Quick Tips: Finding archaeological sites on your own

A cliff dwelling not listed on the map.

You can observe a lot by just watching. -Yogi Berra

I post a good amount of photos that feature rock art, archaeological sites, potsherds, or other items from generations past. A typical question I receive is often along the lines, “How did you find these sites?”

Quite a few are found by reading old school guide books or looking at detailed USGS maps; I find others by reading some favorite websites. Of course, word of mouth ends up being invaluable, too!

But I see a fair amount of these sites and artifacts on my own. Something is rewarding about finding something not listed.

One of my favorite backcountry moments ended up finding a two-floor Pueblo located above the canyon bottom. On a January day, the sun-filled alcove looked inviting. On a hunch, I scrambled up to the ledge and saw a site not listed on the map. And a site that I have not seen any photos of previously — a great moment on a trip that filled with many such moments.

I am not a historian, an archaeologist, or any kind of professional “ologist.” But from many years of experience in the backcountry, I did pick up some ideas and tips that might help you find these special places on your own.

With that in mind, here are some tips that work for my travels along the ancient paths.

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  • Look for south-facing walls that are “panely” for rock art. “Panely” is not a real word, but it works for me. 🙂 Meaning, a flat panel-looking place on a canyon wall. Here in Southeast Utah, that often means the Wingate Sandstone with the desert patina (oxidized iron and manganese).

Why south facing? Because those areas receive the most sunlight. Be it for artistry, news, or spiritual purposes; this art is meant to be seen. And the artists put their art where people would see it in addition to having the most light to create while painting or carving their works.

A potential archaeoastronomical pictograph

  • Likewise, look for south-facing alcoves when hiking along. Again, in the pre-Industrial times, more sunlight for warmth and light would be a driving factor. Having a basic compass on you, even for a stroll next to a road becomes very useful.

Note: The sites are almost always south-facing; the art not necessarily so. But almost always on a “panely” slab of a canyon wall.

  • Look around at the junction or entrance/exit of a canyon or a prominent spot such as a high point or pass. Much like our rest stop kiosks at highway intersections, the ancient sites tend to be situated where most people pass through. In lieu of fast-food restaurants and gas stations, you might find pottery sherds, old dwellings, rock art, or all of these items at essential points of travel. If you can read a map and understand how people might travel through the land, you will find many of these hidden delights.

An old Pueblo found at the junction of two canyons within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. These canyons lead to well known BLM sites. Lots of potsherds on top. A great vantage point for seeing the trade paths joining.

At a high point along a travel path between the Colorado River and a valley and eventually to the La Sal mountains.

  • Look around when on the old travel paths. When hiking in New Mexico, I followed the Camino Real for a bit, a colonial Spanish trading route that piggybacked on an even older Puebloan trading route. And I then followed some abandoned USFS roads nearby that, no doubt, followed ancients paths as well. And what I did see at random? An old potsherd.

The paths through the land that we follow on foot, and many times our paved roads, don’t change that much in many ways. The contours of the land often dictate the best path of travel. Be it in 2019, 1519, or 1219.

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And that’s how I find some of these sites and artifacts. Oh, you can get even more details by looking over topos, performing more rigorous academic research, and using more professional techniques that are beyond my skill set. But if you find yourself in the backcountry, even following these simple ideas can let you explore, find, and savor some sites, art, and objects on your own.

In summary:

  • Look for south-facing areas
  • Sheer rock walls, esp with desert varnish, along with these south-facing areas, stand a good chance of having art.
  • Pay attention at junctions or prominent points
  • Think of how ancient people might travel through the landscape; a good chance you’ll find something along the way.

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to find these sites, art, or artifacts, be mindful of where you are and what you are doing. Help preserve these cultural treasures for future generations.

Happy historic trails!

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7 Replies to “Quick Tips: Finding archaeological sites on your own”

  1. Thanks again for encouraging self discovery and by doing so getting others to create their own adventure through inspiration. Taking the time to read maps and create travel plans is a skill that needs to develop. By not giving away the answer to the test you are able to invoke mystery. Sharing the love of wild places sometimes can come at the cost of over popularizing end destinations. You do a really good job of giving the reader a solid launching pad for adventure.

  2. Nice article, it’s amazing what you can find if you keep your eyes open.
    Many years ago I flew for company that did air ambulance work, among other things, on the Navajo Reservation. One of the other jobs was to fly BLM employees mapping sites and looking for looters of ancestral sites. As the pilot I had access to BLM maps that had all known sites listed. One day while flying an empty trip over the Black Mesa near Rough Rock Az. I noticed a site that was not on the maps. I later hiked to the site an it did indeed look undisturbed. I left it that way and decided to not even tell the BLM personnel, hopefully it can stay undisturbed for another 100 years.

  3. While I have a seen several of the better known ruins in Cedar Mesa. my favorite is still the one I stumbled on, on an unsuccessful hike to a well known ruin. I lost the main trail and ambled along the canyon rim and happen to catch a beautiful multi-room ruin out of the corner of my eye. Though I was not the first person to discover it, it did feel that way since it was not on a map or in any of the guides I had read. There is so much more satisfaction in the unknown and undiscovered, even if they are that way only to you.

  4. And the one that will work for you when all of those listed above do not: look around at springs, seeps, junctions of rivers/creeks/streams, and other water sources or covergence points. Modern folks like to hang out at water sources, so did those that came before us. It’s fail proof.

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