Monday, October 29, 2012

The Desolation Of Skull Valley

The next time you sign up to work on an archaeological field assignment, as I did recently, you might first want to inquire of your potential employer one exceptionally important detail. 

“Just exactly what is it that I will be doing?” 

Skull Valley in Utah's West Desert

What I ended up doing was walking an average of seven miles per day for eight days in the cattle–trampled, cheatgrassinfested, gopher snakeriddled, rodent holeplagued, juniper–peppered sandy soils of Skull Valley in the West Desert of Utah. Desolate does not even begin to describe this place. Why on Earth? Why anyone thinks Skull Valley is an appropriate place to graze cattle is beyond me, but there you have it. We were investigating on foot a patchwork of scruffy acreage blocks involved in a land exchange with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and a private ranching outfit.

The blocks are located on the western lowlands of the Stansbury Mountains west of Salt Lake City. This is an ancient Lake Bonneville landscape, its 17,000 year old beach terraces sculpted into the stark slopes of the surrounding mountains. 

The point of this endeavor was to see if there were any cultural sites located on the surface in the BLM blocks, and if they were worth considering for further archaeological investigation and therefore not exchangeable. We recorded, mapped, and photographed several scatterings of chert flakes, a few pottery shards, some random tin from the 1880s ranching days, and not much else. 

We didn’t lift a shovel or scrape a trowel, did not a whit of excavation, and so technically were not doing archaeology. We were doing what is called in the business as “cultural resource management.” We walked transects in 40–acre blocks, 15 meters apart from each other, back and forth and back and forth, for an average of seven miles each day. We walked, and we walked, and we walked. The next day we got up and walked some more.  Our total distance was somewhere around 56 miles over the eight days. 

We walked, and we walked, and we walked

By the time I gleefully drove away I had blisters where I didn’t even know I had feet, had slept in the back of my car for seven straight nights and gotten up in the freezing light of dawn, cooked outside in the dark, barely bathed, washed my hair in a bucket of cold water, and was so parched I would have sold my soul for a cold drink. I was too exhausted to even carry my camera. Back home I threw away my shoes, made an appointment for a badly needed pedicure, and look forward to picking cheatgrass out of my socks for at least the next month. 

If by some insane twist of fate I choose to do this again, would someone please save me from myself and shout “Remember Skull Valley!!!” 

At the very least, please inquire as to what exactly it is that I think I will be doing. 

Desolation doesn't begin to describe Skull Valley


  1. All in a days work eh? Hope you made enough to buy new shoes and pay for that pedicure.

    1. Gaelyn - That hour-long pedicure was sooo worth walking my feet senseless! I think I have amply recovered and can now start walking again in my new shoes.

  2. Next time you do any CRM work out west pick a better setting. Pinon and juniper, sage brush and patches of slick rock is pretty interesting in short stretches. My favorite areas to walk were above 8000' elevation in mix sage, aspen and spruce.

    1. Joe - I will definitely try to be more particular next time! We didn't traverse an inch of slick rock. There was not an aspen or spruce tree in sight. Elevation was generally right around 5000 ft. Sagebrush, blackbrush, cheatgrass and some unidentified scrub are the prominent vegetation types except a bit higher on the slopes which are full of juniper.