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.
In and around Zion National Park, archeological evidence is found from Native American and European American cultures. Archeologists have identified sites and artifacts from the Archaic culture, dating from about 7,000 BC to 300 BC, from Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) and Fremont cultures, dating from 300 BC to AD 1225, and from Southern Paiute culture, dating from AD 1250 to present day. Mormon pioneers settled in southern Utah and began farming in the 1850s. Both the Paiute and Mormon groups are still much in evidence, as both still reside in the area. The living descendents of these groups that lived in Zion have special ties to the park and provide meaning and context for artifacts and historical documents that remain. All of the groups who lived here left traces of their cultures behind, clues that might be studied to gain insights into their remarkable civilizations. Working with the remnants of past human occupations, archeologists, historians, and other researchers have collected artifacts and historic documents to study the ways each of these cultural groups worked, traveled, traded, and survived in Zion. These artifacts and archives are preserved in the museum collection of Zion National Park for current and future research.
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.