Skeletons in the closet

Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones knows his bones

  • Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones examines an arrowhead from the state collection.

    Steve Griffin/Salt Lake Tribune
  • Jones had his doubts about the story National Geographic Adventure published regarding the discovery of Everett Ruess's remains. And he was right.


Name Kevin Jones
Age 58
Current Hometown Salt Lake City, Utah
Night job Aspiring novelist. His yet-unpublished opus, The Shrinking Jungle, set in the 1960s, follows the Ache, a Paraguayan tribe of hunter/gatherers Jones lived among while working on his Ph.D. dissertation.

Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones has seen a lot of skeletons in his time. So last May, when National Geographic Adventure magazine printed a story claiming that someone had found the bones of Everett Ruess -- the legendary itinerant nature lover and writer who disappeared into the southern Utah desert 75 years ago -- Jones and his colleague, Derinna Kopp, had their doubts. The accompanying pictures seemed odd, Jones says: "Certain clues just jump right out."

The skull's incisors looked worn down, for example, indicating that it belonged to a Native American who ate a traditional diet of stone-ground corn, not a 20-something Anglo from Los Angeles. Even after a DNA test linked the skeleton to Ruess' relatives, Jones didn't buy it. "DNA is just another line of evidence, and can yield mistakes as well," he stubbornly asserted to the Salt Lake Tribune. The two University of Colorado forensic scientists who analyzed the remains accused him of being a conspiracy theorist. But in October, a second round of DNA testing, initiated by Ruess' family at another lab, proved he was right. The CU researchers were unable to duplicate their initial results, and the remains were returned to the Navajo Nation.

If Jones feels vindicated, he's not crowing. A bearish 58-year-old who looks like he'd be comfy in a biker bar, Jones is no stranger to controversy. It's his job to safeguard archaeological sites from looting and development -- no easy task in politically conservative Utah. The state's abundant archaeological heritage is often seen as a hindrance to economic interests. Jones has to mediate between politicians, developers and environmentalists, trying to balance preservation with new roads and rail lines. At one state legislative hearing in 2000, Republican Rep. Brad Johnson chastised him for pushing too hard to protect newly discovered ruins, sarcastically saying: "Just tell me how many arrowheads you need, and once you get that many, you can stop holding up highway projects."

Jones can be equally caustic. Last spring, after FBI agents arrested two-dozen Blanding, Utah, residents for looting Native American graves, local politicians called the pre-dawn raids "Gestapo tactics." Even some archaeologists thought the show of force was "overkill," something Jones dismisses outright: "You don't make a felony arrest by sending over teddy bears with chocolate bars."

Sometimes his insistence on following the rules puts him at odds with his own bosses. Ten years ago, the Mormon Church turned up a heap of bones when it broke ground for a monument acknowledging the Mountain Meadows massacre -- the infamous 1857 killing of unarmed emigrants by a Mormon militia. Routinely, when such historic remains turn up, Utah's antiquities section (which Jones is in charge of) conducts an investigation. But because the case caused "heartburn" for people, Jones was pressured to release the skeletons for quick reburial. Even so, he held firm until the governor intervened. By then, analysts had been able to confirm that the bodies belonged to the victims. "It was clear they were executed, shot in the head," Jones says.

When he's not jousting with politicians or fellow scientists, Jones strums mandolin in a bluegrass band called the Lab Dogs. He specialized in guitar until a car accident at age 30 severed his right thumb, turning him into what he calls a "mandolin hacker."

Jones understands what drew Everett Ruess to the wilderness: His own father was a national park ranger. "I grew up surrounded by some of the most beautiful places in the world," he says, including California's Sequoia National Park, Washington's Mount Rainier and Dinosaur National Monument, which brims with ruins. "(Ruess) was a talented young seeker who was finding himself and finding great beauty in the desert," he says. "It's one of those stories that goes to your soul."

So will the mystery of Everett Ruess ever be solved? "If they find the right body," Jones says wryly.

Keith Kloor writes about archaeology and environmental issues from New York City.

For more information, please see:

National Geographic Adventure Magazine's expose on the discovery of Everett Ruess's supposed remains

National Geographic Magazine's follow-up on how the DNA test went wrong

Utah's Antiquities Section

The Lab Dogs bluegrass band Web site, complete with a few tracks

High Country News Classifieds