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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • 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...