Digging the past during state Archaeology Week<br>
Park archae-ologist Eric Albright works at the Tusayan Ruin. Because of tourism to Grand Canyon, it is the most-visited archaeological site in the Southwest.
“It’s designed as an opportunity to learn Arizona’s past and to learn how archaeologists study the past and preserve the future,” said Ellen Brennan, the park’s Vanishing Treasures Archaeologist.
Arizona was the first state to observe a month celebrating the ways that archaeology has brought the past into focus. Now most states do the same.
Grand Canyon has 4,500 known archaeological sites, only 3 percent of which have been surveyed. About 20 sites have been totally or partially excavated and three – the Tusayan Ruin, Bright Angel at Phantom Ranch and Walhalla Glades Ruins - offer interpretive programs. Brennan said it’s estimated that about 60,000 sites rest within the park’s borders.
Most of the sites in the park are Native American though there are also some left by prospectors, miners and early tourism.
Grand Canyon provides a unique archaeological opportunity.
“There were a large number of cultural groups that have had an impact and were affected by the environment of Grand Canyon,” Brennan said. “The Zuni, Hopi, Havasupai and many others have spiritual and cultural ties here.”
Park Archaeologist Amy Horn said the diversity of ecosystems probably drew people to the area. Brennan added that the grandness of the Canyon also plays a role.
“Massive landscapes affect the way people view themselves and how they love on the land,” she said.
An archaeological site is defined as anything 50 years old or older that contains evidence of habitation or activity, according to Brennan. Sites that are less than 50 years old may be significant but they aren’t classified as archaeological sites – yet.
Many of the artifacts collected from sites cannot be displayed because of lack of suitable space. According to Horn, most of it is stored with the museum collection or is in repositories around the country.
She said that NPS’ policy, as well as that of most archaeologists, is to leave a site be unless it is threatened by natural or man-made activity. The most recent excavation was of a Cohonino site dating back between 800 and 1,200 years, last summer near the newly-built Mojave Apartments. Rather than excavation, much of the park’s archaeological work involves doing environmental compliance in relation to archaeological sites.
In February, a small piece of material represented a significant find. Horn said it was a clovis point – Clovis being the oldest of the Paleoindian period, dating back between 11,000 and 12,000 years. These people hunted extinct megafauna once plentiful here. It is the first evidence of Clovis activity within what was to become the park and is extremely rare outside the park. Horn said whether it represents a settlement here or was dropped by people passing through remains to be discovered.
“It could be the earliest identifiable evidence of human occupation on the continent,” Horn said.
A visitor called the artifact to the park’s attention, said Horn.
“Whether it is an isolated artifact or a Clovis site, we don’t know the answer to that yet,” said Horn.
Until this find, the oldest human fossil discovered in the park was a Folsom point dating back some 10,000 years.
The park has two base archaeologists and six others who work on special projects through the summer.
While they typically look for people with experience to help with projects, a program providing a hands-on experience is offered through the Grand Canyon Field Institute.