My archaeological quest began in an SUV near Blanding Elementary School, where screaming children played kickball with a potato-shaped P.E. teacher. Winsten Dan, my cattle dog, slept on the backseat as I thumbed my smartphone; I had downloaded an app that saves PDFs from Web pages so they're accessible outside cell reception. I used it to view a topographic map, complete with GPS coordinates. Then, like many other tech-savvy archaeology nuts, I punched those coordinates into my GPS unit. In seconds, I knew the route to a secret ruin I'd never have found on my own.
Google "Cedar Mesa," and you'll retrieve at least 13 million hits. The southeast Utah area is home to the country's highest concentration of archaeological sites: Ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and pottery, along with baskets, weapons and pit houses from even older cultures. No interpretative signs or barricades dim the sense of discovery, as at Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon. But there's also little to shield artifacts from vandalism or theft.
The Bureau of Land Management doesn't reveal site locations, but BLM archaeologist Don Simonis says enthusiasts post them online. One website offers a $40 annual subscription to a list of sites, including directions; elsewhere, detailed travelogues come with GPS coordinates. Simonis, who's based in Monticello, Utah, compiled his own bucket list of 117 sites partly via the Internet.
Anyone with a GPS can find them, he says. "Over the course of a year, if you've got 100 people or 1,000 people going up to a site, it's got to have an impact."
It's hard to quantify the severity. But Simonis says many visitors climb on cliff dwellings, break off plaster and gather artifacts into mounds, sometimes pocketing them. Only two archaeologists, including Simonis, oversee 1.8 million acres of BLM land in this corner of southeast Utah, and they've inventoried less than 13 percent of an estimated 300,000 sites. Now, they say, even the most remote sites receive more traffic than ever before. When people remove artifacts from these places without careful documentation, their context is destroyed.
Turning east toward Cedar Mesa, I left Blanding's pinto bean farms for copper-toned cliffs and waves of juniper and sage. I paused at a BLM sign outlining rules for viewing ruins. Other than the ranger station I passed a few miles back, signs like this are about the extent of onsite information. A local advocacy group—Friends of Cedar Mesa—wants the area to be designated a national monument or conservation area, which would provide more money for education, preservation and extra rangers.
As I drove over slickrock sinkholes and through crusty golden hills, the arrow on my GPS inched closer to my destination. About 700 meters short, I got out and tiptoed up sandstone blocks, dove through a crown of piñons and found a circular rock wall saturated in waning sunlight. Ivory stone flakes and black potsherds poked through the sand. I tied Winsten to a tree and scanned the craggy landscape. I had been told this was a place of worship, or a defensive post, or both. A cool November wind blew, and I suddenly felt I was sharing the view with the structure's former residents. Without these artifacts, I was only standing on a hill.
"We need this information to understand ourselves better," Simonis had told me. "We've got all these problems. Maybe archaeology can help by teaching about what happened to these people."
The next morning, I hiked on with Winsten Dan and a plastic bag of hard-boiled eggs. A faint moon spied on us from above as I entered more coordinates into my GPS. I followed its lead down a cottonwood-shaded wash. My adrenaline pumped as if I were hunting elk, and I understood how "site baggers" get addicted.
Within an hour, I stood at a ruined dwelling, whose inhabitants had lived in the shade of a great stone amphitheater. Their ancient hearth burned in a room with a balcony view onto a wooded creek. Four mule deer jumped from a shrub as I approached. The stones lining the path looked newly placed—but were they? I couldn't tell if the scattered corncobs were genuine artifacts, jokes or offerings from Native American descendents. Shoeprints pockmarked the sand.
I felt childish, studious and sly—sitting in someone else's vacated home. In another time, I thought, this would have been a good place to raise my son—harsh, sure, but one we would have cherished. Just then the GPS beeped, informing me that I was here.
This essay first appeared on High Country News.