In The Field

GSA 2009: A 3,000-year-old pit house in the American West

Posted on behalf of Rex Dalton

The oldest dwelling structure in Utah — dated to 3,000 years ago — was reported this week, offering a glimpse of ancient life in the Great Salt Lake Basin.

The pit house structure was located near a river bed in the highly developed Salt Lake City region after a team of scientists persevered for years to study the location without project funding. Some now fear the potentially important site may be lost to development, with but a plaque to mark the location.

In a lecture at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Kathleen Nicoll of the University of Utah in Salt Lake described enlisting students from local elementary and high schools to help survey the site’s rich artifacts. "It is easier to get on the Oprah Winfrey Show than to get funding for this type of work,” says Nicoll.

Such dwellings across the United States are drawing scrutiny as researchers employ more widely available sophisticated techniques to test pollen, bones and artifacts to answer questions about paleoenvironments and inhabitants. “This is a very important time for understanding the transition to agriculture in the Southwest, when people became more sedentary,” says Nicoll.

The location is between the Jordan River and a Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right-of-way, which is now eyed as a route for a light-rail transit system.

In the 1990s, the pit house was identified during an environmental survey for construction of a prison. When that plan faded, the site — across the river from a golf course — was also eyed as a possible housing development. And some residents want a park. What becomes of the location will be determined by this three-way debate.

Nicoll said radiocarbon dates from within the pit house and adjacent sediments found repeated occupations from 1,500 to 3,000 years ago.

Remnants of the pit house were found just a few centimeters below the surface, after surveys of the terrace identified 30,000 artifacts within an area of nearly 40 hectares. “I found that sixth grade students are very good at counting artifacts,” says Nicoll.

In the future, the team plans to study plant or artifact samples to learn more about the diet of the people of the time.

Some of the oldest dwellings in the West have been located in valleys east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and in Colorado.

Mark Stiger of Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas have studies underway on multiple dwellings. One mountain camp site may date to the age of the Folsom people, about 10,400 years ago, Stiger noted

Nicoll’s study is under peer review at the journal Catena.

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