PROVO, Utah — Pull out a sentence from the great "Don Quixote," then throw the book away. Despite the eloquence or wit of the sentence, it means little without the broader context. That's exactly how Kari Nelson feels when people stumble across ancient artifacts and take them home to display on a shelf.
"I don't think there's any malicious intent ... but maybe people just aren't aware of how important it is to leave an object in place," said Nelson, the curator of education for the BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures. "If you take an object away from its site ... we can't go back and see what it was around ... and (learn) all the different things that archeologists can tell from where they find something."
BYU's newest exhibit, “Beneath Your Feet: Discovering the Archaeology of Utah Valley” at the Museum of Peoples and Cultures explores the Fremont civilization, a culture that flourished across Utah but left no written record.
As a result, the only clues of the Fremont Indians are what archaeologists can dig up, decode and decipher from petroglyphs, baskets, pottery and clay figurines in their original locations.
For years, students and BYU archaeologists have been discovering bits and pieces of this long-lost history, and they're now showing it all off to promote education and conservation.
"(We want) people to understand that the history of Utah Valley didn't start when the pioneers got here, or even with the Utes who were here right before the pioneers," said Adrien Mooney, a graduate student in archaeology who works at the museum and helped curate the exhibit. "There's a long history before that."
The Fremont lived north of the Anasazi from around A.D. 1 to A.D. 1300, said Richard Talbot, director of the Office of Public Archaeology at BYU. As horticulturists, the Fremont farmed in the valleys, hunted wild animals in the mountains and fished in Utah Lake. Yet, researchers are still baffled as to why they mysteriously stopped farming in A.D. 1250.
Visitors to the exhibit can read about specific discoveries around Utah County, then view the pottery, clay figurines and arrowheads. There's even a section describing plaque analysis of ancient teeth.
Fremont petroglyphs, like those found in Nine Mile Canyon near Price and Range Creek Canyon, are carefully protected, but Talbot said he worries about other areas that don't get much attention.
"Portions of downtown Salt Lake City cover one or more large Fremont villages, so every new development there could potentially be destroying part of our heritage," he said. "New subdivisions from Ogden to Provo, and farther north and south, (might) be disturbing Fremont or other Native American sites. In fact, Fremont sites often lie under the best farmlands in Utah that are plowed year after year."
The exhibit was designed to help people realize that Utah has a deep history and an important role in the world of ancient civilizations, Nelson said.
"When people think of archaeology, they think of Indiana Jones, ancient Greece, Pompeii, the big spectacular things like that," she said. "It's neat to see people realizing that there was a thriving ancient culture with these unique characteristics right here where we live, too."