August 25, 2009

Fremont Indians in Time Team America

Time Team America: Range Creek

By K. Kris HirstThis week's Time Team America takes us to Range Creek, Utah, a remote canyon southeast of Salt Lake City, in the pinyon and sagebrush region known as the Great Basin. Range Creek is famous for its virtually untouched Fremont culture sites—pithouse villages, granaries, middens, and rock art sites dated ~AD 600-1400.

The PBS program airing July 29, 2009, illustrates the fabulous scenery in Range Creek, while giving us a bird's eye view of the archaeological ruins. An introduction to Fremont is woven throughout the program, including a detailed discussion of the Pilling collection of Fremont figurines, by Renee Barlow of the College of Eastern Utah Museum.

Other topics addressed in the program include types of storage by Metcalfe, pollen analysis from Linda Scott Cummings, and experimental recreation of an adobe-walled granary by Time Team members.

The official PBS website:

Range Creek, UtahLocated in the remote Book Cliffs region of eastern Utah, Range Creek is the kind of site archaeologists dream about. The sage-covered meadows and rocky cliffs are scattered with the remnants of an ancient people: pit houses half-buried in the sand, mysterious petroglyphs scratched into the rock walls and bits of pottery and stone tools lying where they were dropped over a thousand years ago. Best of all, most of the hundreds of archaeological sites remain virtually untouched, providing a rare opportunity to find out what may have happened to the Fremont people who once flourished here. Time Team probes the ground, scales the cliffs and learns what life was like in these canyons a thousand years ago.Why We Went ThereFor archaeologists to have access to a place like Range Creek—basically a Fremont landscape frozen in time—is a rare and exciting research opportunity. The entire scope of a vanished people patiently awaits discovery within the canyon walls. Pithouses, rock shelters, and storage sites will keep archaeologists busy in Range Creek for decades. With a climate kind to perishable materials, even organic remains have survived the test of time. Adobe granaries are still held aloft with sticks and twine and they might still been full of corn if the rats hadn't found them first.Historical BackgroundRange Creek was home to the Fremont people more than a thousand years ago. Pithouse ruins, scattered artifacts, and adobe granaries perched throughout breathtaking Range Creek canyon remain as markers of these ancient people. Long after the Fremont left, Range Creek became a haven for 19th century cattle ranchers. These hearty pioneers were undoubtedly enticed by the same lush meadows and clear streams that drew the Fremont. Cattle rancher Waldo Wilcox and his family lived and worked alongside ancient ruins and petroglyphs in the remote canyon for over fifty years. The family knew of the vast archaeological complex surrounding them, but kept quiet and protected the area. Since Wilcox sold Range Creek to the State of Utah in 2001, archaeologists have recorded hundreds of archaeological sites and features and discover new and exciting finds each season.Full Episode

Site Update: Final Thoughts

Site Update: July '09

Comment:  What's good about this episode is it provides a solid overview of the Fremont people and the archaeological process. Some of the imagery is impressive. It's not a coincidence that almost half of Time Team America's opening montage seems to come from this episode.

What's not so good is that the episode promises more than it delivers. The biggest find is a previously hidden structure that may be a granary. Okay, but that really doesn't tell us anything new about the Fremont people. It may be exciting to archaeologists, but it probably isn't to the rest of us.

What happened to the people?

In particular, the narrator hints that Range Creek may reveal some Fremont secrets, including why the people left. Uh, no, the episode doesn't offer any new information or insight about that. It gives us only a line or two on the subject, less than in this summary:It is unclear if the Fremont people moved on, died out, or so drastically changed their lifestyles that we can no longer see them archaeologically as a distinct culture. Before they disappeared, the Range Creek Fremont began doing peculiar things like storing food on sheer cliff-sides and moving whole villages to towering ridge tops. These behaviors suggest these communities were facing serious threats. And therein lies the rub—what was troubling these ancient peoples? Environmental stress? Unfriendly neighbors? Internal conflicts? Researchers increasingly look towards climate change as a factor in the Fremont peoples' seemingly bizarre adaptations, making the history of Range Creek extremely important and a timely story archaeologists are eager to tell.Since the Time Team knew the outcome before it edited and aired the episode, this hype borders on false advertising. I suspect fewer people would watch if PBS pegged the content more accurately: "A few minor discoveries and lots of pretty pictures, but no answers to the site's most interesting question." (The same applies to the Fort Raleigh and Topper episodes.)

For more on the subject, see Fort Raleigh in Time Team America.

Below:  "An example of the petroglyphs found in Range Creek Canyon. A unique style of rock art, such as these trapezoid-shaped figures, are a distinctive feature of the Fremont people." (Photo: Colin Campbell).

Note:  This site isn't that far from the original Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah, where the Fremont and "Anasazi" people were among those leaving their marks.

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