BYU and UVU students collaborate in archaeological field study

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BYU and UVU students have come together for an archaeological field study to unearth some of the last remaining sites of the Fremont people in Utah Valley.

BYU/UVU students organize and section off the dig site. The students are searching for artifacts and ancient pit dwellings occupied by the Fremont people. (Morgan Bergstrom)
BYU/UVU students organize and section off the dig site. The students are searching for artifacts and ancient pit dwellings occupied by the Fremont people. (Morgan Bergstrom)

The Fremont people are believed to have inhabited the Utah Valley area approximately 1,000 years ago.

Under the direction of BYU archaeology Professor Michael Searcy and UVU archaeology professor David Yoder, students from both universities saw how the principles they learned in the classroom translate into the daily work of an archaeologist.

“I’ve really liked being out here and experiencing what we’ve learned about in class,” said BYU archaeology student Mariah Franke. “You can learn all the theory but don’t actually know what they mean until you experience it for yourself.”

Students used concepts they learned in the classroom, such as soil stratification.

Soil stratification occurs when soil compounds itself over time into layers of various textures and colors based on the current conditions of that time period; this forms distinct horizontal layers of earth for different time periods. This identification of differences in texture and color in the soil is used to determine when to stop digging and start looking for ancient remains.

“You can actually see and feel the dirt changing,” Franke said.

The students used these principles to find the remains of what they postulate to be ancient pit houses that were likely used by the Fremont people.

“A pit house is a way a lot of people built their houses about 1,000 years ago,” said BYU graduate student Joe Bryce. “You dig a hole in the ground, and then you put up some beams, put sticks on that and put smaller sticks on that with mud. That’s usually what they’d have for their houses.”

Not everything is certain in archaeology, and a lot of archaeology is intelligent guesswork to piece together the clues left behind by the ancient inhabitants of the area. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is piece together the puzzle of how was this built, when was it built, what are all the clues that tell us how it worked,” Searcy said.

Students from BYU and UVU continue to excavate the dig site near the Provo Airport. The students look for different colors and textures in the dirt that indicate different time periods. (Morgan Bergstrom)
Students from BYU and UVU continue to excavate the dig site near the Provo Airport. The students look for different colors and textures in the dirt that indicate different time periods. (Morgan Bergstrom)

Based on signs in the soil, the students determined that the area they were digging in had been flooded frequently over the last 1,000 years. What remains of the Fremont civilization here is buried under mounds of earth, and this is where the students have worked.

“What is certain is that this area was highly productive for the Fremont who lived here,” Searcy said. “Meaning that they had access to fresh water, access to fish and access to incredibly arable land. The soil is really rich because of the flooding.”

Digging in the dirt can be monotonous work, but each day leads closer to new discoveries, like one UVU student Laurie Fisher made, that fuel future work.

“We were digging, except I saw something dark, and at first I thought it was a bone and I picked it up,” Fisher said. “It was a dark gray color, a type of sparkly ceramic that we typically see here. After that I knew what it was immediately, and I knew it was a female figurine.”

Everything the students find in this field study is taken back to a lab and labeled for future students to analyze and identify in classes in the fall.

“We’ve been finding a lot of ceramics, some of it being appliqué,” Franke said. “This means they would have their pots, and then they would take balls of clay and stick it on the outside so it’s kind of bumpy. We’ve also been finding some bone tools.”

About 120 Fremont mounds were visible in the 1920s. Due to farming and general populating of the area, only a few mounds currently remain. The mounds being excavated now are here today because the Hinckley family that has owned the land since 1898 was willing to leave the area untouched and unfarmed.

“We got really lucky that we found the subterranean architecture,” Searcy said, “and that the Hinckleys have worked to preserve it. They’ve never plowed this area over here and decided never to plow it, especially due to the things that we have pulled out.”

John Hinckley, the current owner of the plot of land, has enjoyed the process of watching the students dig up things in his own backyard.

“They’re pretty excited to dig up something that old,” Hinckley said, “and I’m pretty excited to look at it.”

Archaeology is a literal digging up of the past, but past knowledge can help people prepare for the future. The identification the students made here of the frequent flooding in the past has implications for what should be done with the land today and in the future.

“This is a zone for residential expansion,” Searcy said. “If in fact you are putting homes out here, they should be aware of not only the fact that this will likely flood one day in the future, but the homeowner should know about that so before they build out here or purchase a home here they understand that there’s a good chance their house could be flooded with the rising of a lake, which we know has happened many times over the last 1,000 years.”

Now that the field study is almost over, the students will cover what they have dug up to keep it preserved for future analysis.

“We take cues from Mother Nature that they’ve been preserved for over 1,000 years or close to 1,000 years,” Searcy said, “so we find that the best way to preserve the archaeology is by doing the same thing and covering them back up.”

Before the students bury their discoveries, they line the site with plastic so they will know where the margins of where to dig are if they want to revisit the site.

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