Archeology in Zion

Person with archeology tools stands next to an area they are studying.
Archeologist stands in Zion National Park in 1934. Museum Catalog No. ZION 10519

People have lived in and around Zion Canyon for thousands of years. It has been home to a number of native peoples including but not limited to the Archaic, Ancestral Puebloan, and Southern Paiute. These indigenous people built homes, raised families, and established communities on land that is now part of Zion National Park.

In the mid-1800s, Mormon Pioneers began establishing European American communities on some of the same land. Later, government agencies like the Bureau of Public Roads, Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service itself, also contributed to the park's archeological record.

These communities' descendants still live in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, and their family records and vibrant oral traditions provide valuable insight into our understanding of Zion National Park's natural beauty, human history, and its' archeological record.


Early Archeology

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. This law empowered the president to provide protection for nature and history on Federal land. President William Howard Taft used this authority to establish Mukuntuweap National Monument at Zion Canyon in 1909.

In 1919, in response to support from local advocates, Congress passed a bill that elevated the area to national park status and officially changed its name to Zion National Park. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that same year. The recently established National Park Service hired professional archeologists led by Ben Wetherill (whose family also worked for the National Park Service in other national parks) to investigate and record archeological sites in the area.

Ben Wetherill’s excavations in the 1930s recorded the locations of houses, granaries (food storage structures), and cists (stone chests used for human remains). They yielded artifacts such as projectile points (likely from arrows or spears), ceramic containers, sandals, and baskets. These artifacts led archeologists to believe that people lived in the parts of Zion they surveyed from about about 700 CE to 1200 CE. Wetherill’s work also helped archeologists learn that the inhabitants of this area had a unique identity that they named the Virgin Branch of the Ancestral Puebloan people.

Stone structure on a hill in Zion Canyon.
Weeping Rock Granary, pictured here, rests nearly two hundred feet above the canyon floor in an alcove that has protected it from the elements for over a thousand years.

Archeology Today

Today, archeology in the National Park Service is very different than in Wetherill’s time. Sites are only excavated if there is a risk of damage from natural or human causes such as erosion, flooding, vandalism, or construction. Archeologists instead prefer to leave sites and artifacts undisturbed in order to preserve the context in which the objects were discovered and care for them through surveying, recording, monitoring, and stabilization. Tribal consultation is also an important part of this process. Consultation between associated tribes and park staff helps develop best management practices for the protection of archeological sites and significant cultural resources for future generations. Archeologists at Zion currently care for over five hundred sites within the park and regularly record new ones.

Person uses color matching cards on archeological dig.
Park Archeologist color matches sediment at Zion National Park.

National Historic Preservation Act

Under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, before the National Park Service changes anything about the park, we have to study how change might affect plants, animals, and history. In order to do that, archeologists survey the project area to see if work might affect buried artifacts. This assists both archeologists and project managers in minimizing or eliminating potential effects. If discoveries are made during the project, park archeologists secure and investigate the area in order to prevent damage. Any new discoveries are reported to state and federal agencies.


Site Stewardship

Park archeologists depend on the general public to act as site stewards and help protect cultural resources. Because looting and vandalism present such significant threats to archeological sites and artifacts, the National Park Service relies on volunteers to help document and monitor these important resources. Learn more about how to best preserve and protect the past.

  • Leave artifacts in place. It is a federal offense to take artifacts from Federal Lands.
  • Do not make piles of artifacts, like flakes or broken projectile points, or stack rocks when walking around an archaeological site.
  • Treat the archaeological site like a crime scene: document the site location, take photographs, and report the information to a park ranger.

Archeological tools sit on red rock in Zion  Canyon
Archeological Sites

Learn more about protecting archeological sites at Zion.

5 carved arrowheads

Unearth examples of what people in the past made, purchased, and collected.

People in a wagon
Early European Americans in Zion

Find out more about the people who came to the canyon in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A historic pot photographed inside the park museum building.
Museum Collections & Archives

Explore museum and archives collections of Zion.

Last updated: November 14, 2022

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Zion National Park
1 Zion Park Blvd.

Springdale, UT 84767


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