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The Fremont Indians mysteriously disappeared from the shores of the Great Salt Lake 1,000 years ago, leaving only the remains of their dead ancestors behind.

Archaeologists are in a race with grave robbers to prevent the further loss of the remains and any secrets about the Fremonts they may hold.Fortune hunters already have ransacked some graves, triggering an excavation to prevent further looting.

A team of archaeologists is sifting through silt along the shores of America's largest dead sea, exhuming graves and carefully extracting pottery shards, flint chips and bone fragments.

Recently, the team painstakingly exhumed the remains of a young person from a grave smaller in diameter than a bushel basket. Curled in the fetal position, it is the first complete skeleton recovered thus far.

Nearby, another crew removed bones from a similar burial site that may contain the remains of two people.

"We've got to remove them before the looters do," said Steve Simms, assistant professor of anthropology at Utah State University.

Of about 70 known gravesites, looters have pillaged seven.

"They're looking for grave goods," Simms said. "But the Indians who lived here were hunters and gatherers and had only crude tools."

Instead of salable items such as pottery and beads, looters are finding only bones, which they usually discard, taking only skulls and ruining valuable archaeological data, Simms said.

From the first grave, Carol Loveland, USU associate professor of anthropology, said it will be possible to determine the age, sex and perhaps the diet of the person.

They are probably the remains of a person 15 to 20 years old, and probably of a Northwest Shoshone Indian, who lived in the area long after the Fremont vanished, she said.

The region contains graves of both Fremont and Shoshone, with the oldest artifacts dating back to about A.D. 300, said Kevin Jones, assistant state archaeologist.

However, most of the excavations focus on areas believed to be occupied from A.D. 1,200 to 1,400, the transition period between the two tribes.

"That's the period of time that has created most of the mysteries," Jones said.

Agriculture in the area appears to have ended about A.D. 1,300, and the Fremonts, who were farmers, either went elsewhere or changed their lifestyle.

The Fremonts, and later the Northwest Shoshone, lived along the once-marshy areas of the Great Salt Lake northwest of Ogden, fishing from the freshwater tributaries of the Weber and Ogden rivers, and harvesting seeds and waterfowl nesting in the area.

Four years of drought have caused the once-flooding lake to drop 7 feet, exposing miles of flat shoreline dotted with scrubby vestiges of dead plants and a few sprigs of tiny green pickle weed.

Also scattered across the new lakeshore are hundreds of orange survey markers identifying locations of artifacts, bones, or circular storage pits the Fremont dug into the ground to cache food, tools and other items.

The Shoshone, hunter-gatherers, came to the area between A.D. 1,200 and 1,400, Jones said.

The Utah Legislature appropriated $50,000 this year for excavations and studies of the site. But the funding has been tied up in a bureaucratic snag, forcing the project to be funded by USU and volunteer work in the meantime.

"This is a very moral issue with the Indians," Simms said. "But the state has turned it into a very political issue. They're dragging their feet and turning this into a joke. They want the problem to go away. It's a joke."

A committee of archaeologists and Indians is working to formulate ways to return the remains to tribal burial grounds after they've been studied, Simms said.

"We once had the ability to take care of the burial grounds of our ancestors," says Clifford Duncan, medicine man and spiritual leader of the Ute Tribe.

"But we are now situated on reservations, and much of the remains of our ancestors are on state-owned land," Duncan said.