This is my third official field season with Project Discovery and my fourth year with the program. Project Discovery is the brainchild of an amazing woman named Margie Nash, she and her husband Joe were passionate about archaeology and wanted to do more – and thus Project Discovery was born. It’s an education and public outreach program that focuses on teaching high school-aged youth about the importance of protecting and preserving archaeology. It is currently based out of Salt Lake City, and operates entirely as a 501(c)3 non-profit – with most of our funding coming from various grants and trusts. My role with this amazing organization is Program Archaeologist. Sounds fancy right? I basically come up with the content and find new and fun ways to teach it to our students. This past year we have partnered with the Salt Lake Center For Science Education, a charter school located in Rose Park. We selected 12 students from 9th-12th grades and they participated in monthly education labs with us over the course of five months. At the end of these labs, we then packed the students (and their gear) into Nine Mile Canyon, in eastern Utah, to put them to the test.
This blog post is a summary of our adventures in the field – the good, bad, and the ugly.
I guess I should stop and also say that Margie and myself are not the only ones involved. I recruited two of my colleagues, Lindsey Kester and Kiera Westwater – both of whom are professional archaeologists, to help with the education component. In addition, we received tremendous support from others in the archaeology community including the folks at the Utah State Antiquities Section, the Bureau of Land Management’s Price Field Office, and help from some fantastic volunteers including Ute elder Rick Chapoose, former Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones, and Curator of Archaeology at USU Eastern Tim Riley. All of these people pulled together to contribute in one way or another to this program and we would have truly been lost without their efforts. So massive thanks to all of you.
Ok, moving along. There is no camping in Nine Mile Canyon. Bummer right? Lucky for us there is a fantastic private ranch within the canyon, aptly named The Nine Mile Ranch, and they offer tent and RV camping on their property. Not only are they located in a gorgeous grassy spot along the creek, but they’ve got flushing toilets to boot! And let me tell you, as a person who’s used their fair share of port-a-potties, flushing toilets are worth their weight in gold. We had the students eat some lunch and set up their tents. Part of why this experience is so cool is that a lot of our students have never camped before – so not only do we get to introduce them to the unique archaeology of Nine Mile Canyon, but we get to instill within them a love for the outdoors. And lucky for us, the biting gnats had not made their appearance yet, so we were free from the bugpocalypse that plagued our friends in nearby Range Creek Canyon. Sorry guys.
Prior to coming down, these students got an idea of what the canyon was like and what types of archaeology it held. However, hearing about it in a classroom and experiencing it first hand are two completely different things. We wanted to tour the students around and give them a true sense of the cultural richness of the area. First stop was to a tower site about 300 feet above the valley floor. I’ve been here many times and although it’s a bit of a scramble, the end result is worth the pain. So picture me scrambling up a steep talus slope strewn with large boulders in 90+ degree heat. Things were going well until I startled the most massive rattler I’ve ever seen in the canyon. It was pissed and rattling and slithered directly towards my route to the top. With that way now blocked and several of the students trying not to freak out, I tried a different way up. Funny how our minds can sense things before our bodies can catch up. I saw the new way up and my body was rearing to go, but for some reason my brain would not make anything move. A few seconds later I realized why. Directly where I was intending to put my hand in order to haul myself up, was another rattler, curled up sleeping (and likely not to be very pleasant if woken up). Now fully snake-a-noid, I realized that the canyon or the tower site was letting me know that visiting this particular site was not in the cards. Bummed out, but glad I wasn’t pumped full of venom, we headed down to the bottom in search of something else ancient.
We ended up wandering along the base of a slope in a nearby drainage and things actually worked out far better than I could have planned. This type of ‘exploring’ allowed our students to naturally discover rock art panels. It was fun to watch them spot petroglyphs and pictographs, and ponder over their meaning and purpose. We serendipitously ended up at the famous Owl Panel, and took the opportunity to take numerous selfies.
