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Remains of Ancient Indian Culture Preserved at Utah Ranch - 2004-07-23

For 50 years, the secrets of the earliest inhabitants of what is now the state of Utah lay hidden, protected by one man's desire to preserve an ancient treasure. The existence of this wonderland of artifacts on Range Creek Ranch was made public just a month ago.

A bumpy two hour truck ride from the small town of Price brings us to a green canyon that was the home of the Fremont people 1,000 years ago. The property was owned by Waldo Wilcox, who kept this secret behind locked gates for 50 years, only letting family and cattle through to see the wonders of what had once been an ancient community.

Two years ago, the rancher had to make a difficult decision: pass Range Creek Ranch on to his children or turn the nearly unspoiled window to the past over to a caretaker.

"I looked at it like this," said Waldo Wilcox. "I wanted to keep it the way it is, but when I die I'm not going to have a hell of a lot to say about it. So I finally decided to take a little bit of money and get out now. And if they tear it up they tear it up, and if they don't they don't."

Range Creek was purchased through the Trust for Public Lands and later handed over to the state of Utah.

Running along the bottom of the canyon and crossing the shallow creek every now and then is a 19-kilometer-long dirt road. Looking up, you can see small granaries the Fremont built of dried mud and sticks 30 meters up on the cliff face. Off the road, on a small hill are rings of medium sized rocks the walls of what were once pit houses. What makes these timeworn homes so valuable is that they've never been looted. Buried inside the rings of rocks are artifacts that could offer clues to how the Fremont lived and survived in this harsh environment. Dozens of pottery shards and arrow points lie scattered in the dirt. Utah State archeologist Kevin Jones points to ancient designs carved into the cliff face.

"Mountain sheep are a very common element in rock art, there are a number of them on this panel, snakes are another one, there are clearly snakes," he said. "There are some figures that are human shaped and look like the depiction of a person. But there are a lot of abstract kind of figures as well. There are spirals and all kinds of abstract things and some that sort of look like wings."

In addition to buildings and pictographs, the ancient villages include the remains of some of their inhabitants. Mr. Wilcox remembers finding them years ago.

"The one was wrapped in strips of beaver skin, and that was the man," he said. "And the women and kids, and they were wrapped in strips of cedar bark. And they were so perfect you could see the lines on their hands and feet."

These people lived in Utah more than 1000 years ago. Archeologists are using a technique called tree ring indexing to date many of the sites in Range Creek. Some of the wood used to build the granaries is still intact, so scientists can look at the thickness of the rings and determine, within a few years, when the tree was cut. Experts who've surveyed the property say there could be several hundred undisturbed sites here. And with that much history to explore, there is an opportunity to finally unlock the mystery of the Fremont culture, which disappeared suddenly 700 years ago. Did they simply pick up and leave? Were they driven away by another tribe, or forced out by drought? Did they develop into the modern Utah tribes?

The answers could be somewhere in this canyon. But a flood of tourists and curious visitors could trample the prehistoric structures and ruin the incredible find that was protected for so long. Not long after the existence of the site was announced last month, artifacts went missing. Duncan Metcalf is the Principal Investigator at Range Creek.

"I suspect it's been a minor problem for 100 years, but of course I'm extremely afraid it's going to become a major problem as more people come into the canyon," he said.

Range Creek is a find so rare that it will take several lifetimes to study all of its artifacts. Mr. Metcalf would like to see the area become a permanent research station that will provide knowledge about some of the earliest Americans for generations to come.