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Experimental Archaeology in Range Creek Canyon

Experimental archaeology in Range Creek Canyon.

Experimental archaeology is used to help us understand the cost of an activity.  Understanding how much time or raw material is necessary to build a granary, basket or ceramic pot can help us understand why ancient people made the choices they did. 

In an archaeology seminar in Spring 2006, several graduate students proposed a study of prehistoric technology based on ideas from foraging theory, behavioral ecology, and the Tech Investment Model (Bright et al. 2002).  This study involved experimental archaeology that tests the costs and benefits of varying levels of investment in several technologies: granaries, nets, snares, and digging technology.  Several of these experiments have commenced in Range Creek with the help of field school students. Since recent archaeological work in the canyon began in the summer of 2002, some of the most striking features have been the variety of storage structures and rock art left behind by the native inhabitants.  No location appears to have been out of the question for the construction of granaries out of stone, mud, and wood and the rock art of the canyon features numerous images painted in tones of red and yellow.  Beyond their construction and aesthetic qualities, we began to ask questions about the amount of time and effort required to construct or create such impressive works.  While it is easy to discuss such topics around camp at the end of the day it is quite another to actually recreate the process.  Near the end of the 2006 field season, this is exactly what happened.

Building & Using a Granary

Building and using a granary.
The construction of the granary would be first but before we could begin a few logistic requirements had to be met.  First, a location had to be chosen.  A spot close to the road and ranch complex was chosen to make it easy and safe to access and work on at the end of a long day.  A suitable spot under a boulder, a few hundred meters north of the ranch house and a few meters off of the road was agreed upon.

Next, building material had to be collected.  Using the ranch truck, hundreds of pounds of rock and dirt loaded into the bed and dropped off at the building site.  When construction began, the area under the boulder was cleared and leveled, then a layer of juniper bark, followed by a layer of rock and then mud were laid down to form the foundation.  The granary was constructed on top of this and allowed to dry. After it was dried, cracks that had appeared were patched, allowed to dry again and then the granary was loaded with dried field corn (still on the cob) the capstone was placed and the entire structure was sealed and left for the winter.

Rock Art Experiments

Rock art experiments.
The rock art experiment followed a similar path.  A large, unsheltered boulder found several meters south of the ranch and that is fully exposed to rain and wind was chosen as the location.  Next, natural red and yellow pigments were collected from the surrounding cliffs and ground into a fine powder using an expediently produced mano and metate.  The powder was mixed with creek water to form a loose paste and then a variety of images were painted onto to the boulder.  These, like the granary, will be left to weather naturally and periodically photographed to record their degradation. 



Many of the field school students try their hand at making projectile points.  Based on the waste materials found on archaeological sites we know that the prehistoric people living in Range Creek used mostly cherts and quartzites to produce the stone tools they needed.  A source for these materials inside the canyon has not been found.  We think and it is likely that the ancient flintknappers had to walk to the Green River to find chert and quartzite cobbles carried by floodwaters from upstream sources. Students practice on these materials and obsidian. They use the same type of tools used centuries ago: quartzite cobble hammerstones, antler base billets, and antler point pressure flakers. Many of the students are able to produce a usable point quite quickly.  This exercise has practical applications.  Students gain an understanding of the different types of flakes created during the production of a tool which can then be used when describing flakes found on prehistoric sites.

Hide Preparation

Hide preparation.
2010 field school students were taught basic techniques of hide (deer, buffalo, and elk) preparation by Teaching Assistant Rick Chapoose.  Rick, a member of the Ute Tribe, has spent many years learning the traditional practices of Ute and other Native American Tribes.   Using a combination of tools and techniques students scraped and softened the hides.  Once prepared, these hides may be used to construct a host of valuable items including clothing, bags, straps, and shelter. Experiments such as this provide insight on the costs (i.e. time, materials, effort) associated with such activities.


Teepee Construction

Teepee construction.
Rick Chapoose demonstrated teepee construction to students of the 2010 archaeological field school as well.  Rick's presentation included the techniques necessary to acquire and prepare lodgepoles and hide coverings.  Traditional practices such as physical orientation and the positioning of interior features were discussed.  Working together students then erected and dismantled the teepee.



With these experiments and others like them, we hope to answer or address several questions important to the archaeology of the canyon.  These include requirements of time, materials, and manpower for construction and how those requirements might change as a result of more challenging locations;  the techniques involved with native construction practices; and how effective were our experiments in terms of accomplishing their required tasks.  Was the corn protected, from animals and weather over the course of the winter and how long will the rock art last in a completely exposed environment?  Updates to these experiments will be posted as spring arrives and researchers are able to once again access the canyon and check on their condition.