Cedar Mesa is one of the best places in the world for visitors to gain a sense of tangible contact with the archaeological past. Hundreds of remarkably preserved structures are tucked away under ledges, providing glimpses of daily life there hundreds of years ago. Thousands of images on the canyon walls testify to the spiritually and esthetically rich lives of “those who came before.” The surrounding mesa tops are covered with the subtle traces of small farmsteads. At these sites, any standing structures will have collapsed from weathering, but the house floors remain below the surface, and there typically is a visible scatter of broken pottery and stone flakes that evoke a sense of connection to past lives.
Most of the archaeological sites on the mesa were left by Ancestral Pueblo people between the late centuries BC and the late AD 1200s, prior to their migrations to areas in New Mexico and Arizona where their descendants still live. To the Pueblos of today, the Cedar Mesa sites are still occupied by the spirits of their ancestors, and the totality of the archaeology still plays a vital role in their sense of cultural identity and connection to a time when many of the features of Pueblo culture were formed. Their hope is that the sites will always be visited with respect.
Cedar Mesa is also an iconic area in American archaeological research. It saw the very first North American use of stratigraphic evidence to document a culture historical sequence. In the 1890s, Richard Wetherill (also the discoverer of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde) observed that different types of cultural remains lay below the cliff dwellings in Grand Gulch and other Cedar Mesa canyons. His observations led him to recognize a pre-pottery “Basketmaker” culture that preceded the Pueblo culture known for its painted pottery and masonry buildings
Wetherill’s basic cultural sequence has stood the test of time, although it has been refined, dated, and added to over the years (and the Basketmakers and Pueblos are now considered earlier and later parts of the same cultural tradition). Active archaeological research continues to yield new information. Some important findings from recent research in the greater Cedar Mesa area:
1) Discovery of the best example in Utah so far of a Clovis culture campsite, dated to about 12,500 years ago. The Clovis people lived at the end of the last Ice Age and hunted mammoths as well as smaller game.
2) Discovery of a well-preserved Archaic period site and examples of Archaic rock art. These represent a long era of hunter-gatherer life between the time of the big-game hunters and the introduction of maize farming.
3) New understandings of the Basketmaker period (1000 BC to 500 AD), showing that these people were much more dependent on maize farming than previously thought, and were raising a distinctive breed of domestic turkey—the earliest evidence of turkey-keeping in the Southwest.
4) Discovery of “great house” sites dating to the AD 1100s that show connections with the major Puebloan cultural center at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, located more than 170 miles away.
5) Discovery of “road” traces (shallow linear swales) that connect major sites or landscape features and are generally associated with Chacoan sites. However, the Cedar Mesa evidence indicates their use both before and after the period of Chacoan influence.
6) Evidence that warfare between groups was part of the social landscape in both the Basketmaker and the late Pueblo periods.
7) In the AD 1200s, Pueblo people left Cedar Mesa as part of the massive migrations out of the Four Corners area to locations in New Mexico and Arizona where Pueblo people still live. Tree-ring dates indicate most people left Cedar Mesa several decades before the larger region was fully depopulated.
Most of the archaeological research to date has focused on the Pueblo and pre-Pueblo cultures, and there is much yet to be learned about these early occupations. However, much archaeology, documentary history, and oral history also remains to be done for later inhabitants of Cedar Mesa, including the Ute, Paiute, and Navajo, who still live in SE Utah. These peoples also have ties to Cedar Mesa and still make use of some of its resources for traditional ritual, medicinal, and economic purposes. And of course, the area is crossed by the historic “Hole-in-the-Rock” trail, along which the Mormon settlers of Bluff arduously traveled in the winter of 1879-1880.
Article by Professor Bill Lipe, Former FCM Board Member