Grand Canyon National Park Excavation Exhibit

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Between 2006 and 2009, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) completed the largest excavation and research project in Grand Canyon National Park in nearly 40 years. Nine sites along the Colorado River at the Canyon bottom were investigated, revealing important stories about the lives of prehistoric peoples who made the Grand Canyon their home. 

Excavations underway at the Upper Unkar site [Credit: © Dawn Kish]

A new exhibit, Grand Archaeology: Excavation and Discovery along the Colorado River, opens Saturday, October 1, 2011 and runs through Sunday, August 5, 2012 at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Sponsored by Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon Association, and MNA, this exhibit was at the Historic Kolb Studio on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park earlier this year. 

The exhibit includes 24 large prehistoric artifacts, including pots, metates, bowls, jars, and stone tools, plus numerous small projectile points, beads, pendants, gaming pieces, and other artifacts from the excavation sites. Also included are excavation equipment, a 16-minute video by Tom Bartels, 23 text panels, and 20 fine art photographic prints by Flagstaff adventure photographer Dawn Kish, who traveled with the archaeologists to the Canyon floor and along the Colorado River corridor. There is also a hands-on, science-based excavation experience for kids. 

Of the thousands of archaeological sites known at Grand Canyon National Park, few have been excavated and many are at risk from the elements, visitor impact, and sediment depletion caused by the operation of Glen Canyon Dam.   

“That makes these nine sites very important,” said Dr. Ted Neff, the Museum of Northern Arizona’s archaeological projects principal investigator. “This research project has greatly enhanced our understanding of past life in the Canyon. Working side by side, the National Park Service and the Museum were able to gain important knowledge.” The excavations were led by Neff and NPS Archaeologist Lisa Leap. 

Grand Canyon National Park’s Deputy Chief of Science and Resource Management Jan Balsom adds, “Each site is unique and irreplaceable, and each site is a window into the past. These places are our heritage and it is up to us to preserve them for future generations. The NPS manages archaeological sites within the park. In the mid-1980s, our monitoring program documented that some sites were experiencing severe erosion. NPS excavates archaeological sites only when they cannot be preserved in place. These nine sites were excavated in order to learn what we could before they disappeared forever to further erosion.” 

At seven sites, archaeologists found evidence of Ancestral Puebloans. They lived along the Colorado River between 800 and 1300 CE (Common Era). More people lived in the Grand Canyon during this time period than at any time before or since. They were farmers who grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton, and they hunted wild game and gathered native plants, using pottery vessels to store and cook their food. They built homes from local stone and mortar made from river clay. 

The ancient sites that were excavated hold deep significance for present-day indigenous people as evidence of their ancestral past. The manner in which these sites are treated and interpreted is extremely important to today’s Native people and accordingly, this exhibit has numerous interpretations by descendant peoples. 

One of the most exciting finds of this project was a kiva. Present-day Pueblo tribes use kivas as ceremonial rooms. This kiva and the tribal places of origin within the Canyon remain sacred to present–day native peoples, especially among Southwestern tribes. Both the Hopi and Zuni places of emergence lie within the Grand Canyon. Although we cannot know completely what meanings these sacred places held for people 1,000 years ago, we can deduce their importance by talking to present-day descendants. 

The sites that were excavated by this project were reburied to protect them from further erosion. Using shovels, buckets, and wheelbarrows, archaeologists backfilled the sites with the dirt they had removed. They then shaped the area to its natural contours and planted native vegetation to aid in the stabilization of the site. 

The Museum of Northern Arizona is one of the great regional museums of our world. Surrounded by tremendous geological, biological, and cultural resources in one of Earth’s most spectacular landscapes, with a long and illustrious history, MNA evokes the very spirit of the Colorado Plateau, including the Grand Canyon and Four Corners regions. 

The Museum sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest mountain range in Arizona. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, and is located three miles north of historic downtown Flagstaff on Highway 180, on the way to the Grand Canyon. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors (65+), $5 students, and $4 children (7–17). 

Source: Gateway to Sedona [October 03, 2011]

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