Scientific American Frontiers travels to the rugged country of eastern Utah to explore the unique archaeological remains of Range Creek Canyon. Television's first detailed look at the canyon since its existence first became public in June 2004, "The Secret Canyon" airs on KUED-Channel 7 Thurs., March 31 at 8:30 p.m. Alan Alda hosts and narrates.
As it flows to the Green River, Range Creek runs through a narrow 12-mile-long canyon, the sides of which are formed by spectacular cliffs soaring as much as 1,000 feet to the Tavaputs Plateau above. Getting into the canyon is not easy. Today, cattle trails and a few steep, winding dirt roads exist, but until the 1940s, there was no road access at all.
Soon after the first logging road went in, rancher Budge Wilcox moved down from the Tavaputs Plateau with his two sons, Don and Waldo. After 50 years in the canyon, Waldo sold the property to the U.S. government and the State of Utah.
With the canyon in public ownership, archaeologists have embarked on a systematic survey of the area. Already the results have been extraordinary, with the promise of much more to come. "I've been working in archaeology for about 25 years," says Duncan Metcalfe of the University of Utah, "and I've seen perhaps half a dozen sites that I knew were absolutely undisturbed, half a dozen. Here, so far, we've seen over 200." Metcalfe estimates they have surveyed only about 5 percent of the canyon; at that rate, they'll have an unprecedented 6,000 significant sites on their hands.
The state of preservation of the sites is unmatched. Says Metcalfe, "There aren't holes in the pit houses, we don't find beer cans on them, there's no bullet holes on the rock art panels, they haven't been chalked, there's no historic graffiti on them. They're absolutely pristine."
It was largely thanks to the Wilcox family that the public and scientists now have this archaeological treasure to enjoy and explore. Not only did the family keep strangers off the property, but they also maintained a respectful attitude to the historic sites that they knew were all around them, especially
the many burials. "My dad told me when we came here," Waldo explains, "that we own the land, but we don't own the dead people that's there. Leave them where you find them."
Archaeologists call the people who lived in Range Creek Canyon the Fremont. They ranged throughout what's now Utah, combining hunting and gathering with agriculture. For about a 1,000 years, they were especially dependent on corn cultivation. During this time, they established villages of their characteristic "pit houses," created abundant rock art and built substantial stone and adobe granaries to store crops.
Then, around 1300 AD, something happened to bring it all to an abrupt halt. At the same time, their better-known neighbors to the south, the pueblo-building Anasazi, suffered a similar disruption, as did other communities across the continent. Archaeologists are still not sure if the root cause was due to climatic or social changes, disease or some combination. The promise of Range Creek canyon is that, with its 1,000s of undisturbed sites, we can come to understand those momentous events.
Of all the ancient peoples of America, the Fremont are among the most enigmatic. We understand very little of their prolific rock art (50 sites so far in the canyon); we don't know why they built their granaries (38 so far) in inaccessible places, sometimes halfway up sheer cliff faces; and we can't understand why villages (four so far) and houses (16 so far) would often, but not always, be perched on rock pinnacles. "Not a good place to have grandma scrambling around and risking her life," observes Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones.
To film the program, Scientific American Frontiers crews accompanied archaeologists as they hiked up 1,000-foot rock formations and took Waldo Wilcox on a special helicopter ride to point out his favorite, and otherwise inaccessible, granaries and rock paintings. "The Secret Canyon" " airs on KUED-Channel 7 Thurs., March 31 at 8:30 p.m., offering an exclusive first look at Range Creek Canyon's priceless treasures.