For decades, the iconic archaeological sites of the stunning canyon country of Bears Ears in southeastern Utah have captivated the imaginations of visitors from around the world.
While hiking in the area, people experience the thrill of discovery when they reach a cliff dwelling, a rock art panel or scatters of artifacts. While these landscapes are beautiful and deeply intriguing, the Bears Ears region is fragile, threatened and still vitally important to the Native peoples who are connected to them.
For more than 20 years, I have been a professional archaeologist in the region and have dedicated my career to the Bears Ears. Recently, I completed five years of field work that took me to hundreds of the iconic Ancestral Pueblo cliff-dwellings hidden and perched within the winding canyons of the greater Bears Ears cultural landscape.
The project goals were to document at-risk archaeological sites, help Indigenous descendant communities revitalize and strengthen their ties to the cultural landscape, and to responsibly share information to help develop preservation ethics among the public.
Specifically, this project focused on documenting and dating plaster mural decorations in cliff dwellings. Native people tell us that murals were used as the backdrops for performances, as mnemonic devices to transmit knowledge to younger generations about central tenets of belief systems and worldviews. Some Pueblo people conceptualize murals as clothing for structures because murals animate structures and give them identities.
My volunteer crew and I documented more than 125 separate mural compositions within and around the boundaries of the original monument designation. I found that the area was a crucible for mural development in the region during the last century of Ancestral Pueblo occupation of the area between 1200 and 1300 A.D. Locally, mural styles changed and developed in 30- to 40-year cycles – roughly the span of a human generation. Local murals were made in ways that signaled shared cosmologies across the area.
In the last decades of occupation of Bears Ears, a new style of mural painted with bright and bold referents to landscape features was developed and quickly spread out across the larger region. Rather than a scattered collection of individual sites, the spread of this new mural style across the region signaled close connections that linked the Bears Ears with Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly.
I also found that mural, rock art and woven textile designs were remarkably similar throughout Bears Ears. Certain types of complexly woven sandals and their depictions were particularly important symbols of community membership and shared worldviews. Sandal petroglyphs marked junctions along routes of travel, defined territories and cemented claims to resources. Like murals did for buildings, petroglyphs of textiles were used to conceptually dress and animate landscapes. While sandal imagery signaled deep connections with distant sites in Chaco Canyon, the vast majority of the 500-plus known depictions are concentrated across an area slightly larger than the original 2016 designation for the national monument.
Evidence of dressing buildings and landscapes in Bears Ears are some of the earliest examples of these traditions in the region and demonstrate direct ties to many of the modern Pueblo tribes’ similar practices today.
My research highlights just a few examples of the diverse tapestry of Native American histories woven in the Bears Ears landscape over millennia, and the uniqueness and significance of the archaeological record that the drastic 2017 reduction of the monument ignored.
I have seen firsthand the effects of historic and recent looting and vandalism at these sites, but the specter that threatens most urgently is over-visitation. Protections must be restored to better manage visitation, protect the resources and better serve the public.
Conservation in the area is dependent on President Biden’s swift action to restore protections for Bears Ears. When you visit these places, remember that they are fragile. Please visit with respect. Remember, for Native peoples, these landscapes are still full of life.
Benjamin A. Bellorado, Ph.D., is an archaeologist specializing in the Four Corners. He is the laboratory manager at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and lives in Cortez.