeologists were able to examine the sites for the first time.

“When the archaeologists went into the canyon, they were stunned. You just don’t get an opportunity to see so many sites that are untouched,” George said.

The sites contain artifacts left behind by the Fremont people. One key question researchers are investigating is why the Fremont people abruptly abandoned agriculture, a move that led to the end of their existence as a distinct cultural group.

Discoveries at Range Creek Canyon were so significant that the January 2005 issue of Discover magazine ranked it as number 16 in its listing of the top 100 science stories of 2004.

“In four semesters at Range Creek, I’ve seen 50 times the number of untouched sites that I had seen in the previous 25 years,” Metcalfe said.

U faculty and graduate students do much of the research conducted at Range Creek Canyon, Metcalfe said.

Researchers are concerned that increasing numbers of people are making the trek to the remote canyon and disturbing the artifacts within. They emphasize that research must be done in a timely manner because the longer they wait, the greater the chance that some of the sites will be looted or otherwise disturbed.

In order to help lawmakers understand the importance of promptly funding the Range Creek Canyon project, researchers have invited legislators to visit the canyon themselves. Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, observed the canyon and was impressed by the project.

“I think this is a treasure. We get one shot at doing this right,” Allen said.

Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Salt Lake City, has not yet visited the site but told the committee that she intends to this summer.

“I have great concern that we make sure this is all protected,” Walker said. “I support this, and I think it’s a great idea.”

None of the subcommittee members expressed opposition to funding the project during the meeting.

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