Archeological Excavations at Nine Sites along the Colorado River Corridor
In 2006, Grand Canyon National Park entered into a cooperative agreement with the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) to excavate nine extensively eroded archeological sites along the Colorado River corridor.
This research, under the direction of Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA) archeologist Lisa Leap and MNA archeologist Ted Neff, includes site testing, excavation, analysis and curation of artifacts, and visitor interpretation.
The $1.2 million project is funded via the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which allows utilization of recreation fees to enhance visitor services, including interpretation of an area’s natural and cultural history.
Since the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the amount of sediment available in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon has been greatly diminished, causing erosion of beaches and sandbars. Erosion, deterioration, and loss of archeological sites are among the documented impacts of the sediment-starved river system. Although most archeological sites along the river corridor are on terraces or benches above the Colorado River’s annual high water mark, erosion of river sandbars and beaches decreased the availability of sediment for aeolian transport to terraces and benches.
Stabilization efforts, such as check dam construction and other erosion control measures, were repeatedly unsuccessful in the nine sites designated for excavation in this project. Given the National Park Service’s “preservation-in-place” mandate, excavations only take place today when it is not possible for the NPS to preserve cultural material in its original setting. These excavations are providing a rare glimpse into ancient lifeways and the overall human story at Grand Canyon. The last major excavations along the river corridor in Grand Canyon occurred 40 years ago.
This project began in fall 2006 with an archeological testing river trip to plan future excavations and to initiate archeological work, including surveying, excavating test units, and assessing site geomorphology. Excavation work began in May 2007, with the excavation of two masonry rooms at a site downstream of the Little Colorado River confluence. In September and October 2007, crews excavated three ancestral Puebloan structures exposed in arroyo cuts in a broad alluvial area known as Furnace Flats. During the excavation at Furnace Flats, archeologists found a number of ceramic gaming pieces and stone pendants, and a large number of manos and metates for grinding food products.
One exciting find was a scorched pinyon nut; its presence indicates that the people who lived at this site brought in food from the rim since pinyon pine trees do not grow in the inner canyon.
In April and May 2008, archeologists uncovered a kiva at a site where several arroyos were actively eroding and destroying a number of prehistoric features, including storage cists and a surface artifact scatter.
During testing at the site in 1999, Grand Canyon archeologists intersected a masonry wall while digging an exploratory pit a few feet away from the arroyo. Given the existence of the buried masonry wall at the site, crews expected to find some sort of archeological feature when they re-excavated the area; they were surprised and excited to find a kiva.
Kivas, subterranean circular rooms found in some Puebloan sites, are known at only a few archeological sites at Grand Canyon and may have been used for ceremonial purposes.
To date, archeologists have found that the sites they are excavating are more extensive than previously thought and that there is still a surprising amount of intact cultural material despite the documented erosion. Jan Balsom, Deputy Chief of Science and Resource Management said, “these sites are offering us windows to a much more extensive past than most people ever thought we had at Grand Canyon. The craftsmanship exhibited at these sites and the extensiveness of the remains provides us a wealth of information to better understand the people who used to call the Canyon their home”
Field work will continue through 2009. After the completion of the project, artifacts, photographs and video documentation will be permanently curated in the GRCA Museum Collection.
Another important part of the project is communication with the American Indian tribes with cultural ties to the canyon. Tribal consultations have occurred during every phase of the excavation project. Representatives of affiliated tribes have visited all the sites planned for excavation with GRCA archeologists, and all support the excavations. After a tribal consultation river trip in August 2007, Balsom said, “An integral part of our plan is to include tribal scholars in the research and interpretation of these archeological sites. It is important that we maintain an open dialogue with all interested parties to make sure that we do the right thing with these sites, and that we incorporate tribal perspectives and share the park’s cultural history with the public.”
Archeological research can augment tribal oral histories in addition to enhancing the public’s understanding of the canyon’s prehistory. In some cases, tribes are losing their histories because elders pass before stories are shared. With the tribal engagement in this excavation project, GRCA archaeologists and tribal representatives have a unique opportunity to share information with each other and with the public.
While the erosion of archeological sites is truly tragic, excavations do provide a means to salvage some of the past. In doing so, archeologist gain information and data that will allow a better understanding of the peoples who called the canyon home. This information will help the NPS preserve Grand Canyon’s cultural legacy and will add to comprehension of the canyon’s ensemble as a cultural landscape.
Balsom said, “This excavation project is demonstrating that there is so much more to learn about the canyon’s human stories. People lived their lives in the canyon for thousands of years. What we unearth from this project gives us the information to make these lives real for today’s visitors and the visitors of the future.”
Grand Canyon National Park Archeological Resources
The River Monitoring Program
generates data regarding the effects of Dam operations on historic properties, identifies ongoing impacts to historic properties within the APE [Area of Potential Effect], and develops and implements remedial measures for treating historic properties subject to damage.
Last updated: July 23, 2018