A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Using the tools of an investigative journalist, archaeologist Jerry Spangler is on a crusade to save sites on public land.
Four rows of bright red triangles connect on the rock face above our heads. "Maybe it's a form of counting how many bushels of corn they had," speculates my guide, archaeologist Jerry Spangler. The triangles, he explains, are commonly found around prehistoric food-storage sites in this part of the Southwest. Then again, the shapes could also be a clan symbol, or some other message. We are exploring an unnamed, sparsely visited side canyon in the rugged backcountry of Utah's Nine Mile Canyon.
Off-road vehicle tracks cut straight through an open-air site in southern Utah. Each flag represents an artifact found by Spangler's team. (BJ Nicholls)
Spangler, a newspaper reporter-turned archaeologist, spent three days showing me around Nine Mile Canyon, often referred to as the world's "longest art gallery." Its towering walls are covered with North America's largest concentration of petroglyphs and pictographs. Estimated to contain some 10,000 rock-art sites with hundreds of thousands of images, Nine Mile--actually 80 miles long--was once an outdoor canvas for the Fremont people. For nearly a millennium these nomadic farmer-foragers lived mostly in Utah before disappearing around a.d. 1300, leaving behind renderings of bighorn sheep, hunters with spears, bizarre abstract designs, and figures with triangular bodies, splayed hands, and bucket-heads. Much of this archaeologically significant stretch of central Utah's red-rock wilderness is owned by the federal government. It is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is the steward of both its archaeological heritage and its abundant natural gas deposits, estimated to be worth some $2.5 billion. At the time of my visit in the summer of 2005, BLM's dual missions--both to protect and exploit the land it oversees--were coming into stark conflict in the canyon. It was not a pretty sight.
My first day there, we were driving along Nine Mile Road, which cuts through the heart of the canyon, when Spangler pulled over to allow a gas truck to speed ahead. The driver thanked us with a blinding, hundred-foot-long cloud of dust. Many of the most important rock-art panels happen to be accessible right off what is now an industrial thruway.
Few people know their way around Nine Mile Canyon better than Spangler. He's been studying the archaeology here since the early 1990s, first for his master's thesis, then for a book about the canyon's cultural history, titled Horned Snakes and Axle Grease, cowritten with his wife, Donna Spangler. Few scientists possess his people skills, muckraking instincts, and sustained outrage--qualities that Spangler honed as a journalist and is now putting to good use as a crusading archaeologist. Recently, he founded the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance (CPAA), a nonprofit organization that brings together a diverse group of scientists, environmentalists, and industry representatives who work to preserve archaeological sites on public lands facing threats from energy developers and off-road vehicles (ORVs). If his group is successful, they could change the way sites are protected in the Southwest.
Keith Kloor is a senior editor at Audubon magazine.