Think you can’t find Ancient History close to you? Feel you have to go to another country, or even continent, to see prehistoric ruins or rock art? Not so! Most places in the United States are located within a few hours of some Ancient History site. Look around you and find a way to study Ancient History close to home. Then you can plan a trip overseas, and see ancient sites there, if you want.
Last spring, we decided to make a day trip to Nine Mile Canyon in Central Utah. The canyon (which is actually forty-six miles long) is called the world’s longest art gallery. There are petroglyphs and building sites from at least three Native American cultures in the canyon--Great Basin Archaic (6000-500 BC), Fremont (AD 1-1300), and Ute (AD 1000/1300+). It is located 80 miles southeast of Provo and northeast of Price via Wellington. We didn’t even explore the side canyons, and yet we spent more than half the day at the sites along the main road.
The exciting thing about this site is that archaeologists don’t have enough information yet to answer questions like:
Come on a virtual tour with me, and you can decide for yourself if you want to explore Nine Mile Canyon, or another ancient area near you, in person.
Geology and Nature
Part of history is geography and geology. Why did people live in a certain place? What are the desirable features it had? How did that influence the way people lived? Nine Mile Canyon is in central Utah, which is hot, dry desert in the summer and very cold in the winter. Luckily, Nine Mile Creek flows through the canyon, providing permanent water in all but the driest of times. Ancient people may have used irrigation systems to water crops.
The geology was formed from the prehistoric Lake Uinta. There are oil and gas deposits, along with many layers of sandstone, siltstone, and limestone. Rare fossils are sea-related, but other remains have been found. Stone was used for building, vessels, weapons, and other tools.
Most plants and animals seen today are assumed to have been indigenous always, excepting larger animals, such as moose and bear. There have also been mammoth remains found nearby. Animal species and vegetation vary depending on the elevation and soil. People have farmed here for centuries. There is evidence that this land was used between 300-1300 as farmland—granary, home, and village ruins have been found, along with rock art and artifacts. Hunters and gatherers seemed to have traveled through the canyon after that. Then farmers and ranchers returned in the 1800s and are still there today.
Rock Art and Architectural Sites
The reason people visit Nine Mile Canyon is for the rock art and prehistoric history. Art and architecture give us a lot of insight into a culture. From the ruins and petroglyphs found, archaeologists surmise that the native cultures which lived in Nine Mile Canyon were most likely farmers AND hunter/gatherers, possibly trading off during the seasons or when drought conditions prevailed.
Ancient homes were small and simple, some partly underground. Granaries were also common, especially in the cliffs. Most were not hidden, but built in full view of the community, so everyone could see who was coming and going.
There were likely three or more generations of native peoples who built, carved, and painted here. The Fremont are the most traceable culture who lived in Nine Mile Canyon. Their art was full of trapezoidal human bodies and bucket-shaped heads. They wore fancy headdresses, clothing, jewelry, and facial decorations, which may have been masks. Some even sported horns or antlers. There are also Shield-bearing Warriors and boat-shaped animal carvings depicting deer, elk, bighorn sheep, snakes, and birds. These are pecked into the rock. In addition, they left behind painted, mostly stylized and abstract, art.
The Archaic peoples were hunter-gatherers, but they knew the land and planned their migrations for the supplies they needed. The art they left consisted of rectangular human figures with small heads and limbs. Rows of dots or lines and cross-hatching of the subject are also common.
The Utes still consider this land sacred. There have been buffalo-skin robes found in two separate caches in the canyon. They left behind action scenes in their art—wars and hunts—which are more realistic, but not as common in Nine Mile Canyon.
Things to know if you go:
Other places in Utah to learn about ancient history
Annual Native American Events in Utah
US Pow Wow Calendar and Information, https://www.powwows.com/
Article and Study Resources
Bonnie Jones is a former private and charter school teacher and homeschool mom. She is the author of History is the Hook.
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