To the average Joe, it may look like a simple arrowhead.
But to an archaeologist, that same arrowhead - found in the right context - might carry a wealth of information, including who probably made it, where it came from, when it was last used and even what it was used for.Which is why University of Utah archaeologists are excited over the recovery this summer of about 50 projectile points from a cave adjacent to Joe's Valley Reservoir.
Led by Duncan Metcalf, crews excavated about half of the remaining deposits in one cave, recovering "a considerable number" of stone artifacts, including points - all covering a time period from about 8,000 years ago to about 2,000 years ago.
All were recovered from neatly stratified layers containing charcoal that researchers hope can be radiocarbon dated. Those styles can then be cross-dated and compared to other styles found in other areas.
"We now have such a large collection we can re-analyze the taxonomy of projectile points of the Colorado Plateau and eastern Great Basin," Metcalf said. "And we can see if the Joe's Valley points are really different from those found in other areas."
And that, Metcalf said, will help archaeologists piece together a better picture of what life was like in Utah thousands of years ago. And it might offer a glimpse of how nomadic hunting and gathering gave way to farming.
Archaeologists have long recognized the importance of the cave at Joe's Valley Reservoir, citing it frequently in their writings on the earliest hunters and gatherers of Utah.In the early 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service (which co-sponsored the U. dig this summer), excavated about 90 percent of the cave. But the cumulative effects of vandalism and erosion threatened to destroy what remained of the floor deposits in the cave.
"If we hadn't gone in soon, we would never have the opportunity," Metcalf said.
Metcalf adds there are not that many undisturbed cave deposits left in Utah. Yet caves preserve better than anything else the perishable information about how ancient people lived.
"Cave deposits are worth their weight in gold," he said, adding, "we just couldn't afford to lose this one."
The information recovered this summer deals almost exclusively with the hunting and gathering peoples who preceded the Fremont farmers.
"My best guess is that most of the time it was used (by Archaic peoples) as a temporary overnight camp or possible as a hunting location, a place to sit and look out over Joe's Valley and spot game," Metcalf said.
And they probably stayed in the cave for short periods of time. Archaeologists did not find any evidence of structures or stone fire hearths that would indicate "they planned to stay and use it awhile."
Rather, the thin bands of charcoal layered one upon the other indicate the early Utah hunters probably collected a few limbs, built a simple fire and then moved on. When it came time to use the cave again, another fire was built.
Following the Forest Service excavations, radiocarbon dates of charcoal showed the cave was first occupied 8,000 years ago.
Of additional interest to Metcalf - and one reason he decided to return to Joe's Valley - is that those first test excavations also revealed a Fremont occupation complete with corn husks and corn stalks.
"That suggests that the Fremont (who occupied the area from about 700 A.D. to 1200 A.D.) were actually farming in Joe's Valley at an elevation of about 7,100 feet," he said. "You can't do that today. The growing season just isn't long enough."
While it has been suggested that prehistoric people carried the corn in from lower elevations around Castle Dale, Metcalf said the presence of the husks, stalks and other waste byproducts of corn agriculture indicates to him "they were farming right outside the cave."
"It offers a great opportunity to test some mathematical models on when people would be likely to bring those kind of materials into a cave site," he said.
Metcalf plans to retrieve from Weber State College the considerable data first collected in the 1970s and then combine that information with the new data recovered this summer.