June 10, 2006

Archaeologists Try to Save Ancient Sites

SALT LAKE CITY -- Government-funded archaeologists are making a push to survey ancient sites across a remote stretch of southern Utah before looters can scoop up the last artifacts.

One team is recovering treasures before they disappear from the ground along Comb Ridge, an 80-mile monocline that Native Americans worship as the very spine of the earth. Another is shoring up the crumbling walls of ancient dwellings at 10 sites in the same region, about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

The efforts come as federal and local agencies celebrate the centennial of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president authority to create national monuments to preserve the nation's ancient cultural sites and unusual geological features.

The act, which turned 100 years old Thursday, has been used by 14 presidents to establish 123 national monuments, some of which became national parks.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which controls nearly half the land in Utah, will celebrate the act's centennial with other agencies Saturday at Edge of Cedars National Monument near Blanding. There will be displays of Native American artistry and guided tours of ancient Pueblo settlements.

The BLM, which manages the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, is trying to send a cautionary message to a growing number of visitors who are loving some ancient settlements to death.

"We're starting to call them the 'accidental vandals.' They lean on the walls to get a good picture. They take a corn cob with them, a pottery shard," said Shelley Smith, BLM branch chief for recreation, wilderness, cultural and fossil resources.

The first team, from the University of Colorado-Boulder, is trying to "look for any signs of an artifact," BLM spokeswoman Adrienne Babbitt said.

The five-year survey, which started last fall, will be the most extensive conducted on BLM land.

The second team, from Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, already has repaired one ancient ruin in Arch Canyon, about 20 miles west of Blanding. The remains of a three-story building had only two walls left, with one of the walls undermined by an eroded footpath made by visitors.