The Cedar Mesa Perishables Project: Looking through museum drawers

by Andrew Gulliford

In the 1890s cowboy archaeologists dug caves in remote sections of Utah’s Bears Ears. They created Basketmaker and Ancestral Puebloan artifact collections that have been hidden away for over a century in prestigious museums.

Now a group of scholars and researchers is focusing on those thousand-year-old perishable artifacts to see what might be learned not only about the past, but also about cultural continuity and revitalization.

High on ledges in Grand Gulch and deep in side canyons off the Abajo Mountains and Glen Canyon, cliff dwellings and cave shelters were dug before the Antiquities Act of 1906 prohibited excavations without a federal permit.

Cowboy archaeologists, including Charles McLoyd and C.C. Graham and the Wetherill brothers, acquired large collections to sell to museums.

Even the Rev. C.H. Green of the first Baptist Church in Durango got involved. He sponsored a Grand Gulch dig in the summer of 1891 and created a catalog for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Green titled it a “Catalogue of a Unique Collection of CLIFF DWELLER RELICS... estimated to be The Oldest Relics in the World.”

Green exaggerated the age of the relics, but there was plenty of speculation about who the cliff dwellers might have been and who might have preceded them.

“Richard Wetherill used stratigraphic reasoning to turn archaeological observation into culture history,” writes archaeologist William Lipe, who is an expert on Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears.

Lipe explains that Wetherill, “showed that an earlier farming culture without pottery lay beneath the living surfaces of Pueblo cliff dwellings.”

Wetherill and his expedition sponsor Talbot Hyde named this older group the Basketmakers, a scientific breakthrough and a cultural definition still in use today.

Wetherill and others dug numerous artifacts from Bears Ears sites. Those collections found their way into museums where they were cataloged, shelved, and forgotten.

In the 1990s, team members on the Grand Gulch–Wetherill Project determined which sites had been excavated on public lands in Utah and where the collections resided.

Since 2011 the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project has brought scholars to study these artifact collections rarely seen by the public.

Most importantly, this latest project involves Native American scholars who are viewing for the first-time artifacts their ancestors crafted and used. These scholars are bringing valuable insights and understandings into temperature and humidity-controlled museum storage areas.

“There were roughly 5,000 artifacts taken out of alcoves in southeast Utah and 4,000 are perishable items of wood, feathers, and textiles including sandals, baskets, and blankets,” explains project director Dr. Laurie Webster. “We have used the original collectors’ catalogs and notes to try and understand what was dug up.

“We’re working with five different historic collectors, and each had a different strategy to collect for museums.”

Team members include Dr. Webster, a textile expert who has studied ethnographic and prehistoric artifacts; archaeologist Erin Gearty, who works for the National Park Service; and biologist Chuck LaRue, who identifies feathers and species of wood the Ancients utilized and who replicates prehistoric wooden tools.

Louie Garcia is a Tewa/Piro fiber artist and teacher. Chris Lewis from Zuni is a fiber artist and basket weaver, and Mary Weahkee, Santa Clara and Comanche, creates modern turkey feather blankets and has revitalized other ancient crafts.

“It’s been wonderful. We work as a team. We share information,” states Webster, who says, “We look at the same objects but in different ways. Everyone is interested in the same thing — cultural preservation and revitalization.”

Sponsored by the non-profit Friends of Cedar Mesa, the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project, or CMPP, has received diverse funding.

Just as the public has rarely seen these perishable items, neither have the descendants of Ancestral Puebloans who made them.

The project brings Native researchers and scholars into collection rooms where their ancestors’ everyday objects can be seen, admired, and studied.

“These items are still living, breathing, feeling, even if they were made 1,000 years ago,” explains Louie Garcia.

He comments, “The textiles are the way they are for a reason, and we shouldn’t change that. I’ve tried to revive what was woven a thousand years ago.”

Garcia tells me, “This research has informed my work as a Pueblo fiber artist as well as gaining a better understanding and appreciation of my Pueblo heritage.”

I’ve hiked through Bears Ears. Although the cliff dwellings remain in stunning and remote locations, almost all of them have been looted.

What is significant about the CMPP is relocating collections from those sites and putting that knowledge to use, especially about the Basketmakers. Approximately forty percent of the collections may date to the Basketmaker II phase or the years AD 1-200.

I am familiar with the numerous Basketmaker II rock art sites. Webster helps us see that carved petroglyphs and pictograms often represent cultural items.

One panel in the Comb Ridge, or Shash Jaa unit of Bears Ears National Monument, has etched on rock both a large coiled basket and a segmented twined bag. Many of the Basketmaker II human figures have headdresses.

Webster tells me those male headdresses in Basketmaker rock art represent hair ornaments of parallel sticks decorated with feathers from turkeys, bluebirds, sapsuckers, juncos or other birds.

A top knot on the hair ornament featured a special dangling feather often facing right. A few of these stick bundles still have their original feathers.

The CMPP team has studied wooden implements, woven baskets, bags, and cotton blanket fragments, pairs of crutches, bundles of prepared yucca fiber, and crookneck staffs made from Gambel oak. Across Cedar Mesa are etched dozens of petroglyphs with crookneck staffs.

The team has documented many original examples. Chuck LaRue uses his replica staffs to knock down pinon nuts and as light weight hiking poles. He claims that in the ancient Pueblo world crookneck staffs were “as handy as a pocket on a shirt.”

I agree, but I think they also had ceremonial uses, as a symbol of authority or social standing.

At one rock art site high on Comb Ridge dozens of etched figures are being led to a social event. For each group of villagers there’s one individual brandishing a crookneck staff.

To open these long-closed cabinet drawers, Dr. Webster and her team have traveled to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Museum of Peoples and Cultures at Brigham Young University, the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Phoebe Hearst Museum at the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

Wearing white cotton gloves, deep in museum storage, Zuni scholar and weaver Chris Lewis makes a profound connection with prehistoric tools created from living plants.

“Inanimate objects still have a life, still have a soul. When I go through the collections, I talk to them. I say I’m sorry you have to be locked in the dark, but we can come and visit you,” he explains.

To understand this remarkable project, Durango filmmaker Larry Ruiz has produced a documentary film, the third in his series titled “The Languages of the Landscape.”

He says of Laurie Webster, “The results of her research will be known and used for years to come. People, including the Native community, have already gained valuable knowledge from the Project’s investigations.”

I think of Ancestral Puebloan rock art spirals and cycles of nature and human nature. What was taken has now been found. The Ancients and their artifacts have more stories to tell.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at

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