Education, involvement key to Utah archaeological site protection

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See also “Vandalism, theft threatens Utah historical sites

Utah archaeological sites have a “long history” of looting and vandalism, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s 2017 accomplishment report. BYU experts say education and appropriate participation in archaeological experiences can go a long way in curbing damage to ancestral sites.

BYU assistant history professor Brenden Rensink said educating the public on the importance of archaeological sites is a good starting point in preventing theft and other damages.

BYU assistant archaeology professor Michael Searcy said he visits fourth-grade classes across Utah to teach about the state’s history, which includes information on historical sites and monuments. Shawn Lambert, the public archaeologist for the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, said he and other public archaeologists primarily work with communities to increase awareness for historical sites.

“As a public archaeologist, my primary duties are to engage with the community and educate them about archaeology, history and science,” Lambert said. “We try to educate people about leaving artifacts in place.”

Many archaeological sites have visible artifacts, like pottery and rock art, according to Lambert. He said visitors should feel free to look at artifacts, but emphasized the sites should remain untouched.

This infographic features advice from BYU assistant professors Brenden Rensink and Michael Searcy on ways to learn and engage with archaeology. (Graphic by Sam Bigelow)

“If you do see an artifact, it’s fine to take a photograph, but leave them in place for future researchers,” Lambert said.

Searcy said people can learn more about archaeology through programs and foundations like the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society, Archaeology Southwest and Friends of Cedar Mesa.

According to its website, the USAS has chapters statewide, including in Salt Lake and Utah counties. According to Searcy, the Utah County chapter often hosts speakers at BYU. BYU Anthropology Department Chair James Allison said the chapter’s monthly meetings are often held at the BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures.

According to Archaeology Southwest CEO William Doelle, the Tuscon, Arizona-based organization works in museums and on small-scale excavations to help advocate site protection. Archaeology Southwest also offers quarterly archaeology magazines, including one focused on Utah.

“We’re actually trying to protect archaeological sites into the future. The research we do is often in museums or on small-scale excavations that try to leave most of the material in the ground,” Doelle said. “We even own about 20 archaeological sites. We see it as research-sharing with our peers and with the public through ownership or by promoting protecting public lands.”

According to Searcy, another way people can get involved in archaeology is through site stewardship. Site stewards are often assigned archaeological sites to regularly visit and maintain.

“Different land managers can set aside steward programs. Some of the best ones are down in Arizona where the archaeology is really vulnerable, especially as populations grow and the size of Phoenix, Mesa and Tuscon grow,” Searcy said. “There’s more of a need to watch out for these sites.”

The Utah Bureau of Land Management offers resources on site stewardship programs for government-managed lands. Additionally, Friends of Cedar Mesa regularly post links to stewardship opportunities.

Searcy also noted that although increased tourism can increase the potential of harm to archaeological sites, visiting these locations can be comparable to visiting a museum.

“I see these lands and these resources as open-air museums, and you wouldn’t go to the Museum of Peoples and Cultures, open up a case and put an artifact in your pockets,” he said.

Searcy and Rensink said that anyone who finds artifacts or archaeological sites should report the location to the appropriate land managers or an archaeologist.

In addition, Rensink said anyone who engages in pothunting, even as a family activity, should stop, since taking artifacts can be a felony.

“There’s a special and sacred feeling when you go out to these ancient sites and stand where ancient peoples did,” Rensink said. “Going out and having that experience is the best way to win advocates for protecting these sites.”

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