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 His yet-unpublished opus, The Shrinking Jungle, set in the 1960s, follows the Ache, a Paraguayan tribe of hunter/gatherers Jones lived among while working on his Ph.D.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
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....