Mindy Griffiths thought the slender bone sticking from the dirt was like the other bison or elk bones that keep showing up at the archaeological dig on South Temple Street. When she pulled it from the ground she joked with one of her fellow archaeologists.

"I said, `Hey Lane, it's a flute!' and I just chucked it at him," she said. "He started cleaning it off and he said, `Yeah, it's a flute."'To the graduate student's astonishment, her jest turned out to be true.

Slender and straight, the instrument may be either a flute or a whistle. It sports holes for blowing and for use as stops, where a player could place his fingers to change the pitch.

Griffiths can't help wondering "whether or not a father made it for his child, what the story behind the artifact is." It's a link with people who worked and hunted, raised families and were buried right here, between 1,000 and 700 years ago.

She found the bone on the floor of an ancient pit house in a Fremont Indian village. It is the prize find - so far - of an extraordinary excavation.

For the past few weeks the dig has been going on at about 290 W. South Temple, in the path of the light rail project.

Late last week, about 20 workers were busy digging down 18 inches to what was the habitation level hundreds of years ago. Some stood beneath canopies sifting soil, some toiled with shovels, others sketched ancient structures or used surveyors' gear to make measurements. Salt Lake City's tall buildings formed the backdrop.

On June 8, construction crews came across a human burial at the site. State archaeologists excavated it and removed the skeleton and construction continued. Two weeks later, workers ran across more bones - which turned out to be bison.

State archaeologist Kevin Jones and his team returned and removed the bones, finding that they were in the middle of an ancient pit house, a structure built by the Fremont Indian culture.

A contractor was called in, the Office of Public Archaeology at Brigham Young University, Provo. Most workers are students hired by the OPA, laboring under the direction of senior staff archaeologist Richard K. Talbot.

The site is about 300 feet long, with two main pits dug toward either end. Eventually they will be connected, with the dig about 25 feet at the widest. Throughout the site are numerous utility pipes that have been exposed, including a concrete-capped fiber-optic cable that looks like a subterranean wall.

"It's probably a very small part of a much larger village," Talbot said.

The Fremont Indians were farmers who also hunted. Around 1300 they disappeared, to be replaced by more nomadic hunters, ancestors of the Ute Indians who lived here when the pioneers arrived in 1847.

So far, diggers have uncovered a large pit house and two little structures. Their shapes are obvious as workers scrape away the accumulation of dark soil to reach the lighter clay that marks the habitation level.

Pit houses were dug into the ground, "sometimes shallow like this and other times very deep like that over there," Talbot said. Around four support posts they were erected with logs leaning against them. The homes might have been flat or rounded on top.

"Houses that are in pits tend to be much more energy-efficient. They stay cooler in the summer, they stay warmer in the winter," he said. The larger structure had a clay ridge along the bottom, which might have been the remains of a ventilation tunnel.

If we are inconvenienced today by a heavy downpour, think of those early Utahns coping with days of rain that poured into the mud-floored pits where they lived. What was the village like in a blizzard? How did they stand the heat?

The site is an important one, Jones said. Salt Lake Valley may have been heavily inhabited in days of the Fremont culture, but little work has been done here because sites have been covered with buildings, farms and streets since pioneer days.

Larry Bunkall, 48, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association and a volunteer on his first dig, was working under a canopy with his daughter. Elizabeth Bunkall, 23, graduated from BYU a year ago and is employed full time by the Office of Public Archaeology. She'll start her graduate studies this fall, and she intends to stay in archaeology.

They were working together with a sifter, a screening device on posts that helps diggers find artifacts from the soil.

"I'm a volunteer manning a shovel and we're digging down to the first level dirt. At this point we're screening it and we're finding ceramics and lithic, which is flaked stone," he said.

"I've always loved history and took some archaeology classes at BYU during my master's program," Larry Bunkall added.

"He wanted to come here to play in the dirt today," his daughter said.

Salt Lake City is a change from the remote locations where she usually digs.

"Do you know what I love about it? I look up and I see buildings," she said. "We're digging and we're troweling and I look up and there's the Delta Center advertising Garth Brooks' coming."

Jasmine Talbot, 16, daughter of Richard Talbot, came up from Orem to shovel. "I think it's a good backbreaking experience," she laughed.

Turning serious, she added, "I like finding the old artifacts, even though they're just little bones and stuff. I think it's a good experience."

What's so good about it?

"Just to know that other people lived here from a long time ago, and to think about it. And then my dad tells me little stories about what they used to do with each piece, and that's kind of fun."