I have just returned from a backpacking trip, exploring a remote canyon system in Canyonlands National Park, UT. In addition to the incredible desert canyon scenery, you can see some of the more interesting archaeological sites to be found in the Southwest. Rock art sites, granaries and ancient pueblos abound here, enough to keep even the most ADHD-prone archaeophile entertained for days. Many of the sites are only accessible via a good pair of binoculars or a camera with a decent zoom lens. However, there are numerous sites that, taking care of the crypto and other vegetation, you can safely access and explore to your heart’s content. Sadly, at the more easily accessible sites, many have left evidence of their visits. The most obvious impact you will see are the seemingly ever-present “museum rocks” that folks insist on creating at every archaeological site they happen upon.
These piles of assorted artifacts can often be found on rocks, thus the name. Often, their creators typically situate them out in the open, fully exposed to the elements, careless footsteps, casual collectors, etc. While I believe that there is no deliberate destructive intent in making them–the “museum rock” “curator” very likely thinks that he or she is doing other visitors to the site a favor in making it easier to view the artifacts–the collections are detrimental on several levels.
To start with, the best place to find and collect these artifacts (potsherds, cobs, stone flakes, bone, etc) is in the midden, or trash dump, of the site. When you visit a site the first feature you want to locate is the midden, and then avoid walking in it! There is a lot of valuable information for archaeologists to be found in the undisturbed layers of a midden. Pulling artifacts out of a midden (taking them out of context), no matter how neat or pretty, to place them on a slab for everyone to enjoy exposes them to all of the erosive elements found in the desert. Several examples of large alcove pueblo sites can be found with almost no remaining intact midden–everything has been pulled out and placed in piles on rocks in the sun.
Once the “museum rocks” are compiled, and continually added to, the temptation to take “just one” is easier to give in to. Since there are so many here, no one will notice if I take just one. If a couple dozen people do that every season well, you get the idea…
Lastly, and in some ways almost more importantly, if someone been to the site before you and piled up all of the neat artifacts unnaturally on a rock or metate, they have just robbed you of that chance to discover them on your own. And, really, isn’t discovery why you took the time to find and explore that site in the first place?
There will be plenty of potsherds and flakes to look at that are not in the midden, that don’t require you to trample anything fragile to see them. Photograph them, sketch them, turn them over in your hand and enjoy them and then put them right back where they were for the next person to discover.
Oh, as you are exploring your sites, keep a sharp eye for scorpions! We found a HUGE one on the way up to an alcove. Very cool!