We also made our way to the Great Hunt Panel, and Rasmussen Cave. These sites are well known within the canyon and provide excellent examples of Archaic and Fremont artistic expression. I have also learned that the learning/brain capacity of high school students is much more limited than I remember it being. I could almost see them start to short circuit and overload with information – their questions stopped, and they started getting rowdy and wanting to hang in the car and not adventure. Okay kiddos. Message received. No more learning today. We hauled them back to camp where they proceeded to frolic in the creek and play cards.
Part of what makes Project Discovery cool is the many modalities in which we teach. Yes, we did hands-on learning in the canyon by exploring, but we also like to teach the students native or traditional crafts in order to foster that connection with the past. We decided to make split willow figurines, and were helped in this endeavor by Rick – our resident Ute guru. Rick exudes this calm stoic confidence, and in no time he had the students folding and weaving away. The figurines we were making were replicas of real figurines found throughout Utah dating as far back as the Archaic Period. Kinda neat that something that was done upwards of 4,000 years ago was being done with my students sitting in their little multicolored camp chairs.
Dinner and a fire followed, and we sent the students to bed by 10:30 because we had a big day ahead of us. In the morning, fueled by several pots of cowboy coffee, we split the students into three crews. Our logic was to put the strong hikers in one crew, average hikers in another, and the novice hikers in the remaining crew. I ended up with the average hikers and we set off to find our three sites that we were going to update and re-record. The sites we chose to work on were cool because we specifically picked ones that hadn’t been revisited within the last 15-20 years. We wanted to monitor how the site had changed over time, to see if anything new was discoverable, and to see if we could evaluate its significance for the NRHP more clearly. Things were going swimmingly until our GPS units had what the screen called a “fatal exception”. I have no idea what that meant in technical jargon, but I do know that in real life it meant that our stupid units weren’t working. I was initially bummed out that we couldn’t use the GPS to find the site, but it proved to be an amazing teaching opportunity. Together with the students, we analyzed the topo maps, studied the site photos, and really focused on the location and access part of the previous IMACS form for each of the sites. It was fun watching the kiddos argue about where to go, and if the rock formations matched up with the photos etc. Since these site forms were from the early 1990’s, some of the descriptions weren’t as in depth as they are today, and I think the kids really realized the importance of thorough documentation.
My average hiker crew ended up climbing all over the north side of Nine Mile Canyon, up and down steep slopes, and scampering up rock ledges. I think all said and done, we hiked more extreme than the extreme hike crew. But it was cool, we came across several sites while looking for ours, and it was fun to see some variety in the types of sites found within the canyon. When we finally located our site the students were really stoked. We sat down and updated the site. I was impressed, Dillon and Gilbert took some amazing site photos, and Miriam killed it with Part A on the IMACS form. Sometimes I tend to think the students don’t listen or aren’t interested in what I’m saying, and then when I go back and check their work or put them to a task, I’m always surprised at how much they’ve retained and how well they can attend to a task once they put their minds to it. I had to get a pic of their first official site recording – it almost looks like they’re posing for a rap album cover haha.
We combined crews with the extreme hikers after lunch and went up to a cist storage site. This was an interesting experience for the students. They got to see what a looted cist looked like, and how the ignorance and greed of one person can ruin an irreplaceable piece of the past. The students asked some really good questions, and by how riled up they were getting, I could see they were beginning to take on a sense of ownership of this place. If I can do one thing as an archaeologist its that. The more people I can connect with a place, or a site, or its history, the more likely they are to be invested in it’s protection and preservation.
With the kiddos tired and hungry, we retreated back to camp. Our activity this afternoon was cordage making. I stopped and collected some dogbane, and hauled this massive bundle back to camp. They were excited to start breaking away the inner pithy part and to spin away the woody exterior. It’s funny to see how some kiddos really take to this activity, and how others act like its pure and certain torture. I think Kaylynn must’ve single-handedly went through my entire stash of dogbane – and I think it’s safe to say the Fremont would’ve loved her dedication to the task. We were fortunate enough to be joined for dinner by Sir Tim Riley. Tim threw atlatl’s with the students, chatted with them about his ongoing excavations near East Carbon, and explained what a coprolite was. If you don’t know – Google it.
