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Desert Abalone

Cultural gems preserved in the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding tell us a lot about the Ancestral Puebloan people we could never know from "simply" visiting the archaeologic sites—for instance, the extent of trade at the time and their aesthetic of personal adornment.


Ancient insect leg necklace with an abalone shell pendant, Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.


Hiking in Bears Ears National Monument is never easy. It is often too hot, too dry, and too sunny for comfort. The distances are long and the terrain is rugged. Climbing is often required to get to sites. There is a lot of exposure, and the risk of a fall, or a twisted ankle, or a fractured leg is very real.


The sites themselves are often in harsh light, making them difficult to photograph. There is usually little else to see except the structures themselves, and occasional rock art. Most of the artifacts have been vacuumed up by previous visitors.


During my visits to these sites, resting in the natural quiet of ancient settlements, I find myself imagining what it must have been like to live here 1,000 years ago. Where would I find food? I'd probably be checking the places I planted corn to see if anything was growing, and I'd certainly be thinking about where to hunt.


I also asked myself how the inhabitants would even get to some of the dwellings high in defensive locations—did they climb there? Did they use a ladder? Where did they hide it?


Just as importantly, what was it like to live in these precarious places? How many people fell and hurt themselves? How did they keep the kids away from the edge? Was natural selection at work in a big way here?


Finally, what were they afraid of? Fear of being raided by their own people, I suppose, fear of personal violence.


Seeing soot on the ceilings of dwellings always evokes a mental image of a family on a winter night in the high desert, sitting around a fire, huddled together under turkey feather blankets, trying to keep warm, hoping no raiders would come in the night.


Notably, during all my imaginings, I never gave any thought to their art, or trade, clothing or decoration. It seemed to me that life was just too harsh for the ancestral Puebloans to think about these sort of discretionary embellishments. But I was wrong. The cultural treasures in the museum proved that beyond a doubt.

Take this necklace, for example. Found in the Cedar Mesa region, this necklace is comprised of many insect legs strung together. It sounds a bit creepy in the abstract, but the reality is quite different, The iridescence of the insect's exoskeleton in the sunshine is quite beautiful and the necklace is exceedingly light.


Detail of insect legs and abalone shell from the previous photo.


But someone did not stop there. They obtained an abalone shell whose nacre nearly matches the color and iridescence of the insect legs. They drilled a hole in it to make it a pendant to accompany the necklace.


All this says a lot about how certain of the ancestral Puebloan people valued personal adornment. It may also say something about their cultural hierarchy. It certainly tells us that long-distance trade existed.


Abalone is found off the coast of California. Some enterprising person got this shell from the region of modern-day Santa Barbara and carried it by foot to Utah—a distance of 730 miles. Google estimates it would take 240 hours to walk that distance (20 days of walking 12 hours a day).


But this little item probably didn't come directly from the coast in one journey. More likely, this little item was traded from person to person over time, eventually ending up in the lucky hand of someone living in a small masonry structure on a high, defensive ledge in Southern Utah.


This delicate necklace injects real human complexity into the simplified version of the ancient people we get from visiting the site. There are many more such artifacts stored at the museum. It is well worth a visit to the Edge of the Cedars Museum to add an important human dimension to the ancient people who lived here.


Highly recommended.


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