Visit Sites with Respect

Written by Elizabeth Hora, Public Archaeologist

Let me start off by saying thank you.
Savanna Agardy, SHPO Archaeologist, admiring historic Ute rock writing at Fremont State Park.

You opened up this page to learn more about how you can protect the past, and that is the most important part of your success. I promise I’m not just pandering: I can teach you how to move through an archaeological site to keep it safe, but only you can commit yourself to it. Thank you for being ready to do what it takes to protect the past.

What Does It Mean to “Visit With Respect?”

Nearly everywhere you go in Utah, no matter how remote, you are not the first person to be there and you will not be the last. You are a link in a chain of human existence that extends thousands of years into the past and future – and as a link in the chain you have responsibilities. It is your job in the present moment to be a good steward of the land. “Visit with Respect” is how we describe our stewardship obligations: we aim to have a light touch on the landscape and be aware of those who came before us and those who will come after us.

When you visit an archaeological site with respect, you honor the people who came before you and the people who will come after by finding ways to experience the site that do not leave a mark. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since the natural world records everything we do in small, almost invisible ways. As an archaeologist, I have dedicated myself to studying the ways that people alter environments, so I’m in a good position to help you understand the sorts of things that do and don’t lead to lasting or negative change.

Utah Cultural Site Stewards investigating a historic era cabin.
How Can I Visit with Respect?

Growing up did you ever hear “Take Only Pictures and Leave Only Footprints?” It was great advice, but photos today carry location data and can endanger sites, while even our footprints in the wrong spot can damage sediments. Leave No Trace principles always apply when you are in the outdoors, but some of these take on greater importance when you step onto an archaeological site. 

Our Goal: Preserve the Integrity of the Site

Think of Pompeii – arguably the archaeological site with the most “integrity” of any place in the world. It honestly conveys the daily life of the people who lived there, and it does so by being a whole town with no omissions. This honesty and wholeness of representation are what we mean when we say “archaeological integrity.” A site doesn’t need to be grand or beautiful to have integrity – I have seen “pot drops” (places where someone dropped a pot and it shattered) that look today like they did 700 years ago. I could tell that the whole pot was there, broken into hundreds of pieces; and even such a small site captured a moment in time. You could almost hear the person muttering under their breath as they gathered up the pot’s contents and left their shattered container behind in the sand.

Helping a site preserve its integrity usually means making sure no one would ever know you were there. Archaeologists know how to do this, and I’ve distilled it our methods down to just three things you need to remember:

Leave Everything Where You Found It

The most important thing to remember is that everything should be left where you discovered it. You can certainly pick up an artifact to examine it, but be sure to put it back exactly where you found it. Moving or piling artifacts to create “museum rocks” or taking things home destroys the site’s ability to be an honest representation of the past. Similarly, even making “repairs” like rebuilding a rock wall that is falling down can damage the site’s archaeological integrity. It’s ok that things fall apart after a thousand years! Take a picture and feel honored to have seen it at all.

An example of a “museum rock,” a place where people have removed artifacts from a site and piled them together for others to find.

If you are concerned that someone else may take an item, take a picture,a GPS point and let the land manager know what you have found. You can check SITLA’s online map, or email me if you don’t know the land manager ([email protected]). Make sure to not share the GPS location with anyone else, though. I can guarantee that your discovery will be safe for the day it takes you to report your find, it has been there for hundreds of years already! In many cases, other visitors have picked it up and left it behind before, and have trusted you to do the same. It’s so hard to do sometimes, but you need to leave everything where you find it, no exceptions.

Watch Where You Step

Whether it be desert sand or slickrock, the natural world records your steps in ways that may surprise you. Here’s an example: I was once looking for a site and I knew it was a few feet off a trail through Dinosaur National Monument. I found the site – a pictograph with two red-painted Fremont dogs bounding across a rock alcove – and then I looked down. I had followed a social trail into the alcove, it was not the official trail but one created by the shuffling of many hundreds of feet through layered creek sediments. Bending over to examine the walls of the trail, I counted at least five layers of dark sediment with chunks of charcoal spilling out – each chunk of charcoal was a potential radiocarbon date we could never get back. The trail was wide enough that it was taking out about 30% of all the remaining sediments in this shelter… 30%! If someone with a backhoe had destroyed 30% of a site there would be an uproar, but because this happened quietly and with the complacency of hundreds of people, including myself, the site had no defenders. 30% of the site had been destroyed so several hundred modern people could take a closer look at two pictographs.

So what can you do? To avoid walking over sensitive areas, bring a pair of binoculars! Stay in slickrock wherever possible and don’t bring pets or kids when you go to sensitive sites. The hardest part though will be passing up going to sites yourself,but ask yourself if you are committed to preserving a site’s integrity at the expense of your own experience? How can you change your experience while still keeping it meaningful? How can you reduce the impact of your presence? Having these answers on hand before you find a site will help you protect and preserve whatever it is you may discover.

A Utah Cultural Site Steward evaluating impacts to an archaeological site.

Leave Nothing Behind

The last tip is to make sure you don’t add anything to the archaeological record. Maps, water bottles, carvings, heaven forbid human or pet poop…. None of these things should ever be left on a site. But our presence on a site leaves behind more than just these big items.

Human presence changes the very ground you walk on. When archaeologists are excavating in the desert, we find subtle changes in underground layers of sand that are markers of an “occupational surface.” All animals, but especially people, leave behind a layer of organic residue: shed hair, skin flakes, crumbs from lunch time, plant material redeposited from your clothes… they all accumulate where people accumulate and they decompose into the uppermost soils and sediments. But decomposing doesn’t mean they do away, they just transform. There are so many small or even microscopic organic things we leave behind, and they never truly disappear! 

Did you know that you leave a little bit of yourself on everything you touch? We leave our oils and bacteria behind on surfaces we touch with our bare hands. Porous materials – like the sandstones that people built with and painted or etched on – collect a lot of our oil and dirt, and over time it can damage the stone. A lot of us use lotion, chapstick, and fabric softeners, all of which can add an inorganic component to the oils and dirt we deposit on surfaces. In order to prevent this, be mindful of where you touch, grab, or rub against. Especially try not to touch surfaces that you suspect may draw the attention of others, such as rock imagery panels or stone walls.

Plan Ahead!

How can you best protect the integrity of archaeological sites? Have a plan ahead of time! 

  • Know who you can report a discovery to.
  • Have a plan for how you will get to a site.
  • Consider what experience you want to get out of your archaeology trip. 
  • Pledge to Protect the Past.

Spending a few minutes talking about these things with your hiking party or even just thinking about them on your approach to a site will not only protect the past, but it will give you a more meaningful experience, better photos, and a better tale to tell your friends.

Thanks for reading! Do you have any other tips to Visit with Respect? I’d love to hear them! You can send us a note on any of our social media, please use the hashtag #SAVthePast so I can find your comment!