Technology eases access to ancient ruins, for better or worse

  • Rubble from an ancient site on Cedar Mesa, Utah.

    Neil Larubbio
  • Writer Neil LaRubbio used a combo of maps, the Internet, GPS and a smartphone to find once-hidden ancient ruins on Cedar Mesa, Utah.

    Neil Larubbio

My archaeological quest began in an SUV near Blanding Elementary School, where screaming children played kickball with a potato-shaped P.E. teacher. Winsten Dan, my cattle dog, slept on the backseat as I thumbed my smartphone; I had downloaded an app that saves PDFs from Web pages so they're accessible outside cell reception. I used it to view a topographic map, complete with GPS coordinates. Then, like many other tech-savvy archaeology nuts, I punched those coordinates into my GPS unit. In seconds, I knew the route to a secret ruin I'd never have found on my own.

Google "Cedar Mesa," and you'll retrieve at least 13 million hits. The southeast Utah area is home to the country's highest concentration of archaeological sites: Ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and pottery, along with baskets, weapons and pit houses from even older cultures. No interpretative signs or barricades dim the sense of discovery, as at Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon. But there's also little to shield artifacts from vandalism or theft.

The Bureau of Land Management doesn't reveal site locations, but BLM archaeologist Don Simonis says enthusiasts post them online. One website offers a $40 annual subscription to a list of sites, including directions; elsewhere, detailed travelogues come with GPS coordinates. Simonis, who's based in Monticello, Utah, compiled his own bucket list of 117 sites partly via the Internet.

Anyone with a GPS can find them, he says. "Over the course of a year, if you've got 100 people or 1,000 people going up to a site, it's got to have an impact."

It's hard to quantify the severity. But Simonis says many visitors climb on cliff dwellings, break off plaster and gather artifacts into mounds, sometimes pocketing them. Only two archaeologists, including Simonis, oversee 1.8 million acres of BLM land in this corner of southeast Utah, and they've inventoried less than 13 percent of an estimated 300,000 sites. Now, they say, even the most remote sites receive more traffic than ever before. When people remove artifacts from these places without careful documentation, their context is destroyed.

Turning east toward Cedar Mesa, I left Blanding's pinto bean farms for copper-toned cliffs and waves of juniper and sage. I paused at a BLM sign outlining rules for viewing ruins. Other than the ranger station I passed a few miles back, signs like this are about the extent of onsite information. A local advocacy group -- Friends of Cedar Mesa -- wants the area to be designated a national monument or conservation area, which would provide more money for education, preservation and extra rangers.

As I drove over slickrock sinkholes and through crusty golden hills, the arrow on my GPS inched closer to my destination. About 700 meters short, I got out and tiptoed up sandstone blocks, dove through a crown of piñons and found a circular rock wall saturated in waning sunlight. Ivory stone flakes and black potsherds poked through the sand. I tied Winsten to a tree and scanned the craggy landscape. I had been told this was a place of worship, or a defensive post, or both. A cool November wind blew, and I suddenly felt I was sharing the view with the structure's former residents. Without these artifacts, I was only standing on a hill.

"We need this information to understand ourselves better," Simonis had told me. "We've got all these problems. Maybe archaeology can help by teaching about what happened to these people."

The next morning, I hiked on with Winsten Dan and a plastic bag of hard-boiled eggs. A faint moon spied on us from above as I entered more coordinates into my GPS. I followed its lead down a cottonwood-shaded wash. My adrenaline pumped as if I were hunting elk, and I understood how "site baggers" get addicted.

Within an hour, I stood at a ruined dwelling, whose inhabitants had lived in the shade of a great stone amphitheater. Their ancient hearth burned in a room with a balcony view onto a wooded creek. Four mule deer jumped from a shrub as I approached. The stones lining the path looked newly placed -- but were they? I couldn't tell if the scattered corncobs were genuine artifacts, jokes or offerings from Native American descendents. Shoeprints pockmarked the sand.

I felt childish, studious and sly -- sitting in someone else's vacated home. In another time, I thought, this would have been a good place to raise my son -- harsh, sure, but one we would have cherished. Just then the GPS beeped, informing me that I was here.