That evening, with the crickets cricketing and the fire roaring, the student’s teacher/chaperone gathered them around the fire and asked them to share their most memorable moment of the day. Myself and the other archaeologists gathered eagerly around, excited to hear what stuck out to them. Some of the responses were fantastic – and I was really proud of the students for expressing themselves so clearly, other responses not so much. Out of 12 students, two of their responses felt like a slap in the face. One said her favorite part of the day was a three hour nap she took, another was his shower he took and how he avoided a large spider. Really? Like really? We are in this fantastic place with breathtaking scenery, unique animals and wildlife, world renowned archaeology, visits from interesting professionals…and that was their most memorable part of the day? I’m not gonna lie, it definitely stung. I felt like I was failing at my job. But then again, I’m not a teenager trying to fit in or be cool. I had to brush it off, but it was a definite disappointing turn of events for me.
For the following day’s activities we decided to take the students on a casual death march to the top of a ridge. I was determined to give these kiddos a memorable experience. We combined the average and extreme hiker crews, and trudged them to a site along the canyon’s rim. This particular site was special and unique in that there are still artifacts on the ground. For those of you unfamiliar with Nine Mile, it has been continuously looted from the late 1800’s through the present. The paucity of artifacts within the canyon is a well known fact – so for us to have found a site that remains untouched and un-looted was very special. Roughly four hours to the top, we arrived long enough to have some teaching moments with the kiddos and to take a few pictures. We would have liked to do a full site update, but some of the students were running out of water, and if you’ve ever had a crew out in the desert in the heat of the day, safety trumps all.
We slid down the scree and steep slopes and made it to the bottom in one piece with no injuries. Quite a success I’d say! We were refilling our water bottles at the car and sort of decompressing when I initiated a conversation with my crew. I asked one of the students, on a scale from 1 to 10 – 10 being the most awesome, what she thought of the hike and the archaeology. Her response stymied me. She said the hike was a 9, and the archaeology was a 4 or a 5. I know we aren’t dealing with impressive Anasazi-style cliff dwellings or painted pottery, but what we had just seen was nothing short of fantastic by most standards. I tried to remember that she was in fact, a junior in high-school, and not a professional archaeologist. Even so, it damped my spirits a little. In my three years of field adventures with Project Discovery, this group of students was the most hard for me to connect with. That being said, not everyone was a downer. There were several kiddos that were mega hyped on what we’d seen.
The students were pooped so we gave them an early day off and retreated back to camp. This final camping night is always one of my favorites. Margie started this years ago, and we’ve just sort of kept it because it is such a neat way to tie the past in with the present. It was Fremont dinner night! We had brought several authentic metates and manos (grinding stones) and had the students grind corn for their dinner. They got to experience first hand how time consuming and tedious prehistoric food production might have been. Also on the menu was elk, venison, beans, and greens. We had wanted to do squash too (which we usually do), but all the squash at the grocery store was manky so we x-nayed it. Right as the students were starting to grind, we were joined by a surprise guest: Dr. Kevin Jones. Kevin is always a treat and has an excellent way of transforming high-level concepts into an easy-to-follow dialogue. He started a conversation about food, which then turned into a larger discussion of what types of behaviors might have motivated the Fremont, and that morphed into a random Q & A about all things prehistoric and ancient. Whatever disappointments and misgivings I had experienced thus far started to fade as I listened to the probing and thoughtful questions my students were asking Dr. Jones. If there is one thing I have learned throughout all of this, its that each student connects with the past in their own unique way. My job is to provide them with as many opportunities to learn as I can, and hope that one of them sparks their interest.
The neat thing about all of this is that it’s not over. On September 17, 2016 – Project Discovery will be returning to Nine Mile Canyon, this time for Stewardship Day – a free education event. Our students will be stationed at eight archaeological sites throughout the canyon ready to educate the public on everything they’ve learned. Each student is paired with an archaeological professional, but our primary goal is move them from a student capacity, to more of a teaching role. Let them share all they’ve learned and hopefully educate some folks about why archaeology is neat, important, and worth protecting. We will be posting more information as we get closer to the date so be sure to check out our Facebook page for all the deets: facebook.com/ProjectDiscoveryUtah
See you all in September!