Magazine article Sunset

Utah's 600-Year Mystery

Magazine article Sunset

Utah's 600-Year Mystery

Article excerpt

Utah's 600-year mystery

About the time the Black Death was sweeping through Europe, a severe drought gripped what is now Utah, ending the crop-dependent culture of the Fremont Indians. Although evidence suggests they had inhabited the region for at least 800 years, what became of these ancient people after the 14th century is still a matter of conjecture.

It wasn't until 1931 that archeologist Noel Morss identified the Fremont as a people distinct from the Anasazi or other early Native Americans. Then, in late 1983, archeologists exploring sites along the planned route of Interstate 70 in southwestern Utah's Clear Creek Canyon were guided by a local resident to Five Finger Ridge. There they unearthed an extensive village of 110 pit houses and other structures, the largest Fremont settlement discovered to date.

Most of the ridge was subsequently leveled to provide roadbed fill for a new segment of the freeway, but not before 7 tons of material was removed for study. Artifacts discovered on the ridge and at other sites in Clear Creek Canyon are now on display at the new Fremont Indian State Park, just across the freeway from what's left of Five Finger Ridge.

Convenient to major highways, Fremont Indian State Park is a worthwhile detour for travelers taking advantage of the smaller crowds and comfortable fall weather at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.

Interactive exhibits, self-guiding tours

A circular brick visitor center, tucked into a rocky arroyo, features exhibits and artifacts that shed light on the Fremont way of life--without glossing over questions that remain unanswered. The center is open from 9 to 5 daily. Cliff faces in the surrounding stretch of the canyon resemble an outdoor gallery, bearing one of the densest concentrations of Fremont rock art known anywhere in the West.

Begin your visit by viewing a 15-minute video describing the digs that spurred the park's development. A huge time line on a glass screen fronting the exhibit hall puts the Fremont's tenure in Utah in perspective with other Native American cultures and world events.

Another video projected on a large horizontal screen surveys the entire scope of Fremont life, from the interior of a pit house on Five Finger Ridge to the extent of Fremont habitation throughout Utah. Nearby, a scale model of the ridge village identifies pit houses, granaries, and other structures.

Artifacts on view in the visitor center include well-preserved examples of the Fremont's distinctive gray pottery. A deer's dewclaw affixed to a worn moccasin marks it as footwear unique to these people. Probably the most intriguing display is a collection of clay figurines; some experts speculate that these served a ceremonial function. …

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