Dennis Willis
Dennis Willis Subscriber
Mar 05, 2013 08:27 AM
The issue is not just the increased wear and tear on sites. It also cheapens and degrades the experience of visiting sites. There is value in exploring and discovering something for yourself even if thousands have been there before. Looking at the landscape, figuring out how ancients might have interacted with it, being surprised to discover something totally unsuspected. You see people walking with their GPS and they hike past sites they never see because it is not plugged in as a destination. GPS technology is great. But as Groucho Marx said: "I love a good cigar but I take it out on my mouth once in a while." Working as I guide I found there is a big difference between telling a client you are taking them to a site, taking and showing them; and just taking them on a hike and letting them "discover" the site on their own. The discovery is a memorable experience as opposed to another game of geocache.
Charlotte Wolter
Charlotte Wolter Subscriber
Mar 12, 2013 12:32 PM
This article demonstrates why, though I have a database of more than 4,00 ruins, no one else ever will see it or the ruins it contains. It's just too dangerous to let people know where these treasures are. Today, though I often track down and visit ruins, I rarely enter them. They simply are getting too much traffic. Mostly, they need to be left alone.
I don't think the experience is more special if you find a ruin yourself. What makes it most special is if someone else hasn't looted or damaged it. That's special enough for me.
I love the idea of making Cedar Mesa a protected area. It's a wonderful place that needs protection now.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Mar 12, 2013 01:01 PM
I grew up on the banks of the Minnesota River during a development boom. Tall grass prairie and farmland alike gave way to bulldozers and shovels that left gaping holes and huge piles of dirt. For good or ill, the holes and piles provided treasure troves for a kid rockhound and stuff collector. The mystery of a discovered arrowhead or spear point flintknapped by human hands centuries or millennia past felt like a connection. Time was immaterial.

I doubt we'll ever stop the fascination of collecting the past; we're too curious as a species, and age has nothing to do with it. Removing the profit motive might be our only route to prevent wholesale plunder. I wonder if 'national security' could be invoked to protect the sites and remove location data from the net.
Carolyn Brown
Carolyn Brown Subscriber
Mar 13, 2013 11:37 AM
Yes, it is fun to come upon ancient ruins when out solo on a walk. And, let's look at the rationale for studying and preserving these sites:"We need this information to understand ourselves better," Simonis had told me. "We've got all these problems. Maybe archaeology can help by teaching about what happened to these people." Perhaps our time and scientific expertise would be better spent grappling with the problems of our own civilization and taking action. Has jetting around the world digging through ancient buildings moved us any closer to steering out own civilization into harmony with ecological reality?
Rod torrez
Rod torrez
Mar 13, 2013 11:51 AM
Tsankawi, a sattelite ancestral pueblo site of Bandelier National Monument has been minimally supervised over the decades, and because it is right of the highway to the park it is often visited people who want a less groomed and interpretive, exploratory experience. Unfortunately that hands-off approach has taken its toll. ancestral pathways, carved into the soft tuff are wearing away, and handholds and footholds to dwelling places are turning into powdery soft spots on the cliffsides. Lithics and potsherds have mostly disappeared, and the unique, plaster dadoed cavate rooms with smoked ceilings have become riddled with graffiti. An "archeological" layer of bottle caps, pull tabs and even condoms can be found in the sites that the small, dedicated Vanishing Treasures staff have not been able to maintain.

As a result, Bandelier is taking a fresh look at Tsankawi, and has engaged in an Environmental Assessment to create a management plan that will hopefully find a balance between a managed visitor experience and protection of the sites, which are very important to the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. Because Tsankawi is so accessible, it will likely become a much more controlled experience. However, regarding technology, we are looking at ways to engage the public to participate in site stewardship, offering visitors the chance to engage in monitoring the site and collecting data through apps that allow them to upload photos, video and audio that can contribute to a database of site conditions. Our hope is that in engaging visitors to monitor, we can also start on the long road of creating an ethic for visiting sites, an understanding that they are fragile and subject to avoidable changes. We need to teach our visitors to care....