A raven screeches. Cottonwood trees rustle in the breeze. A pool of water mirrors the white sandstone cliffs, as Anasazi cliff ruins stoically guard the canyon floor as it snakes its way toward the San Juan River.
All is peace and quiet today in Grand Gulch in southeastern Utah.Such was not the case some 100 years ago, however. Throughout the 1890s, Eastern museums and collectors - caught up in a gold-rush-like frenzy to obtain collections of Indian artifacts - sponsored expeditions into Grand Gulch to pillage the ruins for pots, baskets, mummies and other exotic artifacts.
Those artifacts were then carted off to Eastern museums, exhibited for a short time and then locked away. Only a handful of people - all professional researchers - have seen them since.
"It's really bothered me that no one had ever seen anything that had come out of here," said Julia Johnson, a frequent Grand Gulch backpacker and amateur archaeologist. "There was so much taken, and no one knows what it was or what it means."
Johnson discovered she was not alone. There were many others who were equally fascinated by the mystery of what had become of the thousands upon thousands of artifacts unearthed from Grand Gulch.
And they were committed to making the collections accessible to the American public - particularly the people of southeastern Utah.
So it was that a casual 1986 conversation among Grand Gulch backpackers gave birth to the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project - an unprecedented attempt by six amateur archaeologists to photographically document the thousands of Anasazi artifacts taken from Grand Gulch.
"Our original goal was simple: Locate the artifacts that were removed 100 years ago and then create a photographic exhibit to be housed at Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding," said Johnson, a Boulder, Colo., resident and the project's leader.
Unbeknown to Johnson and the others involved in the project, a great share of the artifacts removed from Grand Gulch were from an early Anasazi period called Basketmaker.
According to archaeologists, the early Basketmakers (known for sophisticated basket weaving) evolved from a hunter-gatherer culture about the time of Christ. By about 600 A.D. the late Basketmaker people had further evolved into a village-oriented society.
They built communities of pit houses and storage structures, and, as they had for hundreds of years, they buried their dead in the many caves of southeastern Utah.
The culture would later evolve into a remarkably advanced people with an elaborate system of roads, sophisticated irrigation, intensive agriculture, long-distance trade routes, elaborate social structures, religious and ceremonial homogeny, and perhaps even a sort of centralized government.
Before disappearing mysteriously about 1300 A.D., they thrived in the deserts like no other people before or since.
Most archaeological research into the Anasazi has focused on the later periods when the culture blossomed, then disappeared.
"Since 1920 there have been very few archaeological excavations done on classic early Basketmaker sites," said Winston Hurst, curator of Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding and an adviser to the project.
"And virtually none has been done since the 1890s in the area where (Basketmaker) culture was first recognized here in southeastern Utah."
No research has been done on the artifacts removed from Utah sites in the 1890s and there has never been a systematic study of artifacts or their association with other artifacts taken from the same burials.
"It sounds incredible, but no one has ever taken the time to take those artifacts and associate them with specific burial sites," said Hurst.
With that challenge, the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Project - named for 19th Century artifact collector Richard Wetherill - has evolved into a much more ambitious attempt to not only photo-document Basketmaker artifacts but use field notes to retrace the steps of the 1890s expeditions and associate them with actual locations in southeastern Utah.
"Fortunately the museums that have the artifacts kept some kind of documentation on the discoveries," said Hurst.
The project - which required a considerable amount of private funding as well as a grant from the Utah Endowment for the Humanities - has required three years of retracing the footsteps of the first expeditions in the 1890s to the caves of the Southwest.
"When interest in the collections died (about the turn of the century), they, along with the field notes, gradually disappeared," said Johnson.
"We all became intrigued with the evolving mystery surrounding the disappearance of thousands of artifacts, notes and letters."
Mystery is a word used often by those involved in the project. What happened 100 years ago? How was it that thousands of cave sites were systematically and thoroughly pillaged? And, most puzzling, who were the Basketmaker people?
Like detectives, those involved in the proj-ect began tracking down leads. Descendants of those who led the first artifact expeditions were contacted; personal papers and corres-pondence were copied and museums were contacted.
"We discovered why many thought we couldn't do this," said Johnson.
"Information had been scattered to the four winds."
Their detective work took them to the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation, the Peabody Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, Tulane University, the Chicago Field Museum and other locations in California, Wisconsin and Washington.
Each stop provided new clues and often new opportunities to photograph artifacts - all tucked away in storage since the turn of the century.
However, not everyone greeted the Wetherill Project with enthusiasm. Eastern museum officials were sometimes skeptical and in one case downright hostile, calling project workers "pot hunters."
"This man was so enraged by our request to examine the museum's Grand Gulch materials that he called other museums we were working with and vented his anger," said Johnson.
He also tried to convince other museums to deny the researchers access to artifacts.
Professional archaeologists in Utah intervened on behalf of the amateur researchers, and the project continued.
"More and more things fell into place," she said, "and we began to feel an important bond with the Basketmaker, to tell their story."
Today, the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Project has photographed and documented more than 300 artifacts, compiled more than 1,000 pages of new information about the excavations and amassed a chronology of Wetherill's expeditions.
With photographs and copies of those field notes, Johnson hopes to "create a reference bank for all to use, a library for professional research into the Basketmakers."
The effort has finally caught the attention of museums and professional researchers nationwide, who now hail it as one of the most important projects ever to be undertaken in Southwestern archaeology.
"What they have done is set the stage for a whole new phase of serious scientific research into the Basketmaker culture," said Hurst.
"A lot of professionals are really excited about what could come of it."
There is still more research to do before a May 1990 symposium scheduled at Edge of the Cedars. There is more information to be gleaned from the Smithsonian, and glass photo plates need to be copied at Tulane.
It is unlikely the Grand Gulch artifacts themselves will ever be returned to Utah. But in their absence, the photographs and and field notes will serve as the next best thing.
"Sure, we could do more research if we had the artifacts in hand," said Hurst, "but a lot of research can be done without the actual artifacts in hand.
"High-quality photographs of the artifacts are sufficient for many kinds of analysis."
Hurst still marvels that such a major proj-ect could be successfully undertaken by amateurs.
Sometimes professionals are so busy with the specialized questions of their individual disciplines that they fail to see the bigger picture.
"People like Julia Johnson and Fred Blackburn can have tremendous insights," he said. "They see things from a different perspective, and they can show us something we should have seen ourselves."
While the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Project has been a labor of love for those involved, it's also been a labor - period:
- More than $140,000 in donations of cash and materials.
- 20,000 hours of donated time.
- 1,200 photographs taken.
- 5,000 artifacts examined.