Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Archaeological sites once thought lost under Lake Powell reappear as water drops

Museum of Northern Arizona
The Museum of Northern Arizona re-inventoried sites first documented in the Glen Canyon Project.

When Lake Powell on the Colorado River first began to fill in the 1960s, it flooded archaeological sites and places with cultural and spiritual significance to Indigenous peoples. Now some of those sites have reemerged as drought shrinks the reservoir. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, the future of the area is unclear.

In 1957, Bill Lipe was a 23-year-old anthropology student at Yale, when he heard a call for young men to join field crews in a remote canyon in Utah. He didn’t ask for a leave of absence: he just went.

“I couldn’t even swim, you know!” he remembers. “We worked two summers on the Colorado River out of motorboats and rafts.”

The Glen Canyon Project was known as “salvage archaeology.” The idea was to document the dwellings, petroglyphs, and pottery left by generations of Puebloan, Paiute, Hopi, Navajo, and other Native peoples. Archeologists removed what they could before Glen Canyon disappeared beneath a reservoir.

“We all felt a sense of loss. This was a wonderful place,” Lipe says. “On the other hand, at that time, in the late 1950s, it was just assumed, at least by guys in their twenties, that dams were gonna be built.”

No laws at the time compelled the federal government to study or save cultural sites doomed by a dam. But the Glen Canyon Project, with federal funding, documented more than two thousand of them.

Then the lake began to fill.

Museum of Northern Arizona
Heavy rock structures tended to survive inundation from the reservoir.

“There have been some past managers at Glen Canyon that have just assumed that all archaeological sites that were inundated were destroyed,” says Kim Spurr, archaeologist with the Museum of Northern Arizona. “And we decided to go look and see what we found.”

What they found surprised her. At least a quarter of the sites documented in the Glen Canyon Project still exist and are on dry land again. For archaeologists like Spurr, it’s a second chance to study the area’s complex cultural history. “The goal of this project, the basic goal, was to get information so that we can recommend ways that the Park Service managers can preserve and protect these archaeological sites in the future,” Spurr says.

The National Park Service declined to speak about the resources or funding they need for that work. But Amy Schott, lead archaeologist for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, says the agency is monitoring the newly emerged sites. “We found that a lot of the direct impacts to sites are often not from submersion, but from impacts from visitors,” she says. "We are concerned that exposed sites may be in danger of further impacts, because now they're exposed and they could be more accessible."

Melissa Sevigny
Ancestral Puebloan and Navajo petrogylphs have been vandalized by visitors to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Signs of visitor impacts are everywhere in Glen Canyon. From his pickup truck, Erik Stanfield, anthropologist for the Navajo Nation Heritage and Historic Preservation Department, points to a boulder where fresh marks scribble over ancient petroglyphs. He jockeys his truck down a narrow track through the rock-strewn landscape that used to be Lake Powell’s shoreline.

“Had we been here, 15, 16, 17 years ago, the lake would have been high…. and you might have seen boaters here; there are camp rings with some beer cans and some things,” Stanfield explains.

Now there’s no lake in sight. Instead, the San Juan River cuts a deep channel through stands of dead trees and bleached boulders. Stanfield calls it a “dramatically altered environment and landscape.”

He wants more public education about the cultural heritage of the area. “There needs to be almost a secondary salvage project, which isn’t to say things should be removed as they were in salvage, but just to re-inventory, take another big look at what is out here,” he says. “So much has changed.”

This time, Stanfield says, the work should be in partnership with the Navajo Nation.  

Melissa Sevigny
Erik Stanfield and Hank Stevens overlook the San Juan River.

Local resident Hank Stevens says his Diné ancestors hunted, farmed, and gathered plants in this area, activities that imbue the landscape with spiritual meaning.

“Anywhere you go here along the shoreline of the San Juan River could be a sacred shrine,” Stevens says. He walks to a hilltop not far from the river and chooses two rounded river rocks to use in the preparation of medicinal herbs. In exchange, he offers a pinch of corn pollen and a prayer.

It’s these types of cultural practices Stevens wants to protect. “Now it’s an opportunity for the Western world to open their minds and their heart to actually listen to the Native American people, to maybe incorporate some type of co-management,” for example, by allowing Navajos to plant crops on their historic farmlands again.

Stevens adds, “We don’t know if the lake is ever going to rise this high again, with the climate changes and all that, so maybe there’s an opportunity here for the Navajo people”—an opportunity to take a good look at what was destroyed when the reservoir filled, and what can be saved now, as it empties.

Melissa Sevigny
The San Juan River reemerges in the region that used to be an upper branch of Lake Powell.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.