Archeologists Make Exciting Discoveries Along the Colorado River

Brian Gatlin, Park Ranger - Interpretation
A perfectly intact pot used for cooking or food storage.

On a hot day in October 2007, an archeologist lifted a slab from the floor of an ancient room, revealing a perfectly intact pot. People who lived here centuries ago used this large corrugated vessel for cooking or food storage. Now, it quickly drew a crowd of archeologists and their assistants. On an archaeological excavation, every artifact is an important part of the story that finally emerges, but a discovery like this was thrilling even for those who had spent years working in the field.

This dig was part of an exciting project designed to increase our knowledge of Grand Canyon's human past before it disappears. Many of the sites where people once lived along the Colorado River have been buried by windblown sand from the river's sandy beaches, leaving them hidden but protected. Today, Glen Canyon Dam traps most of the river's sediment. As a result, the sand dunes and the sites themselves are beginning to erode away.


Archeological sites are a non-renewable resource. When they disappear—whether through erosion, vandalism, or simply the passage of time—they are gone forever along with the knowledge they hold. Grand Canyon National Park, working with the Museum of Northern Arizona and eleven affiliated Native American tribes, has embarked on the largest excavation project seen in the park in nearly forty years. Beginning in 2007 and ending in 2009, the park will excavate nine of the most endangered sites along the river corridor.

Archeologist at work at Furnace Flats.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Kish

National Park Service archeologists discovered the pot in a large ancestral Puebloan site along the banks of the river. As the archeologists dug carefully through the rooms, the artifacts they uncovered provided clues to the people's daily lives. The rooms held stone lined hearths for cooking fires, storage pits in the floor, and mealing bins where people once ground corn for their dinner.

Other objects found at the site indicate that the canyon was not a barrier but a home that the people traveled through, gathering resources from different areas. The inhabitants grew corn nearby, but piñon nuts, juniper berries, and rabbit bones demonstrate that people along the river used resources from higher in the canyon and on the rims. The source of a bison femur is still a mystery! Varied potsherds, of different origin, show that pottery was traded back and forth across the canyon as well as made locally.

Four archeologists examine a prehistoric pot.

Detailed study of the rooms reveals a complex and fascinating story. The ancestral Puebloans occupied this site off and on for a span of centuries. Each room showed layer upon layer of separate occupations. People came, built homes, stayed a generation or two farming along the river, and then left. Each time they left, they or others later returned to this familiar place.

Archeology is a dynamic science. The final lab analysis of this project will provide a deeper understanding of the lives of the people who made this beautiful place their home. As this exciting series of excavations progresses, we will continue to refine and reshape our knowledge of Grand Canyon's human history. There is still much to learn and discover. If you find an artifact, do your part to preserve it by leaving it where it is and reporting its location to a park ranger.


Related Information

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.
Archeological Excavations at 9 Sites along the Colorado River Corridor
Between 2007 and 2009, the National Park Service, in cooperation with the Museum of Northern Arizona, undertook the first major archeological excavations along the river in Grand Canyon National Park in 40 years.
Archeologists Make Exciting Discoveries Along the Colorado River
In October, 2007, archeologists excavated a habitation site along the Colorado River. The fascinating artifacts they found provide insight into the lives of people who once made the Grand Canyon their home.

Canyon Sketches Vol 03 - May 2008
Archeologists Excavate Kiva by the Colorado River
Archeologists excavated nine archeological sites along the Colorado River because they are being impacted by severe erosion. In April and May 2008, crews discovered a complete kiva during the excavation of one of these sites.

Canyon Sketches Vol 09 - March 2009
Archeologists Excavate Two Sites Along the Colorado River.
In fall 2008, archeologists excavated two archeological sites during a three-year project along the Colorado River corridor in Grand Canyon. One of the excavated sites has evidence of as many as six different human occupations over a time span of 3,500 years.

The Vanishing Treasures Program
Grand Canyon National Park is one of 45 National Park Service areas that participate in the Vanishing Treasures Program. The goal of the Vanishing Treasures program is the conservation of architectural remains through research, documentation, and preservation treatment.

Canyon Sketches Vol 04 – June 2008
Vanishing Treasures Archeologists Stabilize Transept Ruin (North Rim)
In late June 2008, archeologists from Grand Canyon National Park’s Division of Science and Resource Management cleaned and stabilized Transept Ruin, a two-room ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruin on the North Rim.


Last updated: July 23, 2018

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