In Praise of Archaeologists

Five years ago this September I was fortunate to spend a week with a team of archaeologists who were surveying remote stretches of Utah’s Desolation Canyon. Half the crew set off on the Green River and the other half on horseback, working their way down the Tavaputs Plateau. (I’ll get back to those horse guys in another post–quite a story in of itself.) I was part of the river flotilla. Here’s me at the helm of one raft, pretending to be an experienced river runner. (The guy in the middle did much of the rowing.)

Kevin Jones, Utah’s state archaeologist until last week, was on this trip. On Friday, I wrote about how he got fired and probably why it happened. I had already gotten to know Jones briefly while writing this story for Smithsonian magazine.  Over the years, I’ve had many instructive discussions with him about evolutionary archaeology and the prehistoric cultures of Utah, among other things. That week in Desolation canyon, Jones, who is a skilled musician, played a terrific mandolin at night around the campfire.

Here he is investigating a cliff ledge granary (a food stuff, where seeds and corn would be stored). We spent a lot of time scrambling up steep cliff sides in search of ancient granaries.

Check out that Smithsonian story if you want to learn about the people who put these granaries in such precarious places. Then read this story I wrote in Archaeology magazine, to learn about what I was doing in Desolation canyon and about the archaeologist (and former journalist) who has spearheaded  some amazing work in this part of Utah. His name is Jerry Spangler. I also tagged along with him for this piece in Backpacker magazine.

All these stories have been written since the mid 2000s (here’s another one in Science magazine, which includes quotes from both Jones and Spangler), and are set in the same spectacular region of Utah.

I mention these articles because they show just a part of what Jones has been involved in as Utah’s state archaeologist. For another side of Jones, check out this 2009 story in the Salt Lake Tribune, which I wrote about here in a profile of him.

During that week I spent in Desolation Canyon five years ago, Jones said something to me that I’ll never forget, while we were sharing the same raft one day on the river, talking about the creep of recent oil and gas development at the top of the Tavaputs plateau:

I think your grandkids ought to be able to take this same trip and see this beautiful scenery and prehistoric rock art, because to visit here and see it in this context is very enriching. It gives us a sense of our place in history.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Jones (and Spangler), many of Utah’s archaeological treasures will be safeguarded for future generations.

If only Utah pols felt the same way about their state’s rich heritage.

11 Responses to “In Praise of Archaeologists”

  1. Keith Kloor says:

    I just noticed this editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune. The larger context of the firings that I discuss in my Science story is front and center in the SLT editorial. Here’s an excerpt:

    Puzzling out the real reason why the state archaeologist and his two assistants were fired Tuesday, supposedly for budget reasons alone, is also a matter of setting the event in context. But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that the lamentable action had very little to do with payroll and everything to do with payback.

    Officially, the axing of state archaeologist Kevin Jones and assistants Derinna Kopp and Ronald Rood was nothing personal, just business, forced upon the Utah Department of Community and Culture by legislative spending cuts.

    But, set in its full context, the firings strongly suggest that the archaeologists had become very unpopular with the powers that be in the Legislature, governor’s office, Utah Transit Authority and others in Utah’s inordinately powerful real estate development business.

  2. Matt B says:


    Good job! It’s an interesting story, stay on their azzes…….and score one for investigative reporting! It must be nice to see your lead being picked up by locals who can keep applying the heat….

    Although you will still suck because while you were wasting time on old rocks, you neglected to investigate Al Gore’s private plane use….or FOI McIntyre’s E-Mail account…..

  3. Jeff Norris says:

    Your posts and the editorial suggest ulterior motives for the firing, and if true it would be wrong and very stupid.    Utah like many other states is dealing with a budget shortfall for 2012(390 mill).  That close to 1000 state employees will be losing their jobs because of budget cuts.  That there has been cuts to K-12, State parks,  Public Health, Higher Education, Public Safety and more.  By cutting their budget does that mean the Pols don’t care about those categories?  
    Interesting aside is this  dedicated public servant,  who decided to resign instead of taking a shift on Patrol.

  4. Gaythia says:

    “Thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Jones (and Spangler), many of Utah’s archaeological treasures will be safeguarded for future generations.”
    I certainly hope that this continues to be true.

  5. Jim Allison says:

    The Salt Lake Tribune has really done a good job with the story. I especially like this column from Sunday’s paper and this cartoon, which came out last Thursday. They’re also going to publish an op-ed piece (tomorrow I think) from several organizations that promote archaeological research and preservation in Utah.

  6. Jim Allison says:

    And thank you Keith, for writing so eloquently about this. I think all of Utah’s archaeologists are feeling a little beleaguered right now, even those of us who still have jobs (although obviously it’s much worse for those who got fired). It’s nice to know we have supporters.

  7. BBD says:

    I would have expected an extremely critical response from academic archaeologists. Did I miss it?

  8. BBD says:

    Sorry. To be clear I did not mean in comments here.

  9. JROB says:

    Jeff Norris…your comment is obvious without heart and knowledge.  This was a chicken crap firing of 3 distinguished scientist. With the assault on natural and cultural resources from Indusrty, it is a horrific course of action that leaves the citizens without a voice in regard to for these timeless Utah treasurers. Even from an economics basis this action is stupid. Tourism is very big in Utah. So you can believe the shallow platitudes of the Gov if you choose. He has sure duped you and given his citizens the finger in favor of big business. A sad day for the people and for our children.

  10. NikFromNYC says:

    Ode to Al “Hothouse” Gore:

  11. Bob Koss says:

    It is unsurprising to see people being fired for not towing the PC line laid out by the politicians in charge. Same thing happened a few years ago in Oregon to the State Climatologist and in Washington to the Assistant State Climatologist. Unfortunately, the political cost to the politician is generally so small they confidently ignore it.

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