Secret ruins unveiled in Utah

Canyon: For the past 50 years, a local rancher and various land groups kept quiet about the remains of a 1,000-year-old village.

July 01, 2004|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

RANGE CREEK CANYON, Utah - High in eastern Utah's rocky cliffs, the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement stand in pristine condition, frozen in time for about 1,000 years and virtually untouched by humans.

Though locals have known about the tract for decades, it was just yesterday that state officials unveiled what they are calling a national treasure for its unspoiled condition and historic significance.

The site features skeletal remains, rock burial mounds, arrowheads, beads made of Pacific seashells, pottery fragments, cliffside granaries, collapsed sandstone dwellings, and panels of rock paintings and carvings. The remnants of the Fremont culture are scattered throughout a 12-mile-long canyon teeming with wildlife and sustained by Range Creek and wetlands.

The Fremont were so dubbed because of the nearby Fremont River, which was named after 19th-century explorer James Fremont. They thrived almost 1,500 years until they disappeared about 1300 A.D., a mystery that could be solved in the coming years as experts explore the area, officials said.

Artifacts abound in the Range Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is so remote that visitors must drive two hours along steep clay roads to reach the gate, 130 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

Protecting the canyon since 1951 was its former owner, rancher Waldo Wilcox, 75.

Wilcox, who sold his 4,169-acre ranch for $2.5 million in 2001, joined local, state and federal officials yesterday as they provided journalists with a tour of the site that is expected to uncover thousands of ancient Indian sites in the canyon bottom. Only about 200 have been recorded, officials said.

At one point, Wilcox demonstrated how relics lay seemingly abandoned.

Wilcox pointed to what he said was one burial mound, marked by a heap of rocks at the foot of a rocky wall.

Behind him was rock art, a Fremont carving distinctive for its trapezoidal depiction of a man's body with curving horns on his head. Wilcox pointed to old stone dwellings high on both sides of a canyon divided by a cottonwood-shaded waterway.

State officials say they will seek to place the tract on the national register of historic areas.

"It's truly a national treasure," said state archeologist Kevin Jones, who works in the antiquities section of the Utah Division of State History. "It's one of the most significant archeological areas that remain today.

"This range is a jewel that has somehow escaped the ravages of vandals and looting," he said.

The challenge ahead for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is how to open the site to visitors and maintain its archeological integrity. State officials say one way is to use rangers to patrol the valley and guides to escort visitors.

The ranch was bought by the Trust for Public Land with money from Congress and the Utah Quality Growth Commission. The title was turned over to the state this year.

The former Wilcox ranch is prime habitat for wild turkeys, eagles, hawks, bears, cougars, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. The alpine waters of Range Creek flow nearby.

The most prized portion of the ranch are the 1,309 acres that sit at the bottom of Range Creek canyon.

While providing the most powerful human dimension, the presence of skeletal remains and burial sites could also be the most contentious. Native American tribes have been outspoken in seeking to have such sites labeled sacred.

As word about the site has leaked out in recent weeks, some looting has started to occur, said Joel Boomgarden, 31, an archeology graduate student from Mankato, Minn., who was working at a spot where artifacts were being flagged.

Boomgarden has discovered "looters' piles," discarded heaps of artifacts left after poachers have collected and taken the best pieces, he said. Moving artifacts from their original sites renders them archeologically useless, he said.

"I'm scared that people are going to start digging holes and looking for artifacts that just aren't there," he said. "When these stories go out, things are going to start going out."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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