Brigham Young wasn't the first Utahn to say "This is the place."
For thousands of years, ancient Utahns - the Fremont, Shoshone, and others - found the shores of the Great Salt Lake a nice place to live. Wild game was plentiful, the marshes provided abundant plant life and waterfowl, and the hunting and gathering way of life provided a relatively easy existence.Archaeologists have known for years that ancient cultures called the Wasatch Front home. But they still don't know how extensive those cultures were or how they interrelated with the marsh environment.
Now, with the falling level of the Great Salt Lake, researchers are faced with both a blessing and a curse: A blessing in that hundreds of ancient occupation and burial sites have been exposed by the lake, a curse in that erosion continues to destroy the exposed sites.
"When the lake level rose, the wave action washed and beat at the shoreline and exposed the sites," explained Kevin Jones, assistant state archaeologist. "Now that the level has been dropping back, those sites are now on dry ground."
Dozens of professional and amateur archaeologists are involved in a race against time to identify the sites and cover them with plastic to prevent further erosion from the Great Salt Lake.
Researchers also hope to protect the sites from relic hunters who would desecrate the ancient burials in search of valuable artifacts.
"If a flood washed out one of our cemeteries, we wouldn't want people up there hunting through the bones of our ancestors looking for valuables," said Jones.
Steve Simms, a Utah State University archaeologist, said scientists working on the project are working "to keep on good terms" with members of the Northwest Shoshone tribe, who are also involved in the salvage work.
The salvage efforts are concentrated around the fresh-water deltas where the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers pour into the Great Salt Lake. There are reports of several hundred sites at the mouth of the Bear River alone, including six sites that have been officially excavated.
Archaeologists from Weber State College, Utah State University and the University of Utah are combining their efforts to catalog and preserve the prehistoric evidence. They are being assisted by volunteers from the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society.
"We hope to someday go back and identify those most critical areas to excavate," said Jones. "They can help us understand the ecology of the people around the lake and how they dealt with fluctuations in the lake level, which were much greater than they are today."
"We're trying to get a total picture of what life was like for those cultures," added Simms, who has a long-term grant to study the prehistoric human ecology of the Great Salt Lake wetlands.
A lot of research has been done on the so-called Desert Culture of the West Desert, but not so much has been done along the Wasatch Front. In many cases, modern cities cover the prehistoric ones.
"We definitely know that the prehistoric population was greater along the Wasatch Front than the rest of the state, particularly in Utah County," said Jones.
Archaeologists are concentrating their efforts where fresh-water rivers pour into it, creating the marsh environment conducive to large populations. There are no rivers on the west side of the lake.