He didn’t seem very impressed. I’d just shown my intact pottery find to the curator of Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum. After my discovery, I’d left it in situ and untouched, only taking a couple of pictures before covering it back up. Now after showing it to him and his boss, we’d climbed down from the location and were standing by our trucks talking. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. I’d thought my discovery from the previous day was pretty amazing, but maybe I was wrong. “How important of a find would you say this is, on scale of 1-10?” I asked, probing a bit. He paused briefly before saying, “I’d say this is a 13 or 14.” OK. It was pretty special.
Two days prior I was just wrapping up a couple weeks of camping in the wilderness. My goal was the find some ancient cliff dwellings and rock art. This area of the Southwest is covered in ancient sites so I didn’t have to look too hard to find some amazing history. I was literally on my way home and decided to make one last stop to check out a couple of rock art sites as I left the area.
I climbed up a steep hill to the rock art sites and noticed a large amount of pottery sherds on the loose hillside as I climbed. That wasn’t a total surprise as people had been in this area for thousands of years. There were reminders of their presence everywhere, if you paid attention and looked hard enough. But in this spot, I felt something stronger. I can’t really explain it other than to say it felt like I wasn’t alone.
So after I’d taken a few pictures of the rock art I decided to scan the rock face above for any other rock art. I pulled out my binoculars and further up the hill I found a panel with some unusual symbols I’d never seen before and decided to check them out. As I scrambled up the hill I looked in every crack, hoping to find some hidden treasure. I’d done this for over 20 years in this region and never found anything interesting, but that was about to change.
As I passed by one opening, I noticed some twigs and dry grass inside. I thought that was odd, because there weren’t any bushes or grass growing anywhere on the hill. But there was some vegitation at the bottom of the hill and desert rodents always build their nests in small cracks or voids, so maybe that’s all this was. Then I looked closer and saw something that didn’t fit. I moved the twigs and grass aside and there sat a completely intact piece of ancient pottery.
I couldn’t believe it. I have literally looked in thousands of nooks over the years and never saw anything. And here in front of me was a piece of pottery that had to be hundreds of years old. I was stunned. My heart started beating and I started looking around to see if any was watching me. I was alone, but that might change so I kicked into high gear. I had read many articles and books on archaeology and the one thing they always said is to not move anything. So I quickly took a few photos, replaced the twigs and grass that were hiding this incredible piece of history, and climbed down to my truck.
I knew I had to tell someone about my find, but I didn’t know who. So I jumped online and found the Utah State Historic Preservation Office (USHPO). Their mission is to help protect the incredible history in their state. I found the head of the office, who happened to be an archaeologist, and gave him a call. There was no answer so I sent him an email. I also found another contact that was an archaeologist and sent her an email. Then I decided to check with the Federal offices. I wasn’t sure if I was on State or Federal land, but I figured whomever I talked to could help me figure it out. I looked up the nearest Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office, which I’d coincidentally been to earlier in my trip to get some maps and recommendations on where to go to view some archaeological sites. I sent them an email too. Now there was nothing left to do but wait. I decided to postpone my return home to see how this all turned out.
I needed a place to stay, and there was one area with some great rock art that I had read about but hadn’t visited yet. So I headed back out into the wilderness for another night. After exploring these incredible sites I set up camp, fired up my satellite Internet and anxiously checked my messages. There were emails and voicemails from both the USHPO and BLM. As it turned out, they were pretty excited. I sent them a few photos which seemed to get them even more exited. There wasn’t someone from the office in the immediate area, but the curator of the Edge of the Cedars pottery museum was willing to meet me the following afternoon and the morning after that, several archaeologists from the BLM were able to meet. This was getting exciting.
The next morning I got up and four-wheeled out of the wilderness and checked into a hotel near the find. I met the curator and his boss at a nearby shop and we headed over to the site. We climbed up the hill and then I pointed to place where the pottery was located. He knelt down, took a couple photos and then reached in and pulled out a bowl. To be more exact, it was a ladle, but the handle had broken off in antiquity and someone had smoothed the surface and repurposed it as a bowl. That bowl was in perfect condition, but what came next was even more astounding.
Buried in the dirt up to the top of its handle was a mug. Its decorative painting was clearly visible and the curator quickly identified it as a Mesa Verde style mug. These mugs were only made from about 1000 to 1150. They were not made before or after. So that definitely dated my find to approximately 1,000 years old. Yes, you read that right. I had not only found intact 1,000 year old pottery, I had found two unique pieces of 1,000 year old pottery! I was absolutely blown away. We climbed down to our trucks and talked more about archaeology in the area. He said there were a few more sites of rock art down the road which we drove down to and checked out. And then I went back to my hotel.
Later that night I got a couple emails from the second person I had contacted in the USHPO. She said that since I had been in contact with her boss, she would bow out of the conversation. But I wanted to get her opinion on the rarity of the find so asked her what she thought about my find on a scale of 1-10. She said she couldn’t put a number on it but said it is exceedingly rare. In fact, she said most archaeologist will never have a find like this in their entire careers. She said she had been an archaeologist for more than 25 years and had never found anything like I had. “You are justified in taking a victory lap,” she said. Again, I was incredibly humbled by my good fortune.
The next morning I met the archaeologists from the BLM. They were three young women that were as excited as I was to see these antiquities in situ. We climbed the hill and I pointed to the opening. Their eyes and smiles widened as they gazed at pieces of pottery that had been hidden from daylight for over a thousand years. After documenting the site, they also documented the surrounding area. They let me join them as they took photos and GPS coordinates of every pottery sherd on the hillside and mapped out the history. They also found an old granary with ancient corncobs present that I had walked right past and not even noticed. The hill was live with history and I enjoyed every second of the process of documentation. They even named the survey after me because the area had not been previously documented. Incredible!
That night I reflected on how a 2 decades long passion for archaeology had been rewarded with an incredible find. I don’t have words to describe how I felt. There were even times when I was overcome by emotion. I still have a hard time comprehending the magnitude of my discovery. Will it change the world? Of course not, but it has changed my life. I’ll never be able to look out over that land of the ancients without remembering the moment I looked into that opening and saw those items that were left there by someone over a thousand years ago.
Final Note: Some might wonder why I didn’t take the bowl and mug. First of all, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, signed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt, it’s a federal crime. And second, what am I going to do with them? Put some potpourri in the bowl and drink my morning coffee out of the mug? Hell no! These items deserve to either be left where they have been for the last thousand years, or if the nations decide to excavate, they should be displayed in a museum for many more to see. I was just a tiny part of these treasures’ journey. They have a greater story to tell.