Archaeologists were finishing their fieldwork Friday at a site that at first blush seems an unlikely place to discover ancient remains - downtown Salt Lake City.
But the discovery of the skeleton of an ancient Indian there really isn't surprising, said Ron Rood, the assistant state archaeologist, interviewed at the site. Just as Salt Lake City was a fine location for the pioneers more than 150 years ago, its streams and good soil made it prime real estate long before that.Until it was uncovered, the skeleton was about 41/2 feet to 5 feet below the asphalt surface of South Temple's eastbound lane, just east of 300 South. Construction workers preparing the way for the light-rail line ran across the human bones Monday.
"They did the right thing," Rood said. "They stopped and called the state archaeologist's office."
About five employees of the Utah State Historical Society and a couple of volunteers were wielding shovel and sifting screen earlier in the week. They were expanding the dig and looking for artifacts. So far all they had turned up were the bones, a few shards of typical Fremont culture pottery and some worked stone flakes that were left over when the ancients made tools.
"The person is buried down inside some kind of a pit," Rood said. The outline of the pit could be seen clearly in the difference in the color of dirt. It was represented by black fill inside a lighter brownish matrix.
"We're trying to figure out how big a pit it is," he added. Pits could have been used to store grain, toss trash, as cemeteries or as foundations for the "pit houses" that Indians sometimes built. Pit houses had excavated living areas with branches and other coverings above ground.
Judging by the type of pottery found near the skeleton, he added, "we think it's between 800 and 1,000 years old." Depending on whether further tests are carried out, scientists may be able to learn the person's age at death, sex, and something about the person's health.
The skeleton was under South Temple from the earliest time that there was a South Temple. It has been in the same place for possibly 1,000 years.
One the volunteers was drafted into the job - Rood's son Kyle, 14. "He's a good digger," he said.
Pausing with his shovel in his hand, Kyle Rood said, "I've done the pits before. I haven't done the skeleton before. Sometimes it gives me the creeps dealing with human remains."
However, he added, the project was interesting.
The scientists are treating the remains respectfully. During one visit to the site, the bones were covered with protective sheets of dark plastic while excavation continued next to it.
Under state law, a committee of scientists and representatives of Indian tribes will decide which tribe has a claim to the skeleton. Eventually, the bones will be reburied.
David Madsen of the Utah Geological Survey, who is also an archaeologist, said the Fremont Indians were farmers and hunter-gatherers. They tilled the soil from about 2,000 to 500 years ago.
Whether Fremont Indian burials had grave offerings is "really highly variable," he said. Sometimes graves were elaborate, with gifts like owl skulls and pots. Other bodies seem to receive far less attention, Madsen said.
Still others were somewhere between those extremes. In the case of the South Temple skeleton, no grave goods have yet turned up.