Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Saving endangered sites on the Colorado River


National Park Service and Museum of Northern Arizona archaeologists dig at Ivo, one of nine recently excavated sites in the Grand Canyon. Researchers are trying to learn as much as possible about prehistoric settlements in the gorge before they are lost to erosion. (Dawn Kish)

Water break! The call goes out every half hour, echoing off the rust-colored sandstone cliffs and across the mocha waters of the Colorado River. Puffs of dust rise as the archaeologists drop shovels and clipboards, sit down in the dirt, and rehydrate. Talk stays to a minimum. Even in October, the bottom of the Grand Canyon is brutally hot in the afternoon, and the view is enough to silence most chatter. The river sweeps in a wide curve toward the faint hiss of rapids at Unkar Delta, a low, broad mass of sediment that marks the mouth of Unkar Creek. The cliffs rise straight up almost a mile to the canyon's eastern rim. Under wide-brimmed hats and sweat-soaked bandannas, a dozen archaeologists with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) are excavating a group of at least six Ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi, masonry structures on a steep sandy slope of the river's north bank. Named after geologist Ivo Lucchitta, who discovered it in the late 1980s, the site is one of nine excavated over the past two years along the river that flows through the world's most famous gorge.

It's safe to say that few of the five million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year think this unforgiving landscape would be a good place to settle. But many people did once live here, and the 277-mile-long gorge is still sacred to their descendants, including the Navajo, Hopi, and Paiute.

This dig is part of the largest archaeological project in the canyon in four decades, and it illustrates the logistic, political, and cultural challenges of excavating in a remote yet iconic national park. And there's no time to lose: the river--its flow patterns changed since the 1960s by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam upstream--is busy eating away at the sites and artifacts buried along its banks.

"These excavations are definitely filling in the many gaps we have in our understanding of the prehistory of the Grand Canyon," says project leader and NPS archaeologist Lisa Leap, as she unscrews the lid of a plastic water bottle. Chief among these questions is how geological processes we see today, such as erosion and flooding, affected the lives of the canyon's ancient inhabitants.

Julian Smith is a frequent contributor to ARCHAEOLOGY. His book Chasing the Leopard will be published in 2010.