Archaeologists conduct experiments to test hypotheses about how something might have been done in the past. In Range Creek, we try to recreate tasks the same way we think they might have been done by the Fremont 1,000 years ago. Replicating the way ancient people performed various tasks using the same resources, methods, and in the same environmental conditions allows us to see if our actions produce the same results we see in the archaeological record. Because we will never be able to reproduce past behaviors exactly as they were, we use ethnography (record of contemporary and historically known people’s decisions and behaviors) and archaeology (material remains of past people’s behaviors) to help reconstruct the past.
Our experiments in Range Creek Canyon began in 2006, recording the costs and benefits of varying levels of investment in several technologies: granaries, nets, snares, and digging technology. These experiments have been designed and led by our staff and graduate students with the help of field school students each summer. Some of the most striking features of the archaeological record in Range Creek have been the reliance on maize farming, the variety and placement of storage structures, and the rock art left behind by the prehistoric 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 red and yellow tones. Beyond their construction and aesthetic qualities, we began to ask questions about the amount of time and effort required to construct irrigation features or create such impressive storage structures. 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. No other projects have given the insights we have gained from learning by doing!
Maize Farming Experiments
Beginning in 2013, we initiated a series of small farm plots, focusing on the costs and benefits of irrigating an heirloom variety of maize in Range Creek Canyon. We had always heard it was too costly for Fremont farmers to irrigate their crops without metal shovels or horses/plows to aid in the labor. Finding ethnographic accounts that recorded those costs was difficult as most historic and contemporary farmers use technology not available 1,000 years ago, thus changing the costs. We decided to gather that data ourselves by digging irrigation ditches using digging sticks and building diversion dams by hand like the Fremont. We measured the time that went into each activity: field preparation, planting, constructing irrigation systems, weeding, and harvesting. Then we analyze the kernels and cobs to determine the yields of the resulting harvests. We continue the experiments yearly to see how our costs and benefits change through time.
We Tried Growing Corn the Fremont Way
When we couldn’t find quantitative data on how prehistoric farmers grew maize in Range Creek Canyon, we had to collect it ourselves by trying to grow corn the way Fremont farmers might have 1,000 years ago.
Building & Using a Granary
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
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.