Excavation Reveals Grand Canyon's Ancient Human History

Nine sites located along or just above the Colorado River were excavated over a period of 136 gritty days in the field between 2007-2009.
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Archaeologists reach remote river sites in Grand Canyon by raft. Much of the excavation is done by hand to protect delicate artifacts. Photo by Dawn Kish

While exposed rock layers in the Grand Canyon tell of the natural wonder's geologic history, the prehistoric human story has long been a mystery for archaeologists. Ruins and other artifacts from ancient communities living along the Colorado River have largely remained buried beneath the waterway's beaches. But between 2007-2009, archaeologists got a rare opportunity to excavate sites on the river in Grand Canyon National Park. Flagstaff photographer Dawn Kish accompanied the crew to document the project, and the photographs and findings are part of 'Grand Archaeology,' an exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Nine sites located along or just above the Colorado River were excavated over a period of 136 gritty days in the field. It was the first major excavation in Grand Canyon in nearly 40 years. Although the national park has a preservation in place policy that mandates leaving resources like archaeological artifacts undisturbed, erosion along the Colorado River caused by Glen Canyon dam upstream was threatening to destroy the ancient sites. Buried for centuries beneath heavy sediment deposits and hidden from view, the archaeological resources had become exposed since the dam was completed in 1963 and began blocking river sediment from flowing into Grand Canyon. Artifacts were literally washing down the river, says Lisa Leap, who was the lead Grand Canyon National Park archaeologist on the project.

Artifacts recovered from the sites include stone tools, pottery, jewelry, seeds, ash from hearths and even a buffalo bone (probably traded from elsewhere). Numerous dwelling and adjacent trash midden sites were excavated and one kiva, probably used for ceremonial purposes, was discovered. While the project produced evidence of human habitation in the Grand Canyon ranging from Paleo-Indian nomadic hunter-gatherers up to historic Southwest native cultures, most of the findings were from a specific 250 year period between 1000-1250 A.D. when Ancestral Puebloan people lived and farmed along the Colorado River.

A critical part of the excavation involved 11 Southwest native tribes who have ties to Grand Canyon. Park archaeologists consulted with tribal representatives before the dig took place and then sought advice on interpretation of artifacts and other information from the sites. Counting park staff, museum scientists, river guides, volunteers and tribal members, nearly 100 people in all had a hand in the excavation.

For more information: (928) 774-5213; musnaz.org

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