The area known today as Zion National Park has a long and rich cultural heritage. Many different groups, with their own unique traditions, called Zion home and made their lives from the bounty of the land. For almost all of the approximately 10,000 years humans have lived in and around Zion, there is no written record to recount their rich cultures and daily lives. To know about the people of the past, we turn to archeologists and anthropologists who can illuminate the stories of past peoples by reading the clues those groups have left behind on the land.
Ben Wetherill conducted the first archeological investigations for Zion National Park in 1933 and 1934 through funding from the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The CWA, along with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was established under the New Deal during the Great Depression to create jobs for millions of unemployed men. The CWA expedition in Zion made history because the artifacts, physical sites, and information found established the initial definition of Virgin Anasazi culture. The items and structures found became the "type" examples for future investigations. Archeologists still rely on this baseline data today. Prehistoric ceramics from his expedition were used by Harold S. Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona in the late 1940s to establish the prehistoric Ceramic Taxonomy for the entire region. This taxonomy was a foundational work that described how to identify the myriad types of Native American pottery and which regions they came from.
Sporadic archeological investigations have continued since Wetherill's day. In the last 20 years, excavation of sites has become less common. Today, archeologists typically only excavate if a site is threatened and cannot realistically be protected. Threats to a site range from human impacts, such as a prescribed fire or trail construction, to natural impacts, such as riverbank erosion. Using modern techniques, an excavation of a site before it is lost can yield a great deal of information that could not have previously been obtained. This includes data on the diet, lifestyle, tools, architecture, time period, and the environment of people who once lived here.
One recent excavation was of an Ancestral Puebloan food storage location threatened by construction of the shuttle bus facility. The Watchman Archeological Site is open to the public and accessible from the Visitor Center. Approximately one thousand years ago, people used this area to process food - such as drying, hulling, and grinding corn and wild seeds. Then they stored the precious food that would nourish them through the winter in stone bins sealed with mud. These storage cists were generally protected from hungry animals and flood waters on the canyon floor. Archeologists found two storage rooms, three storage cists, two fire hearths, stone tools for grinding and other types of food processing, and 11 different styles of prehistoric ceramics at this site. Overall, the Zion museum collection contains more than 1,600 artifacts from this site.
Most recent archeological work in the park includes large archeological inventories. Only about 14 percent of the park has been examined for archeological sites. Inventory projects allow us to find all of the sites that are located in a specific area and then devise strategies to preserve these sites and evaluate their significance. Archeologists collect information on site characteristics, time period and culture, and site condition. During a recent inventory, archeologists found artifacts associated with one of the earliest eras of human occupation in the park (including a 5,000 year-old knife blade). Site information and artifacts collected by archeologists are permanently stored in the park museum collection and archives for current and future research. Through this work, park archeologists are finding more than ever just how rich Zion's cultural heritage is. The information that is recovered is not only improving the understanding of the resource, but is also helping to ensure these resources and stories of the past are protected for the future.
Last updated: October 6, 2016